“Sold down the river”

I’m teaching Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, a farce about biological definitions of race written in 1894, in the depths of the post-Reconstruction era. It is a comic genre story about slavery that mocks the racial definitions and distinctions upon which so many of American society’s other values–family, generosity, motherhood, “gentlemanliness,” the law, etc.–rested.

Its setting is a Mississippi River town in Missouri. At its core is a generic plot–two babies switched at birth. One of the children is the son of a light-skinned slave named Roxy and a local “FFV” (First Families of Virginia) gentleman, about whose “relationship” Twain pointedly and shamefacedly declines to elaborate. The other is the “white” son of a prominent local citizen, whose father is also Roxy’s owner. When the white boy’s father threatens to sell Roxy and her baby “down the river” to the cotton belt, she switches the two children in the cradle, making her own son her master and turning her young master into her child. The specter of what awaits “down the river” looms large in the imagination of the slaves in Dawson’s Landing, as a place of destruction and isolation. It looms as the greatest threat, and the cruelest punishment, with which a slavemaster can terrorize his property.

from the first American edition of Pudd'nhead Wilson
from the first American edition of Pudd’nhead Wilson

I asked my students if they knew the phrase, “sold down the river,” because I had always heard it growing up without any sense of the sale, or the river, in question. I remember thinking of it as one of those vaguely old-fashioned phrases whose origins you never wonder about–like “tickled pink” or “brownie points” or something. None of them said they knew it, which is in one sense a good thing. Yet Twain’s novel was a satire of his own murderous decade–the era of the KKK, of epidemic lynching, of Jim Crow’s consolidation–as much as, if not more than, the antebellum moment. The survival of the phrase indicates what a casual study of, say, the recent career of the Supreme Court might also confirm: that we are not far removed from the lynch mob and the poll test, though we like to pretend otherwise. That this history of violence and fear has lingered so long that it is still fresh on our tongues, but in the form of cliche that some of us never question and barely recognize.

Some others of “us,” of course, might know perfectly well what this phrase alludes to. But to confirm my own instincts, I searched the phrase on Twitter and found some surprising and not-so-surprising results. First of all, surprising: the phrase is apparently quite popular among British and Canadian political pundits, who use it to comment upon relatively “big” news issues like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and to complain about more banal inconveniences, like toll charges on a tunnel under the Mersey River.

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And note this pudd’nhead’s especially oblivious choice of words:

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Less surprising, perhaps, is the phrase’s apparent popularity among Twitter right-wingers in the United States–the libertarians, conspiracy theorists, #TCOT nutters and bottom feeders that populate the medium.

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People with “benghazi” in their profile names are fond of it.

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It’s also quite popular among far-right UKIP partisans, an ideologically fitting but historically somewhat puzzling phenomenon–given that they are racists without, I’m assuming, a conscious knowledge of the phrase.

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And finally, white supremacists whose states’ rights have been “sold down the river,” showing once again the old cliche about the past never being past.

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