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The following review appeared 27 June 2007 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Peter Messent is no stranger to Mark Twain studies. This volume
is his fourth contribution, in addition to New Readings of the American
Novel: Narrative Theory and Its Application, which included a chapter
demonstrating how Bakhtin's narrative theory elucidates aspects of Adventures
of Huckleberry Finn. He also co-edited the Twain-related volume The
Civil War Letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell. As with all of his earlier
books on Twain, The Cambridge Introduction to Mark Twain is highly
readable and insightful, and the strengths of his earlier books show up here
in the succinct and engaging biographical outline and especially in the commentary
on the major works. And although it is part of a series that is designed primarily
for undergraduate students and readers not very familiar with its subject,
readers with more exposure to the life and works of America's most famous
writer may well find it worthwhile.
As useful an introduction as it is to Mark Twain, I cannot avoid wondering about some of the decisions that went into the organization of the book. Divided into four chapters--"Mark Twain's life," "Contexts," "Works," and "Critical reception and the late works"--the volume focuses on an appropriate set of issues, but some are arranged in a curiously unbalanced structure.
Messent devotes nearly three quarters of the book (87 of 119 pages) to the third chapter--a wise decision, because it is the center of his focus. This chapter is sub-divided into four sections dealing with different influences or examples: vernacular humor; travel writing, including Innocents Abroad, A Tramp Abroad, Roughing It and Life on the Mississippi; two relatively early works of fiction, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; and two later works of fiction, A Connecticut Yankee and Pudd'nhead Wilson.
In the first section, Messent provides an articulate overview
of the quirky techniques of Twain's humor, tracing it from his far West journalism,
with an extended explanation of the "Jumping Frog" story and frontier
oddities like the "Personal Habits of Siamese Twins," through his
naive posture in Innocents Abroad, the development of a vernacular
narrator like Huck, the temporal dislocation of Connecticut Yankee,
and finally with late work like the satire of Sherlock Holmes in "A Double-Barreled
Detective Story" and the philosophical distance of Letters from Earth.
The section on travel writing explains at a higher degree of detail how Mark Twain plays the role of tourist in Innocents Abroad, a precursor to what would later be popularly referred to as the Ugly American. Perhaps more notably, that book altered the format in which his writing appeared. To become a "scribbler of books," as he would denote this stage of his career in Life on the Mississippi, is a remarkable elevation of one who began as a writer of humorous squibs. Messent pays considerable attention to A Tramp Abroad, a work most often mentioned by other scholars in passing as a book taken up in the midst of the difficult composition of Huckleberry Finn. Messent persuasively argues that A Tramp Abroad maximizes the best impulses of Twain's first travel book and benefits from a more self-conscious and seasoned awareness of what it means to be a tourist: "Twain engages issues that have since become central to the travel narrative. He shows how tourism affects, and promotes a false version of the countries it colonises. He is aware, too, of the mutual part both guest and host play as this occurs" (49). Turning to the American travel books, Messent notes the quality of bildungsroman that shapes Roughing It as well as a willingness to digress and to focus on tales about story telling. This latter tendency continues and is exaggerated in Life on the Mississippi while also showing Twain's interest in retrospection, which Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn would capitalize on, and the ways of the South, which would help to focus his interest on the issue of racial and class-based inequality in subsequent work.
The section of the chapter dealing with those two novels is equal in length to that which covered all four of the travel narratives, and appropriately so. Messent handles the narrative intricacies, problems, and themes with accessible sophistication. His analysis focuses on archetypal qualities in Tom Sawyer as a mythology of American boyhood and the process of emerging into adult society. In his treatment of Huckleberry Finn, Messent points to its complex status as a realist text and its grappling with the issue of race that has been so central to American culture.
The section on A Connecticut Yankee and Pudd'nhead Wilson similarly emphasize the degrees of complexity that Twain takes on in each narrative's attempt to frame an American identity. Twain's time-travel fantasy begins as a celebration of American virtue in response to Matthew Arnold's criticism of America but ends with a dystopian apocalypse as conflicted about the present as it is about the past. Pudd'nhead Wilson, on the other hand, returns to the region and era of the earlier novels, but complicates and ironizes the racial issues even more than in Huckleberry Finn. All of this makes for a very packed chapter, one that might have profitably been divided into two or three.
Given the clarity and depth of Messent's accounts of the texts
and his subtle interpretive framing of them, other chapters disappoint because
they do not rise to the level of this central, well-executed chapter. The
second and fourth chapters in particular are either so scant or misdirected
that they raise questions about their purposes. "Contexts," the
second chapter, concerns me for what its title suggests but its contents insufficiently
deliver. Only ten pages in total, this chapter begins with some general comments
about events that occurred during Twain's lifetime, but then segues into some
of the various critical responses to his work, leading with Toni Morrison's
assessment of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These critical responses
seem more appropriate to the fourth chapter, and some of it is repeated there,
leading one to wonder why it was inserted in the "Contexts" chapter.
The balance of "Contexts" deals with the division between the actual
man and his authorial persona, which I would argue belongs in the first chapter,
"Mark Twain's life." Moreover, a chapter titled "Contexts"
might have more fruitfully expanded upon cultural developments that frame,
influence, and are addressed in the writings, beyond the few slight gestures
in this direction with general references to the Civil War or late-nineteenth-century
technological progress. Surveying the chapter retrospectively, one comes away
with the sense that material that is better suited to other chapters ended
up here to fill out the section into a still rather-too-short chapter. A more
purposeful execution would have expanded on what the title promises and reallocated
material that belongs elsewhere. Messent does occasionally refer to historical
contexts later, during his account of some of the works in chapter 3, and
these instances generally work more effectively because they serve to illuminate
an aspect of the writing. In chapter 2, however, they form a loose catalog
that lacks a clear relevance.
The final chapter, "Critical reception and the late works"--also only ten pages in length, so it hardly does justice to its title--is another area of concern. To be sure, an undergraduate introduction need not address the entire history of critical reception, but a slightly more detailed account of how the responses to Twain's writing have evolved, how contemporary criticism has paralleled the emergence of other social developments, and how it treats the texts differently than earlier commentary did would be useful. Limiting his commentary to a relative handful of critics, Messent also privileges Twain's transnationalism, which has arisen as a critical angle in recent years. Messent writes: "By transnationalism, we mean the cultural intersections and exchanges that take place between nations, and the way we can then read American Literature, and (in this case) Twain's writing in particular, as composed of a series of negotiations between national and international spaces" (115-16). Messent also foregrounds transnationalism in the section on travel writing in chapter 3 and in his discussion of A Connecticut Yankee. As a professor at the University of Nottingham, Messent has a British perspective that affords him authority in measuring that aspect of Twain's work. However, the weight that Messent applies to this critical perspective is arguably too heavy and reflects a bias about contemporary globalism that skews the introduction as well as risking its consideration of the nineteenth century in presentism.
The last chapter "Guide to further reading," is useful though far from exhaustive. Messent lists secondary sources of biography, bibliography, criticism, and internet sites in thirteen categories. There are any number of titles that could well have been included here, but there is nothing listed that should not be. The "Notes" are also useful references to sources that Messent has relied on in his commentary. However, in a couple of instances, they raise questions about sourcing. For example, in at least two cases Messent cites one of his own earlier works to source a quote that he has drawn from another text, Howells in one and Bakhtin in another. Given that he includes full citations for the original sources in his previous work, it's not at all clear why the second-hand references appear in the Cambridge Introduction to Mark Twain. This is not a large matter, but it does exemplify for undergraduates a practice that is generally discouraged when, in teaching the responsibilities of scholarship, we stress the importance of tracking a quotation to its source to insure its reliability and to understand its context.
Despite these reservations about organization and proportion, the core of Messent's book is an effective introduction of its subject, especially valuable for its target audience; indeed, I've recommended it to my own students. Books in a series are often formulated to a template that is not one of the author's own devising, and I suspect that some of my concerns derive from that requirement of publication. My reservations stem, however, from my regard for the standard that Messent has set in his earlier work. He rises to that standard throughout most of this volume; the lapses, though, are the more glaring because of the quality when the book is on the mark.