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The following review appeared 29 July 2008 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2008 Mark Twain Forum
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How did Samuel Clemens transform himself from "one of the
boys" who reported news and caused mayhem in Washoe into the most popular
stand-up comic of the nineteenth century? With a fresh approach and the advantage
of having so many pieces of the puzzle to study, James E. Caron's Mark
Twain: Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter uncovers what seems to have been
hidden in plain sight for a very long time.
Many of Clemens's newspaper and magazine contributions from the 1860s have been available to scholars for decades. Clemens's Letters from the Sandwich Islands was published in 1938 by G. Ezra Dane and Dorothy Grover. In 1940 Dane teamed up with Franklin Walker and published Clemens's American travel correspondence to the San Francisco Alta California in Mark Twain's Travels with Mr. Brown. Gladys Bellamy (Mark Twain as a Literary Artist) and Edgar Branch (Literary Apprenticeship of Mark Twain) both published their studies in 1950. In 1957 Henry Nash Smith published Mark Twain of the Enterprise and Edgar Branch published Clemens of the Call in 1969. Branch, along with Robert Hirst, edited two volumes of Early Tales & Sketches, in 1979 and 1981. However, none of the previous studies examines the entire body of Clemens's work of the 1860s with the depth and analysis that Caron provides. To enjoy the full benefits of Caron's book, scholars will find it useful to have at hand many of these earlier sources in order to follow his careful analyses. While Caron reprints many choice stories that are signposts along the way, other stories are referred to only by page numbers in earlier sources.
In his Prologue, Caron lays out the goals for his book which include charting Samuel Clemens's early professional newspaper and magazine writings within their historical and cultural context. He provides extensive background material on major periodicals and the history of professional comic writing as well as demographics of readers who made up the marketplace for literary magazines. He also examines Clemens's early influences including Charles Henry Webb, Bret Harte, Charles Farrar Browne, and William Wright. According to Caron, "Clemens most resembles Webb of all his early contemporaries, not only due to the intensity of their comic energy, but also due to its volume, that is, their consistent willingness to use all manner of comic devices--witty, satire, elaborate puns, double entendre, sexual allusions, impious jokes, disreputable behavior, and mere slapstick--in order to challenge and disrupt centric patterns of thought and behavior" (p. 280).
Caron emphatically states that when one concentrates on the initial phase of Clemens's career, from 1862 to 1869, that "thorough examination of the contemporary context undermines long-accepted tenets of Mark Twain scholarship" (p. 8). Clemens's connection to the comic tradition of the Old Southwest becomes overstated and the significance of his story "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" diminishes under Caron's scrutiny. This argument is one of the highlights of his book. Caron explains that the "Jumping Frog" tale closely corresponds with Clemens's efforts to transform himself into a comic magazine writer for literary periodicals. Caron points out that the tale's form was likely inspired by the performance of Charles Farrar Browne as Artemus Ward which Clemens witnessed in Virginia City. Browne's stage technique was the rambling narrative deadpan that Clemens used for garrulous old Simon Wheeler in the "Jumping Frog." Caron considers Simon Wheeler a figure more aligned to Yankee traditions of humor than characters created by Old Southwest writers. "The pseudonym 'Mark Twain' had already reached an East Coast audience with some frequency by early 1865" (p. 259). Caron further argues, "Trimmed to fit an interpretation by twentieth-century scholars about regional influence and misunderstood within the context of the contemporary periodical world, 'Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog' has assumed a significance out of proportion to the facts" (p. 261-62).
Caron's book is divided into five major sections which he labels "Acts" which are further subdivided into numerous "Scenes." This unusual segmenting of the book remains unexplained, but is symbolic of Caron's theory that "Understanding the comic aspects of texts signed 'Mark Twain' is a fundamental goal of this study, and I begin with the notion that the signature [Mark Twain] functions as a play frame licensing comic antics" (p. 9).
Act One, titled "The Comic Lineage of Washoe Mark Twain," provides historical context for Clemens's work. Links between Clemens and his predecessors are not so much found in the use of vernacular but in the comic ambiguity of an earlier comic figure that Caron labels "Gentleman Roarer"--an untutored man who modeled a positive though humorous view of plain folks. (In fact, the term "Gentleman Roarer" appears to be coined by Caron and not found in any Google internet searches prior to Caron's book.) Well-known comic characters of the 1830s and 1840s such as Nimrod Wildfire, Colonel Pete Whetstone and Major Joseph Jones established "a trajectory toward gentility" that embody a "Gentleman Roarer" type of comic and provided a link to Charles Farrar Browne's comic character of Artemus Ward. The final candidate for Mark Twain's comic genealogy is William Wright's Dan De Quille--an apparently responsible newspaper reporter who often behaved like the uncouth Comstock miner that he was.
Act Two examines "Washoe Mark Twain." Virginia City, Nevada was a town that "routinely behaved in uncivilized ways, flaunting a carnival license without an expiration date" (p. 87). Caron states, "The background for Sam Clemens inventing his earliest version of Mark Twain was an unspoken carnival license for playing in all manner of ways at all hours--not just nighttime gambling and whoring, drinking and opium smoking, but also the day-and-night mania for becoming rich that unhinges reason and opens a Pandora's box of trickery. Without this atmosphere of reckless carnival, Washoe Mark Twain with his penchant for aggressive comic raillery could not have flourished" (p. 97).
Clemens's early contributions to the Enterprise featured burlesques, hoaxes, yarns, and imaginary sidekicks (based on real people). His stories deliberately blurred the line between fact and fiction. Caron finds significance in the first appearance of an article signed "Mark Twain." Clemens apparently first used the pseudonym in a travel letter he wrote from nearby Carson City to the Enterprise. The article was a fictional story featuring Clemens's side-kick "The Unreliable," based on fellow rival reporter Clement Rice. With the use of the pen name "Mark Twain," Clemens found a way to invent a character for himself who could mock journalism and signify to his readers that stories signed "Mark Twain" meant joking and not accurate reporting. Clemens ran into trouble in Washoe, however, when not all the citizens understood the joke. In May 1864 Mark Twain ventured into comic abuse with a story that hinted that a Carson City women's fund-raising effort would be diverted from legitimate purposes to aid a miscegenation society. He had crossed a social boundary and it was in his best interests to leave Washoe at the end of May 1864.
Act Three, "Mark Twain in San Francisco," is the longest section of the book. For about four months, from June through September 1864, Clemens labored as a reporter on the San Francisco Daily Morning Call--a paper with little tolerance for comic antics. Caron documents numerous instances of how Clemens struggled to find a creative outlet from the drudgery of writing Call news reports by utilizing comic phrasing and irreverence within his new stories. "Discovering the madcap in the mundane" and "comic structures within actual incidents" (p. 255) became a hallmark for some of his Call contributions.
In the fall of 1864 Clemens's work was being featured regularly in the literary magazine Californian, due in part to his growing camaraderie with the magazine's editors, Bret Harte and Charles Henry Webb. Clemens fine-tuned his comic writing to appeal to literary audiences on the East coast where the magazine articles were often reprinted. He redirected his satire into more socially acceptable channels marked with Bohemian irreverence and burlesque attacks on inferior literature and bad writers. "Lucretia Smith's Soldier," which satirized sentimental romance novels, appeared in the December 3, 1864 Californian and was reprinted in literary weeklies in New York, making it the first big hit signed "Mark Twain"--eleven months before Henry Clapp published the "Jumping Frog" tale in the New York Saturday Press.
In addition to becoming a Bohemian literary critic, Clemens developed yet another persona that Caron identifies as a comic version of the flâneur--a French phrase meaning "painter of the passing moment" (p. 223)--a man-about-town reporter who interprets details of everyday life more keenly than an ordinary observer. Clemens eventually came to parody flânerie itself by writing digressions so extensive that his failure to get a real story became the story itself.
Act Four, "Correspondent on Assignment," discusses twenty-five travel letters from the Sandwich Islands written for the Sacramento Daily Union. Caron's knowledge of the history of the islands provides solid reference material placing Clemens's trip in context with the politics and culture of the islands. Subversive comic aspects of the letters arise in the character of Mr. Brown, a fictitious travel companion who functions in a role similar to "The Unreliable" from Clemens's Washoe days. Mr. Brown allowed Clemens to engage in a variety of comic moods from vulgar to refined while depicting life in the islands.
Act Five, "Correspondent at Large," documents how Clemens turned his knowledge of the Sandwich Islands into a profitable lecture. Caron discounts Clemens's own story that his first lecture was without preparation and that he suffered a panic attack before going on stage. Caron presents evidence that the lecture was well planned and arranged to take advantage of publicity generated by the coming visit of Hawai'ian Queen Emma to San Francisco. Clemens mocked the lyceum lecture system itself by burlesquing its protocols--he insisted on introducing himself to his audience--and the serious intent of conveying information to the audience was replaced with storytelling. Clemens's elaborate description of the volcano Kilauea became a highlight of the lecture and was included to appeal to highbrow members of the audience who believed a lecture should be informative. After his Kilauea passages, Clemens would comment, "There--I'm glad I've got that volcano off my mind" (p. 383). Without Caron's interpretation, the humor of that line is often lost on today's readers.
While Clemens's stage performance can be compared to the performance of Charles Farrar Browne as Artemus Ward, Caron states there was a clear difference. "Satire complemented the quirky humors of the Mark Twain comic character while Artemus Ward merely displayed whimsy and absurdity. Thus the slangy and irreverent Mark Twain pretended to dispense information when he was actually interested instead in garnering laughter from shrewd observations of human behavior" (p. 387). Caron further explains, "Mark Twain, performed on stage, presents the purest form of the Citizen Clown's symbolic action, lashing the body politic with laughter to make it behave better than it normally does. In this second public face, Mark Twain has as descendants all the best stand-up comics of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries" (p. 388).
The final set of travel letters Caron examines are those written to the San Francisco Alta California as Clemens made the trip from San Francisco, across Nicaragua, to New York and St. Louis, Missouri. In these American travel letters Clemens reverts more to his old Washoe personality of Mark Twain as he and the imaginary Brown become more similar in behavior. The central joke running through the letters is Mark Twain posing as a Sandwich Island missionary--a pose invented to solicit laughter based on his unsanctified reputation. Unsanctified--a typical member of a community, yet ready to subvert its values with laughter; a trickster who is ready to subvert the rules of journalism--the word well defines the career of Samuel Clemens that Caron presents.
Caron's work is well researched and well documented and draws
on a vast array of both familiar and obscure resources. If there is any significant
shortcoming in the book it is in the index. For a work of over 400 pages,
the index consists of only four pages. Notably missing are the names of newspapers
and periodicals that Caron often discusses and are pertinent to Clemens's
career. If a reader cannot recall who the editor of a particular publication
was, it is difficult to relocate discussions of that publication without a
page-by-page search. Also missing are names of people who should be indexed
but are not. Overall, Caron has met the goals he set for himself in his Prologue.
His book is a worthy addition to any Mark Twain collection or library and
will be quoted and referred to by scholars in years to come.