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The following review appeared 5 January 2010 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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On a lovely fall weekend in October of 2008, Joseph Csicsila and Chad Rohman co-chaired a symposium celebrating the centennial of Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger manuscripts. The event was hosted by the Center for Mark Twain Studies in Elmira, N.Y. and featured prominent Twain scholars, all of whom presented papers celebrating, exploring, critiquing, and contextualizing Twain's final fiction. What was so wonderful -- and unique -- about this event was the way in which the participants spoke to each other rather than past each other. Unlike so many academic conferences, where the papers seem to descend into anachronism or inflate into performance, the Mysterious Stranger Symposium generated the rarest of all conference events: original ideas and productive conversations. While reading the essays contained in Centenary Reflections on Mark Twain's No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, edited by Joe Cscicsila and Chad Rohman, one feels similarly caught up in a provocative and illuminating exchange of ideas. Not only is this volume essential for any student or scholar who seeks to understand the Mysterious Stranger manuscripts, it's an essential collection for anyone interested in Mark Twain's final years and his continued evolution as a writer and a philosopher.
Previous generations of scholars, first and most notably John S. Tuckey and William Gibson, concentrated their efforts on recovering Twain's authentic text and distinguishing it from the bastardized version published by Albert Bigelow Paine and Frederick Duneka in 1916. Sholom Kahn continued to map out the perimeters of the text in his 1978 study of the work. However, as Csicsila and Rohman point out in their introduction, in the past thirty years our perception of Twain's Mysterious Stranger, in both its literary merit and its philosophical import, has changed greatly. Beyond simply punctuating the centennial anniversary of the text, this volume demonstrates the progress in scholarly thinking about this work. With the exception of David Sloane's essay, which mourns the quality of the humor in No. 44, the essays collected here do not assume that the text needs defending or that there is anything slight or flawed in its composition. As the editors explain, critics have traditionally ghettoized No. 44 along with other "experimental works" like "The Great Dark" and "3,000 years among the Microbes," "as obscure and radically different from the texts he wrote earlier in his career. But despite their largely unconventional plots and sometimes peculiar narrative designs, 'experimental works' like No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger actually possess many of the most fundamental elements of Twain's literary art" (2). The scholars represented in this volume overwhelmingly agree.
Within the confused process of No. 44's production and at times hysterical -- and I use that term in its Freudian sense -- narrative that results, the contributors locate the most profound themes in Twain's canon. Certainly none of them make the claim that the Mysterious Stranger texts are flawless works of art; however, neither do they marginalize these troubling fictions by casting them as simple by-products of Twain's grief or old age. For example, in the case of Michael Kiskis's essay which turns upon the biographical facts of Twain's many losses, Kiskis lyrically portrays Twain's grief as a frame for the subsequent intellectual inquiry -- a Job-like rhetorical combat with "the inscrutable" -- which it fuels. According to Kiskis, the several (and sometimes fragmentary) iterations of the Mysterious Stranger narrative, "riff on the trials and lessons of Job and chart a trajectory of an awareness of human suffering and a challenge to God's caprice" (114). The circumstance of Twain's grief becomes the occasion for his intellectual and theological exploration of the arbitrary nature of human suffering, paired with its often spectacular synchronicity and irony. Kiskis reveals the way Twain expands his own highly personal accusation of the deity, "Why Me? Why Now," into a narrative exploration of the meaning of suffering and the inscrutability of any God/Truth. At the end of "The Chronicle of Young Satan," according to Kiskis, Twain redeems the seemingly demonic urge to do battle with a whimsical God, to laugh at the voice in the whirlwind. However, Kiskis argues that by the time he writes No. 44, Twain has lost even this consolation, "In the end, in the face of aloneness and grief, Clemens turned from laughter and recognized that there was no universe to challenge" (124).
David Lionel Smith is also interested in the nature of the laughter that Twain references in the text. Smith gracefully connects the Clemens/Twain duality to the doubling, redoubling, and duplications of No. 44. Rather than representing The Mysterious Stranger as an expression of Twain's despair at the end of his life, Smith argues that, "In literary terms he had achieved all that a writer could dream of achieving. In essence, he had become uniquely free to do as he pleased with his writing" (188). According to Smith, in No. 44 Twain multiplies and divides identity until the many binaries that had defined his work (Huck and Tom, Tom and Chambers, Adam and Eve, Satan and God, Sam and Mark) are dissolved and then resolved, just as No.44 "is burned to an ash, only to rise again, laughing" (195). At the end of the novel, according to Smith, Twain has abandoned binary thinking: "Sam Clemens banishes his alter-ego. August without Forty-Four is Sam Clemens without Mark Twain" (197).
Peter Messent traces Twain's transnational identity, and the powerful occasion for satire that it affords, by comparing "The Chronicle of Young Satan" with its textual progeny, No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger. Yet for Messent, unlike Smith, Twain's "own affinity to Forty-Four, and to August" threatens the author's satiric voice rather than unleashing it. In this detailed study, Messent contrasts the active critique of American exceptionalism which Philip Traum's arrival in Esledorf makes possible with Forty-four's "'scientifically' objective perspective" (64). Messent is lucid and convincing as he maps Twain's ambivalence to the very social critiques he initiates, particularly regarding the problems of labor and the claims of the moneyed class. Finally, Messent argues that "Twain's transnational vision is first canceled out by a sense of historical determinism, then swallowed up in a spiraling sense of relativism, and finally completely undermined by his solipsistic ending... the very point of [such] transnational comparisons is lost" (66). In a more focused study of Twain's life as citizen of the world, Horst Kruse documents Twain's investment in German literary culture. He suggests an early source for No. 44 in Adelbart von Chamisso's The Shadowless Man; or, The Wonderful History of Peter Schlemihl, 1814. In addition to Goethe's Faust (1808, 1831), and Fouque's Undine (1811), Kruse claims that the story of Peter Schlemihl inspires "the process of conceiving and constructing a transcendent figure not burdened with the moral sense to serve as a persona to proclaim the author's views of Man" (85).
Csicsila and Rohman masterfully arrange the fourteen essays in this volume, including Alan Gribben's comprehensive afterword, to highlight the echoes, contentions, and dialogues created by these multiple readings of No. 44. For example, Hal Bush sees Twain as a working within the tradition of an American prophetic imagination; unlike Michael Kiskis, he positions Twain on the other side of Job's whirlwind, inquiring after the ways of man, not the caprice of God. In this provocative essay, Bush clearly represents Twain as a subtle reader of both American liberalism and biblical prophesy. In No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, Bush describes Twain as laying bare -- like Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones -- the cultural and moral fissures created by the newly liberated, secular self, "Additionally, God's plan is set against the unfolding of individual will and volition. Without naming them as such, Twain invokes the coming revolutions of human thought that would eventuate in the enlightenment and the Romantic age" (95). In this essay, Bush goes a long way toward converting readers who have accepted Twain's atheism -- or at least his rejection of Christianity -- as an unchallenged fact.
In an equally rich pairing, Gregg Camfield and Randall Knoper consider Twain's effort to resolve the tension between a deterministic materialism and the world of spirit and consciousness. For both Camfield and Knoper, No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, reveals some of Twain's most complicated readings of the developing field of psychology and the physiological and theological reflections they precipitate. Camfield focuses our attention on No. 44's farcical love plot and discovers in these scenes Twain's anxious fascination with transcendence. If, on the one hand, Twain has disavowed a Christian world view and likewise rejected the claims of spiritualism, Camfield claims that he is, nonetheless, drawn to John Adams's reading of Herbartian psychology which affirms some manifestation of the ideal. In a rousing conclusion, however, Camfield traces Twain back to his roots: to the pleasures of the body and the freedom of the child, "Thus, No. 44 finally argues that it is better to have sex than to be lonely, to eat good food and drink exhilarating drink than to not need it, to play music and cry over it and to dance and laugh over it than merely to be able to imagine such things" (140). Randall Knoper begins his essay -- a kind of Twain-like duplicate of Camfield's interests -- with an impressive review of nineteenth-century developments in the field of psychology and physiological psychology, including the work of William James, the writings of Oliver Wendall Holmes, and John Adams's reading of Johann Fredrich Herbart. According to Knoper, in No.44, The Mysterious Stranger Twain "applies conceptions of this newer materialist psychology to the noumenal realm, ultimately ascribing to the divine creator a variety of unconscious neural processes that issue in a nightmarish, 'hysterical' universe" (146). If Camfield leaves Twain in a materialist heaven, Knoper reads the ending of No. 44 as affirming a terrifying idealism, one in which the divine consciousness is essentially schizophrenic: "The originating thought is a multiplex consciousness, dreaming dreams it cannot control, thinking thoughts beyond its ken, unconsciously harboring multiple apperception masses, unaware that it is the source of all it sees" (154).
What is perhaps most valuable in this impressive collection of essays is how effectively the contributors contextualize No. 44. James Leonard, for example, places No. 44 at the advent of literary naturalism, a fitting predecessor to Dreiser's An American Tragedy and Crane's "The Open Boat." Such a reading, according to Leonard, "makes No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger a reflection of a dominant ideology rather than the efflux of a psychological pathology" (163). In this illuminating essay, Jim Leonard demystifies Twain's mysterious text by emphasizing his investment in the literary culture of the early twentieth century. According to Leonard, Mark Twain's text is a corrective to the nineteenth-century mania for figures like Sherlock Holmes -- a detective who can reveal identities and penetrate mysteries: "Forty-four is, in fact, a concretization -- a specifically contrived literary symbol not just of a momentary uncertainty, but of the defining uncertainty of human existence. He is the unreachableness of the Truth itself, and whether that Truth be benign, malicious, or indifferent, what Twain sees, or believes he sees, and embodies in the protean form of Forty-Four is that inaccessibility of Truth for human beings" (165).
Sharon McCoy and Henry Wonham concentrate upon the minstrel show "intrusions" into the text, and like Leonard and Kruse, find cultural sources to make sense of them. McCoy draws upon her commanding knowledge of the American minstrel show to illustrate the way racialized performances allow August and Forty-four to circumvent history and the claims of "the Other." McCoy argues that the "possibility for fusion" -- of cultures, of identities, and alter-egos -- "is firmly denied At the song's end, the minstrel does not look out from behind the mask and identify himself as Forty-Four, nor does he scrub the burnt cork from his skin, actions that would force August to recognize and acknowledge the fusion, the dual of identity of mask and man, of body and soul. Instead the vision passes away, fading, 'like a dream,' (33). For Henry Wonham the issues of authenticity and identity that permeate No. 44 are similarly racialized, as if Twain inflects the mystery of Forty-Four's identity in Jim's cadence, "Who Dah?" Wonham writes, "Blackface performance, with its endless cycle of re-representations, is the novel's far more effective shorthand for suggesting, through images of incessant mediation, the idea of an unmediated self" (48). Unlike previous critics who have tended to gloss Twain's fascination with the minstrel show as a nostalgic yearning for authenticity, Wonham credits Twain with a more nuanced reading of the blackface performance. Wonham sees Twain as embodying the absolute instability of all identity in the minstrel show performer: "Twain relished minstrelsy for its ability to set in motion an uncertain relationship between reality and representation, authenticity and imitation, the 'genuine' subject and its 'extravagant' representation" (48). Combined, these extraordinarily fine essays argue for the centrality of racial identity as both a subject and a metaphor within No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger.
The two essays that complete this volume argue for the inventiveness of Twain's final fiction. John Bird convincingly suggests that Twain "prefigures Lacan's idea of the ego" (206). There's nothing fashionable or simply clever in this association of Twain with Lacan. In fact, Bird's careful reading of Twain's dream-work, and the association with Lacanian psychology, makes the case that No. 44 is an "artistic triumph part of Twain's heroic battle to come to terms with his own unconscious" (205): "By naming himself with two names, he dramatized the Lacanian split, and then with his dream narratives, he lit out for the territory of the unconscious -- and as usual, ahead of the rest" (207). If Bird discovers Twain in the work of an early post-structuralist, Bruce Michelson positions Twain in the midst of the twenty-first century, post-textual world, where the identity of the author may be as artificial as all other identities. Drawing on the work of cognitive researchers such as Daniel Dennett and Antonio Damasio, Michelson makes the provocative claim that No. 44 is essentially a story about the interconnected processes of making stories and making selves, and these are processes that are necessarily fragmentary and on-going. Or, as Michelson summarizes with his characteristic wit: "Drafts, narratives -- not just to polish a holograph text, but to sustain personal identity -- I revise; therefore I am" (223). The text that emerges from Michelson's essay is as vibrant as it is -- or perhaps because it is -- unstable.
As the length of this review suggests, I found it hard to let
go of Centenary Reflections. The complex renderings of Twain's Mysterious
Stranger manuscripts form a tapestry effect, revealing the complexity
and the coherence of the text. Collectively, these essays develop connections,
echoes, contexts, and counterpoints that enliven our understanding of No.
44. Short of sitting with the contributors on the porch of Quarry Farm
and discussing -- and debating -- their insights, reading the book is the
next best thing. Joseph Csicsila and Chad Rohman have produced a volume that
will be a landmark study when the next generation of scholars takes up the
problem of No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger.