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The following review appeared 16 August 2008 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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The work of any literary figure whose legacy endures will attract a variety of critical interpretations. The ability of that work to make itself available to a range of perspectives is why the work maintains its cultural prominence. Mark Twain's work continues to attract a wide array of critical approaches, but it took some time before feminist approaches gained any traction in Twain studies. Feminist criticism has been extremely vital since the 1970s, but Twain seems to have lingered longer in the masculine shadow. Carolyn Porter, Myra Jehlen, Judith Fetterley, and Susan Harris were among the first to pry Twain loose from the domain of critics who saw Twain as a male writer engaged with male concerns. Subsequent book-length studies, such as Peter Stoneley's Mark Twain and the Feminine Aesthetic (1992) and Laura Skandera-Trombley's Mark Twain in the Company of Women (1994), have shown how Twain's life and the literary representations of women in his work engage with feminist issues consistently and emphatically, though perhaps often subtly.
As feminist criticism has given rise to gender studies, new critical perspectives have emerged. Linda Morris's Gender Play in Mark Twain demonstrates the merits of interpreting aspects of Twain's writing from this latest vantage point. Morris's study is among the most recent of the significant scholarship being published by the "Mark Twain and His Circle" series from the University of Missouri Press. I've commented previously on another book in this series, John Bird's Mark Twain and Metaphor and the difference between these two important books suggests the diversity of scholarship being published in this enterprise, and demonstrating how encompassing both Twain's work and the critical vantages it supports are.
Gender Play in Mark Twain consists of five very efficient chapters. In the first, "Misplaced Sex," Morris wastes no time in getting to her thesis, arguing that Mark Twain's "approach to gender is much more playful and experimental than most critics allow" and that he "subverted Victorian notions of fixed gender roles and essentialist constructions" (1). This introduction also effectively contextualizes Morris's study within a number of relevant cultural developments. First, she considers theatrical traditions from Shakespeare to minstrelsy, vaudeville, and late-nineteenth century farce, all of which relied in some degree on playful cross-dressing and gender confusions. Next, she traces the influence of "New Sexuality" in the late nineteenth century, referenced in the public fascination with some high profile cases that were sensationalized in the popular press, such as the cases of Alice Mitchell and Oscar Wilde, as well as in the rise of psychological theories by Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebbing. These would continue to attract the interest of modernist writers in the next century. Morris also looks at the intrusion of this "new sexuality" within the sphere of Twain's own life. This occurred most closely in the affectionate relationship that developed between his daughter Susy and her college "smash" Louise Brownell, which Morris places within the social history of women's affection of the period. In the last section of this chapter, Morris deals with the theoretical foundations of her approach to Twain's texts. She acknowledges an early debt to Susan Gilman's Dark Twins (1989), whose observations and inferences about Twain's concern with clothing, specifically clothing that did not comply with gender conventions, introduced the topic of cross-dressing before much of the theory about gender performance had been formulated. Morris's study also benefits significantly from Marjorie Garber's Vested Interests (1992) and Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (1999), both of which theorize the subtexts and implications of cross-dressing and the function of performance in the social construction of gender. Morris also draws from Mikhail Bakhtin's theories of carnivalesque, which have proven very useful to quite a number of Twain scholars in the last decade or so, as well as other critical perspectives in subsequent chapters, but many of these derive from similarly influenced ideas about gender and performance. After staking out this ground, Morris devotes the subsequent four chapters to address specific texts across the full spectrum of Twain's career.
The first sustained readings of Twain's work through this gendered lens arrive in Chapter 2, "Sarah Mary Williams George Elexander Peters." Beginning with "A Medieval Romance" and "The 1002 Arabian Night," both of which register Twain's early interest in the theme of gender masking and its consequences, Morris devotes the bulk of the chapter to showing how cross-dressing functions throughout Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As the chapter title clearly implies, the most commonly cited cross-dressing episode of the novel, when Huck disguises himself in girl's clothing in his visit with Judith Loftus in Chapter 10, is prominent. Morris notes how this masquerade introduces Huck to the series of identity impostures that he will undertake throughout the novel. More pointedly, she links cross-dressing and gender play with the often observed undercurrent of death that moves through Huck's consciousness and the narrative itself. Somewhat less persuasively, Morris cites Marjorie Garber's thesis that cross-dressing invariably signals a "category crisis," a type of cultural or social dissonance, to claim that the "category crisis" in Huckleberry Finn "is unmistakably race" (28). Clearly race is a crucial issue in the novel, but it strikes me as imprecise to call it a category crisis. Unlike the example of Pudd'nhead Wilson, which Morris analyzes quite effectively in the Chapter 3, there is little doubt that the races of characters in Huckleberry Finn are determined and immutable. Jim's status as slave or free, on the other hand, or the presumed superior humanity of whites over blacks, or Huck's crisis with the values of morality or immorality, are very much in flux in the narrative and qualify as category crises in this text. This mildly troubling point is, however, a relatively minor glitch in an otherwise astute reading. Morris effectively synthesizes the observations of critical forerunners and offers new insights about gender, bawdy humor, and cultural slippage which serve as an introduction to concepts that earn far more attention in the later work that she goes on to examine.
In Chapters 3 and 4, Morris turns her attention to Pudd'nhead Wilson and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, two narratives in which gender confusion plays an increasingly central role. In the former, Morris highlights the dynamics of race and gender in her careful consideration of Roxana's function both within the plot and as an unconventionally active figure in American literature, and in Tom's multiple layers of disguise, masking his gender and more ambiguously both masking and implicitly acknowledging his racial status. Morris credits Pudd'nhead Wilson with expressing more fully the racial and gender crossings that were introduced in Huckleberry Finn and with "ultimately insist[ing] that race and gender are interconnected performances that are multivocal and highly unstable" (87). Morris's research also turns up a surprising connection between Pudd'nhead Wilson and Joan of Arc: on the reverse side of a manuscript page of the latter, Twain first drafted the motivations for Roxana in Pudd'nhead Wilson. This suggests that Twain developed a concept linking race and gender at the time he was writing Joan of Arc, a story which lacks a racial component.
Joan of Arc's emphatic and defiant flouting of gender conventions contributes directly to Morris's argument. Her analysis goes beyond interpretation of Twain's sentimentalized narrative itself to consider the iconography of illustrations in the text. Moreover, she discusses how Twain's treatment of his heroine differs from other versions of the story that circulated in the late nineteenth century, with particular emphasis on the rigidity of patriarchal authorities who refuse to countenance Joan's cross-dressing transgressions. Morris concludes by noting how the story corresponds with Twain's own "patriarchal crisis" (118) concerning the sexual maturity of his daughters Susy and Clara, and especially with respect to Susy's relationship with Louise Brownell.
Chapter 5 examines Mark Twain's later work, all unpublished and in some cases even unfinished, that deal more directly with gender masquerades or role reversals. Of the five texts considered here, the story "Hellfire Hotchkiss" and the play Is He Dead?, which enjoyed a successful run on Broadway earlier this year, receive most of Morris's attention. These two texts aggressively flout convention and thus yield a significant payoff to Morris's approach. "Hellfire Hotchkiss" is singled out for its emphatic resistance to essentialist conformity that many of the other texts had hinted at. And Is He Dead? uses theatrical farce to play comically with the idea of gender. As Morris notes, the play "literally stages gender more completely than does any other work by Twain. Even wrapped in farce, the male-to-female transvestitism represents a public commitment on Twain's part to the notion that gender is a performance--nothing more nothing less" (166).
All of the readings here support Morris's thesis, while leaving
room for further elaboration, as any successfully provocative study should.
However, Morris's book comes to a rather abrupt ending with its remarks on
Is He Dead? Without an epilogue or afterword that ties the various
strands of gendered interpretation together, the book lacks rhetorical closure.
For me, this lack of a conclusion was a disappointment, and I would have preferred
that Morris provide a resolution that more closely approximates the virtues
of the analytical enterprise. Granted, many scholarly books are not read as
complete wholes, but rather as sections that address particular texts in new
and insightful ways. And for the many readers who will come to her study for
its ability to illuminate the gender trouble in particular texts, the lack
of a conclusion will not be an issue. But for a study that takes on a canonical
writer in a fresh and theoretically challenging way, a more rhetorically fulfilling
ending would have rewarded those who made the commitment to read the entire
argument. Still, to avoid ending my remarks on what Morris hasn't done, let
me re-emphasize here the clarity and the insight of what she has done. Her
study is critical scholarship marked by a fine analytical intelligence and
written in a lucid prose that reveals the ways in which theory can discover
meaning rather than obscure it. This latest contribution to Twain studies
shows the merits of its approach and demonstrates the ways in which Twain's
writing continues to be relevant to new critical paradigms.