Mark Twain Among the Scholars: Reconsidering Contemporary Twain Criticism. Hill, Richard A. and Jim McWilliams, (eds.). Albany: Whitson Publishing Company, Inc., 2002. Pp. 155. Hardcover, 6 x 9". $45.00. ISBN 0-87875-527-6.

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The following review appeared 21 January 2003 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2003 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed by
Martin Zehr
Kansas City, Missouri

This volume of critical essays by established Mark Twain scholars is largely comprised of discussions which have as their focus issues which have preoccupied Twain critics and scholars during the last hundred years, with a particular emphasis on the last two decades. As such, this is not a primary source, nor even a secondary source, of information pertaining to Twain's oeuvre, as it were, but a "tertiary" source whose primary audience is obviously the world of professional and amateur Twain scholars. This focus will necessarily ensure a small and specialized readership and the editors tacitly acknowledge this fact in their description of this volume as "criticism of literary criticism." Indeed, the casual reader of Twain's works will likely have a reaction best described as bewilderment while attempting to comprehend the discussion of some of the more esoteric, tangential and sensational subjects of Twain criticism contained in these essays. Nevertheless, this volume contains a series of lively and well-researched discussions of topics relevant to current Twain-related "littery" scholarship which should be of sufficient interest to serious Twain scholars to warrant attention and inclusion in their armamentarium of critical source materials. The nine essays included were obviously written by scholars with a longstanding devotion to Twain and his literary legacy.

The introductory essay, appropriately enough, is by one of the acknowledged deans of Twain scholarship, Louis J. Budd, who provides a spirited and entertaining defense of Twain's continuing "super-aliveness" for twenty-first century readers. While such a defense is in all likelihood superfluous, insofar as readers of the Forum are concerned, Budd's personal listing and explication of Twain's "multiple intelligences" serves as a concise and cogent reminder of the complexity of the man and writer who is deservedly a continuing source of fascination at all levels of readership and scholarship. The qualities which are discussed in this essay, presented as the author's own version of a "ten-most" list, range from Twain's linguistic genius to his lifelong interest in spiritualism. Readers may question the author's listing or prioritizing of the qualities which continue to intrigue Twain readers and scholars, but the obvious and eloquent enthusiasm Budd continues to exhibit at this point in his career is infectious and, finally, reinforces his (and our) conclusion that the question of a need for more Twain scholarship in the new century should be answered with a resounding "Yes!"

Joseph Csicsila's contribution to this volume consists of a comprehensive and well-documented survey of the trends in Twain scholarship during the last eighty years which can be inferred through a chronological review of American literature anthologies. By means of a meticulous review of the specific works of Twain excerpted or included in successive anthologies during this period, this essay illustrates both the extent of a general emphasis on Twain's works and the shifting perspectives in literature studies, from the focus on the socio-historical features of his work through the period of "New Criticism," and its focus on the author as literary artist, to the present-era inclusion of a wide variety of Twain's writings, e.g., through reprinting of more of Twain's short stories and essays.

John Seelye's "De Ole True Huck," reprinted from his controversial book, The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, provides an interlude of comic relief with its well-warranted sendup, in the words of Huck and Tom, of the "crickits." In a wry overview of Twain criticism from Van Wyck Brooks to the present day, Huck observes that "... it warn't the man who wrote the book knowed what he had said, it was the crickit." The levity of this piece underscores the continuing foibles of some of the more obsessed Twain scholars, but this succession of inside "crickit" jokes, like the contents of this book generally, are probably best savored by an after-dinner gathering of Twainiacs during their periodic gatherings at the Twain study in Elmira.

J.C. Furnas, the self-professed "Finnophile" who passed away just as this book was going to press, exhibits a devotion to Huckleberry Finn in his contribution which is exceeded only by his demonstrably thorough familiarity with both the text of the book and the critical evaluations which have followed in its wake since publication. His essay, titled "The Crowded Raft: Huckleberry Finn & Its Critics," is replete with examples of some of the more strained conclusions and interpretations of the book which continue to crop up in the form of absurd symbolic ascriptions of the behavior of Huck or Jim, e.g., the predilection of some critics to explain their actions in the context of a Freudian psychoanalytic theory long discarded by contemporary psychologists or the more sensational interpretation of their relationship as an exemplar of homoerotic tendencies as portrayed in American literature. Furnas' evidentiary-based views are an antidote to some of the more extreme tangents which are apparent in current Twain scholarship. There can be little doubt, however, that his insights and admonitions will have no significant salutary impact on the recurring phenomena, perhaps motivated by the pressure to produce "ground-breaking" dissertation themes, of more "far-reaching" insights regarding Twain and his characters.

Furnas' essay serves is an appropriate segue to Richard Hill's discussion of the criticism which has been focused on the last twelve chapters of Huckleberry Finn, comprising the Phelps farm segment, for the last half-century. The dissatisfaction with which this section of the novel has been viewed by literary critics is likely familiar, perhaps to an exasperating degree, by avid readers of Twain criticism, but persists nevertheless as a source of continuing debate. The supposed failing, of individual characters or overarching themes, represented by the ending of Huckleberry Finn, is reviewed from the perspectives of key writers in this debate, e.g., Leo Marx, Henry Nash Smith, Thomas Gullason, and Bernard DeVoto, among others. Hill provides a historical context for the literary criticism generated by the perceived failure of Twain to fulfill the moral promise of the novel, but on occasion enters the fray himself, arguing against the "supposed loss of Jim's noble character in the ending of the book," and, in the end, reminding us that attempts to dissect the novel too energetically, on the basis of aesthetic or ideological agendas, will inevitably preclude or diminish the enjoyment of "...the mixed-up and splendid ambuscade that is Huckleberry Finn. Hill's discussion of the continuing debate regarding the adequacy of the ending is, nevertheless, in my opinion, conspicuous for its absence of any mention or discussion of the historical facts that may well have served as the impetus for the allegorical function of the Phelps farm episode. Specifically, there is no mention of the controversial presidential election of 1876, coincidentally, the year in which Twain began the writing of Huck Finn, and its direct progeny, the ending of Reconstruction and the unimpeded institutionalization of Jim Crow in the old Confederacy. As Toni Morrison has observed, in her introduction to the Oxford edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, one conclusion warranted by this second loss of freedom is that "The nation, as well as Tom Sawyer, was deferring Jim's freedom in agonizing play." This seemingly obvious interpretation of the "failed" ending of Huckleberry Finn deserves specific mention, if not prominent emphasis, in any "littery" analysis of the novel, if only to illustrate the impact of historical context, i.e., the end of Reconstruction and Twain's own disillusionment, during his 1882 trip down the Mississippi, upon observing the continuing vestiges of the slavery system, on the writing of his masterpiece.

The subject of Henry Wonham's essay is the "chaotic narrative" of Pudd'nhead Wilson and the problems with Twain's plot and character development that render it impervious to any consistent interpretive perspective other than "a seamless ironic vision." Wonham explores the myriad methods, whether deliberate or not, by which Twain deprives the reader of a consistently objective vantage point from which to traverse the narrative. Wonham's discussion reinforces the notion of prior critics that Pudd'nhead Wilson is a tantalizing work for its unfulfilled promise, full of confusions and inconsistencies which, in the end, render it a less forceful vehicle for cultural criticism than otherwise might have been the result of Twain's efforts. He underscores the tendency of Twain critics, particularly in the case of Pudd'nhead Wilson, to generate criticism which is based, not on the author's own intentions, however they may be divined, but in their own preferences for social, political or ideological agendas.

Gary Henrickson's contribution, "How Many Children Had Huckleberry Finn?," returns to Huckleberry Finn as the basis for a discussion of the implications of regarding Huck as either the narrator of his adventures or as the writer of the novel. The existence of this question is based primarily, if not exclusively, on a single comment made, by the character Huck, on the last page of the novel. Although this subject certainly qualifies for designation as tangential in Twain studies, Henrickson's exploration is worthwhile reading, not only for Twain aficionados, but for any literary critics or reader who makes unwarranted assumptions regarding the role(s) ascribed to a character by its author-creator. Specifically, Henrickson assails the tendency to view Huck as a historical entity, writing his own story, a perspective that is a product of a deconstructionist reading that ignores the central fact that he "... is only a character in a novel."

Glen M. Johnson's discussion of "Mark Twain and the New Americanists" highlights a tendency among modern critics to base their evaluative writing on the rigid application of present-day standards of moral, political and cultural awareness to writings created under an entirely different set of normative attitudes and behavior. As he points out, this lack of self and time awareness often results in a denigration of historically-distant works or, in the case of Twain, nagging and continuing charges of racism which are certainly not justified to the extent represented by his most vociferous critics. Johnson's essay serves as a cautionary note for those writers who are laudably interested in historical accuracy and the complexity of the social context of an author's products; in effect, a warning against the creation of "insights" regarding an author's alleged motivations which reflect the writer's own lack of insight regarding the disparity of mores which characterize chronologically distant eras.

The final section of this volume, by Harold K. Bush, Jr., is, in a sense, a continuation of Glen Johnson's discussion of biases which influence the critic's perspective; in this case, a discussion of the more personal predilections and motivations which inform or influence the critic's style or choice of subject matter. Bush discusses three recent works by Twain scholars Andrew Hoffman, Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Richard S. Lowry to illustrate his concern with "autobiographical criticism" in contemporary Twain studies. Without being critical, in a judgmental sense, Bush discusses the subjective perspective that may determine the particular emphasis of the individual writer/critic, as well as the motivations, the most prominent of which is the desire to be recognized as an "authority" on a designated subject, which serve at least as a partial impetus for critical writings. While his observations in this regard are not particularly earth-shaking, his capacity to illustrate his observations regarding personal motivations in the context of these Twain scholars results in a contribution which is well-documented and entertaining and, more importantly, may have the effect of making the reader a bit more conscious of his/her own critical predilections and motivational biases.

Mark Twain Among the Scholars: Reconsidering Contemporary Twain Criticism is, at the very least, an appropriately-titled production, in the sense that its title defines the probable limits of its potential audience. Its utility as a guide to the issues and directions that comprise current Twain scholarship is precisely the quality that will ensure this book's limited and specialized readership. I would note, however, that this slim volume might have benefited from the inclusion of more contemporary essays based specifically on works within the Twain canon other than Huckleberry Finn, a criticism which is not likely to deter its potential audience. This is not a book for the casual Twain reader; on the other hand, the Twain scholar who frequents the Forum will quite likely derive significant appreciation and enjoyment of the stimulating essays contained in this volume, written by established Twain scholars, some who are likely familiar "characters" to the potential reader who inhabits the world of Twainiana. This work certainly provides strong evidence for the conclusion that, from a literary perspective, Twain studies are not only alive and well, but thriving. This book may not be, in Twain's words, "water" for the masses, but, if everyone does not imbibe such "wine," it's quality is nevertheless undiminished.