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The following review appeared 30 August 2017 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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There is nothing better than a preface that explicitly spells out what the author hopes to accomplish, and Douglas Anderson wastes no time doing this. In his very first sentence he declares "This book begins an examination of Mark Twain's artistic preoccupations by assuming that he was . . . an unusually perceptive student of his own mind and career, and that he undertook a review of that career . . . near the end of his life" (ix). A page later Anderson is more specific: "The following pages undertake to explore that legacy by tracing its inward excursions . . . . The journey will begin by considering . . . the enigmatic dialogue What is Man?" (x). Anderson promptly brings his preface to a close on the very next page with a final observation: "To begin a book such as this one with What Is Man? risks discouraging many admirers of Twain's comic art and caustic political satire. But the risk is worth taking if it succeeds in alerting Twain's readers to a rich and neglected dimension of his achievement" (xi). Even when faced with the risk of discouragement, what's a reviewer to do when the author of a book practically writes the review for him?
Mark Twain's readers are all aware of the outer dressing and décor of his fiction, and Twain's mastery of the literary arts leaves most of them with few doubts about the truths of those "inward excursions" that flow just below those fictional surfaces. Anderson is not the first to explore this realm in Twain's writings, and he is not the first to apply a close reading of What Is Man? to Twain's other writings, but he is the first to plumb those depths at length, using What Is Man? as the prism through which three decades of Twain's most important works can be understood.
Mark Twain himself claimed that the gestation for What Is Man?, first published in 1906, had been underway for "twenty-five or twenty-seven years" (1). Anderson accepts this claim that the composition of that work had begun decades earlier and had extended through the years of Twain's most productive literary output. His introduction charts the structure and philosophy he discerns from his own close reading of What Is Man?, followed by four chapters in which he explains how this work functions as a master-key that unlocks the deeper meanings lurking under the surface of Twain's earlier writings. He then uses that key to unlock Mark Twain's other writings, revealing the "introspective art" that gives this book its title.
Early in his introductory chapter, Anderson notes that What is Man? could just as easily be titled What is Consciousness? and treats Twain's Socratic dialogue in between the Old Man and the Young Man as a series of thought experiments proposed by the Old Man to the Young Man. He discusses at length the familiar issues of nature versus nurture, and the mechanistic philosophy that views the human mind as a kind of machine. These ideas were first explored by Paul Carus in The Mechanistic Principle and the Non-Mechanical (1913) in which more than forty pages are devoted to What Is Man? including extensive quotes from Twain's work, but Anderson does not cite Carus. However, Anderson's explication of What Is Man? is excellent and full of fresh insights. He concludes by announcing that the following chapters will "work backward from the end of Twain's career to its beginning, when he first formulated and explored the account of mental life to which the Old Man gives sustained expression" (14).
In the first chapter he focuses on Mark Twain's autobiography, taking his cue from episodes in Twain's life that Twain himself recalls. Anderson demonstrates how they reflect various aspects of Twain's inner and outer lives, and cites the seemingly plagiarized dedication to The Innocents Abroad as an example that no man has original ideas (18-19), and describes how actor John T. Raymond was able to successfully portray the outer life of Col. Sellers on stage, but not his inner life (25). He draws parallels between Orion Clemens's failures and Twain's own failures, pointing out that Twain's indictment of his brother's failures "reads like a painful confession of his own insecurities" (41). He also draws parallels between the inner lives of Susy Clemens and her father, noting that the father himself reflected the same light and dark aspects of personality that he described at length in his assessment of his daughter's nature, and aptly calls Twain's anguished reaction to Susy's death a "nightmarish interior journey" (38-39). Bernard DeVoto examined Twain's autobiography in his thoughtful introduction to Mark Twain in Eruption (1940), and concluded that it was "not a document of the inner life" but Anderson does not cite DeVoto. Anderson's first chapter concludes with extended explorations of the three stories that form The Mysterious Stranger manuscripts, and draws striking parallels between the operations of the mind or mental machinery reflected in these writings and the concepts of "consciousness" and "interest" defined by philosopher William James, whose writings were familiar to Twain.
By the time he begins his second chapter Anderson has cited many of the Twain scholars whose books have previously explored this supposedly "neglected" territory: Howard Baetzhold, John Bird, Gregg Camfield, James Cox, Sherwood Cummings, Susan Gillman, Susan K. Harris, Jason Gary Horn, Randall Knoper, Bruce Michelson, Tom Quirk, and Forrest G. Robinson. He cites a number of articles and shorter works by others as well. Some of these scholars might beg to differ whether Anderson dives deeper than they into the depths of the interior worlds of Twain and his fictional creations. But at this point Anderson dives into writings that precede the time-frame claimed for the creative process for What Is Man? (ca. 1880-1906) and looks at evidence of inner and outer lives in The Innocents Abroad (1869) and Roughing It (1872). "The Innocents Abroad never tires of exploring the contrast between the banality of prescribed states of feeling and the intoxicating surprise of genuine ones" says Anderson (99), and he provides ample examples, among them the many towns that look inviting at a distance but prove filthy and repellant when experienced first-hand. He then compares Twain's Quaker City excursion that resulted in Innocents Abroad with Twain's self-described western "vagabonding" in Roughing It. He cites examples of outward parallels drawn by Twain between Lake Como and Lake Tahoe, and outward contrasts like the boredom of riding by rail in France and the excitement of riding by stage coach to Nevada, but concludes that "the direction in which their confluence steers Twain's work, however, is largely inward" (105). Ironically, what steers Twain inward in both works says Anderson are the vast spaces that provide an infinite mental terrain in which Twain's imagination wanders.
In the next chapter The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Tramp Abroad are examined for evidence of interior spaces behind the out-facing surfaces. Anderson's catalogue of objects in Tom Sawyer and their multiple metaphoric meanings is convincing (144-47) and is also as good an example of his methodology as any. Here and in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the "outward technicalities" of Twain's adult "Mississippi experience" give way to a presentation of the "inward intensities" of childhood (141). Likewise, in Prince and the Pauper the "interchange between an upper and an underworld" dramatically reflects the inner lives of the two boys who exchange outer surfaces and then undergo inner journeys (157).
The final chapter focuses on Life on the Mississippi, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. The contrast between a seasoned steamboat pilot's pragmatic reading of the river and the poetical mythic spell it casts on that same pilot years later are indicators of the inner and outer meanings competing in Life on the Mississippi. In Huckleberry Finn and Connecticut Yankee Anderson is less convincing when he describes the two worlds that exist in each work, and the extent to which those dual worlds reflect the inner and outer lives of the characters who must inhabit them. He says that toward the end of Huckleberry Finn "Huck finds himself once more suspended between two worlds . . . represented . . . by pap Finn at one extreme and Sally Phelps at the other" (215). In Connecticut Yankee the worlds of the past and present are expressed by a "burlesque collision between science and superstition, aristocracy and democracy" (217). Much of the evidence Anderson presents are the familiar--even shopworn--themes of duality that have long been the subject of scholarly attention. Interpreting old evidence in new ways is never easy. In Anderson's brief Conclusion, Personal Recollection of Joan of Arc is presented as a rejoinder to Connecticut Yankee and the celestial voice Joan hears is the spiritual center of her mental machinery and sustains her to the end.
Anderson wisely avoids wading too deeply into the academic jargon that sometimes infects interpretive studies, but the absence of a bibliography will frustrate those wishing to dive deeper into this topic. Most will agree that Anderson makes his case that Twain was indeed a perceptive student of his own mind and that he engaged in an introspective study of his own experiences late in life through the writing of his autobiography. The application of What Is Man? to Twain's earlier works will strike some as convincing, and Anderson certainly provides detailed readings and new insights. However, others may find this familiar territory, crowded with evidence that does not always convince. This reaction is not unexpected--even mechanistic?--when a rereading of Twain's major writings offers a new assessment of how his imagination evolved. Readers of this book, whether convinced or not of every argument presented, will find it rewarding reading.