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The following review appeared 12 December 2014 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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The status of classic critical works in any area of literary study is typically, and understandably, one accorded in retrospect, following a decent interval during which the writing in question has withstood the slings and arrows of scholars and generational trends in literary analysis that consign some perspectives to the dustbin and revive others. In the world of Mark Twain studies, an incomplete listing of such works written in the century following Twain's death might include Van Wyck Brooks's The Ordeal of Mark Twain, Bernard DeVoto's Mark Twain's America, Henry Nash Smith's Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer, Louis Budd's Our Mark Twain: The Making of His Public Personality and Tom Quirk's Mark Twain and Human Nature. The experience of reading and reviewing a work that one senses is a candidate for classic designation requires a bit of arrogance, but, at the risk of decidedly premature judgment, Harold Kolb's Mark Twain: The Gift of Humor has to be considered, by virtue of its scope and accomplishment of its mission, on the short list of critical volumes required for any serious student of Mark Twain.
Harold H. Kolb Jr. is emeritus professor of American literature at the University of Virginia, where he was the founding director of the American Studies Program and the Center for the Liberal Arts. His book's back-cover blurb asserts that "Humor, in all its mercurial complexity, is at the center of Mark Twain's talent, his successes, and its limitations," and Kolb, through a historical and content analysis, demonstrates the means by which Twain, through lifelong acquisition and adaptation of the components of his trademark humor, created a lasting legacy that renders any description of him as a "mere humorist" unequivocally laughable. Kolb's initial three chapters, laying the foundation for analysis of Twain's uses of humor, could be read with profit by anyone desiring a primer on the elements of humor or, from Kolb's perspective, the physics and psychology of humor, based on his assertion that "some kind of disparity or contrast, with an accompanying upset of expectations, must be present in the first place for a situation to have the potential for humor" (p. 24). This is a theme that Kolb illustrates with examples throughout the career of Mark Twain, even while he demonstrates how Twain's emphasis changes from the tall-tale humor of his Missouri childhood to the satire and pointed irony of the political writing of his later years. Through hundreds of examples, Kolb shows that Twain was, "from the beginning, an exaggerator, with a flair for the dramatic, who pushed the opposing sides of contrast out to extremes to make sparks fly and rattle the cages of listeners and readers . . ." (p. 348).
Kolb's analysis underscores Twain's early determination to distinguish himself from the "phunny phellows" of his era, "mere humorists" with monikers such as Orpheus C. Kerr, Petroleum V. Nasby, Josh Billings and Artemus Ward, popular entertainers whose stock-in-trade consisted of reliance on malapropisms, deliberate misspellings, puns and jokes sufficient to elicit laughter but decidedly lacking in hints of an underlying mission that might include, for example, self-reflection or commentary on the foibles of the "the damned human race," a constant target of Twain's efforts. As Kolb notes, Twain assiduously avoided forms of humor of that nature as he matured (although Kolb cites a terrible pun based on the word "whey" from A Tramp Abroad). That none of Twain's above-named compatriots are remembered today except by academic comparison is sufficient testimony to Twain's success in his missions, to entertain and simultaneously, "not professedly teach, it (humor) must not professedly preach; but it must do both if it would live forever." Kolb's analysis of the bases for Twain's success in this regard is certainly applicable to modern humorists. For example, when considering the winners of the annual Mark Twain Prize for Humor, the question is begged, which of these honorees exhibits the qualities of the serious humorist exemplified by Twain, qualities that hint at possible longevity?
Kolb's chapter arrangement is essentially chronological, and inclusive to an extent that this book can, without exaggeration, be considered as a biography of Twain's humorous (and non-humorous) writings. All of Twain's major works, and many obscure, including posthumously published writings, are discussed with reference to the evolving nature of Twain's reliance on the disparities in life he observed and incorporated into his work. Kolb cites the earliest squibs of Sam Clemens, such as "The Dandy Frightening the Squatter," as evidence of an ability to utilize the strategies of exaggeration and the tall-tale characteristic of southwestern humor of the era, qualities which emerged in well-developed form by the time Mark Twain began his literary career in earnest as "the wild humorist of the Pacific slope" in Virginia City and San Francisco. By the time Twain writes his breakthrough work, The Innocents Abroad, Kolb sees the emergence of a polished sense of exaggeration, fed by the natural contrasts and disparities between Twain as narrator and tourist, the Old World and the New, and the frequently encountered shocks engendered by the clash of established romanticized versions of historic settings and disappointing realities. As an example, Kolb cites The Innocents Abroad's summary description of Italy as "one vast museum of magnificence and misery. . . . for every beggar in America, Italy can show a hundred-and rags and vermin to match. It is the wretchedest, princeliest land on earth."
The same formula, with the addition of the naive narrator, is repeated in Roughing It, providing "a continuous disparity between innocence and experience, and thus . . . endless opportunities for humor" (p. 119). The encounter between the tenderfoot narrator and the notorious outlaw Slade is just one hilarious example, and, in the midst of the fun, Twain is simultaneously educating the reader on the subject of the American West, "without the distorting filters of previous opinions and conventions and book-frauds . . ." (p. 121), as he had in the pages of The Innocents Abroad. The mixture of entertainment and education is a fixture of all Twain's loosely styled travelogues, including Life on the Mississippi, with its cub pilot narrator, described by Kolb as "ignorant, unwisely pretentious, and forever receiving setbacks and putdowns" (p.153).
The breadth and cogency of Kolb's analysis is evident in his discussion of items from Twain's works like "A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It," the first-person account, by Mary Ann Cord, Aunt Rachel in the piece, of her personal suffering in slavery. The disparity between the naive but self-deprecating narrator and the unqualified tragedy of Rachel's story is the basis for a tempered humor that does not detract from its serious nature, but renders it more complex and mature, a far cry from the tall tales of Twain's western apprenticeship.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn notably uses the device of a first-person naive narrator, borrowed from Roughing It, but in the person of an uneducated boy, providing frequent opportunities for observing the disparities between the "sound heart" and "deformed conscience" that entertain even as Twain uses them to satirize targets as diverse as southern aristocracy, Tom Sawyer's "addle-brained romanticism" (p. 204) and the inherent hypocrisy of slavery in the American republic. As Kolb notes, exaggeration in Huck's world often takes the form of stereotypes and caricatures of the characters populating the novel, including Jim, whose lack of education and firmly held superstitions, like Huck's, are the source of jokes at his expense. Huckleberry Finn also incorporates the comedy of disparity, what Kolb refers to as "the unanticipated against the expected" (p. 213) in such forms as the king's naked romp across the stage to entertain the hicks in Bricksville and the duke's unintentional parody of Hamlet's soliloquy. Irony and satire, however, are the most potent humorous forms in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the ironies in this book are "grim . . . leavened by comedy" (p. 215).
Kolb subjects other Twain books, including The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and Pudd'nhead Wilson, to his analysis of the broad and changing nature of his humor and includes discussions of incidents such as Twain's 1877 speech for the John Whittier birthday celebration, a memorable example of Twain's ability to violate the implicit requirements of public decorum. As such, this is proof, as Kolb asserts, that "Humor can be a risky business. It skirts the edge of indecorum, tastelessness, insult" (p. 167). Kolb includes an extended discussion of Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, conceding "is not an overtly humorous book," but maintaining that "the strategies of the humorist can be seen throughout" (p. 278).
Kolb's discussions of Twain's later writings such as the various Mysterious Stranger manuscripts, "The Great Dark," and What Is Man? incorporate, by necessity, a broader conception of humor, with a greater reliance on irony and satire than is evident in Twain's earlier works. Kolb notes, however, that classics such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn also utilize liberal helpings of irony and satire, in conjunction with exaggeration and tall-tale humor, to entertain and subversively accomplish its author's other missions. These later works are, moreover, still dependent on what Kolb insists is the critical element of disparity, but derive their humor from the implicit absurdities of the human condition rather than the actions at the heart of pranks and other southwestern predecessors.
Of particular note is the chapter on the relationship between Twain and William Dean Howells, Twain's friend and champion from the 1869 publication of The Innocents Abroad, reviewed by Howells for the Atlantic Monthly, through the remainder of his life and beyond. Kolb's well-documented discussion of the relationship underscores Howells's early recognition of Twain's unique brand of humor and the underlying qualities that form the basis of Howells's famous assessment of his friend as "the Lincoln of our literature." This chapter provides context for understanding the contemporary reception of Twain's work, ranging from the condemnation of Matthew Arnold, who asserted that the "spirit of irreverence [was] the great fault in American character," (p. 234) to Brander Matthews more prescient conclusion that "he (Twain) is to be classed . . . with Moliere and Cervantes, with Chaucer and Fielding, humorists all of them" (p. 235). Another chapter recounts Twain's relationship with his erstwhile mentor, Bret Harte, useful for comparison, as Kolb shows, because "Twain's narrators are involved in the joke, sometimes delivering it, sometimes as the target, and often as part of the collateral damage. Harte laughs at others; Twain can laugh at himself" (p. 198). Even here, however, Kolb underscores Twain's lifelong refusal to adhere to a constraining consistency, from his earliest barbs spoofing Hannibal residents to the later unrestrained and focused attacks on General Funston, Czar Nicholas and King Leopold of Belgium.
Kolb's book is clearly well researched and includes an appendix listing many of Twain's major and lesser-known works that will be particularly useful to the novice student of Mark Twain, followed by an extensive listing of sources, chapter notes, and index that will serve the needs of the most-seasoned Twain scholar. That Kolb's research is up-to-date is attested by such examples as his inclusion of an extended note in which he outlines the recent discovery of evidence by Twain scholar Kevin Mac Donnell relevant to the subject of Sam Clemens's choice of pseudonym and his discussion of the definitive version of the autobiography, becoming available through the efforts of the Mark Twain Project and the University of California. Kolb adds his assessment that Mac Donnell has "persuasively" made a case for his theory regarding the source of the moniker in an 1861 issue of the humor magazine, Vanity Fair. Kolb also illustrates the misleading impressions of Twain's legacy fostered by the incomplete versions of his autobiography prior to 2010.
It would be remiss to fail to mention other works on the subject of Twain and humor that warrant attention. At least two other works are notable. Kenneth Lynn's Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor and James Cox's Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor both have a narrower focus than Kolb's more comprehensive treatment of Twain and humor, but neither is displaced as a valuable source for the Twain scholar. By comparison, Kolb's work provides a more wide-ranging analysis of the role and importance of the varieties of humor throughout Twain's career, in all the major forms of Twain's written legacy, including the one-liner maxims which continue to adorn bookmarks, T-shirts and coffee cups in Twain's posthumous, but not post-humorous, career.
In Mark Twain: The Gift of Humor, Kolb has assumed the
Herculean task of providing a comprehensive study of the core of Twain's lasting
attraction to readers over the course of the last 150 years, his understanding
of, and incorporation of a depth of understanding of humor far surpassing
that of his contemporary "phunny phellows," and many of our twenty-first
century practitioners. That he has succeeded in his mission must be regarded
as nothing less than an astounding achievement, one which renders this work
worthy of including in the library of every serious student of Twain. It can
confidently be concluded that Mark Twain: The Gift of Humor is the
benchmark on the subject against which any forthcoming attempts will be measured
for the next century, or, as Twain might opine, forever, adding "By forever,
I mean thirty years." Time will tell.