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The following review appeared 23 January 2008 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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The world knows of Mark Twain because he had a way with words. While this seems a rather obvious and even simplistic point, this is John Bird's essential argument in Mark Twain and Metaphor. But Bird's treatment of Twain's creative use of language is by no means simple or obvious. To the contrary, the analysis in this wide-ranging and far-reaching argument goes beyond the usual observations to examine the linguistic texture of Twain's entire body of work in his imaginative and purposeful use of figures. Bird's demonstration of how, for example, metaphor and metonymy structure a number of psychological and cultural discursive formations yields provocative and thoughtful results. In so doing, he offers us a model of shrewd scholarship. Drawing upon the work of a broad range of theorists--including Sigmund Freud, Roman Jakobson, Gerard Genette, Jacques Lacan, Kenneth Burke, I. A. Richards, Colin Turbayne, and George Lakoff--and framing interpretations of Twain's work with a sincere respect for a similarly diverse array of Twain scholars, Bird presents a lucid and jargon-free argument, showing how a sensitive appreciation of Twain's figurative language can both amplify the insights of earlier critics and lead to nuanced discoveries of Bird's own.
Covering the major novels, short stories and tales, letters, travel writing, and the later surreal works, the book consists of four chapters and a coda, each successively, and expansively, demonstrating how Twain's identity, the river, metaphor itself, the controversial end of Twain's career, and Mark Twain studies are constructed through figurative language. It is rare that one approach can yield consistently fresh insights across such a widely divergent body of writing, but Bird demonstrates the virtues of his method by showing how Twain's talent with figures achieves remarkably distinct results in each case examined. For example, his reading of the metaphors in Twain's early career--in texts such as "The Jumping Frog," Roughing It, and in the formation of his pseudonym--productively extends the long-standing discussions about the tension between genteel and vernacular by noting how the two different registers are combined in deceptively complex narrative stances. From this Bird persuasively explains that the commonly acknowledged doubleness of Mark Twain derives from this idiosyncratic and careful use of figurative language.
In Chapter 2 "Figuring the River," Bird turns his attention first to "Old Times on the Mississippi," revealing how its exceptionally rich metaphoric structure helps to more fully explain what New Critics struggled to account for in their assessments of Life on the Mississippi as well as what cultural critics have overlooked in emphasizing the thematics of economics and class. Bird's attention to the metaphors in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer yields a subtle interpretation of the quality of the narrator that, in turn, argues that Twain's shifting of the narrative voice questions the authority that is conventionally invested in authorship.
Bird also examines racial metaphors as well as black and white images in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to less satisfying results, but in the next chapter, "Figuring Metaphor," he makes up for this by showing how deliberate and careful Twain was in paring down Huck's metaphors in the early portions of the text to match the voice that evolved by Chapter 9. This is important because it not only challenges assumptions that Twain was not inclined to revise but also helps to gauge the degree to which he deliberately uses metaphor. Other sections of this chapter deal with the language in a number of short works, especially the metaphors of region in "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed," scatological metaphors of self-expression in "1601," and an extremely valuable close reading of the figurative economy in "A True Story." Each of these analyses in different ways reveals the meaningful and purposeful effects of Twain's craft.
The end of Twain's writing career has been particularly perplexing to critics. Biography has often played a significant role in interpretations of what has been perceived as an artistic failure in Twain's abrupt turn toward darkness. In Chapter 4, "Figuring the End," Bird's approach re-values the writing as inventive and experimental, a refreshing and illuminating alternative to conventional wisdom that has much to recommend it. Bird's first unconventional move is to address the problematic late career by beginning his discussion with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, notable for the effusive metaphors of its narrator. But Bird's point is not simply Hank's effusiveness but the inventiveness of the narrative on all levels, and the emergence of a divergent pattern within the narrator himself. In the second chapter, Bird makes a similar observation about the divided narrative voice in Tom Sawyer, but to his credit, he does not simply identify the later case as a recurrence of the earlier; rather, he notes its distinctive function and effect in Connecticut Yankee, what Mikhail Bakhtin notably calls a novel's dialogical character. For Bird, this is the emerging articulation of an interest that Twain continued to pursue in Pudd'nhead Wilson and the numerous fragments of dream narratives that he generated throughout the last twenty years or so of his career. Rather than simply describe the pattern in each of these later instances, Bird shows how its distinctive effects come to play in each of them. With Pudd'nhead Wilson, Bird once again shows his critical independence by arguing that the text and its attendant troubles can be more fully appreciated if read in combination with Those Extraordinary Twins (or what remains of that farce) from which the novel was famously extracted. I'm not entirely persuaded, but I concede that Bird is onto something by addressing the conjoined twins' story that was removed and then later published with the novel that survived the editing process. Those Extraordinary Twins hints at the formal and cultural meanings that are metaphorized in those conjoined twins, but the issues of race at the center of Pudd'nhead Wilson don't require the conjoined twins' story for their articulation. After segueing into a section on the metaphorical quality of jokes, which allows him to introduce Freudian concepts that play a larger role in the dream writings, Bird spends a considerable portion of the chapter on the fragments commonly referred to as "The Great Dark" writings. These along with the Mysterious Stranger manuscripts are fertile material for Bird's analysis because of their looseness and disjointed quality as much as for their metaphorical virtues.
In the Coda, Bird turns his analysis of figures on Mark Twain studies directly and considers how metaphorical patterns have prevailed in different eras of the field. This is very insightful metacriticism that accurately catalogs the shifting tendencies of Twain criticism and also underscores the further utility of Bird's emphasis on metaphor. For this careful examination of the language that Twain scholarship deploys in accounting for his way with words reveals the ways in which our evolving biases can be measured in metaphors that are indexes of cultural concerns over time. This closing makes a very fitting point to Bird's highly commendable study. This is not a perfect book, but what book is. Some readers less familiar with the entire body of Twain's work may find it a bit difficult to follow its organization because it ranges freely across Twain's career and shifts between shorter and longer works in a manner that underscores Bird's immersion in the material. There are, no doubt, several points in which one might ask for further consideration of the cultural implications of metaphor. But at no point do these issues threaten the value of the argument. If anything, these are opportunities for further scholarly efforts to follow Bird's lead in other directions.
I'd like to make one final observation about the design of the
book, which strikes me as being extremely sensitive to the nuances of Bird's
study. Graphical aids such as reproductions of manuscript passages and a table
of manuscript revisions support Bird's arguments. But another kind of suggestive
feature offers a bit of delight: each section of the book is introduced by
the number of the chapter and a title, but faintly in the background and in
much larger font, one might notice that another reference such as "Chapter
1" or "Coda" and even "Notes" can be detected. These
graphic devices hint at the doubleness of meaning that inheres in metaphor
itself. While this is not a large point, it reflects a subtle attention to
detail that is far too frequently overlooked in most book designs. Finally,
the book jacket itself is worth a comment, especially the cartoon reproduced
on the back. The image is from the center-spread cartoon of Life magazine
for Sept 9, 1886, which Bird located in the collection of Kevin Mac Donnell.
Originally captioned "Literature at Low Tide," it depicts an array
of American authors as carnival barkers, and features Mark Twain in the foreground
as a dispenser of laughing gas. A boy dressed as Buster Brown draws from a
hose connected to Twain's tank as he places a coin in the author's hand. Itself
a multi-layered metaphor of humor writing that serves Bird's purpose nicely,
the cartoon pays the additional dividend of surprise; it's an image that I've
never seen before, adding a delight to my closing of a book that was already