The following review appeared 4 March 2002 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2002 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
William F. Hecker
United States Military Academy
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
In his introduction to Nothing Abstract: Investigations in the American Literary Imagination, Tom Quirk casts himself in the role of a character from a Glen Baxter cartoon. In the drawing, a man stands alone in the desert holding up a small sign printed with the words "Maybe Not." The caption associated with the cartoon reads: "Jed had organized another one of his mini-protests." Quirk wants the reader to recognize the parallel between his dedication to genetic investigation of American literature and Baxter's lonely protestor. Like the one-man picket line in the middle of the desert, Quirk quietly and determinedly takes a stand for the usefulness of exploring the textual origins of literature in the face of a predominately post-modern literary community.
Quirk divides his book into two sections: "The Proof," and "The Pudding." "The Proof" contains two chapters, "Sources, Influences, and Intertexts," and "Authors, Intentions, and Texts," that situate his ideas in the context of contemporary critical theory and offer a foundation for the textual analysis that follows in "The Pudding."
"Sources, Influences, and Intertexts" challenges the intertextualist notion that source and influence studies seem antiquarian in our poststructuralist era. Quirk suggests that thoughtful consideration of dialogue between literary texts does not result in a critic imposed "aesthetic or historical" hierarchy (15). Instead, he argues, a genetic approach to literary sources links historical and biographical material on "the basis of probable sequence" (15). By privileging source material over the "incipient randomness of intertextuality," Quirk suggests that critics gain a more informed comprehension of the text's historical occasion (31).
The following chapter, "Authors, Intentions, and Texts," outlines the utility of genetic study and how it complements other critical theories. Quirk insists that sources and influences help scholars to reconstruct the occasion for a creative literary act as much as other critical approaches: "announced artistic ambition, biographical (which is to say, personal, economic, or social) circumstance, authorial revision, amendment, and all other forms of second and third thoughts" (35). The use of genetic study in concert with other theories, according to Quirk, produces increasingly sophisticated criticism.
To illustrate his point, he offers an analysis of the complicated circumstances surrounding Mark Twain's much neglected play, Colonel Sellers. Quirk uncovers massive textual chaos: "copyrights arranged, dissolved, renewed; capitalistic ambitions conflicting with democratic loyalties to the man Twain once ate turnips with; multiple authorship, and the neat separation of plot from language; enthusiastic public reception and frustrated private artistic purpose; stated intentions and thwarted artistic aspirations" (49). Only the fusion of source material with other theoretical approaches will potentially inspire "unpredictable and feisty hybrids" of source, narrative, Marxist, psychoanalytical and other theories that can untangle such a morass (49). The remainder of the book provides Quirk's own mature academic responses to this call for theoretical fusion.
Key ingredients in Quirk's "pudding" are two provocative essays concerning Mark Twain. The first, "What if Poe's Humorous Tales Were Funny?," Poe's "X-ing a Paragrab" and Twain's "Journalism in Tennessee," analyzes Twain's successful humor as a means of exploring why Poe's comedy fails.
In his close reading of a humorous exchange between two actual frontier newspaper editors, Quirk suggests that the key aspect of frontier comedy is transgression "against accepted social ritual and communal feeling." Even though these men were the best of friends, they traded vicious insults in their editorial pages. Twain harnesses this traditional humor in "Journalism in Tennessee." In this short piece, Twain constructs a narrator who lands a job as an assistant editor for the "Spirit of Tennessee Press." The chief editor, displeased with the narrator's subdued prose, dramatically alters his assistant's work to a more peppery, provocative style. This "improved" prose prompts the editor of the rival paper to wreak revenge on the hapless narrator, who decides to leave Tennessee for his health. Twain's burlesque of frontier humor gone awry, according to Quirk, allows the audience to share in the joke by relying "upon a general familiarity with the object of humorous exaggeration," in this case the caustic repartee between rival newspapers (55).
Poe's tale, on the other hand, fails to offer anything of "general familiarity" in his burlesque. In "X-ing a Paragrab," a newspaper editor sends his printer's devil to steal the "o"s from his rival's print box. The desperate editor substitutes "x"s for "o"s, prompting the town's citizens to suspect some sort of "diabolical treason," from which the victimized editor flees in the dark of night. Quirk notes that despite the frenetic punning ("X-cellent" joke, "Xu-berance" of fancy) and a veiled satire of transcendentalists (found in the "x"ing out of the circular letter-Emerson's essay "Circles" inspired Poe to label him the "circular philosopher"), Poe's story defies popular humor because its comic exaggeration appeals to his private sense of the ridiculous, as opposed to the broader social appeal of Twain's work.
The second essay on Twain, "Mark Twain in His Short Works," looks at Clemens the man through a survey of his short stories, sketches, and essays. While the different facets of Twain's life are likely well known to much of Quirk's audience, he still succeeds in establishing original and revealing connections between Twain's fiction and Clemens's life. In his reading of "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" (1899), he finds Twain's memories of youthful pleasures embedded in the "dark brooding" and "cynical logic" of Twain's late fiction (100). Quirk's analysis of Twain's political satire finds his journalist's eye and rapier wit tempered by a troubled conscience that excludes pure sanctimoniousness. Such contradictory instincts ultimately leads Quirk to find a certain "peace and innocence" in the broken-hearted twilight that followed the death of Twain's daughter Jean (114). This sensitive reading is a mere sample of the quality of Quirk's pudding. His consideration of these short pieces as source material for building a historical Clemens not only validates the utility of his genetic methods, but also demonstrates the enduring resonance of Twain as both a writer and a cultural icon.
In addition to these essays that directly deal with Twain, "The Pudding" features essays on a diverse group of American writers: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Ambrose Bierce, Wallace Stephens, Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joyce Carol Oates, and Tony Hillerman. He further considers Flannery O'Connor, Richard Wright, Robert Frost, Jack London, Stephen Crane, and William Faulkner within those essays. Particularly compelling is the essay "Fitzgerald and Cather," which draws fascinating parallels in both structure and character between Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Cather's Alexander's Bridge. Additionally, "A Source for 'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?' " demonstrates the need for genetic research to produce an informed interpretation of Oates's short story. Each essay emphasizes the usefulness of source study in developing informed readings of American literature and serves to call for further genetic inquiry.
Quirk articulates this call in his final chapter, "Trying out Genetic Research." Addressed to professional academics, it explores the pedagogical implications of bringing genetic theory into the classroom. Quirk believes that emphasizing source research would not only increase the thoughtfulness of student criticism, but that there would also be a corresponding increase in both student critical thinking skills and new opportunities to establish links between the literary community and other academic disciplines. He concludes by likening genetic criticism to Melville's attempts to find poetry in whale blubber-it might be "devilishly hard" but is still "worth trying out nonetheless" (219).
While many critics will take issue with Quirk's attacks on post-structural
theory, they will still recognize the utility of his methods and the keen insights
source research produces in his criticism. As scholars weigh the ideas in Nothing
Abstract, Quirk may find cause to modify his introduction--instead of describing
a lonely maverick holding a small sign in the middle of the desert, he will
perhaps need to pencil in the outlines of a growing posse of like-minded critics
who share a renewed dedication to genetic scholarship.