The following review appeared 8 February 2002 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2002 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Peter Messent never loses sight of author or text in this study of Twain's short works; rather, he illuminates both through a judicious integration of biographical and historical detail. Only James D. Wilson in A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Mark Twain and Tom Quirk in Mark Twain: A Study of the Short Fiction have given the works as a whole their sustained attention. Yet as Messent points out, Wilson and Quirk pay little attention to the focus of his own study: the short story collections Twain published during his lifetime. Critics have generally ignored these collections, Messent notes, supposing Twain's own literary efforts and interest in them to be slight and his publication of the volumes simply driven by financial needs. Messent challenges such critical assumptions first by tracing Twain's involvement with the production and publication of each collection and next by establishing thematic and stylistic links within and between collections and Twain's work as a whole.
Messent approaches the collections in chronological order, devoting two chapters each to The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches (1867), Sketches, New and Old (1875), The Stolen White Elephant, Etc. (1882), Merry Tales (1882) and The $1,000,000 Bank-Note and Other New Stories (1883), The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories (1900), and The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories. In the first chapter of each pair, he describes and evaluates important pieces from each volume, traces Twain's part in their preparation for publication, and generally locates the works in their cultural context. In the second, he provides a close reading of one or two pieces from each collection, charting more specifically the thematic and stylistic links to other pieces within the collection and the development of Twain's comic and literary techniques. Messent acknowledges that his coverage of Twain's short works is incomplete. In fact, he chooses not to discuss How to Tell a Story and Other Essays (1897), pointing out that this collection differs "in kind" from the more fictionally oriented texts he studies and, at the same time, he foregoes examining collections that merely recycle the works from his target texts.
What becomes clear as Messent carefully unpacks biographical and historical detail is that Twain was certainly involved with the packaging and presentation of each of his collections. At times, to be sure, Messent must make his case by speculatively piecing together evidential bits and pieces. Following leads provided by Robert H. Hirst, for instance, he pieces together Twain's letters and scrapbook entries to show that Twain played a larger role in preparing his Jumping Frog collection than even he was willing to admit. And tracing the "complicated" history of the publication of Twain's short works following the publication of Jumping Frog, Messent again turns to Twain's letters to show that he was willing to rework pieces for inclusion in Sketches, Old and New.
Working from the primary materials available at the Mark Twain Papers at Berkeley, Messent offers even more direct and substantial sources. He includes a previously unpublished part of a letter Twain sent to James R. Osgood, one of his publishers, that includes specific directions for the choice and organization of texts for The Stolen White Elephant, Etc. All but one of Twain's choices would make the final cut. And while critics generally assume Twain lost his interest in process of publishing after Webster and Company filed for bankruptcy, Messent shows that in his notebook entries and letters to his Harper's editor, Twain clearly planned for the selections and organization, even for the word count, of The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories.
Messent succeeds, then, in his attempt to show that Twain "played a larger part in the planning and putting together" of his collections of short works than has previously been recognized (154). Revealing Twain's interest in the packaging and publishing of his collections may provoke some to reconsider their importance. Others may need more light, however, to see their way toward an understanding of the overall worth of the collections. Through his general critique of each volume and close reading of selected pieces, Messent sheds that light.
Rather than critically chastising Twain for the "seemingly incompatible elements" in his Jumping Frog collection, for instance, Messent sees in the volume's mix of material, shifts of persona, and conflicts of voices the "highly playful and flexible quality" that distinguishes Twain's work as a whole (18). And as he closely attends to the "comic ramblings" of Simon Wheeler in the collection's title story, Messent emphasizes their ability to take the reader nowhere, in particular, while disrupting narrative expectations and destabilizing any sense of interpretive certainty. For Messent, this dismantling of expectations and certainties largely defines Twain's "comic intent," a point he continues to develop throughout his study.
Messent presses his case for Twain's comic intent most persuasively in his chapter on Sketches, New and Old, a volume which, as Messent reveals, blurs generic boundaries and stylistic distinctions as it "shifts between the realistic and the surreal or absurd," upsets expectations through the "use of multiple and unreliable narrative voices" and slips away from authoritative interpretations through an "overall thematic focus on untrustwothiness, indecipherability, and relativistic uncertainty" (50). With this collection, as well, Messent underscores the tension that develops between Twain's serious and radically absurd sides, as he questions racists attitudes in "A True Story" and satirically undermines the certainties of science and religion in "Some Learned Fables, for Good Old Boys and Girls." Twain's satire, as Messent describes it, clashes with his relativistic humor as the former aims to improve the human condition and the latter mock it.
Rather than citing this tension between "satire" and "comic relativism" as an authorial weakness, however, Messent claims it to be the very source of Twain's comic power. For as he points out, to "see human life as an absurdist joke does not necessarily mean that one should not still work to improve the practices and institutions that form the immediate circumstances of one's daily life" (74). And from this position, Messent suggests, Twain worked his humor.
Throughout his study, in fact, Messent develops some fresh insights into the power of Twain's humor. He challenges critical attempts to fit Twain's humor too tightly within the Bakhtinian notion of "carnival," for instance. Bakhtin's theoretical concept of "carnival," points to the festive power of laughter to turn social order upside down and upset authoritative rule. For Bakhtin, however, this carnival spirit only reigns temporarily and the social system reestablishes itself within the framework of a culture's dominant ideology. Messent, however, adopts Marcel Gutwirth's significantly different theory of "carnival" as a pure celebration of "chaos" that allows "relief from the oppressiveness of order" and escape from, rather than return to, the "social policing that affects every area of our lives" (89). Bringing Gutwirth's theory specifically to his reading of "The Stolen White Elephant," Messent suggests that Twain's disruptive and disorderly elephant stands in allegorical relation to his intent, both of which represent a "potentially anarchic force, a threat to the established order and all the codes and conventions on which it depends" (103). This view of humor as a disruptive force is common enough, Messent notes, as is the idea that the "lawless energy" of humor is always socially contained. Yet Messent questions whether Twain accepted this pattern of comic disruption and social reaffirmation of the status quo. His story of "The Stolen White Elephant," read as "an allegory about the comic," suggests to Messent that Twain's story reflects the author's own ambivalence about the effect of his humor. Such ambivalence, as Messent considers it, adds to the "general sense of instability and undecidability" that link the volume's stories together as a whole (110).
What Messent offers us, finally, is this image of an uncertain Twain and a reading of his short works as purposely constructed to release readers from their own circles of certainties. He also provides us with enough evidence to show that Twain, to one degree or another, actively participated in the preparation and publication of his collected short works. Seems that more than money was on Twain's mind when he crafted his short works and conceived of volumes to include them. By showing that something "more" in relation to Twain's art and mind, Messent gives due credit to Twain's comic genius.