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The following review appeared 15 August 2016 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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To most Americans today Mark Twain is a fait accompli, a well-established cultural and literary icon, his place in our history and literature firmly and everlastingly consecrated by William Dean Howells as "the Lincoln of our literature." Scholars, school boards, and assorted rapscallions seem perpetually making mischief, nibbling at the edges of his reputation, questioning his intentions, debating his meanings, banning his books, imitating his appearance, affixing absurd aphorisms to his name, and even claiming to know what he would have thought about current events, but Mark Twain stands firm. It was not always this way. Although Mark Twain came to life as a writer and a character in 1863, that Mark Twain did not become the Mark Twain we know today until about 1882. Exactly how that transformation came about is the subject of two and a half pounds of research by Tracy Wuster in Mark Twain, American Humorist. Garbed in preacherly black cloth, this somber tome about America's greatest humorist is itself a serious undertaking with the heft of a holy book.
Common myths that explain Mark Twain's rise to prominence still have currency, even among Twainians. One is that Mark Twain tried and failed at several trades until he became a journalist, and after a short western apprenticeship quickly rose to fame when his jumping frog story was published and instantly made him America's funniest writer. Another is that The Innocents Abroad became a bestseller and, with his success assured, he never looked back nor aspired much higher. Another is that he married a wealthy woman who reformed or tamed his coarser impulses and made his writings socially acceptable. None of these notions are wholly false, but none of them are more than half true, and while all of them are part of the actual story, they are not the whole story. The whole story is a complex combination of luck, perseverance, talent, calculation, and circumstance, and involves Mark Twain's choice of publishing venues, his marketing skills, his social contacts, his appearance, his calculated efforts on the lecture circuit, and the evolving definition of what constituted American humor among influential critics of his day. It was not a linear progression and there were set-backs along the way.
Wuster marshals his evidence every step of the way, starting with how humor was defined by the writings of Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell. It's not surprising to see Irving, Holmes, and Lowell mentioned in a discussion of the rise of American humor, but Hawthorne and Stowe may bring a smile. Humor was not merely high-brow or low-brow, but was defined by class-based language and had its own hierarchy: coarse, popular, refined, literary, and quality. There were racial and gender distinctions as well. These classes of humor were further delineated by the venues in which they appeared, their topics, their language, and even the social associations of the humorists themselves. Wuster traces "Mark Twain" as both a writer of humorous fiction and as a fictional character, moving through a variety of venues, attacked and praised, until he was eventually accepted among the ranks of the writers of "quality" literature. Along the way he describes how Artemus Ward, Bret Harte, and William Dean Howells played crucial roles in advancing Mark Twain's reputation and brand, and traces the influence of the Phunny Phellows and Southwestern humor, placing them in proper perspective. Wuster does not attempt to arrive at some all-encompassing "general theory" of Twainian time and space that explains the singular meaning of Mark Twain. Instead, he avoids the simplistic approach of trying to define Mark Twain as a single stable personality or persona, and describes a Mark Twain who was and is a complicated "character" with overlapping meanings and multifaceted images. He also avoids the common pitfalls of portraying the advance of Mark Twain's reputation as a simple growth from "popular" to "quality," or viewing Mark Twain as an artist whose art was tainted by his connections with popular culture.
Wuster divides the evolution of Mark Twain's reputation as a humorist into three distinct stages, separated by rough boundaries: The first stage was his western years from 1863 when he first used his nom de plume, and 1866 when he headed east after his jumping frog story attracted wide attention. During those years he was published only in newspapers and magazines, and gave lectures only in California. The second stage covers from 1867, the year he published his first book, to 1869 as he prepared The Innocents Abroad for the press, during which time he was widely recognized as a distinctly American humorist, but merely a humorist to be compared to other humorists. The third stage covers from 1869, when The Innocents Abroad became a bestseller, to the early 1880s, when he published A Tramp Abroad and The Prince and the Pauper. This last stage traces his emergence as a literary figure, when his works began to be compared to his own earlier works as often as they were ranked among the works of other writers. Wuster describes this last stage as a period in which Mark Twain simultaneously experienced acclaim as a popular writer and increasing recognition as a literary artist. This tension between popularity and respectability remained with him the rest of his life.
The first two stages were relatively brief and Wuster places Mark Twain in the context of his region and documents how contemporary critics defined and valued humor. He explores the frequently discussed differences between English and American humor, the distinction between a humorist and a comedian, and how both Artemus Ward and Bret Harte were gaining recognition in England (Mark Twain, although popular in England, would not gain literary acceptance there until more than a decade later). Once the much longer third stage is underway, Wuster focuses more on Mark Twain, and explains how social occasions like the Whittier and Holmes birthday dinners, and the dinner for General Grant shaped his reputation. He nicely separates reality from myth. He also tracks the continuing importance of Mark Twain's relationship with William Dean Howells as his books continued to be reviewed in The Atlantic Monthly at the same time his writings appeared in its pages. Wuster points out that other magazines and newspapers also elevated Mark Twain's status as a "quality" author: The Galaxy, the New York Tribune, Scribner's Monthly, The Aldine, and the London Saturday Review. He also points out that Mark Twain's success was not wholly dependent on Howells's endorsement. Wuster reviews the positive and negative verdicts on Mark Twain by American critic Josiah Gilbert Holland, English editor John C. Dent, French journalist Therese Bentzon, and others who also played a part. He points out how The Gilded Age, while not valuable as a literary work, was of central importance in gaining Mark Twain acceptance as a respectable literary figure, and analyzes in depth the reactions of professional critics and book reviewers to all of Mark Twain's books of the 1870s.
Before and during his intense examination of the stages of Mark Twain's evolving humor, Wuster reviews most of the scholarship on the subject, and these discussions may interest Twainians as much as Wuster's own thesis. The list of names of those who have tackled this subject is a muster-roll of notable Mark Twain scholars: Baetzhold, Bellamy, Blair, Brooks, Budd, Caron, Covici, Cox, Csicsila, DeVoto and onward, from E to Z. Studies of Twain's humor accelerated in the 1960s thanks to James Cox and Walter Blair, and made significant strides when Louis J. Budd identified Mark Twain as a subversive culture hero, and Leland Krauth expanded that subversive portrayal to include Twain's "quality" attributes. Wuster analyzes this work of Budd, Krauth, and others, accepting some theories and rejecting others, always providing abundant evidence to make his case. He laudably includes evidence that both supports and undercuts his own conclusions, and is careful to make clear that some conclusions can be drawn with more certainty than others. This is helpful to the reader, and allows a reader to draw his own conclusions or explore other studies. At times the sheer volume of evidence might seem tedious to the general reader, but to the Twainian it is essential and welcome--but it is voluminous!
Of course, Mark Twain's reputation evolved further after 1882 to the end of his life, but that part of the story is beyond the scope of this book. It might seem like a weakness to leave that part of the story unexamined and untold, but the later evolution of Mark Twain's reputation as a humorist was not quite so dramatic as these early years and did not budge him from his place in the American literary pantheon that he occupied after 1882. Still, the reader is left for himself to ponder exactly how Mark Twain's reputation evolved until the end of his life. In a book of nearly 500 pages, a reviewer must find something to quibble about, so I suppose Wuster's claim that subscription books were printed on high quality paper should be noted. This was true of those published by James R. Osgood & Co., and later on by Charles L. Webster & Co., but it was not true of the early subscription books under discussion that were cheaply printed and bound by the American Publishing Company. One slight oversight that will strengthen Wuster's argument that Mark Twain was moving into his rightful place among the literary pantheon in the 1870s regards the publication of "A True Story." He discusses its publication in The Atlantic Monthly in 1874 but does not mention it was published in book form in 1877 by James R. Osgood & Co. (a publisher associated with "quality" authors) in the popular Osgood Vest Pocket Series, placing Mark Twain's story alongside 101 other books in that series written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, and works of other highly esteemed authors.
Early on, Wuster makes clear his aim. Pointing out that there is a "danger . . . that scholars and readers might judge Mark Twain from our own values, making him either better or worse than one might hope . . . the aim of this book is to understand the literary context of his role as humorist within the cultural milieu of his time--not as a hero, nor a villain, but as a key figure in understanding Gilded Age America" (25). By the time the third stage of Mark Twain's rising literary stature is complete, it is no longer shifting between the popular and the respectable, between buffoonery and the serious, and Mark Twain enters a fourth and final stage in which he becomes the standard by which other humorists will be measured, and sets the course for what American humor would become. Wuster succeeds in sorting out the complex contexts that brought Mark Twain to that place in American culture.