The following review appeared 23 August 1996 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1996.
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John H. Davis <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
This review is ten years late, but fortunately, the book is not ten years outdated. The material in it, ranging from 1946 to 1986, is not only still pertinent and enlightening-offering overviews of Samuel Clemens, his alter-ego/dream-self Mark Twain, and the contexts of their times--but the essays also collectively scan the literature, especially the masterwork Huckleberry Finn, and attitudes toward it through the years. With nods toward commentary before 1946, single representative stops (1956, 1968) in the following two decades, two essays at the beginning (1972) and the end (1979) in the next decade, the bulk of criticism (seven essays) from the middle 1980s, and critics throughout looking back as well as ahead, this collection of essays edited by Harold Bloom is a well-balanced entry in his Modern Critical Views series, a superb introduction to Mark Twain, the man and his works, as well as a worthwhile book for the shelves of veteran Twainophiles.
Bloom's "Editor's Note" is an accurate summation and analysis of his anthology as "a representative selection of the best criticism devoted to the writings of Mark Twain . . . published during the last forty years" that "centers upon Twain's undoubted masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn," beginning with DeVoto's overview and "usefully integrat[ing] life, work, and socio-historical context" (vii). With concise phrases, Bloom then both capsulizes each essay and notes links among the essays, particularly between essays immediately preceding and following each other. The reader seeking the shortest shortcut to the essence of the contents in Bloom's edition should stop here, find the book, and read his note. Bloom's "Introduction" further sets the tone by devoting itself to Huckleberry Finn, providing an effective backdrop for much of the discussion that follows.
The book contains a variety of critical approaches and critics. From Bernard DeVoto, F. R. Leavis, and Hillis Miller, through such contributors as Robert Penn Warren, Judith Fetterly, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, and Bruce Michelson, into Alfred Kazin, James Cox, and Roy Harvey Pearce, ending with Douglas Robinson and Cleo McNelly Kearns, the selections move from historical perspective (DeVoto) over New Criticism (Warren) to application of semiotics (Kearns). Along the way, James Cox issues an expectant invitation, behind poorly concealed curiosity about possible results, requesting Deconstructionists to become more engaged in Twain studies.
In this nicely balanced collection--averaging sixteen pages per essay (the longest is Warren's twenty-seven pages, the shortest, Fetterly's eight)--the first, fourth, and eighth essays (by DeVoto, Warren, and Kazin) provide overall views of Twain and his works at strategic points in the anthology and in the quickening pace of Twain criticism over the forty years they cover (1946, 1972, 1984). The twelfth and last essay (by Kearns) pulls together many strands while coming from a new direction to consider Huck Finn, an appropriate closing essay for that novel is the central concern of this collection, even as it has well examined other works. From DeVoto's Great Valley through Judith Fetterly's and Cynthia Griffin Wolff's valleys of anxiety and nightmare, respectively, to a revision of the American Dream by Robinson and a revisit of Life on the Mississippi by Cox, these essays offer changing and differing visions of America reflected in Twain's work.
DeVoto explains why W. D. Howells called Twain "the Lincoln of our literature," historically and philosophically, and sweepingly places him, his literature, and his contemporary popularity in a broad American context while also noting personal and professional weaknesses and the ups and downs of his most significant works. Leavis draws attention to the worth of Pudd'nhead Wilson, explaining why more attention should be paid to it. Cox, having deceived himself that Life on the Mississippi was merely an extension of the admired and beautifully written "Old Times on the Mississippi," re-reads it, finds much worthwhile that he had overlooked, offers insights into its structure and language (specifically some jokes), and urges others--particularly practitioners of more recent types of criticism--to re-examine it.
Miller not only examines the difference between the first-person narrators in David Copperfield and Huckleberry Finn, and between first- and third-person narration, but also discusses the structures of the two novels, their differing attitudes toward society, and the types of language and their importance in Twain's novel. Warren offers explanations for the relationship between Twain's life and work and for most of his major literature. Fetterly analyzes Twain's role as public performer and its effects on his literature. Wolff asserts that Tom Sawyer is a darker, more adult, and less child- oriented novel than it has been considered. Michelson says that The Mysterious Stranger stories have been shaped by the notion of play and games, with God as a cosmic Tom Sawyer. Kazin examines the paradox of the man who was both a part of and outside his age and country, representing both its frontier and civilized elements, yet exposing their shams, living the American Dream and realizing its nightmare, playing roles and telling the truth, often through deception. Pearce studies the conflict between the self that Huck must find within him and the world in which that self finds itself, resulting in role-playing in order to determine the truth hidden in lies. Robinson links Connecticut Yankee and The Mysterious Stranger variants and finds the destruction of the American Dream. In the final essay, Kearns looks at codes (signs, symbols, language, narrative writing) in Huckleberry Finn, their relation to meaning and truth, especially for Huck and Jim, and Huck's striving for mastery over his own text, words that constitute the codes of his society, in order to understand and live in the world it reveals; one sure way not to be trapped seems to be to stop writing (and head for the territory), but to stop is to abdicate any authority over the codes.
One pleasurable discovery in reading this collection is that, although the essays are not deliberately grouped according to theme, genre, critical approach, or Twain text, they apparently have been so chosen that--possibly as a happy result of their chronological arrangement--they grow from one essay into the next as they develop, build upon, and amplify shared ideas. Their authors demonstrate knowledge of both specific and general criticism, referencing and addressing it, usually regarding common concerns of Twain commentators, such as the ending of Huck Finn, Twain's duality, Huck's paradoxical lying and basic honesty, effects of family and business misfortunes, conflicts between freedom and civilization, the limitations of freedom and democracy, use and style of language, the Tom-Huck relationship, the role of the frontier, the nature of truth, pessimism, selfhood, Huck and Jim, the controversy surrounding Jim and God/religion/Church; but they do not directly answer one another or even necessarily indicate direct awareness of one another. What they do is to see some of the same things but from different angles, revealing complementary and supplementary relationships among the essays.
Remarkable is that the ideas and themes of these essays are complementary, as they also offer both supplementary and differing views and insights into Mark Twain and his literature. Many tackle the notion that Mark Twain somehow embodies or reflects the positive and negative angles of the American Dream and myth, even becoming mythic himself. DeVoto implies, without mentioning historian or theory, that, as "mid-nineteenth-century American democracy finding its first major voice in literature," Twain exemplifies in literature the Frederick Jackson Turner thesis about the democratizing effect of the frontier--"the transforming experience of the American people as they occupied . . . and pushed beyond [the Great Valley], on the way forging the continental mind" (23); specifically, DeVoto asserts that, in such works as "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed," Twain "perfectly refracted a national experience through a personal one" (13).
As for the writer himself, Cox asserts that Life on the Mississippi is "a book in which the life of Samuel Clemens is both converted and enlarged into the myth of Mark Twain"; in fact, "all his works, rather than being ends in themselves, seem means toward the end of mythologizing their author" (153). Warren writes that, after realistically presenting small-town evils of "backcountry America" in The Gilded Age, Twain took refuge in "the dream vision of rural America that was to find its image in mythical Hannibal" (58-59). According to Wolff, as Twain gives us this dream vision of an American town in Tom Sawyer, he also subtly makes it one from which to flee (94), preparing the way for the darker towns Huck encounters and even suggesting not only the darker side of childhood, as others have noted, but a darker side of Tom Sawyer: "Injun Joe is Tom's shadow self" (102), possibly an early (uncontrollable) dream self, a version of the malignant conscience in "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut," or a foreshadowing of Tom in Huckleberry Finn, particularly the Tom at the Phelps farm, the Tom who conforms to society (105), much like the citizens of Dawson's Landing in Pudd'nhead Wilson.
Leavis contends Twain presents a more complex, ambiguous, and subtle vision of American frontier society in Pudd'nhead (31 ff.). Kazin believes, even shortly after Tom Sawyer, Twain was disposed "to think of his life as a 'dream'--the American dream . . . but one that also revealed a writer's tendency to wonder whether [his] thoughts and projects . . . had any existence outside himself," with the result that, "at the end of his 'wonderful century,'" as postwar America viewed Twain as personifying many of its wonders and looked to the "'old West' for a golden age," Hannibal and the universe were becoming dreams, "thus rounding out a century of American solipsism" (136).
Robinson says that Twain pictures the destruction of the American dream in the physical destruction, within a dream, of Camelot in Connecticut Yankee and the mental destruction of the universe, presented as dream, in the late Stranger stories but believes that he offers renewal in the discovery of the true self, perhaps the "me" Hank Morgan seeks in Yankee, which can dream new and better dreams (201 ff.). These ideas may not sound new because generally they are not, but they remind old readers and update new ones of some held views, and for both sets of readers, they occur in fresh approaches that give new ways of looking at the traditional texts.
A pattern noted in several essays is the motif of silences and solitude and the themes connecting them in Huckleberry Finn. Because the motif does appear, one wonders at the absence of Forrest G. Robinson's "The Silences in Huckleberry Finn" (Nineteenth-Century Fiction 37.1 [June 1982]: 50-74), yet another complement and, thereby, support to the ideas expressed here. Silence and solitude tend to oppose speech and society, the latter related to lies, falsity, and hypocrisy, which are aspects and results of the former, civilization. The distinction is made by Miller (47), who says that, of the three types of language in the novel--(1) false language of society, playing roles; (2) honest directness, possible between Huck and Jim in the ideal society of the raft; (3) no speech, "a language belonging . . . to solitude" and associated with lonesomeness and death (50-54)--Huck chooses silence, thus solitude, for "only complete isolation is freedom" (54).
Kearns also notes the role of silence in Huck's quest for freedom from the rules and shams of society (220, 222). Warren touches upon silence as a defense against the lies and falseness of society in his discussion of language (62-64), and especially in a comparison of the roles of Tom and Huck (65-68), as does Fetterly in contrasting Tom as showman whose entertainment is built upon talk, and ultimately cruelty, and Huck who shuns a public role and whose conditions are loneliness and fear (84-88).
Another complementary/supplementary strand running through this collection is the importance of role-playing and of play in Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain, and the literature "they" produced together. Warren writes of "Mark Twain-actor playing the role of Mark Twain on the lecture platform . . . transformed into Mark Twain-author writing a book in which Mark Twain is the main character" (57). Leavis quotes DeVoto's remark that Huck Finn is Mark Twain's surrogate (30). Fetterly's essay concerns the artist and the artist's creations as performers. Wolff finds, with sinister overtones, that Tom Sawyer's games conceal rebellion and rage against authority figures: "Acquiescent to society's tenets in real life, in daydreams Tom is always a rebel" (99-100); Kazin says that Tom's imagination "gives him a power over [people] that reminds us of an author's power," and since Tom can persuade his friends, as in the white- washing episode, so "the adults in St. Petersburg must also participate in the book Tom is acting out" (140-141).
Cox points out practical jokes the real-life author Mark Twain plays upon the unsuspecting reader of Life on the Mississippi (162-167), and Pearce discusses the many examples of role-playing, playing, and make-believe by Huck, the Duke and the Dauphin, and Tom in Huckleberry Finn (175-178). Observing that critics generally are aware "that Mark Twain's masterworks are filled with people who go on holidays and play games" (108), Michelson applies the idea in metaphysical terms to The Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts, considering 44/Satan as Godly gamester playing with and upon humanity.
Although the emphasis of the anthology is Huckleberry Finn, the reader finds much about other works and the interrelatedness of Mark Twain's literature. The perspectives by DeVoto, Warren, and Kazin all consider Huck and more. DeVoto considers, in differing degrees, Life on the Mississippi, Pudd'nhead Wilson, Innocents Abroad, and The Gilded Age, among others. Warren offers views upon Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, The Gilded Age, Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, and Connecticut Yankee, among others more briefly mentioned. Kazin touches upon What Is Man?, The Innocents Abroad, The Gilded Age, Tom Sawyer, and The Mysterious Stranger, though he, mainly, discusses Twain the writer in overall terms; he most thoroughly examines Huckleberry Finn. Leavis, Wolff, Michelson, Cox, and Robinson specifically study, respectively, Pudd'nhead Wilson, Tom Sawyer, The Mysterious Stranger, Life on the Mississippi, and Connecticut Yankee.
All of the writers refer to other works, including the Autobiography, "Captain Stormfield," "The Jumping Frog," "The Great Dark," Letters from the Earth, "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," "Old Times on the Mississippi," The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed," Tom Sawyer Abroad, and A Tramp Abroad.
The person interested in learning anew or refreshing memories about Mark Twain will find this book of essays covering him and his literature a worthwhile one to read and to own.