The following review appeared 22 February 1997 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1997.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Bruce Michelson <email@example.com>
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
[Note: though Professor Camfield's book was published in 1994, no previous review of it has appeared on the Forum. Having been asked recently to provide one, I have the pleasure of doing so. BFM]
Some of the livelier recent books about Mark Twain share at least one key intention: to highlight his relationship to the intellectual climate of the middle and later nineteenth century. Thanks in part to Alan Gribben's reconstruction of Twain's personal library, and to the ongoing project of publishing that tide of letters that poured from Twain's writing tables, we are seeing him more clearly as an author intensely engaged--sometimes--with those huge intellectual disruptions that hit American shores during his most productive years. One obvious complication, and part of the fun in reading him, is that if Mark Twain was a vigorous, free-ranging reader and thinker, he wasn't systematic about either activity. His best work therefore has a way of embarrassing attempts to describe it as driven or mechanized by some single idea-system or totalizing formulation. Approaching Mark Twain as an intellect and as a cultural critic remains a seductive, necessary, dangerous business, because he shows us a consciousness too diverse and interesting to make such readings either simple, or paradox-free.
For these and half a dozen other good reasons, Gregg Camfield's book is a very important contribution to the heap of recent Mark Twain commentary. Sentimental Twain is not only a convincing portrait of Mark Twain's life as constantly and heavily affected by Anglo-American sentimentalist theory and practice; the book also gives excellent lessons in how to apply favored principles in cultural studies to actualities of American literary history, and how to establish such a freshened approach with due regard for other informed and historically sensitive analysis.
In moving through the book's opening pages, a browser may grow fidgety, for Camfield does not present a fully evolved description or definition of "sentimentalism" until pages 40-50, and Mark Twain doesn't emerge as a full-blown subject until Chapter 3--after a thorough discussion of the moral and philosophical heritage that produced Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, that literary and cultural earthquake by the "little lady" who eventually became Twain's friend and back-hedge neighbor at Nook Farm in Hartford. Camfield takes his time in tracing the roots of sentimentalism, and in describing its general shape and reach as Twain encountered it and negotiated it, because there is so much to trace.
One of the major virtues of this book is how cogently Camfield presents the philosophical origins and dimensions of sentimentalism, and its complex nineteenth-century presence as an epistemology, a faith, a mass-cult fashion, and a sanctioned literary temperament. He does a splendid job in laying out sentimentalism's connections with (and distinctions from) Romanticism and mainstream American religious thought, and its pervasiveness, in one form or another, throughout the literary and pop-cultural world that Sam Clemens the writer sought to enter, and eventually to dominate. Camfield's strategy strikes me as a perfect way to open up Mark Twain's intellectual dimensions and literary aspirations: not as dubiously influenced by some single text or idea that might have beguiled or prostrated him now and then, or for some limited patch of his long career, but as saturated for the long term in a broad, well established, and river-deep cultural flow.
Camfield's fully evolved description of the sentimentalism that Mark Twain knew and unsteadily critiqued encompasses Locke, Shaftesbury, the afterglow of New England Calvinism, the legacy of the Scottish "Common Sense" philosophers, and of course the busy and intellectually adventurous Beecher family. Throughout this description, flimsy direct-influence argumentation is wisely avoided: Camfield's position is that by the time Mark Twain began reading and writing in earnest, sentimentalism, in a diffuse but powerful form, was practically everywhere, and coming at him from all directions. If a "serious agenda" (as Camfield calls it) emerged from this encounter between Clemens and all this patterned thinking and feeling in the schooled, prosperous world that he wrote for and married his way into, then the engagement unfolds this way:
By 1871, when he moved to Hartford and began writing as both a humorist and a moralist, his writings would have reflected the tension between the material and the ideal halves of moral philosophy. Then, too, the deepening rift in moral philosophy left an unoccupied artistic middle ground. With sentimentalists veering toward idealism from their earlier stance as realists, they left a large opening in belles lettres for another kind of realism, one predicated more on ostensibly objective standards than on emotional ones.Camfield is careful, however, to foreground the fact that Mark Twain did not have to read systematically or academically through the philosophy bookstacks in order to understand the importance and complications of this crisis, or to find the resources for addressing it in fiction. Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Minister's Wooing are offered as enormous literary and mass-cultural events--and as unmissable culminations, in a sense, of a century and a half in which theologies, logical premises, and social habit decayed, permutated, and commingled. The basic assumption subtending Camfield's case seems conservative enough: that from the parlors, breakfast tables, and boulevards of a noisy, dynamic culture, complex ideas can steal the attention of good and creative minds, regardless of their formal education or intellectual rigorousness. Camfield therefore offers us a fresh, credible way of thinking about Mark Twain as a thinker--not as the philosopher he wasn't, but as the intuitive, literate, and culturally responsive American that he was.
Critics conventionally see Mark Twain's development as a writer as a move toward this kind of empirical realism, but they tend to see it as a radical move away from a uniform cultural idealism. My analysis suggests that Clemens's realism may just as well have begun as a conservative attempt to rebuild the Common Sense consensus. (pp. 58-59)
As Camfield moves onward into rereadings of some major and not-so-major Mark Twain texts--he attends especially to "The Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut," The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Connecticut Yankee, and Pudd'nhead Wilson--he continues to write with maturity and sensitivity, and never allows an "ism" in question, complex as it might be, to flatten or obscure other complications in these texts and in the sensibility that produced them. Twain's social and financial climb, into the hilltops around Elmira and the prime Hartford and New York neighborhoods, required an evolving reckoning with varieties of sentimentalism, high and low, which pervaded genteel fiction in that time. Moreover, as Camfield puts it:
Clemens's voracious reading did nothing to help him solve this or any other conundrum of moral philosophy. While he seems over the 1870s to have actively tried to ground his thinking in the fundamental texts of moral philosophy, his reading, by its very eclectic nature, began to increase his doubts. In many cases, the very incompatibility of different bits of knowledge he gleaned from his reading did more than cast doubt on the Common Sense compromise; it destroyed it, especially when he applied what he learned of the 'certainties' of science to the vague hypotheses of metaphysics. (p. 121)In other words, Twain's collision with determinism and the various permutations of post-Darwinist thought--as exemplified by Spencer, Fiske, William Graham Sumner, and others--led him into unstable practice as either sentimentalist or antisentimentalist. Such a conclusion will come as no shock to experienced Twainians; and because the close readings that Camfield offers in the latter half of the book pack few interpretive surprises, they may disappoint readers with a conditioned taste for the lit-crit game of turning (or trying to turn) all other interpretations inside out. Camfield's purpose is different: not to enforce novelty, but rather to show better and more interesting reasons why Mark Twain's writing takes on the shape and the compelling questions that we may already assume to be there.
Sentimental Twain historicizes, dignifies, and modernizes Mark Twain all in the same contemplation, and it enriches our understanding of those deep contradictions that may lie somewhere near the core of his general and enduring appeal. It is a master-class in how to negotiate a time of intellectual transformation and ideological crisis, and how to observe the impact of that crisis on an individual talent. This is not a flashy book. It is instead a very, very good one, a book to keep and consult long after the six-month half-life that so much commentary now seems to intend, and sadly to achieve.