The following review appeared 28 May 1997 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1997.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Glen M. Johnson <JohnsonG@cua.edu>
The Catholic University of America
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Pascal Covici began his career in 1962 with Mark Twain's Humor: The Image of a World. Thirty-five years later it comes full circle with Humor and Revelation in American Literature. The circle is now much wider, as evidenced by the intellectual scope and historical reach of this new book. But it's sadly also a closed circle due to Covici's death earlier this year.
Grand-sounding titles like Humor and Revelation in American Literature are common in academic publishing today: you learn to check the subtitle for the actual, usually quite limited, topic. Covici's subtitle, The Puritan Connection, pins down one starting point for his investigations; but his main title more accurately reflects the ambitious project. His goal is nothing less than to bring together two of the master topics of American studies, the Puritan world view and vernacular humor. This is to bridge a chasm, for, as Covici notes, Americanists are not used to thinking about religion and humor at the same time. Or if we do, we construct a narrative where the good guys, with the American language as their sword and Mark Twain as General Grant, finally drive the bad guys, bowed under the weight of their Calvinist tomes, from the City on the Hill. Covici focuses his account of this master critical narrative on George Santanaya, who named the Genteel Tradition. He could also have noted it in founders of American literature and culture studies like V. L. Parrington and Alice Felt Tyler--to say nothing of virtually every biographical critic of Mark Twain from Brooks and DeVoto, through Kaplan, to Andrew Hoffman.
Covici doesn't attempt a systematic study, either chronological or topical, of how Puritan thinking underlies our vernacular tradition. He provides an excellent introduction that discusses his central insights in terms of how he arrived at them, then outlines how he will present the insights to readers. Beyond that point, Covici's method is to hopscotch among key texts looking for suggestive connections. So the first chapter deals with Mark Twain, Hawthorne, and Melville (in that order). We then move back to Anglican and Puritan preachers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The literary texts that Covici analyzes range from Nathaniel Ward's Simple Cobbler of Aggawam (1647) and two books by John Wise (1713, 1717), through Franklin, Southwestern Humorists G. W. Harris, Johnson J. Hooper, and T. B. Thorpe, and of course Mark Twain, continuing as far forward as Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Covici's final chapter, "The Puritan Roots of American Humor," draws on Poe, Emerson, and especially Thoreau, with the last particularly anticipating Twain's break from genteel tradition.
To approach such huge topics in Covici's way requires extraordinary attentiveness, particularly to nuances obscured by critical formulations we take for granted. Covici excels at close reading. He calls his book "a meditation on some of our literature's revelation," but I would change the metaphor and call it a set of riffs on where "American literature" came from and what makes it unique. He has also found an effective conversational tone and style: Covici gets away with some chatty rhetoric of the type that your reviewer generally finds insufferable: "As is painfully clear--I do enjoy piling up the illustrations"; or, "I wrack my brain in an effort to recall Emerson's humorous passages; I do not succeed."
Simply in terms of space allotted, Mark Twain is less prominent in this book than you would expect. The only Twain works treated at length are the 1877 Whittier Birthday Dinner speech and Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894), though there are brief engagements with several others. Nevertheless, Covici's introduction makes clear how essential Twain's work was in the process that led to the book's thesis. In developing the thesis, Covici's fundamental move is to revise the standard view that Twain took the vernacular tradition from the Southwestern Humorists and raised it to the level of "literature." That particular formulation originated with William Dean Howells, and as Covici notes, it always had within it a note of ambivalence, as if the vernacular had somehow to be redeemed before it became a worthy concern for serious people. By contrast, Covici argues that Twain did not simply elevate a sub-literary tradition, but transformed it intellectually by reviving a parallel tradition that goes back to the Puritans. He makes his formulation explicitly religious: Southwestern humor, Covici says, was derived from models that were British, Anglican, and Arminian. Mark Twain, on the other hand, revivified a tradition that was (more) American, Puritan, and antinomian--and because of that, more serious about language, and more democratic.
Examining Covici's argument concerning the Southwestern humorists reveals some of the strengths, but also weaknesses, of Humor and Revelation in American Literature. In Hooper's and Harris's stories, Covici suggests, laughter is generated through the exposure of affectation, which was Henry Fielding's rationalist definition of comedy. The vehicle for ridiculing affectation is the educated narrator characteristic of Southwestern stories; however, the affected target is not the narrator, but rather the curious vernacular characters he reports on. (This is, of course, a major difference from Twain, who "sold" his educated narrators as early as "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog.")
The next step in Covici's argument holds that the Southwestern humorists share key attitudes of both eighteenth-century rationalism and the nineteenth-century genteel tradition: the "sense of certainty" that allowed them to treat truth and social values as firm and knowable. That kind of certainty is implicit in the disapproving attitudes of Hooper's and Harris's narrators toward what they report--attitudes which, Covici insists, the norms of the stories unambiguously support. Even more, the antics of Harris's vernacular character Sut Lovingood, which can disgust even a late twentieth-century reader, are so appalling that they implicitly support propriety of the most repressive sort. Thus the humor of the Old Southwest, despite or even because of its subject matter, starts looking as rational and proper as the genteel tradition could wish. Then Mark Twain arrived (anticipated by T. B. Thorpe) and changed everything by undercutting and eventually eliminating his genteel narrators, thus revealing a world where certainty on moral and psychological issues is no longer available. And that alternate conception, of a world marked by complexity, mystery, and pain, is America's Puritan heritage.
Covici's alternate genealogy for Southwestern humor, which among other things makes Ben Franklin an immediate ancestor, is of considerable interest. But the rather simplistic sorting out of two humorous strains creates some problems. For one thing, arguing that the narrators in Southwestern humor represent unambiguous norms of certainty disallows any possibility of irony. Thus Covici on Hooper: "No subversion that I can see lurks below the surface of the text." This is a peculiar claim--all the more so because two pages earlier Covici has alluded to Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of "the pleasure of carnival." It's just as well that Covici doesn't mention Bakhtin by name, since he goes on to say that carnival "has nothing to do with any suggestion that respectable society fails in a serious way to nurture adequately the totality of the human spirit." This is not at all what Bakhtin found in Rabelais (who also wrote in a time of cultural "certainty"). And you don't have to be a deconstructive historicist to find Covici's presentation naive about what lies below the surface of this humor.
When we come to the contrasting "Puritan" strain of humor, there's a different sort of problem. Examining his chosen texts, Covici builds up a set of characteristics for the Puritan connection that are rather general and occasionally shifty. His main point is that American Puritans bequeathed us a sense of mystery, a concern with inner states, and antinomian tendencies that nourished a desire for independence and, ultimately, democracy. Not much is new in that claim. Covici does, however, use close readings to show how often writers like Ward and Wise employed vernacular characters to develop, or at least to give a vernacular social cast to, these "American" tendencies. When it came to vernacular language, however, these writers condescended nearly as much as their British cousins. This is an important observation, and Covici finds the same contrast of vernacular value vs. genteel language in Franklin's presentation of "Speech of Polly Baker." Moving forward historically, it shows up in Emerson, in Melville's "Paradise of Bachelors" and "Tartarus of Maids," and as late as Nick Carraway's narration of The Great Gatsby. While it seems to me that Covici oversells the originality of his insight into this ambivalence in our literature, he nevertheless employs it to tease insightful readings out of some familiar works.
When Covici places Mark Twain into his model of intellectual history, the initial focus is again on "ambivalence." This is hardly a new idea, and Covici starts with the Whittier birthday dinner, which Richard Lowry recently has called the primal scene of Twain criticism. Covici's main interest at the dinner, however, is William Dean Howells's introduction of Twain, assuring the audience that his friend met the evening's standards of high seriousness. Covici puts a slightly different spin on the dinner by casting the genteel audience as representatives of a British, Anglican tradition of reason and propriety. This enables him then to showcase some important original research in colonial period Anglican sermons preached in England. Looking at sermons preached on special occasions such as the anniversaries of the execution of Charles I and the restoration of Charles II, Covici discovers a rhetoric of divine special mission that seems virtually indistinguishable from the City on the Hill pronouncements we have long assumed to be distinctive to American Puritans. This is a surprise, and it sets a new context for the close readings of American Puritan writers in the chapter that follows. Beyond that, however, Covici doesn't really know what to make of his discovery: he lacks (as do I) the sophistication in Reformation theology that could unpack what is obviously a very complicated system of belief and rhetoric. Close readings of Covici's kind will hack us only so far into this thicket. Nevertheless, he has noticed something important, which has the potential to alter significantly our understanding of the American sense of specialness.
Pascal Covici entered the academic profession at a time when thinking about Puritan origins of the American self was dominated by Perry Miller (rather than by Sacvan Bercovich, whose important work is barely mentioned in this book and not listed in the bibliography). Covici's model of parallel traditions moving through American intellectual history from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries--with one strain seeming to be weaker and even apparently disappearing from time to time, only to burst forth in a glorious efflorescence--is similar to Perry Miller's classic formulation, "From Edwards to Emerson." Covici wants to get from Nathaniel Ward to Mark Twain. Since his method of reading provides only a thin grounding of theological and intellectual history, I can't say that the grand design of Humor and Revelation in American Literature succeeds. The conclusion is flat: "To laugh . . . suggests a distancing, a sudden change of perspective. What should be of supreme importance shrinks for a moment." What a reader will remember is not this sort of formulation, humane as it is, but Covici's frequent, more modest insights about specific works. The extraordinary attentiveness of Covici's readings provides many rewards. Looking at two ends of his historical span, for example, we discover Twain-like vernacular impulses in Nathaniel Ward's Simple Cobbler of Aggawam, and Ward-like confusions over propriety in Tom Sawyer Abroad, written well after the assumed triumph of the vernacular in Twain's work.
Both Americanists and Twain scholars will profit from this book. Well written and reader-friendly (though skimpy on references, especially to recent criticism) it is also a good recommendation for serious undergraduates. Humor and Revelation in American Literature brings a distinguished academic career to a fitting, though too early, conclusion.