The following review appeared 2 January 1997 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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University of Oregon
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In lucid, engaging prose, Jason Gary Horn interprets "the later Mark Twain against William James," arguing that the disgruntled metaphysics of Twain's final years constitute a quasi-Jamesian "religious psychology of the divided self." More specifically, Horn tests the status of independent thought and action within that psychology by examining the pragmatic underpinnings of three texts, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, and No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger. Moving deftly between Twain's late fiction and James's contemporaneous inquiries into religious psychology and exceptional mental states, Horn situates Twain's most eccentric literary performances at the fringes of academic philosophical discourse, broadening our understanding of the complex intellectual milieu in which both men participated. After locating Twain firmly within the context of late nineteenth-century movements in philosophy, science, and pseudo-science, Horn offers compelling interpretations of the enigmatic dream writings in his effort to establish what he considers a side of Mark Twain that has traditionally eluded critics. The Jamesian conceptual vocabulary, he explains, "has made such an enabling move possible."
For all Horn's ingenuity and erudition, however, it remains questionable whether such a move is really feasible or desirable. The two men undeniably shared what Horn describes as a "religio- pragmatic perspective," and that perspective certainly informed their active participation in the same late nineteenth-century debates over such matters as free will versus determinism, the nature and authority of the conscious self, the legitimacy of psychical research, and the phenomena of dreams and faith. Moreover, it is hard not to relish the parallel between Twain's incessant punning on the relative "value" of truthful statements (in The Innocents Abroad, for example: "I have tried to get this statement off at par here, but . . . I have been obliged to negotiate it at a 50 percent discount") and James's famous characterization of beliefs as "so much experience funded." Pragmatism, as Constance Rourke opined, may have emerged as a formal theoretical project at Harvard toward the end of the nineteenth century, but its ruling tenets are curiously anticipated in traditional American folklore and humor. Add to these vague intimations of intellectual kinship between the Harvard professor and the Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope the fact that the two men met several times, described one another warmly in correspondence, joined the same political party, and participated in the same professional society, and it is difficult to understand why, as Lou Budd observes in a dust jacket blurb, "nobody has linked Twain and James in more than a few generalizing sentences." For all its good intentions, Mark Twain and William James: Crafting a Free Self reveals why.
Horn's effort to move beyond "generalizing sentences" to an authoritative account of the Twain/James relationship operates on two levels. On one hand, he argues that "the two directly influenced one another," and that this reciprocal influence grew out of "a continuing personal interchange over time." On another level, aside from the question of influence, Horn proposes to offer a revisionist reading of Twain's later years by "using James as a mediating agent or cultural reflector." James's writings on psychology and religious experience, in other words, "provide us with the necessary vocabulary for interpreting the complex and often unexpected turns of Twain's mind and texts." As a notoriously unsystematic thinker--so the argument goes--Twain struggled unsuccessfully to articulate a theory of divided personality, with the result that critics have tended to dismiss his late writings as the products of "a kind of literary senility." By showing that Twain's late fiction amounts to a clumsy fictional reiteration of Jamesian psychology, Horn intends to defend Mark Twain as a "serious thinker," "who grew in imaginative strength during the last two decades of his life." James's writings, according to Horn, "will provide us with the necessary plumb line for sounding the voice of Mark Twain, for ascertaining the depth of his intellect."
Horn pursues these twin projects with flair and conviction, but both are fraught with difficulties. On the question of reciprocal influence, he can produce no new evidence about the Twain/James personal relationship, and thus must ask the existing evidence to do some very heavy and awkward lifting. The two men met for dinner in Florence in 1892, and James later wrote that he had seen Twain "a couple of times" in Florence. The substance of their conversations is unknown, but Horn hints, without further support, that "the fraternizing at Florence" may have inspired a period of creative rejuvenation in both writers. They dined again in New York in 1907, after which James described Twain as "a dear little genius," "only good for monologue, in his old age, or for dialogue at best." Writing to his brother Henry from New York, William also mentioned dining out regularly during his visit, leading Horn to venture the dubious conclusion that "surely a few of these meals were shared with the author."
If Twain and James attended numerous dinners together, and if serious conversation took place during those dinners, one might expect to find evidence of substantive intellectual exchange in their correspondence. But again the evidence cannot support the weight of Horn's argument. James's letters to Twain are lost, and Twain's to James--reproduced here, one wonders why, in an appendix--mention nothing about either man's work, but instead catalogue the virtues of osteopathy and Plasmon. Twain did read The Principles of Psychology and at least one third of The Varieties of Religious Experience, and Horn's useful study of his marginalia in those volumes would seem to support Susan Gillman's entirely plausible claim in Dark Twins that James's work nurtured Twain's emerging theories about complex human personality. But there is apparently no evidence of a more direct personal influence, unless one accepts Horn's imaginative hypothesis that the number forty-four in Twain's No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger may have been gleaned from James's discussion in Principles about Felida X, a patient whose suffering from divided personality became acute "at the age of forty-four" (emphasis Horn's).
If the naming of 44 does represent Twain's homage to William James, the case for reciprocal influence is even more sketchy. Horn claims that in the 1896 Lowell Lectures James "praised Twain for his brilliant use of subliminal power and 'first class originality of intellect.'" The lecture on "Genius," according to Horn, "emphasized respect for Twain's work and recognized his extraordinary creative insight." But the creative insight in this case seems to be Horn's, for in the passage he cites James merely mentions Mark Twain in a long list of geniuses, including Jay Gould, Rockerfeller, Sarah Bernhardt, Washington, and Rudyard Kipling, among many others. There is no effort to single out Twain's work, nor is there any suggestion that his "use of subliminal power" is any more "brilliant" than that of Bonaparte or Pagannini, two other "geniuses" who, according to this argument, must also have exerted "direct influence" on James's thinking. Horn again uses the Lowell lectures to overstate his case when he claims that James "defended Twain and Tolstoy as artistic geniuses whose 'psychopathic peculiarities' or 'morbid' temperaments served to pluralize experience." Yet James mentions neither Twain nor Tolstoy in the passage quoted here, and there is absolutely no indication that "he may well have been thinking of Twain," as Horn claims, when he described Tolstoy's "pathological melancholy" elsewhere in the Lectures.
This highly questionable use of "evidence" has surprisingly little bearing on Horn's larger revisionist project, for he is wisely not committed to the idea that Twain cribbed his psychological theories from James's writings. In fact, his choice of the 1890 Principles as a "plumb line" for sounding the depths of Huckleberry Finn, and of the 1902 Varieties as an interpretive guide to Joan of Arc, necessarily treats the issue of direct influence as irrelevant. But serious problems persist. To begin with, Horn frames his revisionist inquiry against the bogey man of Twain criticism: Hamlin Hill, Henry Nash Smith, James M. Cox, Leslie Fiedler, Justin Kaplan, William Gibson, and others, are all found wanting for their failure to appreciate the "seriousness" of Twain's late work. Horn sustains this fabulous generalization by quoting very selectively from these critics and by neglecting the work of others, like Susan Gillman, Michael Kiskis, and Randall Knoper, who have recently taken Twain's late work very seriously.
More problematic, however, is the implication that Mark Twain's "seriousness" can best be appreciated by translating his fiction into a Jamesian "vocabulary." Horn's interpretive strategy throughout the book involves reading Twain's psychological fiction "in James's terms," so that, for example, "in No. 44, Twain fictionally reiterates the point James continually argues in Varieties, that [the] phenomenon of experiencing visitations from within, even if the visitor appears to be Satan himself, 'connects itself with the life of the subconscious, so- called,' and chiefly consist[s] in the straightening out of the inner self." These are James's words, employed to underscore the "seriousness" of Twain's fragmentary Mysterious Stranger manuscripts. But this approach inevitably begs the question: is Twain really in need of such translation? In the absence of a case for creative influence, what is to be gained by grafting a clinical vocabulary onto Mark Twain's most experimental efforts in fiction? Can't we appreciate the "seriousness" of his imaginative writing on its own terms, while at the same time entertaining Bruce Michelson's assertion in Mark Twain on the Loose that the essence of Twain's art lies in its unrelenting "subversion of seriousness"? It seems to me, after reading this compelling but problematic book, that until we can sustain such a paradox in our readings of Twain, we are unprepared to make sense of his complicated relation to American pragmatism and, perhaps, to William James.