Michelson, Bruce. Mark Twain on the Loose: A Comic Writer and the American Self.
Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1995.
Pp. 269. Notes, bibliography, index.
Cloth. $45.00. ISBN 0-87023-966-x.
Paper, 6" x 9-1/4". $16.95. ISBN 0-87023-967-8.

The following review appeared 20 August 1996 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1996.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed by:

Steven Brykman
University of Massachusetts
Amherst, MA

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Although the cover photo of Mark Twain naked from the waist up surely is intended to boost sales, it is of no consequence. The book does not need it. With the exception of a couple of brief troublesome spots, Michelson's exploration of "a troublemaker side of Mark Twain, focusing on his delight in subverting the ground rules for literary art and all definitions of the self" is worth reading. Michelson's central idea is easily summarized: Twain's writing often expresses "a drive for absolute liberation" from all social conventions of identity, from psychological confinements, even from the limitations of the imagination and the artistic voice that energizes Twain's work and the characters living within it. Michelson's text chronicles Twain's drive for liberation, and explores how it intensified with each stage of Twain's life.

With this nearly all-encompassing text, Michelson chronologically takes on early speeches and pieces (most notably "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,"), The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer Abroad, Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians, The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, "Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven," The Mysterious Stranger, A Romance, "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," Pudd'nhead Wilson, "Those Extraordinary Twins," Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Christian Science, "The Great Dark," and "Which Was It?"--an exhaustive list, to be sure.

Often, we Twainiacs like to look at an overly-intellectualized thing and ask ourselves how we think Twain would have mocked it. Michelson does the same, and consequently tends to fall into a recurring pattern of presentation, analysis, and apology. In his effort to explain a joke and still allow the reader to laugh at it, Michelson, like the Fitzgerald quotation he references, tries to "coexist with [his] own negation." Fortunately, Michelson recognizes the ludicrousness of attempting "a systematic reading of Mark Twain's art as systematically against system" and fears his attempts to "settle" issues about Twain will only limit the reader's experience, something Michelson feels is akin to "an act of cultural vandalism."

In the opening nine pages, Michelson writes in generalities, raising Twain to the level of a deity: "and if the Face has reigned through most of this century, then the Name stays a cultural mantra." Reading this section, I found myself forgetting Twain was subject to mortality. This turns out to be part of Michelson's plan, however, for at the end of the text, the ironic sadness of Twain's last years jars the reader's previous ideas of Twain's divinity.

At first, I'm on Michelson's side as he criticizes critics and declares his intention to remain true to Twain's wild, uncontainable humor and his "rambunctious barbarism, spontaneity, changefulness, insouciance, and anarchy," and to support Twain's "war against convention . . . not just against sentimental and romantic tropes, but even against the seriousness of literary intention."

But does he mean it? Indeed, when Michelson starts defining "or rather dedefining humor," I smell so many whoppers I'm thinking he's being sponsored by Burger King: "As in the astrophysics of the Big Bang, the instant when the universe both blew up and began, an exploding universe of laughter might look immensely different, depending on what nanosecond you choose for a glimpse." And this leads to Michelson's concluding definition of humor, which is anything but earth-shattering (as he readily admits): "humor as a subversion of seriousness."

Though he's assigned himself the dreaded task of explaining jokes, Michelson raises the right issues; for example, perhaps what Twain's humor does most of all is subvert the expectations of subversion. Michelson introduces "The Petrified Man" in his opening chapter, and this is what the book is really about--the petrification of the spirit, of identity, of self. Michelson sometimes says things that seem obvious, but only because they are things we might wish we had thought of ourselves. In this case, that Twain's petrified man "subverts any reading" and its stone-faced unresponsiveness necessarily prevents us from figuring out what it means--which is exactly what Michelson tells us it means.

Michelson's examples of the "Whittier Birthday Speech of December 1877" and the "Plymouth Rock" address form a perfect pair. Michelson's explanation of why one speech bombed and the other 'killed' (when both speeches appear equally venomous on the surface) sheds light on the development of Twain's humor, specifically on how Twain perfected his art of whopper-telling. This is material worthy of its own book--a successful examination of how self-deprecation enhances humor. Michelson explains "the put-on" in language that would make Groucho proud, and without spoiling any of Twain's original punch-lines, either.

When Michelson jumps abruptly to his next topic--"frogs"--we can be thankful that, at least, we have a writer who is willing to admit he's not sure what's so funny about "The Celebrated Jumping Frog": "one can read long in the commentary without learning quite why the American public found this story so transcendently funny." So Michelson turns to other matters. He considers "Jumping Frog" in its historical context, sets it beside other Southwestern humor pieces, and raises it up as a "Southwestern meta-tale"--all to no end. As clever as Michelson proves Twain's story to be, he fails to explain what makes it funny. But this isn't Michelson's fault. He interprets the daylights out of the thing. He does the best he, or anybody, could do. In the end, he is forced to question the "idiocies of interpretation," and concludes that the subversion must be of discourse itself. However, Michelson does manage to pull a central message from the story that jibes with his own thesis: that an immobilized frog filled with quail-shot is symbolic of the stagnant psyche Twain so reviled.

In "Fool's Paradise," the second chapter, Michelson, not surprisingly, examines the travel books as critiques of culture and as escapes from the conventions of identity and storytelling. His reading of The Innocents Abroad, provides valuable historical commentary surrounding the text and reveals much about the Twain mind. Michelson discusses Roughing It's Wild West as a metaphor for the "liberation from confinements of cultural identity," while simultaneously explaining Twain's various gag strategies and showing how each does or doesn't fit the traditional patterns of a put-on. For instance, the classic Twain gag line "Is he dead?" is integral to Michelson's central thesis for two reasons: the gag performer must erase his own identity by playing stupid, while the gag line itself implies the subject's loss of identity and literal petrification (rigor mortis).

Michelson's analysis becomes increasingly psychological as he considers Twain's fixation with death in the travel narratives. Dead folk do indeed fill these books, and Michelson is correct in interpreting the graveyards of The Innocents Abroad as intended to "give Mark Twain a firmer right to profess exhaustion or numbness in Jerusalem." All this talk of corpses is numbing, and prepares the reader for Twain's visit to the site of the Resurrection. Such is Twain's motive behind the endless put-ons, according to Michelson, all of which ultimately allow Twain to declare the whole place a fake, a put-on. Yes, Michelson strays from his central thesis in treating Innocents Abroad, but only slightly, and forgivably so, for the material here elucidates Twain's belief in the notion of "incongruous, crazy playfulness as a stay against intolerable truth."

At this point in the text, Michelson re-introduces us to a new Mark Twain, a Twain who, after Roughing It, was "cured" of truth and reality. Michelson's coverage of these travel books bypasses discussion about how much of what Twain wrote actually happened. He claims instead that such issues are irrelevant, and weaves notions of truth and identity together. Michelson asserts that the important thing is that Twain intentionally provides us with a break from our inescapable tendency to distinguish fiction from truth.

One cannot help but enjoy Michelson's propensity for admitting the shortcomings of his own techniques, the guilt he feels at restricting Twain's work so that it conforms to his own limiting themes. But he needn't feel guilty. Michelson broadens our vision of Twain's transformation from free spirit to frozen artist as it is reflected in successive texts. Michelson picks telling Twain moments to prove his point, tying together a wild, liberating avalanche ride from Roughing It, with its end result in A Tramp Abroad--a man frozen in ice-- in an effort to illuminate the shiftings of Twain's psyche. In Tramp Abroad, Michelson shows us a Twain narrator who is "over-the-hill when it comes to real adventuring, or real experimentation with identity . . . trapped, by money, laziness and world-wide repute."

In Following the Equator, Michelson proclaims Twain to be (in Twain's own words) a "finished man," unhappy with his completeness, his habits, his hardened persona. Sickened by his own petrification, then, Twain fills his book with disease, cholera, lepers, and funerals. And as if Twain became sickened with being sick, Michelson claims Life on the Mississippi is, for Twain, a rediscovery of his former self, a putting aside of his present petrification, of what he felt he had already become--"an immovable fixture among the other rocks of New England."

Chapter three deftly covers Twain's "Quarrel with Romance" in Huck Finn. But this is not the romance we are used to. Michelson's romance is not only delusionary, but also a threat to freedom and dignity. This chapter is the most incisive for the manner in which Michelson examines Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer as they lived and matured in the mind of their creator. Michelson even dares to consider Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as "companion novels, and even (heaven forbid!) as parts of one miscellaneous and uneven tale," and to trace both characters through Twain's works (published and unpublished) to determine how consistently Twain portrayed, and thus how personally invested he was in, the development of each character. But Michelson doesn't stop here. He boldly lists Tom's good points, such as they are, through The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer Abroad, Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy, and Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians, and never loses sight of his goal: to highlight incidents of escape--from plot and from the "tyrannies" of both romantic and realistic narrative.

Michelson's criticism of Twain's lesser-known Tom Sawyer adventures is as biting as his praise of Huckleberry Finn is laudatory: "thin gruel . . . Shameless exploitation, then, of Mark Twain's own best characters." Happily, he finally concludes that a valid reading of Huckleberry Finn requires an exclusive study of that text alone.

The second half of "The Quarrel with Romance" focuses exclusively on Huck Finn and "the disaster of becoming." Michelson drops Mark Twain from the discussion, claiming that he fears the dangers of probing too deeply into such a book for clues about the working of Twain's mind. We should be skeptical of this assertion. Michelson's book, thus far, is largely an exploration into the Twain mind, and when (in these pages and in others) his criticism becomes purely textual, Twain's presence is missed.

But if he fears probing deeply into Huck Finn, easily the densest of all Twain works, why does he so thoroughly interrogate lesser texts? Michelson struggles to find meaning in Twain's yearning for "the ultimate escape" in texts he later deems "pointless . . . a marvelous failure." For Michelson, The Prince and the Pauper offers notions of "perpetual nonarrival" as a means of avoiding petrification. And Michelson makes those who thought A Connecticut Yankee was one of Twain's simpler farces think twice. According to Michelson, the book signifies Twain's own declaration of war with all enslaving practices, whether religious, social, political, or self-inflicted.

Chapter four, "The Wilderness of Ideas," covers the most unsettling period of the writer's career, for it follows Twain's work after 1899 and illustrates how his notions of identity dissolved into absurdity. Michelson fights the traditional classification of Twain's later years as "a closing act in an epic life-tragedy," and instead sees in these years Twain's continuing struggle to resist being categorized and bound by his work and by his public persona.

Michelson refuses to mourn the gloominess that dominated Twain's final writings and believes the turmoil in Twain's life provided the integrity of his late writing. Try as Michelson might, the grief of Twain's late life, transparently visible in his own writings, overshadows any academic concepts of identity Michelson works to emphasize in these dark stories. Michelson makes a strong case, though, especially with regard to "Those Extraordinary Twins," in which Twain annihilates the notion of self-identity by portraying a character with two personalities lurking in the same physical being.

However, Michelson's desire to examine even the most obscure of Twain's works for material on identity backfires with regard to "Joan of Arc" and Christian Science. As hard as Michelson struggles to compliment Joan for her ability to escape "selfhood," even he can't help but criticize the superficiality of the writing and wonder why Twain considered the book his best novel. Michelson's desire to be all-inclusive continues to go awry when he troubles to force similar meaning from Christian Science, a text which when it "admires" Mary Baker Eddy does so only facetiously.

Overall, Bruce Michelson's demonstration of how various Twain stories give voice to the writer's own yearning to elude petrification is a valuable contribution to the ever-dynamic study of Mark Twain's humor and rebelliousness. Michelson may rely a bit too heavily, though, on a central image of Twain as the "American Vandal" who rejects intellectualism and petrified men (Emerson, for example), ignoring the possibility of Mark Twain as the rebel who isn't rejecting, but is intellectually slumming--an actor, assuming a role.