Messent, Peter. Mark Twain.
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
(Modern Novelists.) Pp. ix + 235. Includes notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, 5-1/2" x 8-3/4". $29.95.
ISBN 0-312-16479-3.

The following review appeared 18 August 1997 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 1997 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed by:

Jim Zwick <>
Syracuse University

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In his new book, Mark Twain, published in the Modern Novelists series, Peter Messent addresses a problem that has been around for as long as Twain's books: How do you interpret the writings of an author who excelled at projecting multiple and often contradictory images of himself while being able to masterfully clothe the most serious social commentary within a joke? In 1907, during his trip to England to receive an honorary degree from Oxford University, Twain ran into George Bernard Shaw who was at the London train station to meet someone else. "Do you know, these pressmen were asking me before the train came in if I thought you were really serious in writing 'The Jumping Frog,'" Shaw told Twain after they were introduced. They both "laughed heartily," according to the Westminster Gazette, but the difficulty of interpreting Twain that the reporters faced has not diminished through the years.

Although Mark Twain is primarily organized chronologically, Messent deviates from that organization to present an array of readings of "The Stolen White Elephant" in the first chapter. He does this to demonstrate the difficulty of pinning Twain down: "The relationship here between the obvious and the hidden is peculiarly unstable. I would argue that the stress in this text on such instability, incongruity, and shifting perspective, provides a paradigm for Twain's work as a whole" (2). In concluding this introductory chapter, Messent states his purpose to discuss "the generic instabilities in Twain's texts, the anxieties about the status of the self in his writing, and (a related subject) the way in which this writing engages the cultural dialogues of its times. . . . I pay particular attention to Twain's representation of race, of capitalist processes and assumptions, and of the larger impact of modernisation" (19).

Before reviewing how Messent does this, it is important to note the stated purpose of the Modern Novelists series (published in the U.K. by Macmillan and by St. Martin's Press in the United States). In his "General Editor's Preface," Norman Page states that the series is designed for use by people who are not intimately familiar with the author's entire works and their background, and that while "essential" information about the author's life is to be expected, "the emphasis is not upon 'background' or generalisations but upon close examination of important texts" selected to convey the overall nature of the author's work (ix).

Messent's Mark Twain, then, is intended to use close readings of selected texts to introduce the author, his works, and his importance rather than providing a thorough overview of Twain's life, times, and writings. The book is intended to be neither a comprehensive literary biography nor even a complete critical review of all of his writings. Although some might question the relative scarcity of short stories and essays in the works Messent chose to include, his selections do include what most would consider "the major works," and his close analysis of them develops several arguments that make this book worthwhile reading for the Twain specialist as well as its intended introductory audience. Messent successfully addresses both audiences by relying upon jargon-free language and clear prose, by introducing literary theory where it is most helpful in understanding specific texts, and by carefully cross-referencing specific points developed in discussions of various texts.

While reading the first chapter on "The Stolen White Elephant," I kept remembering the encounter between Twain and Shaw and the reporters' question, and thinking how useful the chapter would be with a class of students wanting to know what Twain "really meant." Messent presents convincing but conflicting readings of various elements of the story to show the difficulty of assigning authorial intent and of using standard (theoretical) assumptions about the relationship, for example, between humor and social conventions. What is the white elephant? What does it mean--especially when situated in a country in which it doesn't belong, but where it can't be found even though its size should make it stand out to anyone? Messent demonstrates how Twain "leaves us unsure of the base from which we are meant to be operating--unsure of our ground" (15-16). Like the reporters in 1907, we are left wondering if we've interpreted the work correctly, if we got the joke or if the joke was on us. This chapter works very well as an introduction by presenting the problem of interpretation very concretely, by demonstrating why it is necessary to "keep both eyes open" when reading Mark Twain.

Beginning with the next chapter on The Innocents Abroad, Messent uses readings of major texts to introduce Twain's use of genre (travel writings, realism, adventure, fantasy), the historical contexts and historical importance of the books, and the many tensions and contradictions within them. In each chapter, he develops arguments about the specific texts by placing them within their historical contexts and by presenting both his own and alternative interpretations. This underscores the opening chapter's point about the "instability, incongruity, and shifting perspective" in Twain's works while at the same time providing a useful overview of the critical literatures that have developed about the books themselves. Not only does he cite a diverse array of recent major and minor studies of Twain and his works, but numerous books that have made notable contributions to our theoretical understanding of nineteenth and early twentieth century literature.

Theoretical perspectives are introduced so smoothly that I expect that even the least prepared students will have no trouble understanding them. In the first chapter, for example, Marcel Gutwirth's Laughing Matter: An Essay on the Comic (1993) is used extensively to provide theoretical perspectives on comic elements of the story. Rather than devoting the opening section of the chapter to theory, though, these are introduced throughout, almost transparently, as they relate to specific passages or interpretations of the story. In the chapter on A Connecticut Yankee, Martha Banta's Taylored Lives: Narrative Productions in the Age of Taylor, Veblen, and Ford (1993) is used as the basis for a more prolonged discussion of representations of capitalism, industrial organization and machines. Here, too, sufficient background is provided and the relevance to the text is clear.

Throughout the book Messent examines how Twain was influenced by and addressed the processes of capitalist modernization that were taking place worldwide at an accelerated pace during the late 1800s and early 1900s; and Twain's confrontations with issues of race are examined in the chapters on Roughing It, Huckleberry Finn and Puddn'head Wilson (while noting that Twain deliberately avoided the subject in Tom Sawyer). Because he is sensitive to the multiplicity of possible readings of Twain's works, what emerges by the end of the book is a carefully developed and nuanced interpretation of Twain's relationship to the historical and cultural developments of his times. We get the sense that the "instability, incongruity, and shifting perspective" of Twain's books was the product of an author whose own ideas were often just as unstable and conflicting. He critiqued an economic system that he wanted to be successful within, and he looked back to the golden years of childhood while recognizing (and exposing) the racial oppression that made that life what it was. By focusing on these issues throughout the course of the book, Messent shows how Twain's ideas evolved and how he experimented with different genres to find one best suited to their expression. He interprets the later writings as symptomatic of growing contradictions in Twain's ideas about society and human agency. What had earlier produced instabilities and contradictions within the texts now made them unfinishable as he was "caught between themes and philosophies" (174) that could not be reconciled.

This final chapter on the later writings also serves as the conclusion for the book as a whole. Messent uses it to show how the tensions within the earlier writings culminated after the mid-1890s, but I would have appreciated a more formal concluding chapter with a broader, less text-specific perspective on the development of Twain's works. At the end of the introductory chapter, Messent writes, "I argue that the anxieties about fictional form, and about the status of the self, the workings of society, and the patternings of history, which [Twain's] texts reveal, make his writing--and the direction it came to take--central to any consideration of this period" (21). His examinations of capitalist processes, modernization, and race are insightful and intriguing, and by placing Twain's writings within their historical contexts Messent does an admirable job of developing that argument, but it seems to be left hanging at the end without a summary assessment of their influence on Twain's career as a whole. While individual works are shown to be central to the periods in which they were written, a separate concluding chapter might have more fully developed that final point about Twain's career as a whole.

I expect that this book will be very useful in the classroom, both for the overview of Twain's works that it provides and the method of the presentation itself. While it is an obvious book to consider for seminars on Twain, I also highly recommend that selected chapters be considered for other classes. The first chapter on the problems of interpreting "The Stolen White Elephant," for example, would be an ideal essay for many introductory classes and mid-level writing seminars, and the chapter on A Connecticut Yankee, with its discussion of Taylorism, would be useful in classes on literatures of industrialization and/or the Gilded Age.


General Editor's Preface

  1. Keeping Both Eyes Open: "The Stolen White Elephant"
  2. Old World Travel: The Innocents Abroad
  3. Roughing It and the American West
  4. Tom Sawyer and American Cultural Life: Anxieties and Accomodations
  5. Racial Politics in Huckleberry Finn
  6. Fantasy and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
  7. Severed Connections: Puddn'head Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins
  8. The Late Works: Incompletion, Instability, Contradiction
Select Bibliography