Copyright © 2004 Mark Twain Forum
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Joseph A. Alvarez
Emeritus, Central Piedmont Community College
Charlotte, North Carolina
Stephen Railton's preface states that he circled around two questions when he was writing his short introduction to Mark Twain: "What did Twain's books mean to his contemporaries? And what did being 'Mark Twain' mean to Sam Clemens?" (ix). His answers appear in his short, but insightful, chapters examining six of Clemens's major works: Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and Pudd'nhead Wilson (including "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg"). An appendix discusses Railton's well-known (to Twain scholars, at least) web site, "Mark Twain in His Times."
The book succeeds admirably in achieving the goal of the subtitle. In one hundred
thirty-two pages, readers at many different levels from mature middle schoolers
to scholars and the general public can learn something about Twain they probably
did not know. For example, in his discussion of Huck Finn, Railton aptly
notes the metafictional concept of Twain's strategy of using a marginal character
from a previous work as the narrator and principal character of a new one; he
also claims that Huck Finn essentially rewrites Tom Sawyer. Discussing
"Tom's resurrection at his own funeral" (45) in the chapter on Tom
Sawyer, Railton asserts, "Twain acknowledges some of what it costs,
in human terms, to turn life into a show" (45). Although much of Railton's
critical commentary has a familiar ring (he does refer to other scholars' work
explicitly and implicitly), much of it also seems new, as the _Huck Finn_ example
demonstrates. From the beginning of 20th century Twain scholarship, the Twain-Clemens
dichotomy has served as basic fodder for the critical grist mill. Railton partly
answers one of his initial questions about the Twain-Clemens personality fissure
when he states about Tom Sawyer, "the novel gives us one compelling
reason to doubt that Twain himself was able completely to resolve all his anxieties
about being somebody through publically [sic] enacting a self" (47).
The Innocents Abroad chapter begins with a very brief biography leading up to the famous voyage aboard the Quaker City, including the origin of Sam Clemens's fictional persona, Mark Twain. Railton's version plays it safe by evading explaining its source: "In February, 1863, that name [Samuel Clemens] became 'Mark Twain,' when for reasons that remain unknown he decided to sign three political reports from the territorial capital of Carson City with those two words" (2). One of the first biographical "facts" most people learn about Clemens is the riverboat origin of the Twain pen name, although scholars have presented other reasonable explanations (e.g., bar order for two drinks at once, on credit, in Nevada). Railton also points out that Innocents Abroad diverges from "the typical travel book," in which "the author sets himself up as an authority," by making the Mark Twain narrator "the most innocent of the innocents abroad" (6). He further asserts that "naivete is a primary source of Twain's humor" (6) in other works as well as Innocents Abroad. Through his naivete, the narrator regularly finds himself disappointed or the butt of a joke when his expectations fall far short of reality, which "exposes not just his innocence, but also the shabbiness of the Old World" (9). Railton points out Twain's American realism context by stating that "Twain's writing explores the way people's understanding of reality is often pre-determined by the books they read: their interpretations of the world are based not on their own experience, but instead on what the textual authorities tell them is 'there'" (11). Railton avers that Twain's practice as a humorist is re-writing and as a realist "un-writing other books [so that] Innocents Abroad is both a travel book and an anti-travel book" (11).
The Roughing It chapter continues the biography and points out that although Twain's reputation began (and continued) as a westerner, he was, in fact moving to, and settling in, the east, and even more specifically among "upper class gentility" (19). The first-person protagonist of Roughing It relates his travels deeper into the west, but his experiences do not transform him into a westerner: "he is in the frontier, but not of it; among the roughs, but never one of them" (21). Much of the humor arises from the narrator's naivete about western culture, which allows jokes to be played on him. Railton likens Twain's Roughing It outsider persona to other Twain characters, including Hank Morgan (Connecticut Yankee) and "The Mysterious Stranger" (24). Calling Roughing It an anti-success story, "succeeding [only] by failing so unfailingly" (24), Railton links the ambitions of the protagonist to Twain's "hunger for fame" (24) and also to his popularity on the lecture circuit, proclaiming it "a performance for readers" that "enacts the . . . drama of self-consciousness" (26). Railton concludes by noting that Twain's west imaginatively creates a large space by sprinkling tall tales throughout the text, which, in turn, free us from the need for truth (30-31).
A few biographical details wend their way into Railton's chapter on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, including an enlightening discussion of the word "house" as used by Twain: as home, as church congregation, courtroom, and as box office for lectures, among others (32-34). He also notes the first use of the famous octagonal study overlooking the Chemung River, to which Twain escaped the family hyperactivity at Quarry Farm in Elmira, New York, to write some of his most famous works (34). The view of the river, Railton asserts, helped create the nostalgic world of Tom Sawyer, in which, according to Railton, Twain "sees the fiction of childhood as a kind of golden age" (38). In partial answer to the first of two questions Railton hoped to answer in his book (the meaning of Twain's books to his contemporaries), he suggests that the nostalgia of Tom Sawyer has been recuperative for adults and particularly useful for a nation that had recently emerged from a bloody war to begin a steady change from rural to urban over the next fifty years or so (39-40). In Railton's words, "the novel does not so much recover the past as create a myth of childhood in which readers, older readers especially, can recover a redemptive idea of the possibilities of life as an adventure" (39).
The Huck Finn chapter, as already noted, claims that the book is a re-writing of Tom Sawyer, or, more specifically, an un-writing of it. Twain tries to un-write Tom Sawyer by allowing Huck to see and experience life, rather than rely on books (which transmit received cultural norms) as most of the other characters in both novels do. But Railton also claims that Twain's intentions go awry because the ending "allows them [readers] to evade the serious questions about race, history, and society raised by the novel's earlier chapters. By satisfying their expectations, however, he effectively sells out his own story" (71). Part of his evidence involves the Edward W. Kemble illustrations, all of which portray Jim in a negative light, and all of which were approved by Twain, who personally selected Kemble to provide the illustrations. The other part of the evidence involves Twain's very successful live performances of scenes from the evasion sequence, as the ending is commonly known. "Mark Twain actually performed the ending of Huck Finn live about fifty times before over 10,000 members of his contemporary public" (66). He also wrote letters to Livy (Clemens's wife) boasting of the popularity of these performances (66).
Railton also covers much of the already existing critical ground on Twain's most infamous novel. His reading of Chapter 31, in which Huck exercises his newly acquired moral authority (in conflict with his conscience bred by social norms) and decides to "go to hell" as a consequence of his decision to help set Jim free, breaks some new ground, at least for me. As Huck contemplates sending the letter informing Miss Watson of Jim's whereabouts, he uses the word "nigger" to refer to Jim. His experience with Jim as friend humanizes a "nigger" into Jim, the fatherly figure of their mutual raft trip. Railton argues that it is not Huck's heart that conflicts with his conscience in this episode, but Huck's ability to see Jim as a fellow human being sharing an experience (61). This condensed version does not do justice to Railton's observations, but considering the voluminous critical literature about Huck Finn, I still see in this chapter something new enough to note.
Railton sees Connecticut Yankee and Pudd'nhead Wilson as a continuation of Twain's interest in public performance. He describes Connecticut Yankee as "an autobiographical parable about Twain's conflicted ambitions and frustrations as an American celebrity, a performing writer; . . . it is Twain's commentary on his own career" (76). Railton uses several passages to show that Hank Morgan seems like Tom Sawyer (and Mark Twain) in Hank's desire to perform and to be recognized for his performance (91). Noting that Twain's journal entry first describing what became Connecticut Yankee (76) was written during a lecture tour in which Twain was performing the ending of Huck Finn and promoting the novel, Railton also states that Twain read Le Morte d'Arthur and that "he and [George Washington] Cable took to calling their manager 'Sir Sagramore le Desirous'" while also using Malory's language (93). As Railton previously suggested, these performances, "like Hank's performances as Sir Boss gave the audiences what they were looking for but betrayed the truth the performer believed. It is possible. . . to see the false self Hank creates to impress the 6th century as Clemens's imaginative way of expressing his own estrangement from and frustration with the show he has been putting on as 'Mark Twain'" (94).
Oddly enough, Railton's chapter on Pudd'nhead Wilson and "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" begins with a discussion of the different possible origins of "mark twain" (96), which might explain his avoiding these possible origins earlier in the book. Here, the discussion segues into the concept of claimants and twinning, both topics of the works covered in this chapter, and both used to describe the difference between Mark Twain, the celebrity humorist, and Mark Twain, the explorer of the dark side of humanity in his later works (98). Initially, as Railton explains, Pudd'nhead Wilson "seems to be saying once and for all that 'race' is merely a social convention. . . that culture imposes on people" (102). The characters, however, and the ending of the story suggest otherwise, that "black blood," the idea that race is genetically transmitted, determines behaviors (102). As for the title character, Railton correctly claims that he earns his titular nickname in public performance (in his misinterpreted joke about owning half of the "general dog") but also becomes a popular hero through his public performance in court at the end (107).
Early in his discussion of "Hadleyburg" (also largely a public performance orchestrated by a stranger who remains offstage), Railton quotes from "The Mysterious Stranger" ("Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand."). The laughter in "Hadleyburg" displays an "apocalyptic menace in the hilarity" (110) as "the town's nineteen leading citizens are exposed as frauds and hypocrites" (111). Continuing his theme of Twain's identification with his characters in public performance, Railton states, "The stranger who exposes Hadleyburg is in part the kind of con man that Twain wrote about so often, and in part the kind of realist prophet that Twain as a writer aspired to be. . . . seen in the context of Twain's career as an entertainer Hadleyburg's performance can be read as the revenge of a humorist who has grown profoundly uneasy with his public role" (110). "Hadleyburg" also reflects Twain's increasing sense of determinism as the major force in human behavior. The Hadleyburg nineteen "say the same line, just as the narrative treats them as essentially interchangeable. . . an erasure of individuality" (112) and an indicator of hopelessness for individualism.
Railton concludes his introduction to Twain's works with a brief discussion
of What Is Man? and the erroneous reports of Twain's death, the latter
of which gave rise to Twain's famous (and often misquoted) reply that the report
was an exaggeration (115). The knowledge that Twain wrote What Is Man?
"shocked Twain's fans" (114), to whom Twain "was the entertaining
apostle of individuality" (114), instead of the author of the essay that
avowed no human could shape or direct his or her own life (114). Even though
Mark Twain (as Samuel Clemens) did die, Railton's book by its very existence
proves that Mark Twain still lives, in his works, the legacy of his life, nearly
ninety-four years after his physical demise. Mark Twain is dead. Long live Mark