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The following review appeared 31 October 2008 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Twain and Alcott: Their New Paradigm
As modern readers, we expect the youth of literature to set a better example than the adults and we expect them to reform the adults with whom they interact. We read any of the Harry Potter series and revel in the hero's triumph over the malevolence of Lord Voldemort and his aunt and uncle, the Dursleys. We see Cassie in Mildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry overcome the racial prejudice of the depression era South. We even see Stanley Yelnats of Holes overcome the racial and ageist prejudice of his later twentieth century society. Each of these main characters sees the inconsistencies of adult society and seeks to change them; they seek to better their elders and themselves. However, from what or whom did this paradigm of the youthful reformer come?
Up until the mid-nineteenth century, children's books typically fit into one of two types of moralistic tales: the "ordeal tale" or the "change of heart" story. In the ordeal tale, the good child independently solves a dilemma in which he/she finds him/herself and then returns home for the reward, the boon. In contrast, the child in the "change of heart" story is not the typically good child but is a child who must, because of some deficiency in character, reform him/herself in order to survive until the story's end. Both of these story types fit into the genre of literature classified as the bildungsroman -- the coming-of-age story -- and they were the standard for children's literature until the mid-nineteenth century.
In Twain, Alcott, and the Birth of the Adolescent Reform Novel, Roberta Seelinger Trites addresses the changes to the bildungsroman that Mark Twain and Louisa May Alcott initiated. She then provides the connections that historically, ideologically, and socially link the writings of these two authors. The adolescents of Twain and Alcott's fiction, rather than reforming themselves as do the children of the "change of heart" stories, effect changes in the adults of the world in which they live. Trites organizes her book around the connections that the two authors and their contemporary societies share, while she also integrates into her argument the disparities between Twain and Alcott's worlds that separate their views and experiences.
Trites begins by giving limited personal and literary biographies of each author, noting both their similar experiences and societies along with the divergent occurrences and details. Trites provides the necessary background information to understand both the influences on the two authors and the historical events that fashioned nineteenth century post-bellum America.
One of the major strengths of Trite's book is the detail in which it describes both the similarities and differences between the two iconic American authors. She begins their biographies with the observation, "The central irony of the relationship between Samuel Clemens and Louisa May Alcott lies not in the authors' differences, but in their frequently ignored similarities" (1). Trites details the aspects in which the seemingly contradictory authors actually parallel and mirror each other. While Clemens was born and raised in the frontier regions of Missouri and Alcott in New England, each experienced similar familial occurrences and tragedies. Both had youths that were "truncated by family tragedy" (7), both lost siblings early in life, and both suffered economic hardships that caused them to feel responsible for the care of their families. While Trites addresses the obvious similarities of the influence of slavery and the Civil War, she also proposes that less publicized factors within their shared society equally impacted each author. One of the most curious and intriguing "connections" is that each had "mutual disregard" for the other. When the "Concord Public Library in Massachusetts had banned [Adventures of Huckleberry Finn] from the library, . . . Clemens responded with characteristic wit . . . that the library had doubled the sales of the book" (3). Alcott then responded, "If Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses, he had best stop writing for them" (3). Trites carries this mutual disregard and competitiveness throughout the remainder of her text to emphasize the disconnections of the two seemingly like authors.
Trites presents her thesis in chapter 2, "The Metaphor of the Adolescent Reformer: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Little Women." Mark Twain changed "boys' books" first in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as he depicts a character who is not "good" but is acceptable in his "badness." In contrast, through Huck Finn Twain creates the anti-hero who is not acceptable in any aspect of his personality and behavior, but who becomes the impetus of change within the adult society he inhabits. Twain changes the existing bildungsromane, the "youth-who-needs-to-grow . . . on the path of maturation that involves his own evolution into the romantic 'notion' of the self-aware and Other-oriented individual" (41) into Huck whose "moral crisis . . . is necessitated by a national crisis of morals" (42). Trites then identifies the continued definition of the adolescent reform novel for Twain as being "as much about the need for a nation to mature as it is about a boy's need to mature" (42). Alcott also alters the bildungsromane in Jo who is "something of a transcendent character, a self-reliant nonconformist in the best Emersonian tradition . . . [she] is a character who serves as a metaphor for her culture's need to change" (50-51). The characters of both Huck and Jo articulate differing aspects of needed growth for the nation. For her character Jo, "Alcott's metaphor [identifies] . . . the need for Americans to develop gender equality, [while] Huckleberry Finn serves as Twain's metaphor for the need for Americans to outgrow their racism" (50).
Trites also examines the similarities in Twain's and Alcott's views on philosophy, Christianity, sexuality, psychology. Through epistolary texts and the published works of each author, Trites traces the influences of Protestantism and transcendentalism. While each author had a dislike for one of these two philosophies (Twain for transcendentalism, Alcott for traditional Protestantism) the combination of the two ideologies propelled both authors to create the adolescent reformer who sees the need for change, first in the adult society, and sometimes within themselves. Additionally, Trites identifies the shared belief of the two authors that public education "is the most powerful tool for reform available to the American public" (70). Trites uses The Prince and the Pauper and An Old Fashioned Girl respectively to delineate their authors' mutual concerns for education and its reform.
One additional "similar difference," if I may use this oxymoron, is Twain's and Alcott's individual views on gender and sexuality. Traditionally, the female's literary genre was designated as the "domestic" novel, while the male literary genre was the "action" novel. Trites explains that "both authors have been identified with the gendered patterns of boys' stories being about adventure and girls' stories being about family" (112), but she adds that these prescriptive genderized texts further cause "their ambivalence about writing for youth" (112). Despite their shared ambivalence, Trites reiterates, "Twain and Alcott were instrumental in defining adolescent literature in the United States as something that assumes youth are interested in and capable of enacting social change" (113).
In the final chapter "Adolescent Reform Novels: The Legacy of Twain and Alcott," Trites concludes by addressing the continued and ongoing influence that each author and their novels have had on modern American literature. She discusses numerous familiar texts that have followed Twain's creation of the "American pattern of bildungsroman as a picaresque: follow a boy on a trip and you'll follow him as he grows" (144). His literary descendents include Catcher in the Rye and The Outsiders. Trites also includes Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird in her role as an innocent narrator as a descendant of Twain's influence. Alcott has also established a distinct legacy with her character of Jo creating "both the quintessential sister novel about female community and the prototypical künstlerroman or the female writer" (146), whose descendants include Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Anne of Greene Gables, and Harriet the Spy.
One consistent and persistent concern of literary scholars has been the question of audience for Twain's texts. Is the intended audience the adolescent or the adult? Likewise, the literary scholars of Louisa May Alcott (and the author herself) debate this same question -- for whom is Alcott's text intended? As she concludes her book, Trites returns to this question of audience that has plagued the two authors and their readers. Trites concludes that much of the American canon includes texts that "involve adolescents or young adults struggling to understand their role in society in ways that imply that change is at least desirable" (161). The texts she subsequently lists contain novels generally considered for the dual audiences of adolescents and adults. The key factor and cohesive trait, she concludes, is that the adolescent protagonist reflects the "author's idealism . . . . and [while] not all of the literature of adolescence descends from Huck and Jo, much of it . . . belongs to traditions influenced by the strain of romantic evangelism that permeates American literature" (161).
Reflecting on the continuing dilemma of adolescent literature's place in the American literary canon, Trites arrives at the same conclusion, hopefully, that most literary scholars do -- we cannot ignore adolescent literature without risking the failure to understand the complexity and interrelatedness of all American literature.