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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 4 Mar 2002 11:25:46 -0600
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I am posting this review on behalf of William F. Hecker who wrote it.

- Barbara Schmidt



Quirk, Tom.  _Nothing Abstract: Investigations in the American Literary
Imagination_.  Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001.  Pp. 234.
Cloth, 6 x 9.  $34.95.  ISBN 0-8262-1364-2.

Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted prices from
the TwainWeb Bookstore, and purchases from this site generate commissions
that benefit the Mark Twain Project.  Please visit

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:

William F. Hecker
<[log in to unmask]>
United States Military Academy

Copyright (C) 2002 Mark Twain Forum.  This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

In his introduction to _Nothing Abstract: Investigations in the American
Literary Imagination_, Tom Quirk casts himself in the role of a character
from a Glen Baxter cartoon.  In the drawing, a man stands alone in the
desert holding up a small sign printed with the words "Maybe Not."  The
caption associated with the cartoon reads: "Jed had organized another one
of his mini-protests."  Quirk wants the reader to recognize the parallel
between his dedication to genetic investigation of American literature and
Baxter's lonely protestor.  Like the one-man picket line in the middle of
the desert, Quirk quietly and determinedly takes a stand for the usefulness
of exploring the textual origins of literature in the face of a
predominately post-modern literary community.

Quirk divides his book into two sections: "The Proof," and "The Pudding."
"The Proof" contains two chapters, "Sources, Influences, and Intertexts,"
and "Authors, Intentions, and Texts," that situate his ideas in the context
of contemporary critical theory and offer a foundation for the textual
analysis that follows in "The Pudding."

"Sources, Influences, and Intertexts" challenges the intertextualist notion
that source and influence studies seem antiquarian in our poststructuralist
era.  Quirk suggests that thoughtful consideration of dialogue between
literary texts does not result in a critic imposed "aesthetic or
historical" hierarchy (15).  Instead, he argues, a genetic approach to
literary sources links historical and biographical material on "the basis
of probable sequence" (15).  By privileging source material over the
"incipient randomness of intertextuality," Quirk suggests that critics gain
a more informed comprehension of the text's historical occasion (31).

The following chapter, "Authors, Intentions, and Texts," outlines the
utility of genetic study and how it complements other critical theories.
Quirk insists that sources and influences help scholars to reconstruct the
occasion for a creative literary act as much as other critical approaches:
"announced artistic ambition, biographical (which is to say, personal,
economic, or social) circumstance, authorial revision, amendment, and all
other forms of second and third thoughts" (35).  The use of genetic study
in concert with other theories, according to Quirk, produces increasingly
sophisticated criticism.

To illustrate his point, he offers an analysis of the complicated
circumstances surrounding Mark Twain's much neglected play, _Colonel
Sellers_.  Quirk uncovers massive textual chaos: "copyrights arranged,
dissolved, renewed; capitalistic ambitions conflicting with democratic
loyalties to the man Twain once ate turnips with; multiple authorship, and
the neat separation of plot from language; enthusiastic public reception
and frustrated private artistic purpose; stated intentions and thwarted
artistic aspirations" (49).  Only the fusion of source material with other
theoretical approaches will potentially inspire "unpredictable and feisty
hybrids" of source, narrative, Marxist, psychoanalytical and other theories
that can untangle such a morass (49).  The remainder of the book provides
Quirk's own mature academic responses to this call for theoretical fusion.

Key ingredients in Quirk's "pudding" are two provocative essays concerning
Mark Twain.  The first, "What if Poe's Humorous Tales Were Funny?," Poe's
"X-ing a Paragrab" and Twain's "Journalism in Tennessee," analyzes Twain's
successful humor as a means of exploring why Poe's comedy fails.

In his close reading of a humorous exchange between two actual frontier
newspaper editors, Quirk suggests that the key aspect of frontier comedy is
transgression "against accepted social ritual and communal feeling." Even
though these men were the best of friends, they traded vicious insults in
their editorial pages.  Twain harnesses this traditional humor in
"Journalism in Tennessee."  In this short piece, Twain constructs a
narrator who lands a job as an assistant editor for the "Spirit of
Tennessee Press."  The chief editor, displeased with the narrator's subdued
prose, dramatically alters his assistant's work to a more peppery,
provocative style.  This "improved" prose prompts the editor of the rival
paper to wreak revenge on the hapless narrator, who decides to leave
Tennessee for his health.  Twain's burlesque of frontier humor gone awry,
according to Quirk, allows the audience to share in the joke by relying
"upon a general familiarity with the object of humorous exaggeration," in
this case the caustic repartee between rival newspapers (55).

Poe's tale, on the other hand, fails to offer anything of "general
familiarity" in his burlesque.  In "X-ing a Paragrab," a newspaper editor
sends his printer's devil to steal the "o"s from his rival's print box. The
desperate editor substitutes "x"s for "o"s, prompting the town's citizens
to suspect some sort of "diabolical treason," from which the victimized
editor flees in the dark of night.  Quirk notes that despite the frenetic
punning ("X-cellent" joke, "Xu-berance" of fancy) and a veiled satire of
transcendentalists (found in the "x"ing out of the circular
letter-Emerson's essay "Circles" inspired Poe to label him the "circular
philosopher"), Poe's story defies popular humor because its comic
exaggeration appeals to his private sense of the ridiculous, as opposed to
the broader social appeal of Twain's work.

The second essay on Twain, "Mark Twain in His Short Works," looks at
Clemens the man through a survey of his short stories, sketches, and
essays.  While the different facets of Twain's life are likely well known
to much of Quirk's audience, he still succeeds in establishing original and
revealing connections between Twain's fiction and Clemens's life.  In his
reading of "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" (1899), he finds Twain's
memories of youthful pleasures embedded in the "dark brooding" and "cynical
logic" of Twain's late fiction (100).  Quirk's analysis of Twain's
political satire finds his journalist's eye and rapier wit tempered by a
troubled conscience that excludes pure sanctimoniousness. Such
contradictory instincts ultimately leads Quirk to find a certain "peace and
innocence" in the broken-hearted twilight that followed the death of
Twain's daughter Jean (114).  This sensitive reading is a mere sample of
the quality of Quirk's pudding.  His consideration of these short pieces as
source material for building a historical Clemens not only validates the
utility of his genetic methods, but also demonstrates the enduring
resonance of Twain as both a writer and a cultural icon.

In addition to these essays that directly deal with Twain, "The Pudding"
features essays on a diverse group of American writers: Nathaniel
Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Ambrose Bierce, Wallace Stephens, Willa Cather,
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joyce Carol Oates, and Tony Hillerman.  He further
considers Flannery O'Connor, Richard Wright, Robert Frost, Jack London,
Stephen Crane, and William Faulkner within those essays. Particularly
compelling is the essay "Fitzgerald and Cather," which draws fascinating
parallels in both structure and character between Fitzgerald's _The Great
Gatsby_ and Cather's _Alexander's Bridge_.  Additionally, "A Source for
'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?'" demonstrates the need for
genetic research to produce an informed interpretation of Oates's short
story.  Each essay emphasizes the usefulness of source study in developing
informed readings of American literature and serves to call for further
genetic inquiry.

Quirk articulates this call in his final chapter, "Trying out Genetic
Research."  Addressed to professional academics, it explores the
pedagogical implications of bringing genetic theory into the classroom.
Quirk believes that emphasizing source research would not only increase the
thoughtfulness of student criticism, but that there would also be a
corresponding increase in both student critical thinking skills and new
opportunities to establish links between the literary community and other
academic disciplines.  He concludes by likening genetic criticism to
Melville's attempts to find poetry in whale blubber-it might be "devilishly
hard" but is still "worth trying out nonetheless" (219).

While many critics will take issue with Quirk's attacks on post-structural
theory, they will still recognize the utility of his methods and the keen
insights source research produces in his criticism. As scholars weigh the
ideas in _Nothing Abstract_, Quirk may find cause to modify his
introduction--instead of describing a lonely maverick holding a small sign
in the middle of the desert, he will perhaps need to pencil in the outlines
of a growing posse of like-minded critics who share a renewed dedication to
genetic scholarship.