TWAIN-L Archives

Mark Twain Forum


Options: Use Forum View

Use Monospaced Font
Show Text Part by Default
Show All Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 22 Jan 2004 16:05:19 -0600
text/plain (147 lines)
The following review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Harry Wonham.



_Rewriting the Vernacular Mark Twain: The Aesthetics and Politics of
Orality in Samuel Clemens's Fictions_. Gerd Hurm. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher
Verlag Trier, 2003. $29.50. ISBN 3-88476-577-9.

This book is currently unavailable through but can be ordered
directly from the publisher's website at:

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by
Harry Wonham

Copyright  2004 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

We all know what Mark Twain thought of "the awful German language," whose
"horizonless transcontinental sentences" are built out of words "so long
that they have a perspective."  Gerd Hurm, a professor of American
literature and culture at the University of Trier, writes (most of the
time) with the fluency and flair of a native Missourian, but readers of his
book may feel that the German language has at last had its revenge when
they enter the heady atmosphere of contemporary Teutonic academic prose. A
representative passage in the theoretical section explains that, since "a
one-sided interpretation of repressive social relations has fundamentally
pervaded both Hegelian and Nietzschean conceptions of the master-slave
dialectic, the collateral constitutive link between emancipatory
teleologies and innovative, self-referential aesthetics in dominant
paradigms in twentieth-century literary and critical theory needs to be
reconsidered" (53). Out of this "luminous intellectual fog," as Twain might
have called it, comes a perfectly clear and thoroughly persuasive argument
about, of all things, Mark Twain's use of vernacular English. Indeed, for
all its apparent stylistic insensitivity to the subject at hand, Hurm's
_Rewriting the Vernacular Mark Twain_ is the most ambitious and important
study of the way oral discourses operate in Twain's fiction  since the
publication of Henry Nash Smith's _Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer_
in 1962.

This is not an accident, for Hurm is directly engaged with Smith's
pioneering study, which represents for Hurm the culmination of a critical
tradition that includes seminal works by Howells, DeVoto, Brooks, Trilling,
and Marx. These writers established Mark Twain's status as a major American
author by describing his work in terms of an epic confrontation between
voice-based, vernacular values and text-based, genteel literary and social
conventions derived from Europe and New England. Their disagreements about
Twain's literary achievement notwithstanding, Howells, Trilling, Smith and
the others concurred that the human voice possessed "certain intrinsic
traits as a primary, unmediated, and natural [medium] of communication"
(11). They believed, in other words, that Huck Finn's rustic vernacular
idiom, with its keen sensitivity to the natural environment, provided a
conduit to what Twain called Huck's "sound heart."  The term "orality" may
have been unknown to these critics, but they located Twain's significance
as a writer in his ability to give voice to this "sound heart" through the
medium of untutored human speech. They considered Huck's language an
artistic achievement, rather than a mere burlesque of standard written
English, because his naive and seemingly natural idiom impressed them as
uniquely expressive of a naive and seemingly natural moral perspective.
"Orality" (or the phenomenon of communication through spoken language)
enjoys privileged access to the intuitions of the human heart, according to
this view, whereas "literacy" (or the phenomenon of communication through
written symbols) is seen to involve intellect, self-consciousness,
premeditation, and moral compromise. This "vernacular paradigm," as Hurm
calls it, has provided the conceptual bedrock for mountains of Twain
criticism, which has generally aligned the spoken voice with "intuitive
authenticity and innovative aesthetics" (12) in the realm of literary
expression, and with "democratic irreverence and emancipatory subversion"
(12) in the realm of politics.

But is the human voice really a privileged medium of communication?  During
the 1960s, '70s and '80s, influential scholarship by students of orality,
such as Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong, maintained that human
communication originated through the transmission of verbal sounds. In
_Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World_, Ong speculated
that our remote ancestors inhabited a "pristine oral culture," which
gradually succumbed to modernization through the introduction of literacy
(59). McLuhan endorsed a similar view in his popular books _Understanding
Media_ and _The Guttenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man_, which
described the pre-Guttenberg universe as a "magical world of the ear" (59).
Mark Twain is an important writer, according to proponents of the
vernacular paradigm, because he offers modern readers a belated glimpse of
that magical world. But Hurm insists that recent studies of orality and
literacy, including empirical work on cognition and language acquisition,
have seriously questioned the existence of such a world. This is an unusual
detour for Twain criticism, but it is a highly suggestive one. Hurm
summarizes numerous examples of recent scholarship on the relationship
between oral and written communication--scholarship by leaders in the
field, such as Elizabeth Feldbusch, Ruth Finnegan, Roy Harris, and Paul
Goetsch--in support of his view that the "correlation of liberated modes of
existence with liberated modes of expression via the subjacent authenticity
of the human voice needs to be fundamentally reconceived" (37). To make a
long and complicated story short and simple, scholars in the field of
orality and literacy studies no longer defend the image of a
pre-typographic, pre-modern world, where people once communicated the
content of their hearts spontaneously and naturally through the medium of
spoken language. The story they now tell about the origin and evolution of
human communication emphasizes the "underlying connectedness, co-presence,
and mixture of such dualistic categories as orality and literacy, voice and
vision" (49), sound and script.

What has any of this got to do with Mark Twain?  Plenty. In fact, Hurm sees
this new direction in orality and literacy research as an opportunity and a
provocation to rethink traditional assumptions about Mark Twain's
achievement as a writer. Much has changed about the way we read Twain in
the 21st century, but the vernacular paradigm continues to govern scholarly
opinion in decisive ways. Hurm points out, for example, that Shelley Fisher
Fishkin's provocative thesis about the multi-ethnic sources of Twain's
vernacular art is roughly consistent with the spirit of Trilling's remark
that Twain was "a master of the style that escapes the fixity of the
printed page, that sounds in our ears with the immediacy of the heard
voice, the very voice of unpretentious truth" (qt. in Hurm, 15). Whether
his oral powers are traced to a specifically African-American source or to
a more general conception of "the heard voice," Twain is celebrated as the
author whose work dramatizes a foundational conflict between genteel values
(associated with writing and "sivilization") and vernacular democratic ones
(associated with speech and nature). But what if "the heard voice" is shown
to possess no more "immediacy" than the written word?  Paying careful
attention to the way Twain juxtaposes vernacular and genteel idioms in a
variety of stories, novels, and essays, Hurm demonstrates that Twain is far
less certain than Lionel Trilling or Henry Nash Smith about the political
and ethical significance of the spoken word. In a series of intricate and
highly compelling readings of many standard and not-so-standard texts,
including _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_, "Cannibalism in the Cars," "The
Great Revolution in Pitcairn," _The Innocents Abroad_, "To the Person
Sitting in Darkness," and "Corn-Pone Opinions," Hurm challenges the
usefulness of the vernacular paradigm as a guide to understanding Twain's
fiction. Each chapter provides its own surprises, but each returns to
Hurm's larger purpose, which is to detach our understanding of "the
vernacular Mark Twain" from outdated conceptions of a "pristine oral
culture" and a "magical world of the ear."

This may be disappointing news for readers who fell in love with Twain
because Huck's speaking voice so powerfully conveys a sense of freedom and
nonconformity. But Hurm's effort to rethink the significance of vernacular
language in Twain's writing challenges us to conceive of his literary
achievement in new ways. Like Lionel Trilling and Henry Nash Smith before
him, Hurm has given us, in this demanding book, both a reason to reread
Twain's major works and a means to approach them with a renewed sense of

Henry B. Wonham
University of Oregon