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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Fri, 31 Oct 2008 15:13:48 -0500
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by
Carolyn Richey.



Twain, Alcott, and the Birth of the Adolescent Reform Novel_. By
Roberta Seelinger Trites. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. 2008. Pp
209. ISBN 13-978-1-58729-622-2. $34.95.

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

Reviewed by:
Carolyn Leutzinger Richey
Tarleton State University

Copyright (c) 2008 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published
or redistributed in any medium without permission.

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 kunstlerroman 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.