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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Wed, 23 Jan 2008 17:24:21 -0600
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Larry



_Mark Twain and Metaphor_. John Bird. University of Missouri Press, 2007,
Cloth, pp. xxii + 250. $39.95. ISBN 978-0-8262-1762-2

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:
Larry Howe
Roosevelt University

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 This review may not be published or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

The world knows of Mark Twain because he had a way with words. While this
seems a rather obvious and even simplistic point, this is John Bird's
essential argument in _Mark Twain and Metaphor_. But Bird's treatment of
Twain's creative use of language is by no means simple or obvious. To the
contrary, the analysis in this wide-ranging and far-reaching argument goes
beyond the usual observations to examine the linguistic texture of Twain's
entire body of work in his imaginative and purposeful use of figures.
Bird's demonstration of how, for example, metaphor and metonymy structure a
number of psychological and cultural discursive formations yields
provocative and thoughtful results. In so doing, he offers us a model of
shrewd scholarship. Drawing upon the work of a broad range of
theorists--including Sigmund Freud, Roman Jakobson, Gerard Genette, Jacques
Lacan, Kenneth Burke, I. A. Richards, Colin Turbayne, and George
Lakoff--and framing interpretations of Twain's work with a sincere respect
for a similarly diverse array of Twain scholars, Bird presents a lucid and
jargon-free argument, showing how a sensitive appreciation of Twain's
figurative language can both amplify the insights of earlier critics and
lead to nuanced discoveries of Bird's own.

Covering the major novels, short stories and tales, letters, travel
writing, and the later surreal works, the book consists of four chapters
and a coda, each successively, and expansively, demonstrating how Twain's
identity, the river, metaphor itself, the controversial end of Twain's
career, and Mark Twain studies are constructed through figurative language.
It is rare that one approach can yield consistently fresh insights across
such a widely divergent body of writing, but Bird demonstrates the virtues
of his method by showing how Twain's talent with figures achieves
remarkably distinct results in each case examined. For example, his reading
of the metaphors in Twain's early career--in texts such as "The Jumping
Frog," _Roughing It_, and in the formation of his pseudonym--productively
extends the long-standing discussions about the tension between genteel and
vernacular by noting how the two different registers are combined in
deceptively complex narrative stances. From this Bird persuasively explains
that the commonly acknowledged doubleness of Mark Twain derives from this
idiosyncratic and careful use of figurative language.

In Chapter 2 "Figuring the River," Bird turns his attention first to "Old
Times on the Mississippi," revealing how its exceptionally rich metaphoric
structure helps to more fully explain what New Critics struggled to account
for in their assessments of _Life on the Mississippi_ as well as what
cultural critics have overlooked in emphasizing the thematics of economics
and class. Bird's attention to the metaphors in _The Adventures of Tom
Sawyer_ yields a subtle interpretation of the quality of the narrator that,
in turn, argues that Twain's shifting of the narrative voice questions the
authority that is conventionally invested in authorship.

Bird also examines racial metaphors as well as black and white images in
_Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_ to less satisfying results, but in the
next chapter, "Figuring Metaphor," he makes up for this by showing how
deliberate and careful Twain was in paring down Huck's metaphors in the
early portions of the text to match the voice that evolved by Chapter 9.
This is important because it not only challenges assumptions that Twain was
not inclined to revise but also helps to gauge the degree to which he
deliberately uses metaphor. Other sections of this chapter deal with the
language in a number of short works, especially the metaphors of region in
"The Private History of a Campaign That Failed," scatological metaphors of
self-expression in "1601," and an extremely valuable close reading of the
figurative economy in "A True Story."  Each of these analyses in different
ways reveals the meaningful and purposeful effects of Twain's craft.

The end of Twain's writing career has been particularly perplexing to
critics. Biography has often played a significant role in interpretations
of what has been perceived as an artistic failure in Twain's abrupt turn
toward darkness. In Chapter 4, "Figuring the End," Bird's approach
re-values the writing as inventive and experimental, a refreshing and
illuminating alternative to conventional wisdom that has much to recommend
it. Bird's first unconventional move is to address the problematic late
career by beginning his discussion with _A Connecticut Yankee in King
Arthur's Court_, notable for the effusive metaphors of its narrator. But
Bird's point is not simply Hank's effusiveness but the inventiveness of the
narrative on all levels, and the emergence of a divergent pattern within
the narrator himself. In the second chapter, Bird makes a similar
observation about the divided narrative voice in _Tom Sawyer_ , but to his
credit, he does not simply identify the later case as a recurrence of the
earlier; rather, he notes its distinctive function and effect in
_Connecticut Yankee_, what Mikhail Bakhtin notably calls a novel's
dialogical character. For Bird, this is the emerging articulation of an
interest that Twain continued to pursue in _Pudd'nhead Wilson_ and the
numerous fragments of dream narratives that he generated throughout the
last twenty years or so of his career.  Rather than simply describe the
pattern in each of these later instances, Bird shows how its distinctive
effects come to play in each of them. With _Pudd'nhead Wilson_, Bird once
again shows his critical independence by arguing that the text and its
attendant troubles can be more fully appreciated if read in combination
with _Those Extraordinary Twins_ (or what remains of that farce) from which
the novel was famously extracted. I'm not entirely persuaded, but I concede
that Bird is onto something by addressing the conjoined twins' story that
was removed and then later published with the novel that survived the
editing process. _Those Extraordinary Twins_ hints at the formal and
cultural meanings that are metaphorized in those conjoined twins, but the
issues of race at the center of _Pudd'nhead Wilson_ don't require the
conjoined twins' story for their articulation. After segueing into a
section on the metaphorical quality of jokes, which allows him to introduce
Freudian concepts that play a larger role in the dream writings, Bird
spends a considerable portion of the chapter on the fragments commonly
referred to as "The Great Dark" writings. These along with the _Mysterious
Stranger_ manuscripts are fertile material for Bird's analysis because of
their looseness and disjointed quality as much as for their metaphorical

In the Coda, Bird turns his analysis of figures on Mark Twain studies
directly and considers how metaphorical patterns have prevailed in
different eras of the field. This is very insightful metacriticism that
accurately catalogs the shifting tendencies of Twain criticism and also
underscores the further utility of Bird's emphasis on metaphor.  For this
careful examination of the language that Twain scholarship deploys in
accounting for his way with words reveals the ways in which our evolving
biases can be measured in metaphors that are indexes of cultural concerns
over time. This closing makes a very fitting point to Bird's highly
commendable study. This is not a perfect book, but what book is. Some
readers less familiar with the entire body of Twain's work may find it a
bit difficult to follow its organization because it ranges freely across
Twain's career and shifts between shorter and longer works in a manner that
underscores Bird's immersion in the material. There are, no doubt, several
points in which one might ask for further consideration of the cultural
implications of metaphor. But at no point do these issues threaten the
value of the argument. If anything, these are opportunities for further
scholarly efforts to follow Bird's lead in other directions.

I'd like to make one final observation about the design of the book, which
strikes me as being extremely sensitive to the nuances of Bird's study.
Graphical aids such as reproductions of manuscript passages and a table of
manuscript revisions support Bird's arguments. But another kind of
suggestive feature offers a bit of delight: each section of the book is
introduced by the number of the chapter and a title, but faintly in the
background and in much larger font, one might notice that another reference
such as "Chapter 1" or "Coda" and even "Notes" can be detected. These
graphic devices hint at the doubleness of meaning that inheres in metaphor
itself. While this is not a large point, it reflects a subtle attention to
detail that is far too frequently overlooked in most book designs. Finally,
the book jacket itself is worth a comment, especially the cartoon
reproduced on the back. The image is from the center-spread cartoon of
_Life_ magazine for Sept 9, 1886, which Bird located in the collection of
Kevin Mac Donnell. Originally captioned "Literature at Low Tide," it
depicts an array of American authors as carnival barkers, and features Mark
Twain in the foreground as a dispenser of laughing gas. A boy dressed as
Buster Brown draws from a hose connected to Twain's tank as he places a
coin in the author's hand. Itself a multi-layered metaphor of humor writing
that serves Bird's purpose nicely, the cartoon pays the additional dividend
of surprise; it's an image that I've never seen before, adding a delight to
my closing of a book that was already intellectually satisfying.