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Taylor Roberts <[log in to unmask]>
Sat, 22 Feb 1997 18:12:18 EST
text/plain (163 lines)
[N.B. The following review was authored by Bruce Michelson, not by
me. --T.R.]


Camfield, Gregg. _Sentimental Twain: Samuel Clemens in the Maze of Moral
Philosophy_. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.  Pp. xvi
+ 278.  Bibliography, index. $36.95.  ISBN  0-8122-3285-2.

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:

     Bruce Michelson <[log in to unmask]>
     University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
     Urbana, IL

Copyright (c) Mark Twain Forum, 1997.  This review may not be published
or redistributed in any medium without permission.

[Note: though Professor Camfield's book was published in 1994, no previous
review of it has appeared in the Forum.  Having been asked recently to
provide one, I have the pleasure of doing so.  BFM]

        Some of the livelier recent books about Mark Twain share at least
one key intention: to highlight his relationship to the intellectual
climate of the middle and later 19th century.  Thanks in part to Alan
Gribben's reconstruction of Twain's personal library,  and to the ongoing
project of publishing that tide of letters which poured from Twain's
writing tables, we are seeing him more clearly as an author intensely
engaged -- sometimes --  with those huge intellectual disruptions which hit
American shores during his most productive years.  One obvious
complication, and part of the fun in reading him, is that if Mark Twain was
a vigorous, free-ranging reader and thinker, he wasn't systematic about
either activity.  His best work therefore has a way of embarrassing
attempts to describe it as driven or mechanized by some single idea-system
or totalizing formulation.  Approaching Mark Twain as an intellect and as a
cultural critic remains a seductive, necessary, dangerous business, because
he shows us a consciousness too diverse and interesting to make such
readings either simple, or paradox-free.

        For these and half a dozen other good reasons, Gregg Camfield's
book is a very important contribution to the heap of recent Mark Twain
commentary.  _Sentimental Twain_ is not only a convincing portrait of Mark
Twain's life as constantly and heavily affected by Anglo-American
sentimentalist theory and practice; the book also gives excellent lessons
in how to apply favored principles in cultural studies to actualities of
American literary history, and how to establish such a freshened approach
with due regard for other informed and historically-sensitive analysis.  In
moving through the book's opening pages, a browser may grow fidgety, for
Camfield does not present a fully-evolved description or definition of
"sentimentalism" until pages 40-50, and Mark Twain doesn't emerge as a
full-blown subject until Chapter 3 -- after a thorough discussion of the
moral and philosophical heritage which produced Stowe's _Uncle Tom's  Cabin
_, that literary and cultural earthquake by the "little lady" who
eventually became Twain's friend and back-hedge neighbor at Nook Farm in
Hartford.  Camfield takes his time in tracing the roots of sentimentalism,
and in describing its general shape and reach as Twain encountered it and
negotiated it, because there is so much to trace.   One of the major
virtues of this book is how cogently Camfield presents the philosophical
origins and dimensions of sentimentalism, and its complex
nineteenth-century presence as an epistemology, a faith, a mass-cult
fashion, and a sanctioned literary temperament.  He does a splendid job in
laying out sentimentalism's connections with (and distinctions from)
Romanticism and mainstream American religious thought, and its
pervasiveness, in one form or another, throughout the literary and
pop-cultural world which Sam Clemens the writer sought to enter, and
eventually to dominate.  Camfield's strategy strikes me as a perfect way to
open up Mark Twain's intellectual dimensions and literary aspirations: not
as dubiously influenced by some single text or idea which might have
beguiled or prostrated him now and then, or for some limited patch of his
long career, but as saturated for the long term in a broad,
well-established, and river-deep cultural flow.

        Camfield's fully-evolved description of the sentimentalism which
Twain knew and unsteadily critiqued encompasses Locke, Shaftesbury, the
afterglow of New England Calvinism, the legacy of the Scottish "Common
Sense" philosophers, and of course the busy and intellectually-adventurous
Beecher family.  Throughout this description, flimsy direct-influence
argumentation is wisely avoided: Camfield's position is that by the time
Mark Twain began reading and writing in earnest, sentimentalism, in a
diffuse but powerful form, was practically everywhere, and coming at him
from all directions.  If a "serious agenda" (as Camfield calls it) emerged
from this encounter between Clemens and all this patterned thinking and
feeling in the schooled, prosperous world which he wrote for and married
his way into, then the engagement unfolds this way:

        By 1871, when he moved to Hartford and began writing as both a
        humorist and a moralist, his writings would have reflected the
        tension between the material and the ideal halves of moral
        philosophy.  Then, too, the deepening rift in moral philosophy left
        an unoccupied artistic middle ground.  With sentimentalists veering
        toward idealism from their earlier stance as realists, they left a
        large opening in belles lettres for another kind of realism, one
        predicated more on ostensibly objective standards than on
        emotional ones.
                Critics conventionally see Mark Twain's development as a
        writer as move toward this kind of empirical realism, but they tend
        to see it as a radical move away from a uniform cultural idealism.
        My analysis suggests that Clemens's realism may just as well have
        begun as a conservative attempt to rebuild the Common Sense
        consensus. (p.59)

        Camfield is careful, however, to foreground the fact that Mark
Twain did not have to read systematically or academically through the
philosophy bookstacks in order to understand the importance and
complications of this crisis, or to find the resources for addressing it in
fiction. _Uncle Tom's Cabin_ and _The Minister's Wooing_  are offered as
enormous literary and mass-cultural events -- and as unmissable
culminations, in a sense, of a century and a half in which theologies,
logical premises, and social habit decayed, permutated, and commingled.
The basic assumption subtending Camfield's case seems conservative enough:
that from the parlors, breakfast tables, and boulevards of a noisy, dynamic
culture, complex ideas can steal the attention of good and creative minds,
regardless of their of their formal education or intellectual rigorousness.
Camfield therefore offers us a fresh, credible way of thinking about Mark
Twain as a thinker -- not as the philosopher he wasn't, but as the
intuitive, literate, and culturally responsive American that he was.

        As Camfield moves onward into rereadings of some major and
not-so-major Mark Twain texts -- he attends especially to "The Recent
Carnival of Crime in Connecticut," _The Adventures of Tom
Sawyer_,_Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_,   _Connecticut Yankee_,  and
_Pudd'nhead Wilson_ -- he continues to write with maturity and sensitivity,
and never allows  an "ism" in question, complex as it might be, to flatten
or obscure other complications in these texts and in the sensibility that
produced them.  Twain's social and financial climb, into the hilltops
around Elmira and the prime Hartford and New York neighborhoods, required
an evolving reckoning with varieties of sentimentalism, high and low, which
pervaded genteel fiction in that time.  Moreover, as Camfield puts it:
"Clemens's voracious reading did nothing to help him solve this or any
other conundrum of moral philosophy.  While he seems over the 1870s to have
actively tried to ground his thinking in the fundamental texts of moral
philosophy, his reading, by its very eclectic nature, began to increase his
doubts.  In many cases, the very incompatibility of different bits of
knowledge he gleaned from his reading did more than cast doubt on the
Common Sense compromise; it destroyed it, especially when he applied what
he learned of the 'certainties' of science to the vague hypotheses of
metaphysics." (p. 121)

        In other words,  Twain's collision with determinism and the various
permutations of post-Darwinist thought -- as exemplified by Spencer, Fiske,
William Graham Sumner, and others  -- led him into unstable practice as
either sentimentalist or antisentimentalist.  Such a conclusion will come
as no shock to experienced Twainians; and because the close readings which
Camfield offers in the latter half of the book pack few interpretive
surprises, they may disappoint readers with a conditioned taste for the
lit-crit game of turning (or trying to turn) all other interpretations
inside out.  Camfield's purpose is different: not to enforce novelty,  but
rather to show better and more interesting reasons why Mark Twain's writing
takes on the shape and the compelling questions which we may already assume
to be there.  _Sentimental Twain_  historicizes, dignifies, and modernizes
Mark Twain all in the same contemplation, and it enriches our understanding
of those deep contradictions which may lie somewhere near the core of his
general and enduring appeal.   It is a master-class in how to negotiate a
time of intellectual transformation and ideological crisis, and how to
observe the impact of that crisis on an individual talent.  This is not a
flashy book.  It is instead a very, very good one, a book to keep and
consult long after the six-month half-life which so much commentary now
seems to intend, and sadly to achieve.