I am posting this review on behalf of Jason Horn who wrote it.
Messent, Peter. _The Short Works of Mark Twain: A Critical Study_.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. Pp. viii + 274.
Notes, index. Cloth, 6 x 9. $45.00 ISBN 0-8122-3622-X.
Reviewed for Mark Twain Forum by:
Jason G. Horn
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Peter Messent never loses sight of author or text in this study of Twain's
short works; rather, he illuminates both through a judicious integration of
biographical and historical detail. Only James D. Wilson in _A Reader's
Guide to the Short Stories of Mark Twain_ and Tom Quirk in _Mark Twain: A
Study of the Short Fiction_ have given the works as a whole their sustained
attention. Yet as Messent points out, Wilson and Quirk pay little attention
to the focus of his own study: the short story collections Twain published
during his lifetime. Critics have generally ignored these collections,
Messent notes, supposing Twain's own literary efforts and interest in them
to be slight and his publication of the volumes simply driven by financial
needs. Messent challenges such critical assumptions first by tracing
Twain's involvement with the production and publication of each collection
and next by establishing thematic and stylistic links within and between
collections and Twain's work as a whole.
Messent approaches the collections in chronological order, devoting two
chapters each to _The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and
Other Sketches_ (1867), _Sketches, New and Old_ (1875), _The Stolen White
Elephant, Etc._ (1882), _Merry Tales_ (1882) and _The $1,000,000 Bank-Note
and Other New Stories_ (1883), _The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other
Stories_ (1900), and _The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories_. In the first
chapter of each pair, he describes and evaluates important pieces from each
volume, traces Twain's part in their preparation for publication, and
generally locates the works in their cultural context. In the second, he
provides a close reading of one or two pieces from each collection,
charting more specifically the thematic and stylistic links to other pieces
within the collection and the development of Twain's comic and literary
techniques. Messent acknowledges that his coverage of Twain's short works
is incomplete. In fact, he chooses not to discuss _How to Tell a Story and
Other Essays_ (1897), pointing out that this collection differs "in kind"
from the more fictionally oriented texts he studies and, at the same time,
he foregoes examining collections that merely recycle the works from his
What becomes clear as Messent carefully unpacks biographical and historical
detail is that Twain was certainly involved with the packaging and
presentation of each of his collections. At times, to be sure, Messent must
make his case by speculatively piecing together evidential bits and pieces.
Following leads provided by Robert H. Hirst, for instance, he pieces
together Twain's letters and scrapbook entries to show that Twain played a
larger role in preparing his _Jumping Frog_ collection than even he was
willing to admit. And tracing the "complicated" history of the publication
of Twain's short works following the publication of _Jumping Frog_, Messent
again turns to Twain's letters to show that he was willing to rework pieces
for inclusion in _Sketches, Old and New_.
Working from the primary materials available at the Mark Twain Papers at
Berkeley, Messent offers even more direct and substantial sources. He
includes a previously unpublished part of a letter Twain sent to James R.
Osgood, one of his publishers, that includes specific directions for the
choice and organization of texts for _The Stolen White Elephant, Etc._ All
but one of Twain's choices would make the final cut. And while critics
generally assume Twain lost his interest in process of publishing after
Webster and Company filed for bankruptcy, Messent shows that in his
notebook entries and letters to his Harper's editor, Twain clearly planned
for the selections and organization, even for the word count, of _The Man
that Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories_.
Messent succeeds, then, in his attempt to show that Twain "played a larger
part in the planning and putting together" of his collections of short
works than has previously been recognized (154). Revealing Twain's interest
in the packaging and publishing of his collections may provoke some to
reconsider their importance. Others may need more light, however, to see
their way toward an understanding of the overall worth of the collections.
Through his general critique of each volume and close reading of selected
pieces, Messent sheds that light.
Rather than critically chastising Twain for the "seemingly incompatible
elements" in his _Jumping Frog_ collection, for instance, Messent sees in
the volume's mix of material, shifts of persona, and conflicts of voices
the "highly playful and flexible quality" that distinguishes Twain's work
as a whole (18). And as he closely attends to the "comic ramblings" of
Simon Wheeler in the collection's title story, Messent emphasizes their
ability to take the reader nowhere, in particular, while disrupting
narrative expectations and destabilizing any sense of interpretive
certainty. For Messent, this dismantling of expectations and certainties
largely defines Twain's "comic intent," a point he continues to develop
throughout his study.
Messent presses his case for Twain's comic intent most persuasively in his
chapter on _Sketches, New and Old_, a volume which, as Messent reveals,
blurs generic boundaries and stylistic distinctions as it "shifts between
the realistic and the surreal or absurd," upsets expectations through the
"use of multiple and unreliable narrative voices" and slips away from
authoritative interpretations through an "overall thematic focus on
untrustwothiness, indecipherability, and relativistic uncertainty" (50).
With this collection, as well, Messent underscores the tension that
develops between Twain's serious and radically absurd sides, as he
questions racists attitudes in "A True Story" and satirically undermines
the certainties of science and religion in "Some Learned Fables, for Good
Old Boys and Girls." Twain's satire, as Messent describes it, clashes with
his relativistic humor as the former aims to improve the human condition
and the latter mock it.
Rather than citing this tension between "satire" and "comic relativism" as
an authorial weakness, however, Messent claims it to be the very source of
Twain's comic power. For as he points out, to "see human life as an
absurdist joke does not necessarily mean that one should not still work to
improve the practices and institutions that form the immediate
circumstances of one's daily life" (74). And from this position, Messent
suggests, Twain worked his humor.
Throughout his study, in fact, Messent develops some fresh insights into
the power of Twain's humor. He challenges critical attempts to fit Twain's
humor too tightly within the Bakhtinian notion of "carnival," for instance.
Bakhtin's theoretical concept of "carnival," points to the festive power
of laughter to turn social order upside down and upset authoritative rule.
For Bakhtin, however, this carnival spirit only reigns temporarily and the
social system reestablishes itself within the framework of a culture's
dominant ideology. Messent, however, adopts Marcel Gutwirth's
significantly different theory of "carnival" as a pure celebration of
"chaos" that allows "relief from the oppressiveness of order" and escape
from, rather than return to, the "social policing that affects every area
of our lives" (89). Bringing Gutwirth's theory specifically to his reading
of "The Stolen White Elephant," Messent suggests that Twain's disruptive
and disorderly elephant stands in allegorical relation to his intent, both
of which represent a "potentially anarchic force, a threat to the
established order and all the codes and conventions on which it depends"
(103). This view of humor as a disruptive force is common enough, Messent
notes, as is the idea that the "lawless energy" of humor is always socially
contained. Yet Messent questions whether Twain accepted this pattern of
comic disruption and social reaffirmation of the status quo. His story of
"The Stolen White Elephant," read as "an allegory about the comic,"
suggests to Messent that Twain's story reflects the author's own
ambivalence about the effect of his humor. Such ambivalence, as Messent
considers it, adds to the "general sense of instability and undecidability"
that link the volume's stories together as a whole (110).
What Messent offers us, finally, is this image of an uncertain Twain and a
reading of his short works as purposely constructed to release readers from
their own circles of certainties. He also provides us with enough evidence
to show that Twain, to one degree or another, actively participated in the
preparation and publication of his collected short works. Seems that more
than money was on Twain's mind when he crafted his short works and
conceived of volumes to include them. By showing that something "more" in
relation to Twain's art and mind, Messent gives due credit to Twain's comic