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Kim Martin Long <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 14 Oct 1999 15:05:57 -0400
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          Griffith, Clark. _Achilles and the Tortoise: Mark
          Twain's Fictions_.  Tuscaloosa AL: University of
          Alabama Press, 1998.  Pp. 284.  Cloth, 6 1/2"x 9 1/4". $34.95.

          ISBN 0-8173-0903-9.

          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:

               Kim Martin Long <[log in to unmask]>
               Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania

          Copyright (c) 1999 Mark Twain Forum.  This review may
          not be published or redistributed in any medium without

You'll notice Griffith's title for this book: Achilles and the Tortoise.
Certainly, I was more like the tortoise than Achilles in getting this review
out to the Forum. I suppose the advantage in taking so long is that many of
will have already read this interesting book, and so my review may produce
dialogue. Whether you agree with everything Griffith asserts in these essays
not, you must surely agree with me that he has brought to the table careful
readings of Twain's texts, a supportable thesis, and commendable support for
his claims. Reading this book was a satisfying experience for me because it
expresses many of my own thoughts and intuitions about Mark Twain's work,
especially in his connection to writers like Herman Melville. Griffith
that Twain's work is all about the comic illusion of getting nowhere, the
cosmic joke, perpetuated on humankind by what Melville calls the "Marplot of
Eden." If you do not like to think of Twain's nihilism and pessimism, but
rather prefer to see him as the jolly entertainer in the white suit, stop
reading now and do not buy this book.

Griffith says that his book is a series of essays, not integrated chapters
in a
book. While this is true, they do, taken together, contribute to a whole
(unlike, for instance, Tom Quirk's Coming to Grips with Huckleberry Finn,
represents a lifetime of different thoughts about that novel). Together they
make the claim that the "discrepancy between the appearance of motion and
actual underlying stasis of all things is nothing less than Mark Twain's
standard joke" (5). Using Zeno of Elea's paradox (as recorded by Aristotle
Poetics), Griffith gets his title from the idea that if the tortoise got a
start in a race, even swift-footed Achilles could not catch up, the same
in the myth of Sisyphus, the image of running in place, always pushing up
never catching up to the frontrunner. He asserts that this image is found
over the fiction of Mark Twain, arguing that "the sad, chill eyes of Mark
reflect the fact that when he looked at reality he found a perfect fixity
futility, and reflect as well that in the frozen features of the real world
found the perfect sources for creating laughter" (14-15). Griffith's book
to honor "the funniness of his vision of moral and social futility" (262).

Divided into three main sections--"Three Polemical Essays," "The River
Trilogy," and "A Last, Speculative Essay" (dealing with Melville and
Twain)--Griffith's book examines the fiction carefully within the general
thesis. Griffith does not attempt to deal with the travel fiction, only the
"real" fiction, especially The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn, Pudd'nhead Wilson, and A Connecticut Yankee. Erudite
being pretentious, Griffith discusses Mark Twain's comedy, his obsession
twinning (doubling, Manicheanism), and the "going nowhere" theme continually
throughout the book.

The first essay in section one, "Mark Twain and the Infernal 'Twoness': An
Essay on the Comic," discusses Twain's obsession with the idea of duality
seen in his pseudonym). Moving from the "Bad Boy"/"Good Boy" stories to the
Siamese twins Chang and Eng, Griffith accounts for Twain's interest in the
of "twoness" and its connection to comedy: "Traditional comedy thus proceeds
dialectically; it exploits the built-in or the intrinsic doubleness of
experience, in order to push forward, to affirm, to 'get somewhere'" (33).
Griffith explains, however, Twain's comedies "result, rather, in repetition,
fixity, a sense of standing stock still," and this quality brings about
"feelings of entrapment and frustration" (35). See, for instance, "The
Frog" story or even Roughing It. Although both contain a semblance of
and experience, neither really goes anywhere; nothing is learned. Once a
gets this thesis in mind, s/he reads most of the fiction as Griffith wants:
after the long journey down the Mississippi, after all, Huck ends up right
where he started, with Tom. Twain's fictions contain only the illusion of
progress, rite of passage, and movement. Again, Griffith's thesis: "The
that rotates and rotates to stand stone still, that changes and changes to
every and any possibility of change, is Mark Twain's sine que non: his
joke" (47).

Essay two, "On Laughter," deconstructs what it means for a story to be
Griffith discusses the idea of "how the laughable consists of an unexpected
submergence of the conscious into the mechanical, or . . . of an intrusion
the purely mechanical performance into what we expected would be a
controlled situation" (55). In other words, to be funny something must be
anti-human, irrational, mechanized. Quoting Henri Bergson, Griffith says
the comic must show someone who is actually enslaved to the mundane, to the
mechanized. Using "The Notorious Jumping Frog" and Simon Wheeler, Griffith
analyzes humor in this essay and what he calls "the aesthetics of the sick
joke" (62). As Griffith says, Wheeler and his narrator/stranger remain
"conjoined like twins and catering to one another in the mutual helplessness
they share" in Mark Twain's vision of humor (63). Griffith's thesis once
within the context of Twain's humor: "From the outset [Twain] seems to have
intuited that his fictions would be patterned by helplessness in combination
with great energy, the lassitude of getting nowhere, but also a furious
in place which preceded the dead ends" (68). It is in this chapter that
Griffith introduces his word "enhumored," which he will use throughout the
to describe the idea of people and events (the world) and its motionless
motion. As he says,

Jim and Huck are twins created for the joy of telling Mark Twain's favorite
joke, which . . . is but a reworking of the race in Zeno's famous paradox.
twins have been coupled to make manifest existence in an "enhumored" world,
world without meaningful motion. They define life as an "enhumored" process
which, from starting blocks to destination, remains fixated and inalterable,
and is always engaged in the busy-busy, pointless-pointless, funny-funny
activity of getting nowhere. (77) Ending the first section with an
titled essay called "Sam Clemens and G. S. Weaver; Hank Morgan and Mark
An Essay on Books and Reality," Griffith shows connections between Twain's
thought and the nineteenth-century ideas of phrenology and earlier theories
the bodily humors. Griffith here does a nice job of discussing realism and
naturalism in Twain as well as accounting for his pessimism much earlier
usual, the standard end-of-the-century personal tragedies period. Griffith
claims that George Sumner Weaver's book, Lectures on Mental Science, read by
Twain in 1855, "is a source not only of the bleakness of Mark Twain's art,
sense of reality as paralyzed by fixity and futility, but also of the art's
glory, its capacity for equating paralysis with absurdity, so that (humor
humor) laughter could be coaxed from the paralytics" (94). Here Griffith
some interesting biographical work.

Section two of the book presents three essays on what Griffith calls the
Trilogy," Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Pudd'nhead Wilson. These three essays
broken down into "mini-essays" on various topics surrounding these three
novels: romanticism, realism, the ending of Huck (of course), the
reality" of Pudd'nhead. Difficult to summarize, this section examines these
three seminal novels within Griffith's major thesis. Of Tom, Griffith says:
"Tom's marvelous endowments consist of plucking a stunt-for-the-day from a
single bag of tricks, then being thrust back into nothingness again" (137).
says of Huck, "the River on which Huck and Jim appear to move has all along
caused them to move in place. It has subverted 'away' and 'toward,' with all
the connotative richness both terms acquire in the narrative, into the
stasis of standing stock still" (165). And of Pudd'nhead, he claims: "In his
ultimate account of a God without love, presiding over a world without hope,
Mark Twain breaks free [in Pudd'nead] to a versatility and virtuosity of
technique which we never much look for because, the author being only 'old
Twain,' we never much expect it" (207). (I provide this quote here because
of the members of the Forum may enjoy Mark Twain purely for his humor, not
serious social commentary. Do not read Griffith's book if this kind of
analysis of Twain bothers you.)

The final, and shortest, section of the book pairs Twain with Melville. This
section made me very pleased since I have always thought of them as kindred
spirits (with, in a different way, Flannery O'Connor). What is Moby-Dick but
Huck Finn on a whale ship (water quest, meaningless search, American Adam)?
Huck flees to the territory, Ishmael gets picked up by the Rachel. Griffith
pairs Twain and Melville in their obsession with twins and duality (think of
the "Monkey Rope" chapter of MD), Gothic fiction (New England Gothic and
Southern Gothic), and basic responses to the idea that the "whole universe
a vast practical joke." Primarily examining Moby-Dick and Billy Budd,
draws important parallels between these two curmudgeonly geniuses, Twain and
Melville. "A shared interest in Chang and Eng has led to fictions where
darkness must invariably prevail and a fiction [Billy Budd] where freely
choosing raises the suggestion that nothing is certain except the dark
of every certainty" (244). As Griffith concludes, "Melville and Mark Twain
conspire to present a world of fools, a world wherein the act of
itself is but another form of foolishness--though it is one that remains
vitally necessary" (260).

Griffith writes with a comfortable authority that is (most of the time)
unpretentiously intellectual. He makes bold and broad assertions; however,
generally provides enough evidence to support his claims. At times one is
to consider his points "Much Ado about Nothing," but further reading
the desire of criticism: thoughtful, informed dialogue about meaningful
Griffith's work (creative criticism?) is artifice of its own, even down to
arrangement of the chapters and sub-chapters. He experiments with critical
presentation in this work, keeping the thoughts self-consciously fresh
the repetition of the primary thesis in various forms. One gets the feeling
that Griffith likes the sound of his own words, which is OK.

This work is not for the new Twain reader, nor is it for the casual
research-paper-writer. It is a book for the Twainiac who wants to know
the man behind the smile. In focusing so much on Twain's static fictions and
his philosophy of futility, Griffith has written a "wicked book," but I'm
he feels "spotless as a lamb" with its completion.
About the reviewer: Kim Martin Long, a long-time friend of the Forum,
her PhD in American Literature in 1993. She can usually be found in
south-central Pennsylvania teaching, reading, and talking about Twain,
Melville, O'Connor, or other American writers who write about serious
in a funny way.