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Lawrence Howe <[log in to unmask]>
Sat, 21 Apr 2012 17:45:38 -0500
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Dear forum--

I've really enjoyed the exchange that has been unfolding from Scott Holmes observation.  Since my name and work was invoked at the beginning of this thread, I feel obligated to qualify the basis of my characterization of Twain's texts as failures.  My position was influenced by Jim Cox's work, but I can't speak for him, so I'll offer only a clarification of my position.  

I have never suggested that his works are failures of literary art.  I wouldn't return to them as often as I do if that were the case. I have little interest in the finding fault with the structural flaws that many early critics cited.  I very deliberately avoid the questions of formal unity and structural consistency that New Criticism often hung its hat on because it think those expectations are inappropriate criteria for a writer who processed his work as Twain did.  To do so is akin to dismissing Picasso because no actual person has two eyes on one side of one's face.    

Rather, my argument is rooted in narrative theories that posit the novel's existence as a social genre, one committed to subverting the status quo (and note that, from this theoretical perspective, not all narrative fiction in book length qualifies generically as a novel). But in this regard, not only Twain's novels but all novels are failures.  Now it might seem rather absurd to think that a story about a fictional character could motivate anyone to attempt to change the world.  But novelists have often expressed their sense of having failed to achieve pretty big changes.   

This does not mean that novels have absolutely no social impact.  One example of a novel that did achieve real change is  _the Jungle_, but even when that example is raised, we must acknowledge that Sinclair himself judged it a failure:  he was trying to bring down capitalism but the result of his efforts was the FDA.  Doris Lessing is another novelist who aimed for large social impact, and she dismissed her acclaimed  _The Golden Notebooks_ as a failure because it did not achieve the kind of feminist structural changes that she expected.  The one example that often comes up as a challenge to my point is _Uncle Tom's Cabin_, which even Lincoln is said to have cited as the cause of the Civil War.  If Lincoln ever said that, I assume that he was being ironic.  But Lincoln aside, I find it incredibly unsettling to think that it took a story about someone who never existed, who was nothing more than marks on a page, to inspire the sympathy of people who couldn't get worked up by narratives written by actual fugitive slaves.  While the tradition of sentimental philosophy cited the emotional affinity that a reader might feel for a character as a mark of that reader's sentimental pedigree, I find it more troubling that a character--an artifice--would generate sympathy where flesh and blood humans could not do so. Richard Wright apparently felt similarly because it was the fact that banker's daughters cried upon reading Richard Wright's collection of novellas, _Uncle Tom's Children, that goaded him to compose _Native Son_, a text that he was determined would shock those readers rather than move them to tears.

What is most intriguing about Twain is that even when his books were popular or critically praised, he signaled his sense of disappointment about them along the lines that I'm describing.  But even more intriguing, and satisfying, is the fact that he didn't just abandon novels given what he'd experienced.  He continued to push the edges of the genre to see if he could achieve a social impact (I can see no other way to explain _CY_) or to expose the unfulfillable promise of the genre of the novel itself.  

So I hope I've made the terms of my argument somewhat clearer.  When I use the term "failure," I don't mean it in the sense that Hemingway did when he discounted the ending of HF_ (rather stupidly in my view, for without that ending the satirical and novelistic purpose of the narrative evaporates).  Twain produced remarkably engaging, deceptively complex, and profoundly provocative narrative literature.  By that measure his career is a genuine triumph.  But he also worked in a form that imposes rather lofty ambitions; and what his remarkably adept writing shows is that the genre of the novel tantalizes its practitioners into chasing its promise: that a truly successful novel can re-make the world.  And that promise is more like a confidence game, as Melville suggests, or a Catch 22, as Heller does.  

--Larry Howe   
From: Mark Twain Forum [[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of Mark Dawidziak [[log in to unmask]]
Sent: Saturday, April 21, 2012 4:38 PM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Failures in the works of Mark Twain

     Just a thought tossed into what's already an extremely thoughtful
mix: there's a monumental difference between "flawed" and "failure." It
certainly could be argued that "Huckleberry Finn" and "Connecticut
Yankee" are structurally flawed. I'm trying to wrap my brain around the
notion that either of these books would be classified as failures. If
this be failure, please, let me write something 1/100th as good.
      But flawed? Is there a work of art that isn't flawed in some way?
And just because something is flawed doesn't mean it's not a
masterpiece. In his introduction to an annotated edition of Bram
Stoker's "Dracula," scholar Leonard Wolf writes, "Let me say at once
that we have a complete masterpiece, flawed here and there, as the
Chinese insist masterpieces should be, but, nevertheless, the real thing."
     Seems to me the same might be said of "Huckleberry Finn,"
"Connecticut Yankee" and many other Twain works. Which isn't to say
there are not failures within these works -- flaws, if you will. Even
the last third of "Huckleberry Finn" is now viewed in a vastly different
light, thanks to the scholarship of Vic Doyno and others. The appraisal
presented by William M. Gibson and others, if hardly overturned, has
been treated to a substantive alternate interpretation. Whatever the
view of this ending, or "Connecticut Yankee," for that matter, I'm
guessing that most of us would contend that we are in the presence of
the real thing.

-----Original Message----- From: Scott Holmes
<[log in to unmask]> To: TWAIN-L <[log in to unmask]> Sent: Fri,
Apr 20, 2012 6:44 pm Subject: Failures in the works of Mark Twain I've
been aware for some time now that there has been dissatisfaction with
the concluding portion of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but not until
this last year have I become aware of what seems to be a sense of
failure in much of his work. =20 A few weeks back I mentioned I was
reading Cox's Mark Twain The Fate of Humor and I was surprised at the
thought that Connecticut Yankee and/or The Prince and the Pauper were
failures. Upon finishing this book it seems to me that Cox felt most of
Twains work were failures. And this surprised me greatly especially
sense he seems to be so well informed on the topic. =20 I started today
on Lawrence Howe's Mark Twain and the Novel. This appears to argue that
the failures were not Twain's but are structural. Nevertheless, the idea
that there are failures or faults in these works surprises me. In fact
it disturbs me. I suppose this is because I am not a literary critic or
even academically trained in English (my degrees are in Geography). In
my mind, a book, in this case a novel, is a failure only if it fails to
interest the reader and/or proves to be unreadable. This is not the case
with any of Twain's works in my experience.=20 On further searching for
why this sense of failure exists I came upon a review of Cox's book by
Kristin Brown. It would seem that Mark Twain IS a Humorist and must
write humorous material, otherwise "Twain had attempted to suppress his
genius". This is the crux of my problem with the idea that there are
failures. This strikes me very much like the argument that Miles Davis
was a failure after he progressed beyond Bebop. An artist is not allowed
to venture away from their established genre. Humor might have been his
"strongest suit" but by no means need it be his only suit. Thoughts?