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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 30 Jan 1995 17:34:43 -0500
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
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The following is a forwarded message from Wesley Britton in
response to issues raised regarding his recent Forum book review.
As Wesley has no access to the Forum at this time, I am acting as
intermediary.  Replies or further comments may be directed to
Wesley Britton at the address at the end of this message.  KJB
To Laura Skandera-Trombley
Re: My review of _Mark Twain's Humor: Critical Essays_
     First, sorry it's taken so long to respond to your comments;
I'm not on the Internet and only hear Forum news through a friend.
Second, Taylor didn't write the review.  I did.
     My "brush off" of your essay was not intended to demean the
essay itself--as I said, it did not, however, seem to fit within
the stated scope of the volume.  Like many other fine pieces in the
collection, your work is useful, informative, and insightful but is
miscast under what I consider a misleading book title.  Like
Shelley Fisher-Fishkin's excellent study, your piece addressed
important issues only marginally related to humor.  If the book
were entitled _Mark Twain's Critical Reputation_, _Changing Critical
Responses to Mark Twain_ or something far more general, the volume
would make more sense, although quite a few little pieces would
still be unnecessary.  Most of my comments addressed the surprising
inclusion of material, rarely damning the material itself.
     This is why I invoked the dreaded "political correctness"
prerogative--if the work was not a critical essay on humor, why was
it included?  I did indeed get the impression David was attempting
to "touch all the bases," so an essay on feminine issues sans
criticism of humor did seem more a nod to current critical
hotpoints rather than choosing work addressing the ostensible topic
of the book.  Again, this is a matter of out-of-sync inclusion
rather than a complaint with the material itself.  I profited by
reading your essay on its own merits--my criticism is primarily
addressed to the confusing editorial policies.
     For what it's worth, I'm glad my ideas are supported by others
who've independently described the volume as "thin" and "vastly
overpriced."  Again, no specific author has been called into
question but rather the oddly assorted and repetitive miscellany in
which they appear.
     In brief, in terms of defining "political correctness," I
think the term's meaning has changed over the years.  When I first
heard it regarding literary discussion, the focus was on what was
to be included in the "canon" and how was literature to be taught.
I think some very healthy and important changes came about from
this, for lack of a better word, movement.  But with every movement
comes excess.  Ask Alan Gribben.  The current vogue of damning
white male culture in toto, tendencies to filter writers and their
works through contemporary social standards, and thin-skinned
censorship of vernacular vocabulary tend to go overboard.  I think
the last two conferences in Hartford addressing only racial issues
were PC, and so are discussions of Andy Hoffman's faulty
syllogisms.  Because a minority is invoked, he gets more mileage
out of his PC gossip in this political environment than he would at
any other time because he touches a contemporary hot button, not
Mark Twain.  His logic is less than Leslie Fiedler who thought Huck
and Jim were gay but on a par with one discussion at Hartford three
years ago when some folks decided Twain MUST have slept with black
women, how else could he have portrayed Roxy so convincingly?  If
spiritualists were en vogue, we'd have to deal with those who count
Twain among their number because he spoke to them from beyond the
     I don't accuse you of any of this.  Still, in your letter to
me, you complain of an "obvious" dearth of female biographers/
scholars of Twain.  The same is true of black scholars (judging
from the participation at Twain gatherings) and disabled scholars
of which I'm the only one I'm aware of in regards to Twain.  What
difference does it make?  Good scholarship is good scholarship no
matter who writes it.  I don't give a hoot who the author is of any
given study and think gender, race, national origin etc. is
irrelevant, although I admit Eastern studies of American Literature
come from a very different context.  I've just completed a
comparison of Hawthorne's _House of the Seven Gables_ with Toni
Morrison's _Beloved_ (forthcoming in _Nathaniel Hawthorne Review_) and
I'm neither black nor female and don't need to be to understand
issues important to either group.  When such limiting demands on a
scholar's background do become relevant, that is PC excess
fragmenting our consciousness.  Besides, the number of outstanding
female Twain scholars has risen dramatically since the days Gladys
Bellamy was the lone representative in the first Twain conference
in the photo Ham Hill showed us at the last Elmira get-together.
And I'm glad for that.
     I do think studies of Twain's relationships with women and his
treatment of them in his works are extremely important, and, from
what I can see, ARE topics being explored rather frequently, and I
say they are long overdue.  It seems clear such issues, alongside
those of race, are a dominant theme in current Twain scholarship.
I think Livy's reputation has been greatly improved in recent
years, Twain's relationships with his "home circle," Angelfish, and
female friends IS continually being explored, and more certainly
can be and should be done.  Your work and Susan Harris', in
particular, has contributed much to the Twain critical canon. I
look forward to future studies on the subjects you name, no matter
who writes them.  (Sounds like a subject for a good anthology of
critical essays.  Worth considering?)
Wesley Britton
1202 S. Walnut
Sherman, TX 75090