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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Taylor Roberts <[log in to unmask]>
Sat, 23 Mar 1996 23:18:25 -0500
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
text/plain (200 lines)
[N.B.: The following book review was authored by John Bird; I am
merely posting it on his behalf. --Taylor Roberts]


     Florence, Don.  _Persona and Humor in Mark Twain's Early
     Writings_.  Columbia and London: University of Missouri
     Press, 1995.  Pp. 166.  Cloth, 6-1/4" x 9-1/4".  Notes,
     bibliography, index.  $34.95.  ISBN 0-8262-1025-2.

     Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:

          John Bird <[log in to unmask]> or <[log in to unmask]>
          Winthrop University

     Copyright (c) Mark Twain Forum, 1996.  This review may not
     be published or redistributed in any medium without

Don Florence has written a valuable and often perceptive study of
Mark Twain's persona and humor in the early writings.  While the
book has some problems and may even prove frustrating for some
readers, especially in its first half, it sets forth a clear
argument in a clear way, laying the groundwork for, one would
presume, further study of Twain's complete career.

The book has four chapters, with the first devoted to theory and
definition, then three chapters on Mark Twain's early works:
early Western tales and sketches, _The Innocents Abroad_, and
_Roughing It_.  Florence's first chapter promises much, and
indeed has much ground to cover, as it attempts to define humor
in general, to argue with many critics about the nature of Mark
Twain's persona, and to set up an epistemological approach to a
study of humor and persona.

An important early point for Florence, one that will guide him
through much of the study and provide many of its strengths as
well as some of its weaknesses, is that critics have made too
much of the dualism in Twain.  While he recognizes the presence
of dualism, he posits from the beginning that "[t]his study,
however, is concerned almost exclusively with Twain as the
controller of his works, a personality much more complex than
dualities can suggest" (1-2).  That personality, he argues, is a
creation of both the author and the reader:

     . . . to adopt the terminology of the Geneva School of
     phenomenological criticism, Mark Twain is the mind that we
     sense both governing a work and expressing itself through
     that work--the literary mode of thought, if you will, that
     Samuel Clemens entered into whenever he sat down to write.
     In short, Mark Twain is what Samuel Clemens becomes--and
     perhaps in some ways fundamentally _is_--as a writer and a
     persona: it is the way we are induced to conceptualize him.
     Mark Twain's persona--or Mark Twain _as_ a persona--is the
     basic way Twain is projected in a given work; it is how we
     know him as a literary consciousness.  To a large extent, we
     construct the implied author Mark Twain, the metaphysical
     entity behind and creator of a given work, through his
     manifestation as narrator and character(persona)in that
     work. (2)

We read, then, the early writings as "narrative histories" of
Mark Twain, as what Florence calls "fictive truths, or better
yet, true fictions" (3).  And that Mark Twain, Florence argues,
is complex, changeable, and dynamic, rather than an interplay
between dualities.  The result is a persona that becomes a free-
standing "mind" who "humorously observes--and shapes--his world"
(10).  Florence claims that "Twain achieved fluidity as a
literary self by 1872 and maintained it throughout his career"
(12).  "Indeed," Florence concludes, "the writings through
_Roughing It_ form a distinct, self-contained movement that takes
Twain as far as he is to go in a certain direction; namely, that
of a variable, inclusive personality who uses the plasticity of
humor to unsettle our notions of a fixed world" (16).

The first chapter covers much, promises much, making large claims
without much support, as one might expect in an overview.  It is
rich and suggestive, introducing complex ideas without being
jargon-filled.  Even so, in a chapter so obviously based on
theory (phenomenology, humor theory, narrative theory), a bit
more theoretical substance might be helpful.  The reader gets the
sense that the terms of argument have been set up without being
fully defined.  Subsequent chapters can fill in support for
claims, but it is very difficult after an opening to fill in
definitions.  In the place of traditional critical emphasis on
dualities, Florence argues for complexity, introducing several
terms he will use interchangeably when analyzing Twain's persona:
"fluid," "volatile" (and, as a verb, "volatilizing"), and
"protean."  These terms are subsequently asked to carry so much
of the weight of the argument that they perhaps deserve closer
attention themselves.

For example, "fluid" and "volatile" seem to suggest at least a
metaphorical connection to physical science, and Florence seems
to use them implicitly with this meaning; however, without an
overt discussion of such a connection, the terms seem rather to
have been chosen as random synonyms for "changeable."  Thus, they
lose some of their potential specificity; their constant
repetition may also frustrate some readers.  Some readers may
also question in a chapter devoted to a study of Twain's persona
the lack of reference to such a seminal study on the topic as
John C. Gerber's "Mark Twain's Use of the Comic Pose" (_PMLA_ 77
[1962]: 297-304).  Gerber is discussed later, but, given the
centrality and importance of his argument, he might be better
dealt with in this opening.  Still, this is a rich and suggestive
chapter, and anyone interested in Twain's humor and persona will
learn much from it and be challenged.

In his second chapter, an examination on the early Western
sketches, Florence concentrates on Twain's "fascination with
hoaxes, illusions, and exaggerations" (37).  His writing,
Florence argues, is a way for him to gain control over the
bewildering West, with the result that "Twain is liberated, not
diminished or endangered, by his transformations of the world"
(37).  Florence covers a number of these early pieces: "Petrified
Man," "A Bloody Massacre Near Carson," "Aurelia's Unfortunate
Young Man," "The Lick House Ball," and, of course, "The Notorious
Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," among others.  Florence argues
that Twain is at his best when he avoids "fixity" or "duality"
and achieves "fluidity," and the chapter traces those properties
through the various works.

The readings of some of the lesser-known and lesser-examined
works are often perceptive and enlightening, but Florence slights
"The Jumping Frog," certainly Twain's most important piece of the
period, and arguably one of his finest creations.  Because he
sees "The Jumping Frog" as being based on a duality between the
two narrators, Florence barely mentions it; surely it deserves
full study in any examination of the early works.  Indeed, if
Florence sees a demerit in the piece, this might be a place to
attempt to demonstrate the merits of fluidity over duality.  Not
to have done so might strike some readers as evasive, given the
importance of the piece in Twain's early career and national
recognition; is it not the way most readers of the time were
introduced to the persona of Mark Twain?  This chapter is the
most disappointing of the book, perhaps because the subject is so
unfocused, or perhaps because so many earlier studies have
covered this same ground at much greater length--Southwestern
humor, hoax, tall tale, burlesque, to name subjects that will
call to mind specific critical books on Twain.  This chapter does
not flesh out or support the promise of the introduction.

The second chapter, on _The Innocents Abroad_, is much stronger.
Florence argues that Twain confronts the Old World and transforms
it with the force of his humor; in Florence's terms, "He [Twain]
challenges the Old World's standards, traditions, and beliefs; he
uses the power of humor to substitute his own elastic models of
reality" (63).  Florence solidly and perceptively traces Mark
Twain's persona and humor in key passages of the travel book,
showing the way both persona and humor help Twain solve the
puzzle of the Old World and the puzzle of his own identity.  In
addition, Florence does a good job of showing the seriousness of
the humor, touching as it does on the serious subjects of death,
fear, and decay.  "As a result," Florence argues, "he [Twain]
emerges as much more than a mere 'humorist': he emerges as a
variegated and thoughtful mind, cognizant of existential dilemmas
but also cognizant that humor can shape new perspectives on these
dilemmas.  By shaping new perspectives, humor lets him shape a
relatively free identity" (83).  The result, Florence argues
quite convincingly, is that _The Innocents Abroad_ is more about
the mind of Mark Twain than it is about the Old World.  This
chapter is much more successful, perhaps because of its more
unified subject, but also because Florence makes better use of
his epistemological approach.  His point about the seriousness of
the humor is quite important.

The final chapter, on _Roughing It_, is stronger still.  Rather
than the usual critical position--that the book is based around a
dualistic transformation from tenderfoot to old-timer--Florence
argues that the narrative is structured around "a pattern of
humorous transcendence" (95).  He reads various episodes with
this in mind, pointing out the complexity of Twain's humor and
persona in the scene of the town dog and the coyote, the blind
lead episode, Buck Fanshaw's funeral, and the great landslide
case, among others.  Through the play of language and humor,
Twain manages to impose order on the chaos of his Western
experience (113); as a result, the West becomes a West of the
mind (118).  Florence writes, "By shaping language, history, and
even basic conceptions of reality, _Roughing It_ illustrates the
play of the mind--the restless, pioneering tendency of the mind
not to stay settled with a given idea but to push at that idea,
transforming and expanding it into new frontiers" (123).  By the
end of the text, according to Florence, Mark Twain has become
more real than Samuel Clemens (128).  With excellent, persuasive
readings of key scenes and much better attention to the central
thesis, this chapter is rich and rewarding.

Overall, Don Florence's book is a good, often excellent,
contribution to the ongoing study of Mark Twain's humor and
persona.  The book definitely gets stronger as it goes, and
readers who can mentally fill in some of the vagueness of the
opening and the unevenness of the second chapter will find much
that is instructive and rewarding in the analysis of the early
travel books.  The book's jacket promises that Florence is at
work on a study of Mark Twain's middle period; perhaps he could
take that chance to set a firmer critical and definitional
foundation as he moves on to the richest period in Mark Twain's