J.D. Stahl. _Mark Twain, Culture and Gender: Envisioning America
Through Europe_. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press,
1994. Pp. xvii + 231. Illustrations, index. $35.00. Cloth,
5-3/4" x 8-3/4". ISBN 0-8203-1559-1.
Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Timothy Beals <[log in to unmask]>
Grand Rapids, MI
Copyright (c) Mark Twain Forum, 1995. This review may not be
published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
As a new member of a small group of contemporary writers and books that
examine the connections between established literary figures and modern
psychological trends and tastes, J.D. Stahl and his volume titled _Mark
Twain, Culture and Gender_ add significantly to this growing literature by
taking a balanced, studied look at Mark Twain's vision of "what it meant to
be a man in Victorian America; what Twain thought it meant to be a woman;
how men and women did, could, and should relate to each other" (jacket).
Stahl does this, as the book's subtitle suggests, by looking closely at
five of Twain's major works and a handful of his shorter pieces--all of them
set in Europe, and all but one, _The Innocents Abroad_, set in the past.
This book is interesting and important for both Twain scholars and general
readers alike chiefly because it explores and reevaluates the works of Twain
that were important to Twain but are now seldom read outside the academy.
With complete chapters dedicated to _The Prince and the Pauper_, _A
Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court_, _Personal Recollections of Joan
of Arc_, and "The Mysterious Stranger" manuscripts, Stahl looks carefully at
Twain's shifting ideals of American culture and gender, with stress on
Twain's notions about gender and sexuality.
In his preface the author asserts that his objective "is not to confirm a
preconceived theory of what Mark Twain's text says but rather to discover
what his fiction and nonfiction tell us that he himself may not have been
willing or able to state analytically or directly" (x). With healthy
for evidence and an unwavering resolve to uncover the plain meaning of the
text and its significance to his thesis, Stahl largely succeeds in exposing
Twain not merely as a representative of his age, but as an often complex and
contradictory thinker and writer for all times.
By using his substantial powers of observation and critical facility, Stahl
stays within the tradition of literary scholarship that values honest
investigation and clear thinking over the temptation to reproduce the
humorless, amateur psychoanalytical approach of Susan Gillman's _Dark
And yet it is clear that Stahl's writing is generously informed by
psychology, gender study, cultural theory, and traditional Twain criticism.
The result is a satisfying collection of insights into Mark Twain's public
and private imagination that will serve anyone interested in Twain studies
generally or in Twain's European writings in particular.
Moving through Twain's writing chronologically and tracing the development
his shifting values and perspective, Stahl begins his assessment of the
European writings by examining Twain's notion of cultural authority in _The
Innocents Abroad_ (1869), "Mark Twain's first full-length, coherent book,
which Robert Regan calls 'the first great monument of American prose'
(_American Bypaths_ 187)" (28). In this first chapter, Stahl's prose slips
occasionally into the kind of jargon that produces such sentences as, "The
text dramatizes an uneasy, frequently ritualized relationship to the
and female Other" (31), and "The fear of dissipation could be overruled by
its attraction, particularly in circumstances in which the romantic approval
of illicit activity could be expressed as meretricious" (41).
But within this searching, abstract fog, Stahl is able to affirm with some
clarity that Twain "invented, staged, and elaborated cultural dramas in _The
Innocents Abroad_ in which he confronted European females whose supposed
experience and sophistication confirmed his innocence. These dramas reveal
the merging of sexual anxiety and cultural anxiety. Economic power was a
less equivocal symbol of American confidence than sexual maturity, yet both
the confidence of American purchasing power and his fears about courtship
provided the young American male author with material to dramatize what it
meant for him to confront, challenge, and incorporate European culture in an
extended act of declaration of American identity" (46).
The author next turns his attention from Twain's assertion of male American
independence to a fascinating analysis of Mark Twain and female power,
looking especially at "the distance between the dominant public veneration
for European cultural artifacts and a submerged private fascination with
'corrupt' European morals, which is nowhere clearer than in the contrast
between 'A Memorable Midnight Experience' (collected in _Mark Twain's
Sketches, Number One_, 1874), his polished reverential account of a visit to
Westminster Abbey, and _1601: Conversation As It was by the Social Fireside
in the Time of the Tudors_ (1876), his bawdy and scatological reenactment of
conversation among Queen Elizabeth's private circle," a piece he took pains
to keep private (13).
Here Stahl develops a hypothesis about the dichotomy between Twain's public
and private worlds--between the respectable strategies Twain employs in his
writing intended for publication and the simultaneous ambivalence toward
sexuality and appropriateness demonstrated in his writing intended for a
private audience. This chapter, an earlier version of which appeared in
_Studies in American Fiction_, is among the most revealing in the book
because it deals clearly with the dichotomy and paradox of Twain's persona,
and because it takes Twain enthusiasts into new perspectives on the author
looking at his lesser known works.
Stahl turns next to the more familiar fiction of _The Prince and the Pauper_
(chapter 3) and _A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court_ (chapter 4)
focusing on the natural theme of fathers and sons and identity in _The
Prince_ and its parallels in _Huck Finn_, and a similar emphasis in
_Connecticut Yankee_. According to the author, "In _A Connecticut Yankee in
King Arthur's Court_ (1889), Mark Twain again addresses the filial-paternal
themes of the _The Prince and the Pauper_ in the context of a fictionalized
European past, but this time he chooses to address them mainly from the
parental perspective, with a more political agenda" (85). Throughout his
discussion of these works he shows their thematic similarities: a commoner
takes power and changes the nature of rule in a backward monarchy. And
his arguments regarding _PP_ run along conventional lines that look closely
at Twain's biographical and historical sources for the book, the author's
analysis of _CY_ turns up a novel, highly plausible, and satisfying read of
the story, especially its problematic ending.
_Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc_ is the next target of Stahl's
analysis, and throughout the examination of this remarkable but little-read
work--one of Twain's own sentimental favorite--Professor Stahl
demonstrates his ability to synthesize the current feminist criticism and
carve out a new middle ground that acknowledges the difficulties of Twain's
characterization and the contradictions that mark the text's escape from
sexuality. In Joan we meet a real woman, as seen through the eyes of the
male narrator de Conte. But what we see, as Mark Twain represents her, is
"an incongruous and implausible combination of sensitive delicacy and
fearless authority" (145). "Her main function, in psychological terms, is
enable men to be men," and this confirms the notion, says Stahl, that "woman
is represented only in relation to the male self in Twain's work" (145).
Finally Stahl's book contends with the "Mysterious Stranger" manuscripts,
among Twain's last writings and perhaps the clearest look at his mature view
of culture and gender. Ranking among Twain's most imaginative and
experimental creations, these fragmentary tales about young Satan allow
to "look at the borders between psychological and social realities in new
ways" (152). "Gender and nation (masculine and feminine, America and
Europe), polarities Mark Twain earlier frequently presented as simple
dichotomies, here become transparent--not insignificant, but conduits for
more abstract and complex speculations" (153). Stahl carefully compares
Twain's earlier European writing to these final traces to provide a sense of
the author's development on issues of culture and gender.
In his conclusion to the book, Stahl writes, "Mark Twain's constructions of
European culture and of gender were a significant part of his construction
American culture. In particular, his interpretations of gender in the
European context are a rich source of revelation of the culturally
conditioned ideas, anxieties, and desires of a powerfully imaginative
nineteenth-century American male author" (187).
Thus the book provides yet another lens through which to view many of Mark
Twain's most important creations. It is thoroughly annotated and generously
illustrated with interesting drawings and photographs, many of which will be
new to Twain devotees. The only significant disappointment for scholars is
the bibliography, which cites all the classic books and articles and many
more obscure studies, but in over a hundred bibliographical entries it
includes just two published in the last five years, and just a handful more
published in the last decade.
Overall, _Mark Twain, Culture and Gender_ should become required reading for
anyone interested in Twain's accounts of culture and gender in both Europe
and America, and for those looking for fresh insight into Twain's writings
with European historical settings.
1. Some of the recent contributors to the works that look critically at
literature and its psycho-sexual dimensions include Allan Bloom (_Love &
Friendship_) and Frederick Crews (_The Critics Bear It Away_). In his final
book, Bloom looks at European authors--primarily Rousseau and Shakespeare--
and tries to "recover the power, the danger, and the beauty of eros" lost to
the sterile, scientific notions of Alfred C. Kinsey and Sigmund Freud (13);
Crew's collection of critical pieces examines American authors--chiefly
Hawthorne, Twain, and O'Connor--and explores the shortcomings of the
Freudian psychoanalysis that colored much of his own earlier criticism.
2. In 1994, after the publication of Stahl's volume, the Library of America
brought back into print in one volume a new authoritative edition of
Recollections of Joan of Arc_ and two other historical romances by Twain:
Prince and the Pauper_ and _A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court_.