[N.B. The following review was authored by Steven Brykman, on whose
behalf I am merely posting it. --T.R.]
Michelson, Bruce. _Mark Twain on the Loose: A Comic Writer and the
American Self_. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1995. Pp.
269. Notes, bibliography, index. Cloth. $45.00. ISBN 0-87023-966-x.
Paper, 6" x 9-1/4". $16.95. ISBN 0-87023-967-8.
Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Steven Brykman <[log in to unmask]>
University of Massachusetts
Copyright (c) Mark Twain Forum, 1996. This review may not be
published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Although the cover photo of Mark Twain naked from the waist up surely is
intended to boost sales, it is of no consequence. The book does not
need it. With the exception of a couple of brief troublesome spots,
Michelson's exploration of "a troublemaker side of Mark Twain, focusing
on his delight in subverting the ground rules for literary art and all
definitions of the self" is worth reading. Michelson's central idea is
easily summarized: Twain's writing often expresses "a drive for absolute
liberation" from all social conventions of identity, from psychological
confinements, even from the limitations of the imagination and the
artistic voice that energizes Twain's work and the characters living
within it. Michelson's text chronicles Twain's drive for liberation,
and explores how it intensified with each stage of Twain's life.
With this nearly all-encompassing text, Michelson chronologically takes
on early speeches and pieces (most notably "The Celebrated Jumping Frog
of Calaveras County,"), _The Innocents Abroad_, _Roughing It_, _A Tramp
Abroad_, _Following the Equator_, _Life on the Mississippi_, _The
Adventures of Tom Sawyer_, _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_, _Tom Sawyer
Abroad_, _Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy_, _Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the
Indians_, _The Prince and the Pauper_, _A Connecticut Yankee in King
Arthur's Court_, "Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven,"
_The Mysterious Stranger, A Romance_, "The Man That Corrupted
Hadleyburg," _Pudd'nhead Wilson_, "Those Extraordinary Twins," _Personal
Recollections of Joan of Arc_, _Christian Science_, "The Great Dark,"
and "Which Was It?"--an exhaustive list, to be sure.
Often, we Twainiacs like to look at an overly-intellectualized thing and
ask ourselves how we think Twain would have mocked it. Michelson does
the same, and consequently tends to fall into a recurring pattern of
presentation, analysis, and apology. In his effort to explain a joke
and still allow the reader to laugh at it, Michelson, like the
Fitzgerald quotation he references, tries to "coexist with [his] own
negation." Fortunately, Michelson recognizes the ludicrousness of
attempting "a systematic reading of Mark Twain's art as systematically
against system" and fears his attempts to "settle" issues about Twain
will only limit the reader's experience, something Michelson feels is
akin to "an act of cultural vandalism."
In the opening nine pages, Michelson writes in generalities, raising
Twain to the level of a deity: "and if the Face has reigned through most
of this century, then the Name stays a cultural mantra." Reading this
section, I found myself forgetting Twain was subject to mortality. This
turns out to be part of Michelson's plan, however, for at the end of the
text, the ironic sadness of Twain's last years jars the reader's
previous ideas of Twain's divinity.
At first, I'm on Michelson's side as he criticizes critics and declares
his intention to remain true to Twain's wild, uncontainable humor and
his "rambunctious barbarism, spontaneity, changefulness, insouciance,
and anarchy," and to support Twain's "war against convention . . . not
just against sentimental and romantic tropes, but even against the
seriousness of literary intention."
But does he mean it? Indeed, when Michelson starts defining "or rather
dedefining humor," I smell so many whoppers I'm thinking he's being
sponsored by Burger King: "As in the astrophysics of the Big Bang, the
instant when the universe both blew up and began, an exploding universe
of laughter might look immensely different, depending on what nanosecond
you choose for a glimpse." And this leads to Michelson's concluding
definition of humor, which is anything but earth-shattering (as he
readily admits): "humor as a subversion of seriousness."
Though he's assigned himself the dreaded task of explaining jokes,
Michelson raises the right issues; for example, perhaps what Twain's
humor does most of all is subvert the expectations of subversion.
Michelson introduces "The Petrified Man" in his opening chapter, and
this is what the book is really about--the petrification of the spirit,
of identity, of self. Michelson sometimes says things that seem
obvious, but only because they are things we might wish we had thought
of ourselves. In this case, that Twain's petrified man "subverts any
reading" and its stone-faced unresponsiveness necessarily prevents us
from figuring out what it means--which is exactly what Michelson tells
us it means.
Michelson's examples of the "Whittier Birthday Speech of December 1877"
and the "Plymouth Rock" address form a perfect pair. Michelson's
explanation of why one speech bombed and the other 'killed' (when both
speeches appear equally venomous on the surface) sheds light on the
development of Twain's humor, specifically on how Twain perfected his
art of whopper-telling. This is material worthy of its own book--a
successful examination of how self-deprecation enhances humor.
Michelson explains "the put-on" in language that would make Groucho
proud, and without spoiling any of Twain's original punch-lines, either.
When Michelson jumps abruptly to his next topic--"frogs"--we can be
thankful that, at least, we have a writer who is willing to admit he's
not sure what's so funny about "The Celebrated Jumping Frog": "one can
read long in the commentary without learning quite why the American
public found this story so transcendently funny." So Michelson turns to
other matters. He considers "Jumping Frog" in its historical context,
sets it beside other Southwestern humor pieces, and raises it up as a
"Southwestern meta-tale"--all to no end. As clever as Michelson proves
Twain's story to be, he fails to explain what makes it funny. But this
isn't Michelson's fault. He interprets the daylights out of the thing.
He does the best he, or anybody, could do. In the end, he is forced to
question the "idiocies of interpretation," and concludes that the
subversion must be of discourse itself. However, Michelson does manage
to pull a central message from the story that jibes with his own thesis:
that an immobilized frog filled with quail-shot is symbolic of the
stagnant psyche Twain so reviled.
In "Fool's Paradise," the second chapter, Michelson, not surprisingly,
examines the travel books as critiques of culture and as escapes from
the conventions of identity and storytelling. His reading of _The
Innocents Abroad_, provides valuable historical commentary surrounding
the text and reveals much about the Twain mind. Michelson discusses
_Roughing It_'s Wild West as a metaphor for the "liberation from
confinements of cultural identity," while simultaneously explaining
Twain's various gag strategies and showing how each does or doesn't fit
the traditional patterns of a put-on. For instance, the classic Twain
gag line "Is he dead?" is integral to Michelson's central thesis for two
reasons: the gag performer must erase his own identity by playing
stupid, while the gag line itself implies the subject's loss of identity
and literal petrification (rigor mortis).
Michelson's analysis becomes increasingly psychological as he considers
Twain's fixation with death in the travel narratives. Dead folk do
indeed fill these books, and Michelson is correct in interpreting the
graveyards of _The Innocents Abroad_ as intended to "give Mark Twain a
firmer right to profess exhaustion or numbness in Jerusalem." All this
talk of corpses is numbing, and prepares the reader for Twain's visit to
the site of the Resurrection. Such is Twain's motive behind the endless
put-ons, according to Michelson, all of which ultimately allow Twain to
declare the whole place a fake, a put-on. Yes, Michelson strays from
his central thesis in treating _Innocents Abroad_, but only slightly,
and forgivably so, for the material here elucidates Twain's belief in
the notion of "incongruous, crazy playfulness as a stay against
At this point in the text, Michelson re-introduces us to a new Mark
Twain, a Twain who, after _Roughing It_, was "cured" of truth and
reality. Michelson's coverage of these travel books bypasses discussion
about how much of what Twain wrote actually happened. He claims instead
that such issues are irrelevant, and weaves notions of truth and
identity together. Michelson asserts that the important thing is that
Twain intentionally provides us with a break from our inescapable
tendency to distinguish fiction from truth.
One cannot help but enjoy Michelson's propensity for admitting the
shortcomings of his own techniques, the guilt he feels at restricting
Twain's work so that it conforms to his own limiting themes. But he
needn't feel guilty. Michelson broadens our vision of Twain's
transformation from free spirit to frozen artist as it is reflected in
successive texts. Michelson picks telling Twain moments to prove his
point, tying together a wild, liberating avalanche ride from _Roughing
It_, with its end result in _A Tramp Abroad_--a man frozen in ice--in an
effort to illuminate the shiftings of Twain's psyche. In _A Tramp
Abroad_, Michelson shows us a Twain narrator who is "over-the-hill when
it comes to real adventuring, or real experimentation with
identity . . . trapped, by money, laziness and world-wide repute."
In _Following the Equator_, Michelson proclaims Twain to be (in Twain's
own words) a "finished man," unhappy with his completeness, his habits,
his hardened persona. Sickened by his own petrification, then, Twain
fills his book with disease, cholera, lepers, and funerals. And as if
Twain became sickened with being sick, Michelson claims _Life on the
Mississippi_ is, for Twain, a rediscovery of his former self, a putting
aside of his present petrification, of what he felt he had already
become--"an immovable fixture among the other rocks of New England."
Chapter three deftly covers Twain's "Quarrel with Romance" in _Huck
Finn_. But this is not the romance we are used to. Michelson's romance
is not only delusionary, but also a threat to freedom and dignity. This
chapter is the most incisive for the manner in which Michelson examines
Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer as they lived and matured in the mind of their
creator. Michelson even dares to consider _Tom Sawyer_ and _Huckleberry
Finn_ as "companion novels, and even (heaven forbid!) as parts of one
miscellaneous and uneven tale," and to trace both characters through
Twain's works (published and unpublished) to determine how consistently
Twain portrayed, and thus how personally invested he was in, the
development of each character. But Michelson doesn't stop here. He
boldly lists Tom's good points, such as they are, through _The
Adventures of Tom Sawyer_, _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_, _Tom Sawyer
Abroad_, _Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy_, and _Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among
the Indians_, and never loses sight of his goal: to highlight incidents
of escape--from plot and from the "tyrannies" of both romantic and
Michelson's criticism of Twain's lesser-known Tom Sawyer adventures is
as biting as his praise of _Huckleberry Finn_ is laudatory: "thin
gruel . . . Shameless exploitation, then, of Mark Twain's own best
characters." Happily, he finally concludes that a valid reading of
_Huckleberry Finn_ requires an exclusive study of that text alone.
The second half of "The Quarrel with Romance" focuses exclusively on
Huck Finn and "the disaster of becoming." Michelson drops Mark Twain
from the discussion, claiming that he fears the dangers of probing too
deeply into such a book for clues about the working of Twain's mind. We
should be skeptical of this assertion. Michelson's book, thus far, is
largely an exploration into the Twain mind, and when (in these pages and
in others) his criticism becomes purely textual, Twain's presence is
But if he fears probing deeply into _Huck Finn_, easily the densest of
all Twain works, why does he so thoroughly interrogate lesser texts?
Michelson struggles to find meaning in Twain's yearning for "the
ultimate escape" in texts he later deems "pointless . . . a marvelous
failure." For Michelson, _The Prince and the Pauper_ offers notions of
"perpetual nonarrival" as a means of avoiding petrification. And
Michelson makes those who thought _A Connecticut Yankee_ was one of
Twain's simpler farces think twice. According to Michelson, the book
signifies Twain's own declaration of war with all enslaving practices,
whether religious, social, political, or self-inflicted.
Chapter four, "The Wilderness of Ideas," covers the most unsettling
period of the writer's career, for it follows Twain's work after 1899
and illustrates how his notions of identity dissolved into absurdity.
Michelson fights the traditional classification of Twain's later years
as "a closing act in an epic life-tragedy," and instead sees in these
years Twain's continuing struggle to resist being categorized and bound
by his work and by his public persona.
Michelson refuses to mourn the gloominess that dominated Twain's final
writings and believes the turmoil in Twain's life provided the integrity
of his late writing. Try as Michelson might, the grief of Twain's late
life, transparently visible in his own writings, overshadows any
academic concepts of identity Michelson works to emphasize in these dark
stories. Michelson makes a strong case, though, especially with regard
to "Those Extraordinary Twins," in which Twain annihilates the notion of
self-identity by portraying a character with two personalities lurking
in the same physical being.
However, Michelson's desire to examine even the most obscure of Twain's
works for material on identity backfires with regard to "Joan of Arc"
and _Christian Science_. As hard as Michelson struggles to compliment
Joan for her ability to escape "selfhood," even he can't help but
criticize the superficiality of the writing and wonder why Twain
considered the book his best novel. Michelson's desire to be all-
inclusive continues to go awry when he troubles to force similar meaning
from _Christian Science_, a text which when it "admires" Mary Baker Eddy
does so only facetiously.
Overall, Bruce Michelson's demonstration of how various Twain stories
give voice to the writer's own yearning to elude petrification is a
valuable contribution to the ever-dynamic study of Mark Twain's humor
and rebelliousness. Michelson may rely a bit too heavily, though, on a
central image of Twain as the "American Vandal" who rejects
intellectualism and petrified men (Emerson, for example), ignoring the
possibility of Mark Twain as the rebel who isn't rejecting, but is
intellectually slumming--an actor, assuming a role.