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Taylor Roberts <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 10 Jan 1995 16:07:18 EST
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     _Mark Twain's Humor: Critical Essays_.  Edited by David E. E. Sloane.
     New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993.  (Garland Studies
     in Humor (Steven H. Gale, General Editor), vol. 3; Garland Reference
     Library of the Humanities, vol. 1502.)  Pp. vii, 633.  Cloth, 5" x 8-
     1/4".  $95.00.  ISBN 0-8153-0620-2.
     Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
          Wesley Britton
          Grayson College
          Denison, TX
     Copyright (c) Mark Twain Forum, 1995.  This review may not be
     published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Scanning the table of contents of David E. E. Sloane's _Mark Twain's Humor:
Critical Essays_, one question leaps to mind: Why?  The heart of this
anthology comprises well known, readily accessible critical works by Walter
Blair, Edgar M. Branch, Louis Budd, Franklin Rogers, and oft-printed works
by Leslie Fiedler ("_Huckleberry Finn_: The Book We Love to Hate") and
Henry Nash Smith ("A Sound Heart and a Deformed Conscience").  Some less
available nineteenth and early twentieth century material and the new
essays written for this volume, however, will be useful additions to school
and public libraries, despite the volume's repetitiveness and somewhat
confusing scope.
What is most askew about _Mark Twain's Humor_ is its title.  Very little
material is focused on humor but rather traces Twain's literary development
and reputation.  The volume's scope includes both historic and modern
criticism, tracing Twain's growth from a contemporary humorist to a major
comic and social critic.  But many essays are puzzling by their inclusion.
Will Clemens's survey of Twain's lecture career, for example, is
straightforward biography; why repeat a well established path that neither
contributes new insights nor analyzes Twain's onstage material?  Another
example is Shelly Fisher Fishkin's succinct study of Twain and African-
Americans, again more historical than critical, and miscast here, as humor
is not within the essay's focus.  Other misplaced articles include a
miscellany of Twain anecdotes from the _Ladies' Home Journal_ (humorous but
hardly critical) and reprinting nearly the entire text of "To A Person
Sitting in the Darkness" followed by comments critical of Twain's politics,
not his humor.
The volume is strongest when it is on target, despite its reliance on
previously published sources.  _Mark Twain's Humor_ begins with Edgar
Branch's 1967 examination of Twain's development from "Ben Coon's
Narrative" under the influence of Artemus Ward when the young Sam Clemens
expressed his first doubts about pursuing a career as a humorist and Pascal
Covici's summation of Clemens's realism drawn from _Southwest Humor_.
Covici's essay, along with Louis Budd's insights from his _Mark Twain:
Social Philosopher_ (both originally published in 1962) remain especially
useful despite their age, as no work has superseded their analyses.
Sloane's organization here is confusing, as his own "Toward the Novel"
should logically precede Budd's essay primarily discussing _The Gilded
Subsequent articles trace Twain's well established path of finding his
voice and personae, moving from the tenderfoot to the old-timer in
_Roughing It_, and the east/west dichotomy of Mr. Brown and "Buck Fanshaw's
Funeral."  Some of the contemporary reviews are pertinent and fresh in this
new context, notably George Ade's affectionate "Mark Twain and the Old Time
Subscription Book," and _The Idler_ review of _Puddn'head Wilson_ speaking
on behalf of the wounded Southern readers satirized in the novel.  Others,
such as the reviews from _The Athenaeum_ and _Blackwood's_ could have been
judiciously edited to remove superfluous reviewer attitudes about humor in
general rather than Twain in particular.  One example that seemed more
digression than on target is Rufus A. Coleman's "Trowbridge and Clemens,"
only half of which is relevant for readers interested in Twain.
More useful are Edward Foster's and James M. Cox's 1968 and 1966 studies
of _A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court_ and Twain's "Yankee
Slang."  Like Alan Gribben's 1976 overview of "Twain's Library of Literary
Hogwash" from _American Literary Realism_, these essays are perfectly
suited for this volume's ostensible scope.  Clyde Grimm's 1967 _American
Quarterly_ remarks on _An American Claimant_ are also typical of the better
essays, fusing history with analysis of Twain's use of humor.
Many of the reprinted critics, such as Franklin Rogers, both discuss
Twain's work and the flow of critical thought in the twentieth century,
putting into perspective both Twain's literary reputation and re-evaluating
critical responses.  Sloane's insightful introduction, for example, notes
how Twain's later often self-indulgent works, not intended for publication,
have been given exaggerated emphasis by critics and a "hungry public" eager
for new material to dissect.
Other essays are notable for their discussion of Twain's place in literary
history.  Archibald Henderson's dated 1910 survey of Twain's international
reputation and Edith Wyatt's 1917 analysis of Twain's political views are
only interesting given their own historical context.  But A. C. Ward's 1932
comments on Twain's humor in general along, with the 1894 _Academy_ review
of _Tom Sawyer Abroad_, are particularly pertinent critical overviews
reflecting the more thoughtful responses of Twain's contemporaries and
immediate critical heirs.
The volume's last five essays offer views from new critics which, along
with the less-familiar material, will make this a needed addition to any
school and public library, particularly the discussions on Twain's late-
life writings.  Susan K. Harris's explication of "The Man that Corrupted
Hadleyburg" as a satire on then-popular fiction is instructive, and Suzanne
Weil's examination of Twain's last satires explores why the humor left
Twain's private texts, putting the prose he never intended to publish in
a new light.  (Her frequent references to Leslie Fiedler's essay "As Free
as any Cretur" [sic] on "the good bad boy" pose arouses speculation as to
why this essay was not included in this volume, as its points seem far more
pertinent than his frequently anthologized essay on _Huck Finn_ noted
Michael Kiskis is also helpful in his discussion of the _Autobiography_,
convincingly showing Twain's humor was maintained in his memoirs and essays
after he moved away from sustained fictional narratives.  However, Laura
Skandera-Trombley's discussion of Twain and feminine consciousness (the
volume's final essay), again seems out of place--more a nod to political
correctness and an attempt to touch all the bases than contributing to an
understanding of Twain's humor.  This essay, like many preceding it, would
be far more appropriate in an anthology addressing Twain's literary
_Mark Twain's Humor_, despite its misleading title, is still an interesting
miscellany of articles on Twain's artistic growth and the historical
contexts in which he is appreciated (or denounced).  One advantage of this
volume is the index, making most of the older essays more accessible for
scholars than in their previous incarnations.  Still, much of the repeated
material could simply have been listed in the helpfully annotated
bibliography, and many essays could have been shortened to fit the volume's
stated focus, thus making _Mark Twain's Humor_ more attractive at half the
size and half the price.
_Appendix to the book review_
Contents of _Mark Twain's Humor: Critical Essays_:
     General Editor's Note
     Introduction (by David E. E. Sloane)
     The Early Writings of Mark Twain: The Growth of the Comedian
          Edgar M. Branch, "'My Voice is Still for Setchell': A Background
               Study of 'Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog"
          Franklin R. Rogers, "Burlesque Travel Literature and Mark Twain's
               _Roughing It_"
          Pascal Covici, Jr., "From the Old Southwest"
          Louis J. Budd, "A Curious Republican"
          David E. E. Sloane, "Toward the Novel"
     The Middle Career of Mark Twain from _Tom Sawyer_ to _Pudd'nhead
     Wilson_: The Comedian as Major Author
          "Novels of the Week: _The Adventures of Tom Sawyer_," _Athenaeum_
          Walter Blair, "On the Structure of _Tom Sawyer_"
          William Dean Howells, "Mark Twain"
          Rufus A. Coleman, "Trowbridge and Clemens"
          _Blackwood's Magazine_, "Musings without Method"
          George Ade, "Mark Twain and the Old Time Subscription Book"
          Will M. Clemens, "Mark Twain on the Lecture Platform"
          Durant Da Ponte, "_Life_ reviews _Huckleberry Finn_"
          Leslie A. Fiedler, "_Huckleberry Finn_: The Book We Love to Hate"
          Henry Nash Smith, "A Sound Heart and a Deformed Conscience"
          Edward F. Foster, "A _Connecticut Yankee_ Anticipated: Max
               Adeler's _Fortunate Island_"
          James M. Cox, "Yankee Slang"
          Alan Gribben, "'I Kind of Love Small Game': Mark Twain's Library
               of Literary Hogwash"
          Clyde Grimm, "_The American Claimant_: Reclamation of a Farce"
          Henry Watterson, "Mark Twain--An Intimate Memory"
          _The Idler_, "The Book Hunter" [review of _Pudd'nhead Wilson_]
          Martha McCulloch Williams, "In Re 'Pudd'nhead Wilson'"
          Shelley Fisher Fishkin, "'The Tales He Couldn't Tell': Mark
               Twain, Race and Culture at the Century's End: A Social
               Context for _Pudd'nhead Wilson_"
     The Later Career of Mark Twain: The Comedian as a Cultural
          William Dean Howells, "Mark Twain: An Inquiry"
          Archibald Henderson, "The International Fame of Mark Twain"
          Edith Wyatt, "An Inspired Critic"
          _The Ladies' Home Journal_, "The Anecdotal Side of Mark Twain"
          A. C. Ward, "3.--Mark Twain"
          _The Academy_, review of _Tom Sawyer Abroad_
          Susan K. Harris, "'Hadleyburg': Mark Twain's Dual Attack on Banal
               Theology and Banal Literature"
          John Kendrick Bangs and Mark Twain, "Is the Philippine Policy of
               the Administration Just?"
          Susanne Weil, "Reconstructing the 'Imagination Mill': The Mystery
               of Mark Twain's Late Works"
          Michael J. Kiskis, "Coming Back to Humor: The Comic Voice in Mark
               Twain's Autobiography"
          Laura E. Skandera-Trombley, "'The Mysterious Stranger': Absence
               of the Female in Mark Twain's Biography"
     Selected Bibliography