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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 20 Oct 1996 16:24:24 -0400
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
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     Lowry, Richard S.  _"Littery Man": Mark Twain and Modern
     Authorship_.  (Commonwealth Center Studies in American
     Culture.)  New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
     Pp. 177.  Cloth, 6-1/2" x 9-1/2".  $39.95.  ISBN

     Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:

          Glen M. Johnson <[log in to unmask]>
          The Catholic University of America
          Washington, DC

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  This review may not be
     published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

"Authorship studies" are a recent wrinkle in the unfolding fabric
of postmodern literary theory.  Paradoxically, this field had its
origin in the "death of the author" first announced by Roland
Barthes.  Seeking to counter the romantic myth of the solitary
creative genius, theorists have enmeshed the author, first in the
text and then in the culture.  Today, authors are likely to be seen
as functions of ideology, and this emphasis can sometimes overwhelm
them as historical human beings.  (A recent example in Twain
studies is Randall Knoper's _Acting Naturally: Mark Twain in the
Culture of Performance_, where Mark Twain is less performer than

Richard Lowry takes a moderate approach to authorship as a social
phenomenon, insisting on "historicity of 'the literary'" but also
seeing Mark Twain as an active operator among cultural paradigms.
So: within "a strategic rhetoric aimed at validating and
reconfiguring a form of labor that nonetheless eluded the
discourses produced to define it," Twain "engaged these
contradictions with unique energy."   (Note: Lowry has mastered the
lingo of contemporary theory, but most of his writing reads better
than that.)  Lowry's model has two primary emphases:  first,
authorship as the selling of goods in a capitalist economy;
second, authorship as a cultural ideal, the belief that literature
should be the source of transcendent values.

Neither of these emphases is new.  Samuel Clemens's intense
innovative interest in publishing and marketing has long been
acknowledged.  So has his problematic relationship with high
literary culture.  Lowry devotes his first extended analysis to the
Whittier birthday banquet of 1877, where a story parodying Emerson,
Longfellow, and Holmes became (in retrospect more than on the spot)
a deep embarrassment for Twain.  The reader will recognize in
Lowry's analysis of an ideologically confused writer essentially
another version of Justin Kaplan's _Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain_
(1966)--indeed, a replay of Van Wyck Brooks's _Ordeal of Mark
Twain_ (1920).  Lowry acknowledges as much in calling the Whittier
banquet "a kind of primal scene of Twain criticism."

Nevertheless, Lowry offers significant insights into the occasion.
He does this by closely reading the tale Twain performed,
suggesting that its most radical move was to appropriate the
_names_ of three men who embodied literary culture in America.  In
effect, Lowry has it, Twain spoofed some carefully developed
trademarks of high culture.  Noting that the banquet was also a
celebration of the _Atlantic Monthly_, whose new owner was seeking
to make it the dominant voice of literate culture in America, Lowry
can see Twain's tale, which assigns august names and honored words
to tramps, as breaking the presumption of sincerity that props up
the unique status of the literary.  Lowry then expands in two
directions.  First, he discusses Twain's fondness for burlesque
quotations (most famously the Duke's Shakespearean pastiche in
_Huckleberry Finn_), which turn literary language into unreality
and pretension.   Second, he notes the absence of women at the
Whittier banquet--which the excluded writers protested--and
suggests that Twain used the "mythic masculinity" of his tramps to
expose cultural elegance as a mask of social power.  As Lowry sums
up, Twain's canny "imposture of comic subversion was itself the
product of the posturing rhetoric of cultural authority"--a crux
for a conflicted author who wanted to _claim_ such authority at the
same time he burlesqued it.

Three subsequent chapters deal with published volumes: the early
travel books (_The Innocents Abroad_ and _Roughing It_), _The
Adventures of Tom Sawyer_, and _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_.
(Lowry claims that, after _Huck_, Twain stopped developing as an
author.  This is not convincing, but it leaves room for
another critical book.)  Pursuing the conflicts, Lowry
characterizes _The Innocents Abroad_ in terms of "an authentic
inauthenticity"--the rhetoric of high culture coming from a persona
Twain called "an American Vandal."  In this encounter with Europe,
says Lowry, the swings back and forth between rapture and
disappointment, reverence and burlesque effectively turn culture
into "textual consumption."  Putting together the logistics of
subscription book selling with the popularity of travel writing at
the time, Lowry can see Twain's readers as tourists, trying to turn
consumption into intellectual fulfillment.  This is where Twain
pitched his own early books, both as sellable products and as
artifacts of cultural aspiration.  In Lowry's formulation, Twain
"explicitly relocated authenticity in the historical process."

To fit _Roughing It_ into the paradigm, Lowry replaces high culture
with authentic experience.  In other words, the persona of Twain's
second travel book makes his claim based on realism of the kind put
forward by Clemens's friend and patron William Dean Howells.
Howells, of course, made strong cultural and ethical claims for
authenticity.  Nevertheless, Lowry says, _Roughing It_ subverts
realism by revealing its persona as a poseur, even a confidence
man, trying to pass off tourist's reactions (many of them derived
from books) as the real West.  So we get, once again, a self-
deconstructing volume.  And Lowry manages a neat trick by making
all that padding and source mongering integral to what _Roughing
It_ is about.

It is difficult to say much that is original about _Tom Sawyer_ or
_Huckleberry Finn_ on the basis of what is at base a well-tried
critical approach.  When he turns to _Tom Sawyer_,  Lowry offers
predictable "dialogic tensions" between Tom and the narrator,
melodrama and parody, performance and narrative representation,
boyhood and masculine authority, inauthenticity (St. Petersburg's
propriety) and actuality (Injun Joe).  There's some interesting
discussion of Jacob Abbott's _Rollo_ series of boy books and of the
role of women in socializing boys into men (in a presented society
with few adult male role models).

Lowry's reading of _Huckleberry Finn_ is more provocative.  I find
it unconvincing, but profited from reasoning out why.  Twain's
masterpiece, as Lowry has it, is an ideological performance which
challenges readers to distinguish two divergent senses of the
literary.  To make this point, Lowry must emphasize the Huck who
started out illiterate but is now writing his autobiography, the
ultimate product of his having been "sivilized."  Huck's
ordeal of writing (a notion based on the novel's last paragraph)
gives him a degree of authority denied to him within the story--but
it also "implicates him in the very process of incorporation he

This emphasis on the framing authorial Huck was put forward a
decade ago, by Lee Clark Mitchell in Louis Budd's collection of
_New Essays on Huckleberry Finn_.  It brackets the conventionality
of first-person conventions to an extent I find excessive.  Still,
Lowry's discussion is valuable as a contrast to the vernacular Huck
championed by Henry Nash Smith and others.  At the center of
Lowry's reading is a comparison of Huck's written book to the
_Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin_, a connection suggested thirty
years ago by James Cox (_Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor_) but not
developed until now.  Beyond that, Lowry discusses the relationship
between eloquence and violence (a replay of the propriety-violence
conflict in his previous chapter, with Pap replacing Injun Joe),
conscience as "the language of brute property," Tom Sawyer as a
parody of Franklinian self-fashioning through reading, and Huck,
too, as a "prisoner of style."

The chapter on _Huckleberry Finn_, like the rest of Lowry's study,
uses contemporary theoretical language to tease out new insights
while remaining within the traditional interpretation of a self-
divided, ambivalent Clemens-Twain.  Lowry handles the language and
the theory expertly.