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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Taylor Roberts <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 23 Aug 1996 21:47:17 EDT
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
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     Harold Bloom (ed.).  _Mark Twain_.  New York and Philadelphia:
     Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.  (Modern Critical Views.)  Pp.
     viii + 239.  Index.  Cloth, 6-1/2" x 9-1/2".  $29.95.
     ISBN 0-87754-698-3.

     Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:

           John H. Davis <[log in to unmask]>
           Chowan College
           Murfreesboro, NC

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  This review may not be
     published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

This review is ten years late, but fortunately, the book is not ten
years outdated.  The material in it, ranging from 1946 to 1986, is not
only still pertinent and enlightening--offering overviews of Samuel
Clemens, his alter-ego/dream-self Mark Twain, and the contexts of their
times--but the essays also collectively scan the literature, especially
the masterwork _Huckleberry Finn_, and attitudes toward it through the
years.  With nods toward commentary before 1946, single representative
stops (1956, 1968) in the following two decades, two essays at the
beginning (1972) and the end (1979) in the next decade, the bulk of
criticism (seven essays) from the middle 1980s, and critics throughout
looking back as well as ahead, this collection of essays edited by
Harold Bloom is a well-balanced entry in his Modern Critical Views
series, a superb introduction to Mark Twain, the man and his works, as
well as a worthwhile book for the shelves of veteran Twainophiles.

Bloom's "Editor's Note" is an accurate summation and analysis of his
anthology as "a representative selection of the best criticism devoted
to the writings of Mark Twain . . . published during the last forty
years" that "centers upon Twain's undoubted masterpiece, _Huckleberry
Finn_," beginning with DeVoto's overview and "usefully integrat[ing]
life, work, and socio-historical context" (vii).  With concise phrases,
Bloom then both capsulizes each essay and notes links among the essays,
particularly between essays immediately preceding and following each
other.  The reader seeking the shortest shortcut to the essence of the
contents in Bloom's edition should stop here, find the book, and read
his note.  Bloom's "Introduction" further sets the tone by devoting
itself to _Huckleberry Finn_, providing an effective backdrop for much
of the discussion that follows.

The book contains a variety of critical approaches and critics.  From
Bernard DeVoto, F. R. Leavis, and Hillis Miller, through such
contributors as Robert Penn Warren, Judith Fetterly, Cynthia Griffin
Wolff, and Bruce Michelson, into Alfred Kazin, James Cox, and Roy Harvey
Pearce, ending with Douglas Robinson and Cleo McNelly Kearns, the
selections move from historical perspective (DeVoto) over New Criticism
(Warren) to application of semiotics (Kearns).  Along the way, James Cox
issues an expectant invitation, behind poorly concealed curiosity about
possible results, requesting Deconstructionists to become more engaged
in Twain studies.

In this nicely balanced collection--averaging sixteen pages per essay
(the longest is Warren's twenty-seven pages, the shortest, Fetterly's
eight)--the first, fourth, and eighth essays (by DeVoto, Warren, and
Kazin) provide overall views of Twain and his works at strategic points
in the anthology and in the quickening pace of Twain criticism over the
forty years they cover (1946, 1972, 1984).  The twelfth and last essay
(by Kearns) pulls together many strands while coming from a new
direction to consider _Huck Finn_, an appropriate closing essay for that
novel is the central concern of this collection, even as it has well
examined other works.  From DeVoto's Great Valley through Judith
Fetterly's and Cynthia Griffin Wolff's valleys of anxiety and nightmare,
respectively, to a revision of the American Dream by Robinson and a
revisit of _Life on the Mississippi_ by Cox, these essays offer changing
and differing visions of America reflected in Twain's work.

DeVoto explains why W. D. Howells called Twain "the Lincoln of our
literature," historically and philosophically, and sweepingly places
him, his literature, and his contemporary popularity in a broad American
context while also noting personal and professional weaknesses and the
ups and downs of his most significant works.  Leavis draws attention to
the worth of _Pudd'nhead Wilson_, explaining why more attention should
be paid to it.  Cox, having deceived himself that _Life on the
Mississippi_ was merely an extension of the admired and beautifully
written "Old Times on the Mississippi," re-reads it, finds much
worthwhile that he had overlooked, offers insights into its structure
and language (specifically some jokes), and urges others--particularly
practitioners of more recent types of criticism--to re-examine it.

Miller not only examines the difference between the first-person
narrators in _David Copperfield_ and _Huckleberry Finn_, and between
first- and third-person narration, but also discusses the structures of
the two novels, their differing attitudes toward society, and the types
of language and their importance in Twain's novel.  Warren offers
explanations for the relationship between Twain's life and work and for
most of his major literature.  Fetterly analyzes Twain's role as public
performer and its effects on his literature.  Wolff asserts that _Tom
Sawyer_ is a darker, more adult, and less child-oriented novel than it
has been considered.  Michelson says that _The Mysterious Stranger_
stories have been shaped by the notion of play and games, with God as a
cosmic Tom Sawyer.  Kazin examines the paradox of the man who was both a
part of and outside his age and country, representing both its frontier
and civilized elements, yet exposing their shams, living the American
Dream and realizing its nightmare, playing roles and telling the truth,
often through deception.

Pearce studies the conflict between the self that Huck must find within
him and the world in which that self finds itself, resulting in role-
playing in order to determine the truth hidden in lies.  Robinson links
_Connecticut Yankee_ and _The Mysterious Stranger_ variants and finds
the destruction of the American Dream.  In the final essay, Kearns looks
at codes (signs, symbols, language, narrative writing) in _Huckleberry
Finn_, their relation to meaning and truth, especially for Huck and Jim,
and Huck's striving for mastery over his own text, words that constitute
the codes of his society, in order to understand and live in the world
it reveals; one sure way not to be trapped seems to be to stop writing
(and head for the territory), but to stop is to abdicate any authority
over the codes.

One pleasurable discovery in reading this collection is that, although
the essays are not deliberately grouped according to theme, genre,
critical approach, or Twain text, they apparently have been so chosen
that--possibly as a happy result of their chronological arrangement--
they grow from one essay into the next as they develop, build upon, and
amplify shared ideas.  Their authors demonstrate knowledge of both
specific and general criticism, referencing and addressing it, usually
regarding common concerns of Twain commentators, such as the ending of
_Huck Finn_, Twain's duality, Huck's paradoxical lying and basic
honesty, effects of family and business misfortunes, conflicts between
freedom and civilization, the limitations of freedom and democracy, use
and style of language, the Tom-Huck relationship, the role of the
frontier, the nature of truth, pessimism, selfhood, Huck and Jim, the
controversy surrounding Jim and God/religion/Church; but they do not
directly answer one another or even necessarily indicate direct
awareness of one another.  What they do is to see some of the same
things but from different angles, revealing complementary and
supplementary relationships among the essays.

Remarkable is that the ideas and themes of these essays are
complementary, as they also offer both supplementary and differing views
and insights into Mark Twain and his literature.  Many tackle the notion
that Mark Twain somehow embodies or reflects the positive and negative
angles of the American Dream and myth, even becoming mythic himself.
DeVoto implies, without mentioning historian or theory, that, as "mid-
nineteenth-century American democracy finding its first major voice in
literature," Twain exemplifies in literature the Frederick Jackson
Turner thesis about the democratizing effect of the frontier--"the
transforming experience of the American people as they occupied . . .
and pushed beyond [the Great Valley], on the way forging the continental
mind" (23); specifically, DeVoto asserts that, in such works as "The
Private History of a Campaign That Failed," Twain "perfectly refracted a
national experience through a personal one" (13).

As for the writer himself, Cox asserts that _Life on the Mississippi_ is
"a book in which the life of Samuel Clemens is both converted and
enlarged into the myth of Mark Twain"; in fact, "all his works, rather
than being ends in themselves, seem means toward the end of
mythologizing their author" (153).  Warren writes that, after
realistically presenting small-town evils of "backcountry America" in
_The Gilded Age_, Twain took refuge in "the dream vision of rural
America that was to find its image in mythical Hannibal" (58-59).
According to Wolff, as Twain gives us this dream vision of an American
town in _Tom Sawyer_, he also subtly makes it one from which to flee
(94), preparing the way for the darker towns Huck encounters and even
suggesting not only the darker side of childhood, as others have noted,
but a darker side of Tom Sawyer: "Injun Joe is Tom's shadow self" (102),
possibly an early (uncontrollable) dream self, a version of the
malignant conscience in "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of
Crime in Connecticut," or a foreshadowing of Tom in _Huckleberry Finn_,
particularly the Tom at the Phelps farm, the Tom who conforms to society
(105), much like the citizens of Dawson's Landing in _Pudd'nhead

Leavis contends Twain presents a more complex, ambiguous, and subtle
vision of American frontier society in _Pudd'nhead_ (31 ff.).  Kazin
believes, even shortly after _Tom Sawyer_, Twain was disposed "to think
of his life as a 'dream'--the American dream . . . but one that also
revealed a writer's tendency to wonder whether [his] thoughts and
projects . . . had any existence outside himself," with the result that,
"at the end of his 'wonderful century,'" as postwar America viewed Twain
as personifying many of its wonders and looked to the "'old West' for a
golden age," Hannibal and the universe were becoming dreams, "thus
rounding out a century of American solipsism" (136).

Robinson says that Twain pictures the destruction of the American dream
in the physical destruction, within a dream, of Camelot in _Connecticut
Yankee_ and the mental destruction of the universe, presented as dream,
in the late Stranger stories but believes that he offers renewal in the
discovery of the true self, perhaps the "me" Hank Morgan seeks in
_Yankee_, which can dream new and better dreams (201 ff.).  These ideas
may not sound new because generally they are not, but they remind old
readers and update new ones of some held views, and for both sets of
readers, they occur in fresh approaches that give new ways of looking at
the traditional texts.

A pattern noted in several essays is the motif of silences and solitude
and the themes connecting them in _Huckleberry Finn_.  Because the motif
does appear, one wonders at the absence of Forrest G. Robinson's "The
Silences in _Huckleberry Finn_" (_Nineteenth-Century Fiction_ 37.1 [June
1982]: 50-74), yet another complement and, thereby, support to the ideas
expressed here.  Silence and solitude tend to oppose speech and society,
the latter related to lies, falsity, and hypocrisy, which are aspects
and results of the former, civilization.  The distinction is made by
Miller (47), who says that, of the three types of language in the
novel--(1) false language of society, playing roles; (2) honest
directness, possible between Huck and Jim in the ideal society of the
raft; (3) no speech, "a language belonging . . . to solitude" and
associated with lonesomeness and death (50-54)--Huck chooses silence,
thus solitude, for "only complete isolation is freedom" (54).

Kearns also notes the role of silence in Huck's quest for freedom from
the rules and shams of society (220, 222).  Warren touches upon silence
as a defense against the lies and falseness of society in his discussion
of language (62-64), and especially in a comparison of the roles of Tom
and Huck (65-68), as does Fetterly in contrasting Tom as showman whose
entertainment is built upon talk, and ultimately cruelty, and Huck who
shuns a public role and whose conditions are loneliness and fear

Another complementary/supplementary strand running through this
collection is the importance of role-playing and of play in Samuel
Clemens, Mark Twain, and the literature "they" produced together.
Warren writes of "Mark Twain-actor playing the role of Mark Twain on the
lecture platform . . . transformed into Mark Twain-author writing a book
in which Mark Twain is the main character" (57).  Leavis quotes DeVoto's
remark that Huck Finn is Mark Twain's surrogate (30).  Fetterly's essay
concerns the artist and the artist's creations as performers.  Wolff
finds, with sinister overtones, that Tom Sawyer's games conceal
rebellion and rage against authority figures: "Acquiescent to society's
tenets in real life, in daydreams Tom is always a rebel" (99-100); Kazin
says that Tom's imagination "gives him a power over [people] that
reminds us of an author's power," and since Tom can persuade his
friends, as in the white-washing episode, so "the adults in St.
Petersburg must also participate in the book Tom is acting out"

Cox points out practical jokes the real-life author Mark Twain plays
upon the unsuspecting reader of _Life on the Mississippi_ (162-167), and
Pearce discusses the many examples of role-playing, playing, and make-
believe by Huck, the Duke and the Dauphin, and Tom in _Huckleberry Finn_
(175-178).  Observing that critics generally are aware "that Mark
Twain's masterworks are filled with people who go on holidays and play
games" (108), Michelson applies the idea in metaphysical terms to _The
Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts_, considering 44/Satan as Godly gamester
playing with and upon humanity.

Although the emphasis of the anthology is _Huckleberry Finn_, the reader
finds much about other works and the interrelatedness of Mark Twain's
literature.  The perspectives by DeVoto, Warren, and Kazin all consider
_Huck_ and more.  DeVoto considers, in differing degrees, _Life on the
Mississippi_, _Pudd'nhead Wilson_, _Innocents Abroad_, and _The Gilded
Age_, among others.  Warren offers views upon _Innocents Abroad_,
_Roughing It_, _The Gilded Age_, _Tom Sawyer_, _The Prince and the
Pauper_, and _Connecticut Yankee_, among others more briefly mentioned.
Kazin touches upon _What Is Man?_, _The Innocents Abroad_, _The Gilded
Age_, _Tom Sawyer_, and _The Mysterious Stranger_, though he, mainly,
discusses Twain the writer in overall terms; he most thoroughly examines
_Huckleberry Finn_.  Leavis, Wolff, Michelson, Cox, and Robinson
specifically study, respectively, _Pudd'nhead Wilson_, _Tom Sawyer_,
_The Mysterious Stranger_, _Life on the Mississippi_, and _Connecticut

All of the writers refer to other works, including the _Autobiography_,
"Captain Stormfield," "The Jumping Frog," "The Great Dark," _Letters
from the Earth_, "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," "Old Times on the
Mississippi," _The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc_, "The Private
History of a Campaign That Failed," _Tom Sawyer Abroad_, and _A Tramp

The person interested in learning anew or refreshing memories about Mark
Twain will find this book of essays covering him and his literature a
worthwhile one to read and to own.