Fulton, Joe B. _Mark Twain's Ethical Realism: The Aesthetics of
Race, Class, and Gender_. Columbia: University of Missouri Press,
P. xii + 174. Bibliography, index. Cloth, 6-1/4" x 9-1/4". $27.50.
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Kim Martin Long <[log in to unmask]>
Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania
Copyright (c) 1998 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be
published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
At first Joe Fulton's title bothered me; in it are contained enough ideas
on which to base several books. I mean, is this a book about Mark Twain's
realism? Is it one about ethics in Twain? About Mark Twain's aesthetic
accomplishments? Is it a book about Twain's treatment of the hot topics of
race, class, and gender? No, because all this has been done. What Joe
Fulton does in this book is to examine the intersection of these ideas
within the context of Bakhtin's ideas on dialogism.
OK, I'll admit that while I was preparing this review, I followed the
strand on the Mark Twain Forum about academic jargon; if one is looking
for good examples of the kind of critical jargon that can't help but be
self-conscious, this book has them. Here's a representational sentence:
"Twain's desire for authenticity in characterization conflates an
aesthetic awareness with an ethical desire; character is the aesthetic
fact that saves an ethical criticism from irrelevancy" (7). At times I
had to reread sentences and sections in order to decode the messages, a
fault not entirely Fulton's, I'm sure. _Mark Twain's Ethical Realism_,
however, sets forth a carefully constructed thesis based on the concept of
"answerability," and each chapter explicates a novel within the central
context. The format of the book is simple, therefore: thesis, support,
conclusion. By the time I had made it to the end, I was convinced that
Fulton's argument is strong and valid, despite some personal objections to
style and presentation.
The introduction of the book is crucial: Fulton explains key concepts like
realism, ethics, aesthetics, dialogism, answerability, and "insideness."
After a brief survey of uses of realism, Fulton says that an "inquisitive
attitude toward the everyday components surrounding and involved with
human behavior in society, and the stylistic effects that accompany that
inquisitive attitude, lies at the core of the artistic movement called
realism" (4). Fulton claims that Twain's realism focuses on speech
patterns as a way to reveal everyday reality. Ethics he defines as "the
_process_ of character as ethos is developed and revealed within a given
society," drawing from Aristotle and Wayne Booth (6).
Cautioning that an ethical criticism may become a reductionist criticism
(right or wrong, good or bad), Fulton says that he is "particularly
interested in the mutual implication of ethics and aesthetics" (6). As he
says, "character is the aesthetic fact that saves en ethical criticism
from irrelevancy" by giving the work artistic authenticity (7). Fulton
claims that Twain's fiction reveals the "other" as crucial to
understanding the identity of the "I," and this book provides example
after example of switching, doubling, and dialogue in the Bakhtinian
sense. According to Fulton, Twain abhorred rules that limited people or
made them monologic; he much preferred the dialogism that occurs when
people "share otherness on the social level and on the psychic level;
Bakhtin conceives of identity as a cross-fertilization that produces a
hybrid, dialogic consciousness" (14).
So what is Fulton's book really about? Characters who change places, go
inside the other, trade voices in order to achieve an ethical
consciousness of the other and, hence, to develop, to grow, to become more
ethically aware. Each chapter looks at one of Twain's novels in which
this switching of voices occurs. While each chapter focuses on a slightly
different method of working out the theme, the primary intent of the
chapters as a whole is to convince readers that Twain was interested in
probing identity: "Twain uses the doubles to question the concept of a
unitary identity, and to suggest that one constructs identity through the
constant accretion of alien elements" (20).
Fulton begins by discussing _The Prince and the Pauper_, claiming that he
looks at the book slightly differently from others; Fulton sees Twain's
theme as political and social responsibility: "The politics at the heart
of _The Prince and the Pauper_ are the politics of social change as
implicated in the individual changes that result when two people learn to
speak other's language" (29). Summarizing the novel's plot within his
context of dialogism, Fulton demonstrates that Edward achieves a kind of
ethical renewal by becoming Tom Canty; "Edward's ethos is refashioned" by
interacting with common people, by using another's voice (45). Fulton
concludes the chapter: "Throughout that ordeal [of being degraded by his
own people] Edward is silenced by his own absolute language, but by
retelling his own story, he quells his own voice, and in that silence
hears, finally, the voice of his people" (52).
Humor me with another jargon-y sentence from the chapter on _Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn_: "Wherever one looks in _Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn_, characters adopt alternate identities, and their failure to achieve
answerability serves as the 'negative example' that illustrates both the
shortcomings of rules for behavior and the possibilities offered by a
nontranscendental ethics" (54). Translation: in _Huck Finn_ characters
"play double" and, therefore, do not achieve any kind of ethical renewal
by genuinely going "inside" others. The achievement, however, in ethics
is not among the characters; it occurs between reader and character
through the author's ability to truly go "inside" of Huck and reveal him
As Fulton says, "Twain is concerned not with how Huck appears to the
world, or with how the world appears to Huck, but with how the world
appears to the readers who have viewed it through Huck's eyes" (64).
Although this chapter is strong--possibly because Twain's achievement with
the novel is strong--I did make one note in the margin:
"dissertation-like." Fulton does survey a lot of criticism and drop a lot
of names in the course of delivering his own argument. Depending on your
point of view, this is either informative or irritating.
Fulton's thesis in the chapter on _A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's
Court_ centers around the idea of one century switching with another:
"this switch, like others in Twain's fiction, holds out the prospect that
each age might become like another conscience' for the other" (93).
Twain's "technology novel," _Connecticut Yankee_ explores the role of the
machine in human contact and communication. Fulton, again surveying
critic after critic, concludes that "Twain seems to say that by destroying
the 'immediate juxtaposition' normally occurring between people,
technology destroys also the dialogue that would ensue, leaving nothing
but 'unreplying vacancies'" (116).
The last novel Fulton puts under the dialogic microscope is _Pudd'nhead
Wilson_, and this chapter may be the strongest because the novel itself
may present more opportunities to see the thesis in action. In the
literal switching that occurs in this book between Tom and Chambers, Twain
is able to carry out his experiment in identity; Twain's "switched
characters become 'like another conscience' for each other, and they each
gain a privileged intrusion into the other's life that reveals itself in
altered language and altered ethics" (121).
Restating his book's thesis, Fulton says that "Twain reveals changes in
character or ethos by changes in language and that his concern for realism
and ethics are thus closely allied" (121). As the characters trade
places, their "dialogic possibilities" increase; they become the other as
the other becomes their conscience. This novel shows how identity is a
"negotiated entity, as social interactions determine character and even
race" (137). Fulton contrasts the boys' voices with the absolute voice of
David "Pudd'nhead" Wilson, who "intends his calendar to silence others in
much the same way that he attempts to silence Tom in the courtroom" (138).
Fulton's brief conclusion seems a little unnecessary; it does not add
anything new, the thesis having been hammered home chapter after chapter.
In fact, it almost changes the book's focus at the very end: "The ultimate
import of Mark Twain's ethical realism is that by applying the lessons
learned from literature, we conjoin ethics and aesthetics in the most
significant way possible; only then do readers become authentic" (146).
Instead of focusing on Twain's art in the dialogic process of characters
becoming each other's conscience, Fulton here seems to need to justify his
work, to bring it to a higher moral plane. The book does not need the
help; as it is, it presents some insightful examination of voices in
Twain, of Bakhtinian dialog at work.