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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Wed, 27 Jun 2007 15:40:56 -0600
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Larry



_The Cambridge Introduction to Mark Twain_. By Peter Messent. Cambridge
University Press, 2007. Pp. xii + 138 pages. Softcover, 6" x 9".  $19.99.
ISBN 0-521-67075-6

Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted prices from
the TwainWeb Bookstore, and purchases from this site generate commissions
that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit <>.

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Larry Howe
Roosevelt University

Copyright (c) 2007 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

Peter Messent is no stranger to Mark Twain studies. This volume is his
fourth contribution, in addition to _New Readings of the American Novel:
Narrative Theory and Its Application_, which included a chapter
demonstrating how Bakhtin's narrative theory elucidates aspects of
_Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_. He also co-edited the Twain-related
volume _The Civil War Letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell_. As with all of
his earlier books on Twain, _The Cambridge Introduction to Mark Twain_ is
highly readable and insightful, and the strengths of his earlier books show
up here in the succinct and engaging biographical outline and especially in
the commentary on the major works. And although it is part of a series that
is designed primarily for undergraduate students and readers not very
familiar with its subject, readers with more exposure to the life and works
of America's most famous writer may well find it worthwhile.

As useful an introduction as it is to Mark Twain, I cannot avoid wondering
about some of the decisions that went into the organization of the book.
Divided into four chapters--"Mark Twain's life," "Contexts," "Works," and
"Critical reception and the late works"--the volume focuses on an
appropriate set of issues, but some are arranged in a curiously unbalanced

Messent devotes nearly three quarters of the book (87 of 119 pages) to the
third chapter--a wise decision, because it is the center of his focus. This
chapter is sub-divided into four sections dealing with different influences
or examples:  vernacular humor; travel writing, including _Innocents
Abroad_, _A Tramp Abroad_, _Roughing It_ and _Life on the Mississippi_; two
relatively early works of fiction, _Tom Sawyer_ and _Huckleberry Finn_; and
two later works of fiction, _A Connecticut Yankee_ and _Pudd'nhead Wilson_.

In the first section, Messent provides an articulate overview of the quirky
techniques of Twain's humor, tracing it from his far West journalism, with
an extended explanation of the "Jumping Frog" story and frontier oddities
like the "Personal Habits of Siamese Twins," through his naive posture in
_Innocents Abroad_, the development of a vernacular narrator like Huck, the
temporal dislocation of _Connecticut Yankee_, and finally with late work
like the satire of Sherlock Holmes in "A Double-Barreled Detective Story"
and the philosophical distance of _Letters from Earth_.

The section on travel writing explains at a higher degree of detail how
Mark Twain plays the role of tourist in _Innocents Abroad_, a precursor to
what would later be popularly referred to as the Ugly American. Perhaps
more notably, that book altered the format in which his writing appeared.
To become a "scribbler of books," as he would denote this stage of his
career in _Life on the Mississippi_, is a remarkable elevation of one who
began as a writer of humorous squibs. Messent pays considerable attention
to _A Tramp Abroad_, a work most often mentioned by other scholars in
passing as a book taken up in the midst of the difficult composition of
_Huckleberry Finn_. Messent persuasively argues that _A Tramp Abroad_
maximizes the best impulses of Twain's first travel book and benefits from
a more self-conscious and seasoned awareness of what it means to be a
tourist: "Twain engages issues that have since become central to the travel
narrative. He shows how tourism affects, and promotes a false version of
the countries it colonises. He is aware, too, of the mutual part both guest
and host play as this occurs" (49). Turning to the American travel books,
Messent notes the quality of bildungsroman that shapes _Roughing It_ as
well as a willingness to digress and to focus on tales about story telling.
This latter tendency continues and is exaggerated in _Life on the
Mississippi_ while also showing Twain's interest in retrospection, which
_Tom Sawyer_ and _Huckleberry Finn_ would capitalize on, and the ways of
the South, which would help to focus his interest on the issue of racial
and class-based inequality in subsequent work.

The section of the chapter dealing with those two novels is equal in length
to that which covers all four of the travel narratives, and appropriately
so. Messent handles the narrative intricacies, problems, and themes with
accessible sophistication. His analysis focuses on archetypal qualities in
_Tom Sawyer_ as a mythology of American boyhood and the process of emerging
into adult society. In his treatment of _Huckleberry Finn_, Messent points
to its complex status as a realist text and its grappling with the issue of
race that has been so central to American culture.

The section on _A Connecticut Yankee_ and _Pudd'nhead Wilson_ similarly
emphasize the degrees of complexity that Twain takes on in each narrative's
attempt to frame an American identity. Twain's time-travel fantasy begins
as a celebration of American virtue in response to Matthew Arnold's
criticism of America but ends with a dystopian apocalypse as conflicted
about the present as it is about the past. _Pudd'nhead Wilson_, on the
other hand, returns to the region and era of the earlier novels, but
complicates and ironizes the racial issues even more than in _Huckleberry
Finn_. All of this makes for a very packed chapter, one that might have
profitably been divided into two or three.

Given the clarity and depth of Messent's accounts of the texts and his
subtle interpretive framing of them, other chapters disappoint because they
do not rise to the level of this central, well-executed chapter. The second
and fourth chapters in particular are either so scant or misdirected that
they raise questions about their purposes. "Contexts," the second chapter,
concerns me for what its title suggests but its contents insufficiently
deliver. Only ten pages in total, this chapter begins with some general
comments about events that occurred during Twain's lifetime, but then
segues into some of the various critical responses to his work, leading
with Toni Morrison's assessment of _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_. These
critical responses seem more appropriate to the fourth chapter, and some of
it is repeated there, leading one to wonder why it was inserted in the
"Contexts" chapter. The balance of "Contexts" deals with the division
between the actual man and his authorial persona, which I would argue
belongs in the first chapter, "Mark Twain's life."  Moreover, a chapter
titled "Contexts" might have more fruitfully expanded upon cultural
developments that frame, influence, and are addressed in the writings,
beyond the few slight gestures in this direction with general references to
the Civil War or late-nineteenth-century technological progress. Surveying
the chapter retrospectively, one comes away with the sense that material
that is better suited to other chapters ended up here to fill out the
section into a still rather-too-short chapter. A more purposeful execution
would have expanded on what the title promises and reallocated material
that belongs elsewhere. Messent does occasionally refer to historical
contexts later, during his account of some of the works in chapter 3, and
these instances generally work more effectively because they serve to
illuminate an aspect of the writing. In chapter 2, however, they form a
loose catalog that lacks a clear relevance.

The final chapter, "Critical reception and the late works"--also only ten
pages in length, so it hardly does justice to its title--is another area of
concern. To be sure, an undergraduate introduction need not address the
entire history of critical reception, but a slightly more detailed account
of how the responses to Twain's writing have evolved, how contemporary
criticism has paralleled the emergence of other social developments, and
how it treats the texts differently than earlier commentary did would be
useful. Limiting his commentary to a relative handful of critics, Messent
also privileges Twain's transnationalism, which has arisen as a critical
angle in recent years. Messent writes: "By transnationalism, we mean the
cultural intersections and exchanges that take place between nations, and
the way we can then read American Literature, and (in this case) Twain's
writing in particular, as composed of a series of negotiations between
national and international spaces" (115-16). Messent also foregrounds
transnationalism in the section on travel writing in chapter 3 and in his
discussion of _A Connecticut Yankee_. As a professor at the University of
Nottingham, Messent has a British perspective that affords him authority in
measuring that aspect of Twain's work. However, the weight that Messent
applies to this critical perspective is arguably too heavy and reflects a
bias about contemporary globalism that skews the introduction as well as
risking its consideration of the nineteenth century in presentism.

The last chapter "Guide to further reading," is useful though far from
exhaustive. Messent lists secondary sources of biography, bibliography,
criticism, and internet sites in thirteen categories. There are any number
of titles that could well have been included here, but there is nothing
listed that should not be. The "Notes" are also useful references to
sources that Messent has relied on in his commentary. However, in a couple
of instances, they raise questions about sourcing. For example, in at least
two cases Messent cites one of his own earlier works to source a quote that
he has drawn from another text, Howells in one and Bakhtin in another.
Given that he includes full citations for the original sources in his
previous work, it's not at all clear why the second-hand references appear
in the _Cambridge Introduction to Mark Twain_. This is not a large matter,
but it does exemplify for undergraduates a practice that is generally
discouraged when, in teaching the responsibilities of scholarship, we
stress the importance of tracking a quotation to its source to insure its
reliability and to understand its context.

Despite these reservations about organization and proportion, the core of
Messent's book is an effective introduction of its subject, especially
valuable for its target audience; indeed, I've recommended it to my own
students. Books in a series are often formulated to a template that is not
one of the author's own devising, and I suspect that some of my concerns
derive from that requirement of publication. My reservations stem, however,
from my regard for the standard that Messent has set in his earlier work.
He rises to that standard throughout most of this volume; the lapses,
though, are the more glaring because of the quality when the book is on the