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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Siva Vaidhyanathan <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 13 Apr 1998 11:28:48 -0600
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
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Dear Mark Twain Forum Members:

The notion of a "male discourse community," as Harry Wonham uses it, hardly
counts as a misdemeanor in the Academic Jargon Criminal Code. And more
importanly, the phrase does stand in for some complex and meaningful
thought, and therefore should not be dismissed as mere scholarly babble. In
the sense that the term does operate as a slight bit of jargon, it is far
from "deconstructionist." In fact, it is the opposite.

Deconstructionists, the felons of academic jargon, doubt at a fundamental
level that one can communicate sincere or "truthful" thoughts in any
context. Attempts at communication, to them, involve so much slippage, so
much misreading, such wide power differences and so much insincerity that
they are basically futile. Why they still write books, if they really
believe what they write, is beyond me. But Harry Wonham does not play the
deconstructionist game. If he had, his book would have been mighty short
and unreadable (or worse, long and unreadable). Instead of Derrida,
Wonham's thoughts on language were inspired by the likes of William James,
Richard Rorty, and Twain himself.

What Harry Wonham does throughout _Mark Twain and the Art of the Tall Tale_
is assert that communication is possible, powerful, playful and meaningful.
Wonham shows that Twain's various "discourse communities" -- that is,
groups of folks who speak the same "jargon" and can wink and laugh at those
who can't -- were essential to the development of Twain's writing styles
and philosophy of language. Communities "create" meaning, "make" statements
"true" through conflict and consensus. Without communities that enjoy a
shared set of phrases, knowledge, habits and values, communication is
frustrated, if not futile. If you doubt this assertion, take a group of
foreign tourists to a baseball game, and try to explain "tagging up," or
the infield fly rule. Or, try watching cricket with a discourse community
that tosses around phrases like "LBW."

Twain's allergy to literalness -- the idea that meaning is certain, stable
and dependable in all contexts -- is now shared by many most people who
think about how language works. Literary scholars sort of came around to
these cynical observations about a century after Twain did, of course. When
Jim tells Huck that Solomon was not the wisest man to ever live, but a fool
for trying to cut up a child, we see that Huck's (imposed) discourse
community differs from Jim's. Huck sort of realizes it too. The same words
mean different things to two people who have lived in the same town for
years, immersed in the same Biblical stories. Now academics hold long,
boring conferences to discuss the same basic point that Jim made to Huck.

Wonham's book examines the pre-Huck writing, but Twain clearly shifted
among discourse communities throughout his life, and not always nimbly.
Twain would spoof current academic writing, were he alive today. But Twain
also would have appreciated Harry's book. It examines the dynamics of
Twain's humor and prose, but leaves the soul in. The best literary
criticism makes you want to run to your shelf and re-read its subjects.
Read Harry's book. Then read _Roughing It_ again.

Harry's book is just one example in a long string of recent works of Mark
Twain scholarship that accomplish that elusive goal: making the reader want
to re-think and re-read. When it comes to the dangers of irrevevant
academic prose, Twain scholarship is the antidote, not the poison. The
dangers of unreadable academic prose are clear to everyone but the
producers of it: The reading and taxpaying public will soon abandon its
tenuous support of literary scholarship because scholars keep pouring out
unreadable, irrelevant and silly books that no one even checks out from
university libraries. Bad writers are more often than not bad teachers, and
those who pay tuition are getting justifiably irate about the situation.

So, as I said at the Elmira conference in August, Mark Twain can save
American literary scholarship. We just need to spread the word beyond the
academy, and make sure the readers who really matter value the work. To
make a difference, Twain scholars must take the lead in expanding their
discourse communities. This forum -- a virtual, international and
interdisciplinary discourse community that shares some basic vocabulary and
a familiarity with a set of texts -- goes a long way toward doing that.
Thanks for reading this.


Siva Vaidhyanathan
University of Texas