The following review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Joseph A.


_Mark Twain: A Short Introduction_. By Stephen Railton. Blackwell
Publishing. Oxford: United Kingdom, 2003. Pp 132. Softcover. $19.95. ISBN

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Joseph A. Alvarez
Emeritus, Central Piedmont Community College
Charlotte, North Carolina

Copyright  2004 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

Stephen Railton's preface states that he circled around two questions when
he was writing his short introduction to Mark Twain: "What did Twain's
books mean to his contemporaries? And what did being 'Mark Twain' mean to
Sam Clemens?" (ix). His answers appear in his short, but insightful,
chapters examining six of Clemens's major works: _Innocents Abroad_,
_Roughing It_, _The Adventures of Tom Sawyer_, _Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn_, _A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court_, and _Pudd'nhead
Wilson_ (including "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg"). An appendix
discusses Railton's well-known (to Twain scholars, at least) web site,
"Mark Twain in His Times."

The book succeeds admirably in achieving the goal of the subtitle. In one
hundred thirty-two pages, readers at many different levels from mature
middle schoolers to scholars and the general public can learn something
about Twain they probably did not know. For example, in his discussion of
_Huck Finn_, Railton aptly notes the metafictional concept of Twain's
strategy of using a marginal character from a previous work as the narrator
and principal character of a new one; he also claims that Huck Finn
essentially rewrites _Tom Sawyer_. Discussing "Tom's resurrection at his
own funeral" (45) in the chapter on _Tom Sawyer_, Railton asserts, "Twain
acknowledges some of what it costs, in human terms, to turn life into a
show" (45). Although much of Railton's critical commentary has a familiar
ring (he does refer to other scholars' work explicitly and implicitly),
much of it also seems new, as the _Huck Finn_ example demonstrates. From
the beginning of 20th century Twain scholarship, the Twain-Clemens
dichotomy has served as basic fodder for the critical grist mill. Railton
partly answers one of his initial questions about the Twain-Clemens
personality fissure when he states about _Tom Sawyer_, "the novel gives us
one compelling reason to doubt that Twain himself was able completely to
resolve all his anxieties about being somebody through publically [sic]
enacting a self" (47).

The _Innocents Abroad_ chapter begins with a very brief biography leading
up to the famous voyage aboard the _Quaker City_, including the origin of
Sam Clemens's fictional persona, Mark Twain. Railton's version plays it
safe by evading explaining its source: "In February, 1863, that name
[Samuel Clemens] became 'Mark Twain,' when for reasons that remain unknown
he decided to sign three political reports from the territorial capital of
Carson City with those two words" (2). One of the first biographical
"facts" most people learn about Clemens is the riverboat origin of the
Twain pen name, although scholars have presented other reasonable
explanations (e.g., bar order for two drinks at once, on credit, in
Nevada). Railton also points out that _Innocents Abroad_ diverges from "the
typical travel book," in which "the author sets himself up as an
authority," by making the Mark Twain narrator "the most innocent of the
innocents abroad" (6). He further asserts that "naivete is a primary source
of Twain's humor" (6) in other works as well as _Innocents Abroad_. Through
his naivete, the narrator regularly finds himself disappointed or the butt
of a joke when his expectations fall far short of reality, which "exposes
not just his innocence, but also the shabbiness of the Old World" (9).
Railton points out Twain's American realism context by stating that
"Twain's writing explores the way people's understanding of reality is
often pre-determined by the books they read: their interpretations of the
world are based not on their own experience, but instead on what the
textual authorities tell them is 'there'" (11). Railton avers that Twain's
practice as a humorist is re-writing and as a realist "un-writing other
books [so that] _Innocents Abroad_ is both a travel book and an anti-travel
book" (11).

The _Roughing It_ chapter continues the biography and points out that
although Twain's reputation began (and continued) as a westerner, he was,
in fact moving to, and settling in, the east, and even more specifically
among "upper class gentility" (19). The first-person protagonist of
_Roughing It_ relates his travels deeper into the west, but his experiences
do not transform him into a westerner: "he is in the frontier, but not of
it; among the roughs, but never one of them" (21). Much of the humor arises
from the narrator's naivete about western culture, which allows jokes to be
played on him. Railton likens Twain's _Roughing It_ outsider persona to
other Twain characters, including Hank Morgan (_Connecticut Yankee_) and
"The Mysterious Stranger" (24). Calling _Roughing It_ an anti-success
story, "succeeding [only] by failing so unfailingly" (24), Railton links
the ambitions of the protagonist to Twain's "hunger for fame" (24) and also
to his popularity on the lecture circuit, proclaiming it "a performance for
readers" that "enacts the . . . drama of self-consciousness" (26). Railton
concludes by noting that Twain's west imaginatively creates a large space
by sprinkling tall tales throughout the text, which, in turn, free us from
the need for truth (30-31).

A few biographical details wend their way into Railton's chapter on _The
Adventures of Tom Sawyer_, including an enlightening discussion of the word
"house" as used by Twain: as home, as church congregation, courtroom, and
as box office for lectures, among others (32-34). He also notes the first
use of the famous octagonal study overlooking the Chemung River, to which
Twain escaped the family hyperactivity at Quarry Farm in Elmira, New York,
to write some of his most famous works (34). The view of the river, Railton
asserts, helped create the nostalgic world of _Tom Sawyer_, in which,
according to Railton, Twain "sees the fiction of childhood as a kind of
golden age" (38). In partial answer to the first of two questions Railton
hoped to answer in his book (the meaning of Twain's books to his
contemporaries), he suggests that the nostalgia of _Tom Sawyer_ has been
recuperative for adults and particularly useful for a nation that had
recently emerged from a bloody war to begin a steady change from rural to
urban over the next fifty years or so (39-40). In Railton's words, "the
novel does not so much recover the past as create a myth of childhood in
which readers, older readers especially, can recover a redemptive idea of
the possibilities of life as an adventure" (39).

The _Huck Finn_ chapter, as already noted, claims that the book is a
re-writing of _Tom Sawyer_, or, more specifically, an un-writing of it.
Twain tries to un-write Tom Sawyer by allowing Huck to see and experience
life, rather than rely on books (which transmit received cultural norms) as
most of the other characters in both novels do. But Railton also claims
that Twain's intentions go awry because the ending "allows them [readers]
to evade the serious questions about race, history, and society raised by
the novel's earlier chapters. By satisfying their expectations, however, he
effectively sells out his own story" (71). Part of his evidence involves
the Edward W. Kemble illustrations, all of which portray Jim in a negative
light, and all of which were approved by Twain, who personally selected
Kemble to provide the illustrations. The other part of the evidence
involves Twain's very successful live performances of scenes from the
evasion sequence, as the ending is commonly known. "Mark Twain actually
performed the ending of _Huck Finn_ live about fifty times before over
10,000 members of his contemporary public" (66). He also wrote letters to
Livy (Clemens's wife) boasting of the popularity of these performances (66).

Railton also covers much of the already existing critical ground on Twain's
most infamous novel. His reading of Chapter 31, in which Huck exercises his
newly acquired moral authority (in conflict with his conscience bred by
social norms) and decides to "go to hell" as a consequence of his decision
to help set Jim free, breaks some new ground, at least for me. As Huck
contemplates sending the letter informing Miss Watson of Jim's whereabouts,
he uses the word "nigger" to refer to Jim. His experience with Jim as
friend humanizes a "nigger" into Jim, the fatherly figure of their mutual
raft trip. Railton argues that it is not Huck"s heart that conflicts with
his conscience in this episode, but Huck's bility to see Jim as a fellow
human being sharing an experience (61). This condensed version does not do
justice to Railton's observations, but considering the voluminous critical
literature about _Huck Finn_, I still see in this chapter something new
enough to note.

Railton sees _Connecticut Yankee_ and _Pudd'nhead Wilson_ as a continuation
of Twain's interest in public performance. He describes _Connecticut
Yankee_ as "an autobiographical parable about Twain's conflicted ambitions
and frustrations as an American celebrity, a performing writer; . . . it is
Twain's commentary on his own career" (76). Railton uses several passages
to show that Hank Morgan seems like Tom Sawyer (and Mark Twain) in Hank's
desire to perform and to be recognized for his performance (91). Noting
that Twain's journal entry first describing what became _Connecticut
Yankee_ (76) was written during a lecture tour in which Twain was
performing the ending of _Huck Finn_ and promoting the novel, Railton also
states that Twain read _Le Morte d'Arthur_ and that "he and [George
Washington] Cable took to calling their manager 'Sir Sagramore le
Desirous'" while also using Malory's language (93). As Railton previously
suggested, these performances, "like Hank's performances as Sir Boss gave
the audiences what they were looking for but betrayed the truth the
performer believed. It is possible. . . to see the false self Hank creates
to impress the 6th century as Clemens's imaginative way of expressing his
own estrangement from and frustration with the show he has been putting on
as 'Mark Twain'" (94).

Oddly enough, Railton's chapter on _Pudd'nhead Wilson_ and "The Man That
Corrupted Hadleyburg" begins with a discussion of the different possible
origins of "mark twain" (96), which might explain his avoiding these
possible origins earlier in the book. Here, the discussion segues into the
concept of claimants and twinning, both topics of the works covered in this
chapter, and both used to describe the difference between Mark Twain, the
celebrity humorist, and Mark Twain, the explorer of the dark side of
humanity in his later works (98). Initially, as Railton explains,
_Pudd'nhead Wilson_ "seems to be saying once and for all that 'race' is
merely a social convention. . . that culture imposes on people" (102). The
characters, however, and the ending of the story suggest otherwise, that
"black blood," the idea that race is genetically transmitted, determines
behaviors (102). As for the title character, Railton correctly claims that
he earns his titular nickname in public performance (in his misinterpreted
joke about owning half of the "general dog") but also becomes a popular
hero through his public performance in court at the end (107).

Early in his discussion of "Hadleyburg" (also largely a public performance
orchestrated by a stranger who remains offstage), Railton quotes from _The
Mysterious Stranger_ ("Against the assault of Laughter nothing can
stand."). The laughter in "Hadleyburg" displays an "apocalyptic menace in
the hilarity" (110) as "the town's nineteen leading citizens are exposed as
frauds and hypocrites" (111). Continuing his theme of Twain's
identification with his characters in public performance, Railton states,
"The stranger who exposes Hadleyburg is in part the kind of con man that
Twain wrote about so often, and in part the kind of realist prophet that
Twain as a writer aspired to be. . . . seen in the context of Twain's
career as an entertainer Hadleyburg's performance can be read as the
revenge of a humorist who has grown profoundly uneasy with his public role"
(110). "Hadleyburg" also reflects Twain's increasing sense of determinism
as the major force in human behavior. The Hadleyburg nineteen "say the same
line, just as the narrative treats them as essentially interchangeable. . .
an erasure of individuality" (112) and an indicator of hopelessness for

Railton concludes his introduction to Twain's works with a brief discussion
of _What Is Man?_ and the erroneous reports of Twain's death, the latter of
which gave rise to Twain's famous (and often misquoted) reply that the
report was an exaggeration (115). The knowledge that Twain wrote _What Is
Man?_ "shocked Twain's fans" (114), to whom Twain "was the entertaining
apostle of individuality" (114), instead of the author of the essay that
avowed no human could shape or direct his or her own life (114). Even
though Mark Twain (as Samuel Clemens) did die, Railton's book by its very
existence proves that Mark Twain still lives, in his works, the legacy of
his life, nearly ninety-four years after his physical demise. Mark Twain is
dead. Long live Mark Twain!