Constructing Mark Twain: New Directions in Scholarship

Constructing Mark Twain: New Directions in Scholarship

by Laura E. Skandera Trombley

The thirteen essays in this collection combine to offer a complex and deeply nuanced picture of Samuel Clemens. With the purpose of straying from the usual notions of Clemens (most notably the Clemens/Twain split that has ruled Twain scholarship for over thirty years), the editors have assembled contributions from a wide range of Twain scholars. As a whole, the


The thirteen essays in this collection combine to offer a complex and deeply nuanced picture of Samuel Clemens. With the purpose of straying from the usual notions of Clemens (most notably the Clemens/Twain split that has ruled Twain scholarship for over thirty years), the editors have assembled contributions from a wide range of Twain scholars. As a whole, the collection argues that it is time we approach Clemens not as a shadow behind the literary persona but as a complex and intricate creator of stories, a creator who is deeply embedded in the political events of his time and who used a mix of literary, social, and personal experience to fuel the movements of his pen.

The essays illuminate Clemens's connections with people and events not usually given the spotlight and introduce us to Clemens as a man deeply embroiled in the process of making literary gold out of everyday experiences. From Clemens's wonderings on race and identity to his looking to family and domesticity as defining experiences, from musings on the language that Clemens used so effectively to consideration of the images and processes of composition, these essays challenge long-held notions of why Clemens was so successful and so influential a writer. While that search itself is not new, the varied approaches within this collection highlight markedly inventive ways of reading the life and work of Samuel Clemens.

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Constructing Mark Twain

New Directions in Scholarship


Copyright © 2001 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8262-1968-8

Chapter One

Mark Twain and the Tradition of Literary Domesticity


When I ask students what they know about Mark Twain, they invariably respond with a host of established images—white suit, white hair, frontier born and raised, westerner, southerner, the river. Many have read either The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; few have moved beyond the party line of Twain as American classic. Fewer still know him as the author of The Prince and the Pauper or Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc; some have been touched by the controversy of race and have come to see the debate over racism in his works as the only issue worthy of attention or scorn; all tend to think that he emerged fully formed amid Mississippi sandbars and small towns constrained by solid family and community values. All are surprised by his attachment to his family.

For a good long time, Twain scholars, like my students, have been operating within exclusionary readings and tightly wrapped and carefully marketed icons. When I was introduced to Mark Twain's writing in 1981 during my first semester of doctoral study, the theme of the seminar was Mark Twain as Artist (emphasis, in fact, on failed artist). That focus on and interpretation of Twain were clearly tied to the debate begun more than sixty years earlier by Van Wyck Brooks and Bernard DeVoto: the two camps divide over Twain as frustrated and failed artist (Brooks) or Twain as essential proponent of American individualism and of the innate power of the vernacular and folk mind (DeVoto). Twain studies is still held hostage to that debate.

The relative ease of an interpretation based in such dualism has created a cottage industry in Twain studies. We continue to squeeze and mold Twain into prepackaged notions of who and what he was or should be—we apply current theoretical approaches and constructs to his works in a display of intellectual gymnastics rather than a concentrated and open-minded exploration. We do not often admit that the prism through which we read Twain conjures specific images and interpretations. Though we make noises about understanding the affect of interpretive paradigms on our work, we do not always view those paradigms with a skepticism that allows entry to opposing views or that allows us to appreciate a more (or less) complex understanding of Twain's humanity. It is a classic case of what Annette Kolodny describes as the challenge facing feminist scholars: "Insofar as we are taught how to read, what we engage are not texts but paradigms." My point is that for too long we have kept to one interpretive paradigm when reading the works of Mark Twain. We have focused mainly on his supposedly unambiguous support for individual—even iconoclastic—freedom.

In her introduction to Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth-Century America, Gillian Brown argues that we need to complicate our reading of American literature by blending the mythic criticism that focuses on the growth of a peculiarly American individualism (which takes explicit form with Emerson) with an understanding of nineteenth-century American women writers' focus on domestic images and experiences of home and hearth that they used both to challenge a market controlled by male writers and to build their own literary tradition:

Individualism and domesticity have both long figured as thematics of nineteenth-century American culture, but as distinct and oppositional trajectories. Thus two disparate literary movements seem to emerge in the 1850s: on the one hand the American Renaissance, represented by the "classic works" of Emerson, Whitman, Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe; and on the other hand the Other American Renaissance, inscribed in the works of Stowe and such writers as Susan Warner, Fanny Fern, Harriet Wilson, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps.

This gender division has persisted with remarkable neatness and clarity throughout American literary criticism. Recall how myths of the origins of American culture describe second-generation Adamic and oedipal stories: new Edens, sons in exile, estrangement from women.... In this androcentric, if not misogynistic, account of American culture, literature records the battle between the masculine desire for freedom and the feminine will toward civilization: the runaway Huck Finn versus the "sivilizing" Widow Douglas. The paradigm of the dreamer's flight from the shrew defines the domestic as a pole from which the individual must escape in order to establish and preserve his identity. Huck lights out for the territory in order to avoid what Ann Douglas calls "the feminization of American culture," to flee from the widow's sentimental values that epitomize, in Henry Nash Smith's words, "an ethos of conformity."

Brown begins a useful reappraisal of the validity of parallel literary movements. She also points to a way to set Mark Twain and his literary creations within a much broader and, I think, more accurate tradition in American letters. Taking Brown's comments as my lead, I intend to examine Twain's tie to the "Other American tradition" of literary domesticity—to the definition of home, the boundaries of home, and the freedom to be gained by belonging. Mark Twain never wanted to escape the "domestic"; in fact, his identity depended heavily upon values embedded in home and hearth. For evidence, I will look to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, "The Death of Jean," and the Autobiography.

My experience as a reader of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn during the past fifteen years has introduced me to a variety of critical judgments ranging from the complaints against Huck's obstinate ignorance to a celebration of his archetypal quest for freedom, to applause for his ability to transcend both religious and racial prejudice, to disappointment with the final third of his story, to a sophisticated response to the final adventures that argues for the unified whole. It fascinates me that each of these approaches is still in play; none has been effectively calmed. I now have a sense that we have recently turned a critical corner and face still another—and compelling—approach: the next interpretive battle may be over Huck's influence on how we see and understand family relationships.

This places Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at the center of the swirl over domestic concerns in the mid- to late nineteenth century. Huck's runaway status, his being essentially an orphan, places him at the side of young Ellen Montgomery of Susan Warner's Wide, Wide World (1850), Sylvy of Sarah Orne Jewett's "White Heron" (1886), or, later, even young Lily of Mary Wilkins Freeman's "Old Woman Magoun" (1891). These writers place their characters in a struggle for moral action—most often within households and communities shaped, perhaps exclusively, by women. In our own time, Huck is placed within the drive by social conservatives to highlight William Bennett's praise for supposedly conservative-owned virtues—Self-discipline, Compassion, Responsibility, Friendship, Work, Courage, Perseverance, Honesty, Loyalty, and Faith—and for stories that speak "without hesitation, without embarrassment, to the inner part of the individual, to the moral sense."

Twain, I think, would be ambivalent. He saw the moral sense as no key to appropriate behavior; it is too easily shaped by external authority, too quickly transformed from an interest in compassion into the slave of a conscience like that which Twain's narrator battles in "The Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut," or like that which Huck battles as he runs for his life. Yet, issues of morality are deeply embedded in Twain's domestic fiction, especially the question of how to teach morality—by the voice of authority or by the resilience of tradition. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the debate is manifest in the conflict between the narrow blasts of Miss Watson and Pap on one side and the steady perseverance of the Widow Douglas and Jim on the other.

Twain insisted that the arena for this consideration of morality is the home. I recently taught a graduate class called "Mark Twain and Social Justice." Our discussion of the constellation of social issues in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn quickly focused on the profound absence of the "traditional" family and social networks within the tale. As we worked through Twain's writings, one student became more apprehensive: finally, looking very uncomfortable, he announced that he felt that he would have substantial problems bringing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to his students. The questions of aesthetics were not the problem, nor did he feel the questions of race insurmountable. His prime concern became how to introduce a story about an abused child of an alcoholic parent to a group of students whose home lives were so much a mirror image of Huck's. "This story," he said, "is too close to their real lives." Twain's consideration of home—or absence of home—fostered his uncanny ability to look into the dark corners of human life and paint a picture that may, in fact, be more accurate in 2000 than it was in 1886 or 1846.

Clearly, just as the increased consciousness of civil rights since the 1950s inspired readers to consider the role that race plays in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, our contemporary concerns ignite questions related to family issues, social and legal protections, and values. Consider that the new judge brought in to rule on the matter of Huck's custody (a battle between Pap and Judge Thatcher and the Widow Douglas) decides in Pap's favor based on an assumption that biology trumps compassion and overrides legal protection: "[H]e said courts mustn't interfere and separate families if they could help it; said he'd druther not take a child away from its father. So Judge Thatcher and the widow had to quit the business." Four paragraphs later, however, that new judge is full of regrets after Pap's short-lived reform and "reckoned a body could reform the old man with a shot-gun, maybe, but he didn't know no other way" (Case, 49). The whole next chapter (chapter 6) presents a haunting picture of an abduction, frequent cowhidings and beatings ("But by-and-by pap got too handy with his hick'ry, and I couldn't stand it. I was all over welts"), psychological abuse, and, most troubling of all, attempted murder and Huck's contemplation of patricide:

By-and-by he rolled out an jumped up on his feet looking wild, and he see me and went for me. He chased me round and round the place, with a clasp-knife, calling me the Angel of Death and saying he would kill me and then I couldn't come for him no more. I begged and told him I was only Huck, and he laughed such a screechy laugh, and roared and cussed, and kept on chasing me up. Once when I turned short and dodged under his arm he made a grab and got me by the jacket between my shoulders, and I thought I was gone; but I slid out of the jacket quick as lightning, and saved myself. Pretty soon he was all tired out, and dropped down with his back against the door, and said he would rest a minute and then kill me. He put his knife under him, and said he would sleep and get strong, and then he would see who was who.

So he dozed off, pretty soon. By-and-by I got the old split-bottom chair and clumb up, as easy as I could, not to make any noise, and got down the gun. I slipped the ramrod down it to make sure it was loaded, and then I laid it across the turnip barrel, pointing towards pap, and set down behind it to wait for him to stir. And how slow and still the time did drag along. (Case, 54–55)

The choreography and pacing of the scene inspire terror. The experience itself motivates Huck to get the hell away. The disagreeable idea of being dragged from place to place by Pap to avoid another custody battle is replaced with a deliberate choice of homelessness and wandering and, what is worse for Huck, loneliness.

All of this takes place prior to Huck's coming upon Jim on Jackson's Island. Whether that reunion is part of Twain's initial plan or not (Vic Doyno has suggested that it was not part of Twain's early intention), the first seven chapters offer troubling images of an adolescent struggling at the furthest margins of small-town life. Huck's character is set. His actions and reactions for the rest of the tale remain consistent with what we know from these first episodes. We know that Huck, as the child of an alcoholic, as a young boy torn between loyalty and fear, as a student of violence and loneliness, will do what he can to survive, to get along. He will be reactive not proactive. He will allow others to set the agenda (even his stories take their cue from the individuals he meets) and will choose to remain quiet: his refrain, whether to Miss Watson's complaints or to the later felonies of the Duke and King, is to keep still; speaking up "would only make trouble, and wouldn't do no good" (Case, 33). Huck's behavior in the final section of the tale is consistent, which, in fact, helps to resolve at least part of the critical discomfort generated by Huck's reluctance to challenge Tom Sawyer's crazy actions toward Jim.

What, then, does the story offer if its teller's primary consistency is expedient behavior and reactions sparked by fear? At its heart, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the story of two survivors, each of whom is reluctant to act alone or to speak out: both Huck and Jim, though for different reasons, are robbed of their options and of their voices by the social system that reigns over them. Only when they are separated from that system are they able to consider choices and offer even tentative commentary on their lives; only when they loosen themselves from the constraints are they able to talk. And it takes a good deal of time before they can talk to each other on a human level rather than through the disguises they inherit from their social caste. (Compare, for example, Huck's attempt to explain the French language [chapter 14] to Jim to the later exchange after their separation in the fog when Huck is shamed into apologizing to Jim [chapter 15] or, still later, Jim's story about his deaf daughter [chapter 23].) Their increasingly intimate talk reinforces both their alienation from the society at large and, perhaps more important, their exile from any semblance of family.

And where does that lead us? If the whole of Huck's story is about the disintegration of human bonds and the eventual breakdown of even the most tentative of human connections, we will have grave problems making a case for its value as a moral tale. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn presents us with nagging questions: How do we deal with the dizzying array of possible—and very often ambiguous—lessons that push through the narrative? Do we pick and choose to make the text more palatable as moral instruction? Do we, for example, opt for an optimistic interpretation in order to demonstrate that Huck, in the end, has managed to grow into a critical but loyal member of the society? Do we present his rejection of society—all society—at the end of the novel when he decides to "light out for the Territory ahead of the rest" in order to escape the community to which he has recently returned as a positive step? Is self-exile an option to be applauded? Has his experience made him more or less suspicious of allegiances—not to mention relationships—with other individuals or groups? After all, staying very much in character, Huck decides to turn and run rather than confront the demands of community membership. He runs from the possibility of family. He turns to irresponsibility with relish and anticipation. That is not a moral lesson.

I would like to make a different argument. The key to the immorality of Huck's tale is not in his slouching toward irresponsibility and expediency but in our own ease in ignoring the whole of Huck's life or (worse) cheapening it with a condescending chuckle and a quickened step so that we push him from our view. Perhaps we decide that he gains sensitivity because it is safer for us if he does so. Huck, after all, is the homeless child on the street. The immigrant shut out from our schools. The child who, because of a self-destructive belief in his own corruption and worthlessness, grows up to be his pap. Mark Twain's moral lesson is not that Huck gains a sense of his own humanity by transcending the constraints and stereotypes placed on him and on Jim by the authority of school and church and home but that Huck fails. The stout heart does not win over the deformed conscience. Huck's failure is our lesson. Midpoint in the composing process, Mark Twain added the admonishment that "persons attempting to find a moral ... will be banished" (Case, 27). Huck tried. And he was banished. Huck—and Mark Twain, and Samuel Clemens—left a story to us steeped in domestic concerns in the hopes that we would come to understand the primacy of home and the value of compassion.


Excerpted from Constructing Mark Twain Copyright © 2001 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

About the Editors

Laura E. Skandera Trombley is Vice President for Academic Affairs at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She is the author of numerous books, including Mark Twain in the Company of Women.

Michael J. Kiskis is Professor of American Literature at Elmira College in New York. He is the editor of Mark Twain's Own Autobiography: The Chapters from the "North American Review."

The Mark Twain and His Circle Series, edited by Tom Quirk and John Bird

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