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Making Mark Twain Work in the Classroom
By James S. Leonard
Duke University Press Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Discovering Mark Twain
From Innocence to Death: An Approach to Teaching Twain
Dennis W. Eddings
A course in Mark Twain, especially on the undergraduate level, presents an instructor with a decided problem. Cantankerously messy, Twain refuses tidy pigeonholing or typecasting. Thus the problem: while a specific thesis approach tends to reduce Twain's richness, some organizing principle beyond mere chronology is needed to help illuminate that richness. One resolution that I have found effective involves tracing the development of what I see as the four major stages of Twain's career through the correlative themes of freedom and the search for a place where such freedom may be realized. While this approach obviously requires selectivity in the works considered and a bit of juggling to make everything fit together, it nonetheless provides a flexible framework that establishes an opening for discussion of Twain's major works as well as helping students see the continuity and development of his career. I emphasize that this approach provides a frame for discussion, not the entire focus of the class. I identify works that are not part of the syllabus, including ones that do not fit neatly into this scheme, and encourage students to examine these on their own (term papers abet that encouragement). Using this frame as a starting point, consideration then ranges freely over many other issues and concerns that make up Twain's complex art.
The first stage of this remarkable career involves creating and exploring the thematic and comic possibilities of the Innocent, the authorial persona of the youthful Mark Twain, and the search for a place capable of providing the necessary freedom to realize that character. I begin with Roughing It, primarily because it treats the Innocent more complexly than does Innocents Abroad, but also because students, especially in the Western states, tend to respond to it more favorably. Twain's removal to Nevada enables him to sample many roles and characters, including timber entrepreneur (and inadvertent arsonist), miner, and reporter. No such choices exist in Missouri. The closing of the Mississippi by Union forces during the Civil War represents a closing off of the freedom to enjoy the role that Twain appears to have found in "Old Times on the Mississippi." Moving west, away from the constraints of the world he has known, liberates him, accounting for the lyric description of the crossing of the plains.
In Nevada, the Innocent apparently finds a world of possibility—thus the many roles he tests. Yet even this early in Twain's career we encounter a duality that haunts his work—the positive assertion of the necessity of freedom and the negative assertion that nowhere on earth does such freedom exist. Individual episodes in the book, as well as its overall structure, reveal this duality. For example, the Innocent moves constantly westward, even to the apparent island paradise of Hawaii. But even there we see the pattern of disillusionment so prevalent in the book. Eden once again proves illusory. Belying the tropical beauty of the Hawaiian Islands' physical setting, Hawaiian history presents an ancient, vast panorama of pagan superstition and bloody butchery.
From this perspective, Roughing It becomes very important in any consideration of Twain's career. Thirteen years before the appearance of Huckleberry Finn, the book insinuates that, despite Huck's assertion, there really is no territory to light out to. That realization, however, presented a problem for Twain. In Roughing It he had found his authorial persona and the character through which that persona could be explored and developed. Yet that character had no place to go after Hawaii; Twain had run out of frontier. His solution to this dilemma takes him to the close of his first stage while opening the door to the second.
In "Old Times on the Mississippi," Twain responds to the knowledge gained in the end of Roughing It by traveling backward through memory rather than forward through space. Going back into the past enables him to retain a type of prelapsarian world that negates the lessons of his Western tour, evidenced by the transformation of the Innocent into the Cub. In that world, the creation of "Mark Twain" continues, exaggerating even more that persona's innocence and the inevitable humiliation arising from it.
Despite their widely different subject matter, "Old Times" resonates with echoes of Roughing It. At the beginning of the work, Twain again finds himself deprived of one role and in search of another. He transforms the plains into the river and the stagecoach into the boat, creating another fluid world of apparent possibility and freedom. In that world, he again attempts to assume a specific role, this time that of the magisterial pilot, the one (not insignificantly) in control. And again, naïve expectations clash with harsh reality, leading to laughter for the reader and, gradually, knowledge for the Cub.
As with the knowledge inherent in Roughing It, the knowledge in "Old Times" contains a dark implication that Twain refuses to acknowledge overtly. No one, it appears, enjoys such freedom as a river-boat pilot—he commands all, subject to neither captain nor owner. Such freedom from authority, however, exists only in the tiny confines of the pilot house. Outside, the river rules. The pilot, confronted with a constantly changing river, must always relearn lessons, only to discard them and start over. Apparently a place where freedom exists, the river actually represents a world of reality that must be conformed to. The justly famous passage where Twain comments on his two views of the river—pre-knowledge and post-knowledge—reflects a loss of innocence totally lacking in any Emersonian compensation.
The Cub's aspiration to join the grand fraternity of pilots mirrors the Innocent's desire to become one of the "boys" inRoughing It. In "Old Times," however, the Cub achieves his goal. He (finally) learns the river; he becomes a pilot; he joins the elite group. The very fact of his success, however, creates a major problem for Twain, for the Innocent's character is predicated upon failure. Twain's solution is to go even further backward in time and memory, and, in doing so, he enters the second stage of his career.
"The idyll of boyhood" best summarizes this stage, and it involves two works that most students are familiar with. Putting Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn into the context of Twain's overall career enables these students to view them from a new perspective. The eight years separating these two books saw, of course, the appearance of several works, such asA Tramp Abroad, The Prince and the Pauper, and Life on the Mississippi, that do not seem to fit into this scheme. While some ingenious arguments in student papers suggest that even these works are not totally incompatible with the progression being traced, I review these three books in a way which shows students that we are tracing an overall progression in Twain's career rather than developing a definitive reading of it. If nothing else, this caveat helps students see that critical pronouncements need themselves to be taken warily and tested thoroughly.
In Tom Sawyer, whose writing overlaps "Old Times," Twain completes his backward journey, creating a nostalgic never-never land free of adult concerns. Tom never becomes concerned about his role, never worries about where he can fulfill that role, for he inhabits a world of play. Magnificently sure of himself and his imaginative ability to make the world conform to that self, Tom appears to be the one Twain character who controls his world. Setbacks in Tom's world are only temporary, sure preludes to even greater triumphs. Remarkably resilient, Tom simply refuses to let any aspect of the outside world impinge too directly on his created reality. Tom Sawyer, then, apparently presents us with a free character who inhabits an unfettered place where his freedom enjoys full reign. It thus seems to present the Eden that Twain failed to find in his journey west and in his trek backward through time and memory. But the imagined Eden of St. Petersburg turns out to be just as illusory as Hawaii.
Tom's play world derives more from his reading than from his imagination, and his inability to go beyond the book suggests the limits on his freedom. We see those limits even more clearly when the adult world impinges on his play world. Stated simply, Tom cannot avoid the adult reality of consequences. Tom's role as star attraction and central amusement of St. Petersburg requires him to conform to the very St. Petersburg values he apparently (and only apparently) rebels against. His socially trained conscience impels him to come forth to testify for Muff Potter, a courageous act that shows Tom is willing to put conscience and responsibility ahead of his own well-being—an adult perspective, indeed.
In the cave episode, Tom faces yet another situation where his play world offers no help, and he again behaves in a manner that adults would approve of, protecting and comforting Becky and engaging in the sentimental rhetoric that Twain so often ridiculed. The end of his book finds Tom still at play in the fields of summer, but his "respectability" speech to Huck makes him the spokesman for the very world that Twain has been making fun of. Tom's accommodation to St. Petersburg reveals a truth hidden in much of Twain's work: responsibility costs us our personal freedom, the unavoidable price of our inescapable adulthood. Awareness of this truth leads Twain into an evasion so he can avoid directly confronting it in a book intended to celebrate a child's world of freedom.
In Tom Sawyer, Twain abandons the Mark Twain persona of the Innocent. His presentation of Tom's adventures in the third person gives the book a detached objectivity appropriate to a fairy tale. The transformation from participant to puppeteer enables Twain to draw the curtain before anything really painful occurs, maintaining the illusion of boys forever young in a summer that will never end. Consequently, we do not laugh at Tom as we do the Innocent, where painful occurrences create the humor. The point of view, accordingly, represents a type of evasion, a Tom Sawyer-like reaction that allows Twain to look the other way before a truth he knows but wishes not to acknowledge. But those facts refuse to go away, resurfacing with a vengeance in Huckleberry Finn.
The inescapable reality of the world in Huckleberry Finn belies the never-never land of Tom Sawyer. Huck's desperate attempts to evade responsibility and maintain a world of Tom Sawyer play prove futile, for unlike Tom's escapades in the earlier book, all of Huck's actions have consequences. Trying to remain in Tom's play world requires sacrificing his comfort and freedom in an accommodation with St. Petersburg. Returning to his former "comfortable" ways with Pap on the Illinois side involves imprisonment and the very real possibility of physical harm during one of Pap's drunken tirades. "Foolin' Jim" with a dead snake backfires when its mate bites Jim. Playing Tom on the Walter Scott jeopardizes Huck and Jim and quite likely kills the crooks on board. And so the pattern goes throughout the book. Huck, being the boy he is, wants to play, but the world, being the way it is, refuses to accommodate that play in the way St. Petersburg accommodates Tom. The first-person narration, furthermore, prevents any evasion, any merciful drawing of the curtain, before this truth. The realism of Huckleberry Finn presents a world fraught with unavoidable responsibilities and the inevitable consequences that spring from them. The only way to avoid them, the only way to remain a boy and free, is to be totally alone. And Huck cannot stand loneliness.
Huckleberry Finn arrives at the same conclusion as Roughing It. Like the Innocent in the earlier book, Huck leaves a world of compromise and enters a fluid world where he appears to have the freedom to play and have grand adventures. Reality belies that appearance, however. External realities that Huck cannot control keep intruding—steamboats, feuds, the King and the Duke. His internal conflict over Jim adds to those external realities, all of them combining to deny the existence of a world of freedom devoid of consequences. The disturbing evasion in the last quarter of Huckleberry Finn can well be read as Huck's (and Twain's) desperate attempt to turn his back on the knowledge gained during the journey downriver, the mature knowledge that all of life is a compromise. But the attempt to remain Peter Pan fails when the pattern repeats itself on the Phelps farm. Consequences again occur. Tom's wounding echoes the more dire shooting of Buck Grangerford. And while Jim has his freedom, he appears to have sacrificed it because he could not let Tom die, proof again that involvement in humanity carries a heavy price tag.
So Huck decides to light out for the territory, away from the spurious civilization of St. Petersburg, away from the false values that the book has exposed. Huck's flight represents yet another evasion rather than the grand assertion of freedom many would make of it. Huck, after all, lights out for the territory "ahead of the rest" to continue his adventures "amongst the Injuns"—to remain, in other words, a boy. Besides, the lark is intended to last only a few weeks. But, at this point, Twain himself must acknowledge the uselessness of Huck's flight, regardless of duration, for it duplicates Twain's own. The description of "howling adventures amongst the Injuns" echoes the opening of Roughing It: "Pretty soon he [Orion] would ... see buffaloes and Indians, and prairie dogs, and antelopes, and have all kinds of adventures, and maybe get hanged or scalped...." Just as Huckleberry Finn begins where Tom Sawyer ends, so Huckleberry Finn ends where Roughing It begins.
That ending, consequently, marks the end of the second stage of Twain's career. His exploration of freedom and his search for a place that allows for such freedom led him to the knowledge that no such place exists, that freedom itself is an illusion. Attempts to remain innocent of that reality, to remain boyishly free of consequences, lead nowhere, for the intrusion of reality is inescapable. Twain consequently turned away from the memory of his own adventures, real and imaginary, and entered into a fictional world that would transform Tom and Huck into adults. This third stage of Twain's career, much darker and more pessimistic in tone than the earlier two, affirms what Twain learned at the end of Roughing It and tried to evade in the works that followed. Seeing this type of continuity enables students, especially those who think of Twain primarily as a humorist, to come to some understanding of Twain's dark side.
A Connecticut Yankee is another journey book, but now the trip goes far back through time rather than forward in space. Hank's journey thus subtly suggests Twain's own in the first two stages of his career. His adventures vary from the wildly burlesque to the deadly serious. Hank tries to play Tom Sawyer in Arthurian Britain, but he cannot escape the Huckleberry Finn reality of the consequences of those games. Furthermore, Hank's adventures demonstrate with crushing finality both the illusory nature of human freedom and the bleak reality that human history has never offered a place where freedom could be realized. We as humans are mere creations of the world that makes us, and no place provides escape from that world, for we carry it within us. Hank demonstrates this truth when he tries to transform sixth-century Britain into nineteenth-century America. The failure of that attempt, and Hank's apocalyptic response, emphasizes just how trapped we are. Unable to maintain a boylike innocence, Hank plunges into a world of adult consequences that he does not want and cannot avoid by fleeing through space, or memory, or time.
No wonder, then, that Twain caps this third stage by grounding its final expression in the concrete world of Dawson's Landing. Pudd'nhead Wilson creates no myth of childhood innocence, of eternal summer, of human freedom. All the inhabitants of Dawson's Landing are slaves, regardless of color. The grown-up world contains no redeeming values. Innocent babes get shuffled about as a direct result of the threats that the grown-up world presents, only to grow up, in turn, reflecting its warped perspective. Only Wilson triumphs. Dubbed a "pudd'nhead" because of an innocent (and funny) remark, he endures his imposed role with almost Faulknerian persistence. His triumph lies in forcing the good citizens of Dawson's Landing to see him as he wishes them to, converting their judgment of "pudd'nhead" into his own view of his true character. Wilson's is a Pyrrhic victory, however, given the reality of Dawson's Landing. The fickleness of the villagers makes one wonder how long that triumph will last, while the very nature of the village makes one wonder if conquering it was worth twenty years of exile and ridicule. (And, as one student sagely suggested, Pudd'nhead's dogged determination to remain in Dawson's Landing may be the final ironic twist of Twain's dark tale, for it implies that Pudd'nhead is indeed a pudd'nhead.)
Excerpted from Making Mark Twain Work in the Classroom by James S. Leonard. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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