The Author-Cat: Clemens's Life in Fiction. Forrest G. Robinson. Fordham University Press, 2007. Pp. xvi + 242. Cloth, $45.00. ISBN 978-0-8232-2787-7.

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The following review appeared 28 October 2007 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Barbara Schmidt

Forrest G. Robinson's The Author-Cat explores and identifies psychological forces behind the dynamic and volatile personality of Samuel Clemens and his writings. Torment is a "dark mansion with many rooms," writes Robinson in the beginning pages of his book. His thesis is that Clemens was "the most guilt-ridden of major American writers" (p. 6) who wrote compulsively about himself with both a need to reveal and a need to conceal. This book is a study which explores Clemens's inability to come to grips with an uneasy conscience.

The title Author-Cat is taken from a letter Clemens wrote to his friend William Dean Howells claiming that truth in an autobiography was to be found "between the lines, where the author-cat is raking dust upon it which hides from the disinterested spectator neither it nor its smell." To this end, Robinson explores "between the lines" of Clemens's autobiography, travel writings (often autobiographical in nature), fiction, notebooks, later unfinished writings, and letters. Robinson identifies and dissects various sources of guilt Samuel Clemens wrestled with throughout his lifetime.

Robinson's book consists of five chapters, epilogue, notes and index. Much of the material in the chapters titled "Never Quite Sane in the Night," "The General and the Maid," "My List of Permanencies," "Telling Fictions," and "Dreaming Better Dreams" has appeared over the past twenty-five years in various scholarly journals and publications. Robinson's studies have been expanded and updated and are now brought together in one volume.

Robinson's previous major publication, In Bad Faith: The Dynamics of Deception in Mark Twain's America (1986), explores the social dynamics of "bad faith" which can be defined as self deceptions which take place when public ideals are violated. In The Author-Cat Robinson writes, "I want to apply the notion of bad faith in a rather different way, to Clemens's theory and practice of autobiography" (p. 18). To this end, Robinson concludes that Clemens's autobiography, which was intended to reveal all, is the work that reveals the least because evasion of painful guilt-ridden topics was easy. Robinson argues that the most revealing truths, and darker truths, are to be found in Clemens's travel books and his fiction. Throughout The Author-Cat Robinson identifies a number of incidents which prompted guilty reactions and mood swings in Clemens when their memories surfaced throughout his life.

An early guilt that Robinson identifies as tormenting Clemens was the role he played in the death of a Hannibal tramp to whom he had given matches. The tramp later set himself on fire in the Hannibal jail and died before he could be rescued. Clemens wrote about the incident in chapter 56 of Life on the Mississippi and how his younger brother Henry had possible knowledge of the role he had played in that death. The situation gave rise to the dynamics of a resentment Clemens felt against his younger brother. Henry later died from injuries received in an explosion on the Mississippi steamboat Pennyslvania--a boat from which Sam Clemens was ejected shortly before his brother's fatal trip. Robinson finds traces of Henry Clemens in the tattle-tale character of Sid Sawyer in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as well as the shabby two-foot dwarf conscience in "The Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut." Robinson writes, "Only in Tom Sawyer is his punitive rage against Henry opened fully to view. Here, clearly on display, is evidence of the murderous childhood wish that seemed fatally to materialize in the Pennsylvania explosion, that fuelled the pathological mourning that followed" (p. 59).

Clemens's failure to fight in the Civil War also became a source of guilt. According to Robinson, "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed" was an evasive explanation that "failed utterly to satisfy its author. The guilt repressed in that text returned constantly, to be told and untold in various ways, and with equal futility, for the rest of Clemens's life... Over and over again, he was driven to retell the story, but never succeeded in shaping it to his own moral satisfaction ... a lie artfully designed to win amused and sympathetic assent" (pp. 65, 66, 77). Robinson examines Clemens's relationship with General Ulysses S. Grant and his attempts to symbolically conquer and win Grant over. The story "Which Was the Dream?" was an attempt by Clemens to merge his own life with that of Grant. Robinson believes Grant clearly had an abundance of virtuous male qualities which Clemens saw lacking in himself and Clemens's admiration for the former general was a reflex of his own diminished self-regard. By the same token, Clemens was drawn to write the story of Joan of Arc "because of what he esteemed in her and what, correspondingly, he could not abide in himself" (p. 73).

In a long list of "permanencies"--events which caused Clemens humiliation throughout his life, Robinson adds another instance of cowardice--a flight from Nevada in 1864 to avoid a duel. To support his argument, Robinson offers a careful analysis of Appendix C of Roughing It. Appendix C, titled "Concerning a Frightful Assassination That Was Never Executed," is a stinging indictment of Nevada journalist Conrad Wiegand. Robinson finds parallels between Clemens's contempt for Wiegand and his own guilt for failing to rise to standards of honor and courage in his own journalistic wars and a never-fought duel. Although Clemens referred to the failed duel in lectures and the tale "How I Escaped Being Killed in a Duel" (1873) and elaborated on it in autobiographical dictation in 1906, Robinson concludes that the conspicuous absence of the Virginia City duel from Roughing It"testifies to a potent aversion" (p. 100).

The overpowering and predominant source of guilt in Clemens's life identified by Robinson is race-slavery guilt. According to Robinson, Clemens felt guilty about slavery because "it was his lot in life to have been complicit, though quite against his best human instincts, in the subjection of black people to conditions that he came in time to regard as morally indefensible. To have looked the other way in the face of iniquity of slavery was the unpardonable sin for which Clemens never forgave himself" (p. 162). In support of his theory Robinson is indebted to Terrell Dempsey's Searching for Jim: Slavery in Sam Clemens's World (2003), which documents the extent and horrors of slavery of Clemens's boyhood town of Hannibal, Missouri. Robinson states that early "bad faith" denial of the evils of slavery "is the surest sign that Clemens's memories of slavery so challenged his moral self-regard that he could no more forget them than he could bear to remember them" (p. 163). In his character Huckleberry Finn, Clemens allowed himself to assume a first-person voice and Robinson finds a sense of inevitable failure and personal remorse that permeates throughout the novel in Huck's struggle between heart and conscience.

As a prologue to Clemens's late fiction, Robinson examines the obsession with slavery in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. He also presents well-thought-out discussions of slavery issues and conscience as they surfaced in American Claimant, Pudd'nhead Wilson, "Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy," the Mysterious Stranger manuscripts, "Which Was It?" and "What is Man?" Regarding his later and often incomplete writings, Robinson writes "He obsessed about God and the devil, time and space, the origins and status of knowledge, free will, determinism, and what he took to be the inherent perversity of human nature. He approached these topics, I emphasize, not with philosophical detachment, but as a man driven to find a justifying explanation for the terrible thing he knew he was" (p. 186-187). Robinson concludes that a resort to a belief in determinism--the view of man as a machine not responsible for his actions--offered incomplete and only brief respites from guilt that plagued Clemens.

Robinson is not the first scholar to undertake an armchair post-mortem psychoanalysis of Samuel Clemens. In 1920 Van Wyck Brooks published one of the first such studies in The Ordeal of Mark Twain which also attempted to define the source of Clemens's tortured conscience. Bernard DeVoto, in his capacity as editor of Mark Twain's papers, also elaborated on Clemens's "Symbols of Despair" in Mark Twain at Work (1942). Robinson, however, most often cites the work of scholars Justin Kaplan (Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, 1966); Hamlin Hill (God's Fool, 1973); and Henry Nash Smith, another former editor of the Mark Twain Papers to bolster his arguments. The more recent work of Terrell Dempsey and Leland Krauth also figure into Robinson's theories. Robinson also recognizes the work of recent scholars William R. Macnaughton, Bruce Michelson, and Karen Lystra who have "objected that [Hamlin] Hill gives too little attention to Clemens's resilient relish for life and to the energy and exuberance of his late writing. These are important, often well argued perspectives. But while I readily concede that Hill is at points too relentlessly dark and unforgiving in his judgments, and that he tends to undervalue the late writing, his portrait of a man engulfed by volatile, often destructive emotions is thoroughly plausible and well grounded. To deny these realities is to turn a blind eye to a virtual mountain of direct testimony to the aging writer's contempt for human nature, hatred of God, anguished self-loathing, and impatient longing for the oblivion of the grave" (p. 159). Robinson also finds flaws in Lystra's Dangerous Intimacy (2004) and points instead to work by Laura Skandera-Trombley and Jennifer L. Rafferty which elaborate on sources of Clemens's guilt regarding his treatment of his former secretary Isabel Lyon.

There is some overlapping of information and discussion among the chapters included in Robinson's book. The presentation of material is not as concise and precise as one would wish. For example, the second chapter titled "The General and the Maid" devotes twenty-five pages to a discussion of Clemens's relationship with his younger brother Henry prior to an awkward transition into a shorter seventeen page discussion of Ulysses Grant and Joan of Arc. This is only a minor quibble and does not detract from the overall value of having a number of Robinson's essays together in one volume.

In 1942 Bernard DeVoto cautioned Twain scholars that both psychology and literary criticism are highly speculative fields. Robinson's professional training is in English and he holds a position as a professor of American Studies at University of California, Santa Cruz. Consequently, his analyzing portrait of a guilt-ridden Clemens may not carry the weight of a medical or psychological professional. However, as a literature professional, Robinson is a master at "reading between the lines." Robinson's arguments and theories are strong, well-defended and built around Clemens's own words and/or absence of them. Overall, Robinson succeeds in presenting a portrait of Samuel Clemens as a tortured soul who never escaped guilt and who was an ineffectual "author-cat" at burying his shame. The impact of Robinson's work is that Twain scholars will not casually overlook the role guilt may have played in future studies of Twain's writings. They will become more adept at seeking and finding the possible truth "between the lines" of Clemens's words.