Mark Twain: Critical Insights. Edited by R. Kent Rasmussen. Salem Press, 2010. Pp. 350. Hardcover. $85.00. ISBN 978-1-58765-689-7.

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The following review appeared 2 March 2011 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2011 Mark Twain Forum
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Kevin Mac Donnell

Some stately shelf sagging with sempiternal assemblages of sagacious essays on Sam Clemens might be the single scene more suggestive of silent repose than a solitary esophagus sleeping in a somniferous sky. Arranged around the promising themes of travel, religion, social issues, literary genres, and individual works, many of these critical anthologies offer hope of a utility that never quite materializes. Many a Twain scholar, teacher, or reader has glanced through such a book and placed it on the shelf among its brethren with perfect faith that it will soon wear out from frequent consultations. Meanwhile the earth's orb advances through countless seasons, old nations fall and new ones arise, and the culture shifts under our feet until the next collection of essays arrives, full of promise that invite a hopeful perusal before it too is entombed with its forgotten forbearers in that dusty bibliomausoleum.

No such fate awaits Kent Rasmussen's Mark Twain: Critical Insights. This gathering of essays comes as close to a "page-turner" as any previous collection of critical essays on Twain. Rasmussen explains why in the first sentence of his introduction: "The essays in this volume offer a cross section of provocative interpretations of Mark Twain's writings that have been selected to encourage readers to adopt new perspectives on one of America's greatest writers" (p. vii). Reading these essays will lead to the collapse of some comfortable assumptions and the dawning of some startling insights, with many pleasant provocations along the way. This book is not for intellectual sissies, and after reading it you may never feel quite the same about Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Joan of Arc, Ambrose Bierce, Hank Morgan, or Mark Twain.

Mark Twain: Critical Insights is arranged like the other forty volumes issued so far in this popular series. The Salem Press Critical Insights series has offered collections of important criticism on authors as diverse as Emily Dickinson and Stephen King, James Baldwin and John Steinbeck, or Charles Dickens and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Four of the dozen essays in this volume are previously unpublished, written especially for this volume by renowned Twain scholars Lawrence Berkove, Alan Gribben, Hilton Obenzinger, and Stephen Railton. The other eight essays, some of them taken from sources no longer readily accessible, include thought-provoking writings about Twain as a science fiction author or his nightmare vision of American boyhood in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. They also offer fresh foot-prints that suggest new paths to explore over the familiar turf of Twain as a travel writer, literary realism in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, racial discourse, hoaxing, the frame-narrative, metaphors, and his depiction of domesticity. Dating as far back as 1980, some of these essays don't reflect more recent discoveries in Twain's biography and some of their bibliographies are a bit dated, but none suffer for it. Following the essays, a chronology of Twain's life, a list of Twain's works by genre (his poetry and interviews are not included), a selective bibliography, and an index complete the package.

Rasmussen fulfills his role as editor with an introduction to the themes and issues that are addressed in the essays to follow. Next follows his biography of Twain that presents familiar facts in fresh ways, and introduces some new ones along with some shrewd observations.

Following Rasmussen's ample introduction is "The Paris Review Perspective," a puzzlingly brief (3pp.) perspective by Sasha Weiss of Twain as "a creature of the Mississippi River" and her conventional summaries of the jumping frog story and Huckleberry Finn. But the four new essays that come next go to the heart of the matter.

Stephen Railton's "Mark Twain and His Times" examines Mark Twain as a media phenomenon, his international persona, his roles as both a writer and a cultural icon, and directly links the events of Twain's life and current events with his writings. He makes a strong case that nearly all of Mark Twain's writings are actually travel writings in various guises (time travel, exotic settings, etc.). Railton concludes that Mark Twain, having witnessed a period of profound cultural change from a front-row seat, can tell us more about American culture and the times in which he lived than any other writer.

Alan Gribben's "Mark Twain's Critical Reception" provides an overview of Twain's status as a great American writer. He begins by identifying five issues that are repeatedly raised to challenge Twain's reputation: 1. Mark Twain as a mere travel writer. 2. His business ventures. 3. His broad popularity as a barrier to greatness. 4. His reputation as a mere humorist. 5. His sometimes flawed literary craftsmanship. All of these are ably deconstructed. Gribben then reviews Twain's posthumous reputation, and the current state of Twain scholarship, and names the four scholars whose works have most influenced Twain's scholarly reputation: Walter Blair, Henry Nash Smith, James M. Cox, and Louis J. Budd. His conclusion is that despite shifting perspectives on Twain's works and the resulting controversies, Twain's reputation remains durable and vital.

Hilton Obenzinger's "Pluck Enough to Lynch a Man" examines Mark Twain's conception of manhood. Manhood as a social construct is examined in the various ways it is presented in Twain's works, and several kinds of manhood are identified (the frontier man, the plantation man, the entrepreneurial man). Obenzinger's essay becomes quite entertaining as he looks for the character in Twain's writings who represents the exemplary depiction of "male character." A long list of possible candidates are discussed and rejected: Colonel Sherburn, David Wilson, Hank Morgan, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Jim, Injun Joe, etc. Finally, as Rasmussen promises in his introduction, his final choice may knock some readers out of their chairs. Obenzinger's surprise choice would make O. Henry blush, but it's a good choice, a real zinger.

Lawrence Berkove's "Kindred Rivals: Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce" studies two writers whose biographies followed parallel arcs, whose views of the world were often identical, and whose writing styles and choice of subject matter were remarkably alike, but who never became friends, and seemed to have little regard for each other, even though it is possible that Twain borrowed from Bierce's writings. Only an expert on both Bierce and Twain could suggest possible explanations for this odd state of affairs. Berkove is that expert, and he concludes that what has long been dismissed as hostility or indifference might have been mere rivalry, and that Bierce, who was a moralist and literary artist whose best work matches Twain's, deserves a closer reading.

The previously published essays that follow will be unfamiliar to everyone but the most ardent Twain scholar who subscribes to a variety of journals and makes an effort to track down new scholarship as it appears, even in unlikely places. Larzer Ziff's presentation of Twain as a travel writer is extracted from a collection of essays on great American travel writers, and even though Ziff focuses on The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It, it quickly becomes apparent that more of Twain's writings fit this genre than is generally acknowledged. As much as Twain insisted that he did not like the genre he returned to it again and again.

Next Cynthia Wolff explores Mark Twain's nightmare vision of American boyhood through The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. She turns the conventional view of this novel upside-down and convincingly paints a portrait of the harsh and frightening world that constantly threatens Tom and his friends. Twain's first novel, often viewed through rose-tinted spectacles as a nostalgic backward glance at a carefree childhood, has much of the same grim pessimism as his later works. She reminds us that this is the world where Huck Finn spent his time before his own book, and concludes that by better understanding this world we can better understand Huck.

Tom Quirk's "The Realism of Huck Finn" begins by tracing the separate narrative perspectives of Mark Twain and Huck Finn, explicating the story as it passes from one narrator to the other. He also explores the realism that it shares with Melville's Moby Dick. Quirk brings in Henry James's The Art of Fiction toward the end of his essay and it will surprise some readers that Twain's rendering of Huck Finn's story fulfills what James saw as the essential requirements for a successful work of fiction. Twain thought as little of Henry James as he did Walter Scott or Jane Austen, and would have shuddered at the thought of a Jamesian nod of approval.

Everett Carter writes in his essay titled "Huckleberry Finn" that Twain, as a professional writer, had to produce work that would "earn its and his way" and for this reason his story both "delights and instructs" and therefore conforms to "the oldest traditions of his craft" that date to the times of the Roman writers who first established these basic tenets. Carter also presents the sordidness and sadness of the story, but demonstrates how the overtone of humor and satire provide a healing and affirmative mood that makes this work "America's comic masterpiece."

In "Huck, Jim, and American Racial Discourse" David L. Smith describes racism in America beginning with the words of Thomas Jefferson. He presents race as a social construct that is used to denote superiority of one group in society over another, and shows how this defines both attitudes and language. Smith writes "Most obviously, Twain uses 'nigger' throughout the book as a synonym for 'slave'" (p. 216) and shows how this word has misled some modern readers to charge Twain's novel with racism. Modern readers would be wise to remember that Twain was not merely using this word to be authentic, nor to shock or offend, but instead to "demystify" the concept of race, to present an American civilization where "real individual freedom, in this land of the free, cannot be found" (p. 230).

Lawrence Berkove makes a second appearance and pleads a case for A Connecticut Yankee as Twain's other masterpiece. He confronts the difficulty in teaching this novel, and deals head-on with the "problem" of the abrupt shift in tone from humor to tragedy that has troubled so many readers, viewing it as part of Twain's deliberate hoaxing of the reader through the use of an unreliable narrator (Hank Morgan). He explains the three layers of narration (Twain, Clarence, and Hank Morgan), and reminds us that while Morgan is never ironic, Twain most certainly is (a narrative structure that parallels Twain's other masterpiece). He also reminds us that Twain saw God as a tyrant and trickster, and that just as man is the victim of God's hoax, the reader of this book is the victim of Twain's hoax in this anti-Calvinist novel. As with the story of Huck Finn, this novel is a "denial of the possibility of human freedom."

David Ketterer presents "Mark Twain as a Science Fiction Writer" and places him high in the pantheon of such writers like Sir Thomas More, Jonathan Swift, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells. This essay originally appeared as an introduction to a 1984 collection of Twain's science fiction writings, and the essay includes unedited references to those texts in an appendix, which of course is not included here. Aside from this minor glitch, Ketterer's argument is well-informed, cogent, and well written, and the number of Twain's writings that can be correctly viewed as science fiction is truly astonishing. Twain's use of time-travel, dreams within dreams, new and imagined technologies, and microscopic worlds places Twain among the major science fiction writers. Twain was also the first writer to make use of the "generation starship" genre, in which people survive through time and space in an enclosed space where myths arise to explain their world, a world that is debunked when the people finally escape into the larger world outside their own. He concludes by admitting that Wells and Verne, as contemporaries of Twain, have greater reputations as science fiction writers, but that A Connecticut Yankee is a landmark science fiction work that establishes Twain at the zenith of the time-travel genre.

Finally, Michael Kiskis's essay examines the ways Mark Twain makes use of the tradition of domesticity in American literature, in particular, how Twain defines "the home," explores the "boundaries of home" and writes about the "freedom to be gained by belonging." He explores the domestic literary tradition (as described by Gillian Brown in Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth Century America) in three of Twain's works: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, "The Death of Jean," and the Autobiography, but he also cites works in which domestic ills arise for some of Twain's best-known characters: Tom Sawyer, Hank Morgan, Adam and Eve, Joan of Arc, Roxy, the McWilliamses, and the people of Hadleyburg. He concludes with the observation that the traditions of the old Southwest were not the only influences and sources of Twain's humor, but that some of his most successful humor and best writing sprung from the domestic literary tradition.

These essays suggest new paths in Twain scholarship and may provoke scholars to stray from heavily trodden familiar ground. Teachers of Twain's works will find this volume a trustworthy map when guiding students to see more than what shimmers on the surface of Mark Twain's narratives, and casual readers will find these writings to be a reliable compass that inspires re-readings of some works with a new sense of direction.

The well-chosen combination of these essays in this single volume multiplies their total effect, so that they provoke new insights even more than they might individually. Anyone who holds this volume in their hand for any length of time will find themselves flipping pages back and forth, jotting down notes as their perspectives on Mark Twain broaden every moment. It's a page-turner.