Rewriting the Vernacular Mark Twain: The Aesthetics and Politics of Orality in Samuel Clemens's Fictions. Gerd Hurm. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2003. $29.50. ISBN 3-88476-577-9.

This book is currently unavailable through but can be ordered directly from the publisher's website at:

The following review appeared 22 January 2004 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed by
Harry Wonham

We all know what Mark Twain thought of "the awful German language," whose "horizonless transcontinental sentences" are built out of words "so long that they have a perspective." Gerd Hurm, a professor of American literature and culture at the University of Trier, writes (most of the time) with the fluency and flair of a native Missourian, but readers of his book may feel that the German language has at last had its revenge when they enter the heady atmosphere of contemporary Teutonic academic prose. A representative passage in the theoretical section explains that, since "a one-sided interpretation of repressive social relations has fundamentally pervaded both Hegelian and Nietzschean conceptions of the master-slave dialectic, the collateral constitutive link between emancipatory teleologies and innovative, self-referential aesthetics in dominant paradigms in twentieth-century literary and critical theory needs to be reconsidered" (53). Out of this "luminous intellectual fog," as Twain might have called it, comes a perfectly clear and thoroughly persuasive argument about, of all things, Mark Twain's use of vernacular English. Indeed, for all its apparent stylistic insensitivity to the subject at hand, Hurm's Rewriting the Vernacular Mark Twain is the most ambitious and important study of the way oral discourses operate in Twain's fiction since the publication of Henry Nash Smith's Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer in 1962.

This is not an accident, for Hurm is directly engaged with Smith's pioneering study, which represents for Hurm the culmination of a critical tradition that includes seminal works by Howells, DeVoto, Brooks, Trilling, and Marx. These writers established Mark Twain's status as a major American author by describing his work in terms of an epic confrontation between voice-based, vernacular values and text-based, genteel literary and social conventions derived from Europe and New England. Their disagreements about Twain's literary achievement notwithstanding, Howells, Trilling, Smith and the others concurred that the human voice possessed "certain intrinsic traits as a primary, unmediated, and natural [medium] of communication" (11). They believed, in other words, that Huck Finn's rustic vernacular idiom, with its keen sensitivity to the natural environment, provided a conduit to what Twain called Huck's "sound heart." The term "orality" may have been unknown to these critics, but they located Twain's significance as a writer in his ability to give voice to this "sound heart" through the medium of untutored human speech. They considered Huck's language an artistic achievement, rather than a mere burlesque of standard written English, because his naive and seemingly natural idiom impressed them as uniquely expressive of a naive and seemingly natural moral perspective. "Orality" (or the phenomenon of communication through spoken language) enjoys privileged access to the intuitions of the human heart, according to this view, whereas "literacy" (or the phenomenon of communication through written symbols) is seen to involve intellect, self-consciousness, premeditation, and moral compromise. This "vernacular paradigm," as Hurm calls it, has provided the conceptual bedrock for mountains of Twain criticism, which has generally aligned the spoken voice with "intuitive authenticity and innovative aesthetics" (12) in the realm of literary expression, and with "democratic irreverence and emancipatory subversion" (12) in the realm of politics.

But is the human voice really a privileged medium of communication? During the 1960s, '70s and '80s, influential scholarship by students of orality, such as Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong, maintained that human communication originated through the transmission of verbal sounds. In Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World, Ong speculated that our remote ancestors inhabited a "pristine oral culture," which gradually succumbed to modernization through the introduction of literacy (59). McLuhan endorsed a similar view in his popular books Understanding Media and The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, which described the pre-Gutenberg universe as a "magical world of the ear" (59). Mark Twain is an important writer, according to proponents of the vernacular paradigm, because he offers modern readers a belated glimpse of that magical world. But Hurm insists that recent studies of orality and literacy, including empirical work on cognition and language acquisition, have seriously questioned the existence of such a world. This is an unusual detour for Twain criticism, but it is a highly suggestive one. Hurm summarizes numerous examples of recent scholarship on the relationship between oral and written communication--scholarship by leaders in the field, such as Elizabeth Feldbusch, Ruth Finnegan, Roy Harris, and Paul Goetsch--in support of his view that the "correlation of liberated modes of existence with liberated modes of expression via the subjacent authenticity of the human voice needs to be fundamentally reconceived" (37). To make a long and complicated story short and simple, scholars in the field of orality and literacy studies no longer defend the image of a pre-typographic, pre-modern world, where people once communicated the content of their hearts spontaneously and naturally through the medium of spoken language. The story they now tell about the origin and evolution of human communication emphasizes the "underlying connectedness, co-presence, and mixture of such dualistic categories as orality and literacy, voice and vision" (49), sound and script.

What has any of this got to do with Mark Twain? Plenty. In fact, Hurm sees this new direction in orality and literacy research as an opportunity and a provocation to rethink traditional assumptions about Mark Twain's achievement as a writer. Much has changed about the way we read Twain in the 21st century, but the vernacular paradigm continues to govern scholarly opinion in decisive ways. Hurm points out, for example, that Shelley Fisher Fishkin's provocative thesis about the multi-ethnic sources of Twain's vernacular art is roughly consistent with the spirit of Trilling's remark that Twain was "a master of the style that escapes the fixity of the printed page, that sounds in our ears with the immediacy of the heard voice, the very voice of unpretentious truth" (qt. in Hurm, 15). Whether his oral powers are traced to a specifically African-American source or to a more general conception of "the heard voice," Twain is celebrated as the author whose work dramatizes a foundational conflict between genteel values (associated with writing and "sivilization") and vernacular democratic ones (associated with speech and nature). But what if "the heard voice" is shown to possess no more "immediacy" than the written word? Paying careful attention to the way Twain juxtaposes vernacular and genteel idioms in a variety of stories, novels, and essays, Hurm demonstrates that Twain is far less certain than Lionel Trilling or Henry Nash Smith about the political and ethical significance of the spoken word. In a series of intricate and highly compelling readings of many standard and not-so-standard texts, including Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, "Cannibalism in the Cars," "The Great Revolution in Pitcairn," The Innocents Abroad, "To the Person Sitting in Darkness," and "Corn-Pone Opinions," Hurm challenges the usefulness of the vernacular paradigm as a guide to understanding Twain's fiction. Each chapter provides its own surprises, but each returns to Hurm's larger purpose, which is to detach our understanding of "the vernacular Mark Twain" from outdated conceptions of a "pristine oral culture" and a "magical world of the ear."

This may be disappointing news for readers who fell in love with Twain because Huck's speaking voice so powerfully conveys a sense of freedom and nonconformity. But Hurm's effort to rethink the significance of vernacular language in Twain's writing challenges us to conceive of his literary achievement in new ways. Like Lionel Trilling and Henry Nash Smith before him, Hurm has given us, in this demanding book, both a reason to reread Twain's major works and a means to approach them with a renewed sense of discovery.

Henry B. Wonham
University of Oregon