Twain and Freud on the Human Race: Parallels on Personality, Politics and Religion. By Abraham Kupersmith. McFarland & Company, Inc., 2009. Pp. 215. Softcover. $39.95. ISBN 978-0-7864-3306-3.

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The following review appeared 12 March 2009 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Martin Zehr

Abraham Kupersmith, in Twain and Freud on the Human Race, attempts to establish the parallels and differences between the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and the ideas regarding human behavior found in Mark Twain's writings. The notion that Twain "anticipates the dynamic structural theory of personality discovered by Freud" (p. 5) is intriguing, implying as it does an ideological link between Twain and the Freudian theories of personality which dominated American psychiatry in the middle of the last century.

However, from the beginning, Kupersmith's book does not inspire the confidence of the informed Mark Twain scholar. In the first paragraph of the preface, he cites Carl Dolmetsch's well-regarded reference, Our Famous Guest: Mark Twain in Vienna (1992), as well he should in a book on this subject. Unfortunately, Dolmetsch's name is twice misspelled in the first paragraph. Other annoying misspellings include Charles "Dudly" Warner and "Shellbourne," for Colonel Sherburn. Kupersmith's errors could be excused if this book otherwise provided evidence of serious scholarship. In the very first sentence of the first chapter, however, the reader's skeptical attitude is reinforced when Kupersmith makes the following unqualified assertion: "In 1898, and for the only time in their lives, Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud met in Vienna. No one knows what they said to each other, but certainly these two cigar-smoking geniuses had much to discuss" (p. 9). A reading of Dolmetsch's book makes it clear that, while the two men were undoubtedly in the same room at the same time, there is no documented evidence of a verbal exchange between the two. Dolmetsch, who believes the two "probably met more than once in 1898" is careful to add that "one cannot be certain beyond any shadow of doubt" (Dolmetsch, p. 265).

The theoretical linking of the systematic views of human nature shared by Freud and Twain is Kupersmith's primary focus. He looks for his evidence in What Is Man?, The (sic) Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, "The Man Who (sic) Corrupted Hadleyburg," Pudd'nhead Wilson, "The Chronicle of Young Satan," Christian Science, A Connecticut Yankee at (sic) King Arthur's Court, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, and some of Twain's shorter pieces. Kupersmith's first chapter begins with a discussion of What Is Man? which is reprinted in an edited and annotated version as an appendix. Kupersmith asserts that Freud's tripartite structural model of personality (id, ego, superego) is anticipated by Twain in his "model," comprised of the moral, mental and temperamental components. However, a closer reading of What Is Man? can also support the argument that Twain considers the moral and mental aspects as the products of "training" or "circumstance," juxtaposed against a temperamental, or inherited predisposition, to act in particular ways. An argument might be made that Twain, who readily accepted (and met) Darwin, would likely disagree with Freud's emphasis on the importance of the inborn contributors to behavior, based on statements such as the following, from A Connecticut Yankee: "Training-training is everything; training is all there is to a person . . . All that is original in us, and therefore fairly creditable or discreditable to us, can be covered up and hidden by the point of a cambric needle." There is no doubt, from a reading of What Is Man?, that Twain believed in the relative importance of both training and environment.

Kupersmith states that Twain's arguments in What Is Man?"are at times exaggerated," (p. 145) and Kupersmith notes that "One may wonder if Twain's deterministic theory of human nature, so steeped in mechanistic imagery, has any relevance for the modern age" (p. 143). However, Twain's emphasis on the importance of training and circumstance, is not only relevant, but can be seen as a core idea behind modern psychology, with its emphasis on behavioral principles, whether in the form of the early behaviorism of B. F. Skinner, the social learning framework of Albert Bandura, or the cognitive-behavioral emphasis of Marsha Linehan. Indeed, Twain's emphasis on training and circumstance is mirrored and strongly reinforced in Malcolm Gladwell's current bestseller, Outliers (2008).

Kupersmith's discussion of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn includes an analysis of group psychology, with specific reference to the "Shellbourne-Boggs (sic) episode," and a discussion of "the corrupted republic," (p. 45) contrasted with the experience of Huck and Jim on Jackson (sic) Island. Kupersmith's argument in this analysis, that both Twain and Freud believe that feelings of self-worth are derived from conformity with other group members, is supportable. However, when he indicates that Twain believes in "each person's genetically-inherited herd instinct," (p. 37) he goes one too far. Kupersmith should recognize that, for Twain, the phrase would be an oxymoron, since Twain, as quoted by Kupersmith in the same chapter, says "now my idea of instinct is, that it is merely petrified thought; solidified and made inanimate by habit; thought which was once alive and awake but is become unconscious" (p. 33). Kupersmith asserts that "Twain identifies the voice of the ego ideal as social conscience which, if followed, would lead to loss of individual experience and judgment" (p. 36). The problem with Kupersmith's argument is that, even if Twain were to understand and agree with this statement, these are not Twain's terms, and should not be retrospectively grafted into his thinking, even if there is an apparent consistency between the two men on this particular point.

In Chapter 5, Kupersmith examines "The Man Who (sic) Corrupted Hadleyburg." He attempts to resolve the problem he sets out by his determination that "Twain is not clear on whether training or temperament is primary in character development" (p. 58). In Kupersmith's analysis, Hadleyburg's citizenry can be grouped into segments that "exhibit the outsider's temperament," those who are "driven by a temperamental need for social, political, and economic power," and "the majority . . . fearful people whose training leads them to internalize and conform to the town's ideology" (p. 59). Kupersmith concludes, "Those of strong destructive temperaments are able to use the culture and its belief systems to establish personal power, and the weak are controlled by the cultural norms" (p. 72). This conclusion hardly establishes the primacy of temperament or training for the human race in Twain's belief system. Despite Kupersmith's attempt, ultimate resolution of the question may not be possible. This chapter contains hardly any reference to Freud's ideas regarding the question of temperament vs. training which is its predicate. This is an understandable absence, since, unlike Twain, Freud exhibits little ambiguity in his ideas regarding the primacy of inherited drives, e.g., for sex or relief of hunger. An argument can be made that a reading of "Hadleyburg," with its endlessly convoluted plot twists, supports the conclusion that environmental influences are the critical elements in this story. As Tom Quirk observes in Mark Twain and Human Nature (2007), "the several plans of individuals go horribly awry due to a dizzying array of circumstances, but those circumstances are, in fact, what make the events" (Quirk, p. 235). In Chapter 6 titled "Race and Temperament" which is centered around Puddn'head Wilson, Kupersmith acknowledges the importance of circumstance to Twain when he observes that "Twain identifies random circumstance as providing opportunities for the expression of latent temperamental traits; circumstance interacts with temperament and training to shape the destinies of the major characters in the novel" (p. 73).

Kupersmith emphasizes the differences between Freud's and Twain's views in his discussion of their ideas of religion, in Chapter 7 on Christian Science. Here, however, he demonstrates an apparent misunderstanding of Freud when he states that, "For Freud, religion is stored in the superego component of the mind, while for Twain, it lies in training" (p. 89). Freud's concept of the superego is an internalized adoption, through training, of the punishment-reward system enforced by parents which, in turn, is reinforced in the greater society. As Calvin Hall states in his half-century old A Primer of Freudian Psychology, "Fear of punishment and desire for approval cause the child to identify himself with the moral precepts of the parents. This identification with the parents results in the formation of the superego" (Hall, p. 46).

Kupersmith devotes his Conclusion to a discussion based on his theory that many of Twain's novels reveal that "his characters' relationships to society can be defined according to certain patterns" (p. 138). These include the democratic outsider, the conformist, the amoral social climber (Miss Watson is an exemplar), the democratic demagogue, the democratic leader, and the con man. While these typologies are applied to particular fictional characters, e.g., Huck Finn, Roxy and Hank Morgan, there is no discussion of any purported parallel to Freudian theories of personality.

There is a pronounced tendency throughout this book to exaggerate similarities of the "models" of human nature shared by Freud and Twain. No one can doubt Twain's fascination with human nature but, aside from What Is Man?, the collection of ideas loosely based on his embrace of a Darwinian-inspired determinism in the last three decades of his life, there is no analog to the all-encompassing, authoritative structural model of personality development promulgated by Freud and his followers.

Since Kupersmith's book is oriented toward the Twain scholar and researcher, a balanced approach dictates that the subject of Freud criticism, not broached in his book, be addressed. The average Mark Twain Forum subscriber may not be aware of the tenor and depth of Freud criticism. Mainstream psychology in the United States has never fully embraced Freud's theories except as part of the historic lexicon of the study of human behavior, and psychiatry has largely abandoned any serious interest in psychoanalytic approaches, substituting for them its reliance on psychopharmacology as the antidote to human misery. An example of the contemporary rejection of Freud's theories worth noting occurred when the Library of Congress, in 1995, attempted to sponsor an exhibition titled "Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture." The original proposal for the conference aroused a firestorm of criticism from scholars and writers for its hagiographic slant and, after a petition from 42 national figures was submitted to the Library, the exhibition was scaled down and changed considerably, making its truncated appearance three years later. Kupersmith refers to the product of Freud's labors as "the science of psychoanalysis," (p. 9) a contradiction in terms generally rejected by mainstream psychology for more than a half century. Mention of the rejection of the validity of Freud's theories is required in this review, simply because Kupersmith makes absolutely no reference to Freud's current status among scholars, possibly leaving the impression that Freud's former iconic status is unchallenged, with the implication that the attempted comparison to Twain's ideas enhances Twain's own reputation. The omission of a reference to the longstanding rejection of Freud in the scientific community is glaring.

Another omission, in a book which purports to introduce the reader to "parallels on personality" between Twain and Freud, is any reference to a theory of psychosexual development. Since any primer of Freudian theory should include such terms as Oedipus complex, oral, anal, phallic, latent and genital stages of development, it is not unreasonable to expect a comparison to Twain's "parallel" ideas. This is not a minor point, insofar as Freud's ideas regarding psychosexual stages are often regarded as his most important contribution by his followers, so much so that his emphasis was the impetus for the schisms between him and two of his star pupils, Carl Jung and Alfred Adler. That sex as a topic in a work discussing Freud's theories is omitted entirely is evidence of the necessity for focusing on the margins that Kupersmith employed in an attempt to find common ground for comparison. Perhaps a mention of 1601 or "Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism" could have provided a basis for discussion missing in these pages.

Kupersmith concludes by informing the reader that "I have found no evidence to suggest that Twain's work influenced Freud or the reverse" (p. 137). Given Twain's failure to create a comprehensive theory of personality or to expend ink on the subject of psychosexual development, this is not a surprising conclusion. In Quirk's book, Mark Twain and Human Nature, there is no reference to Freud or his theories. Quirk provides the reader with a comprehensive look at Mark Twain's ideas about human nature grounded in evidenced-based links to Twain's writings, his reading, his public statements, and the historical context in which his life was lived. As such, Mark Twain and Human Nature stands as the most comprehensive work on this subject. Kupersmith's book, on the other hand, based on an intriguing premise, the notion of a strong commonality in the thinking of these two men regarding human motivations and behavior, ultimately fails to achieve its stated goal, connecting "the dots in Twain's psychological thought with the insights and vocabulary developed by Sigmund Freud" (p. 3). Ultimately, too many stretchers are required to achieve this stated goal, and little of substance is added to our thinking about Twain as a result.


ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Martin Zehr of Kansas City, Missouri is a clinical psychologist in private practice.