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The following review appeared 10 January 2001 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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I agreed to review this book because, as a scholar of American Literature, I have spent much time and spilled much ink in trying to understand America's complex and often perverse uses of sentimentalism, from the most debased forms of literary sentimentality to the most complex forms of empiricist philosophy. Naturally, I find the work ragraph now, is to assure them emphatically that I did not intend to hint that he kept a mistress, and to further assure them that I have never heard any one in the world intimate such a thing. I think that is plain enough. I have written hard things about Chief Burke, in his official capacity, and I have no doubt I shall do it again; but I have not the remotest idea of meddling with his private affairs. Even if he kept a mistress, I would hardly parade it in thc public prints; nor would I object to his perise that Kete refers to Twain at the beginning of her book and ends her book with a substantial discussion of Tom Sawyer and of Huckleberry Finn because she sees in Twain a kindred soul, one who has both a sophisticated disdain of sentiment and a deep emotional attraction to it. She explains that ambivalence through her argument that sentimentality acts as something of an exchange similar to gift exchanges in non-market economies. She postulates further that these exchanges, which take place almost exclusively to compensate for losses, create an ideal American character, one not of radical individualism, but rather of collaboration in making a community. She stresses the opposite connotations of the two denotations of "collaboration," suggesting in the process some of her own and of Twain's ambivalence toward sentiment.
She moves into her discussion of Twain against the backdrop of a historical development from ante-bellum to post-Civil War uses of sentiment. The first of the four chapters on Twain situates Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in context of the way sentimentalism functioned politically during and after the Civil War:
On the political stage Lincoln was deploying an operation fully approved and demonstrably effective within the personal sphere. In the face of imminent or actual loss, sentimentality aims at negating that loss by instituting (or revealing) a structure that maintained connections. Through the making and sharing of an idealized image of both the mourner and the mourned, say in a poem, middle-class parents could force their grief into acceptable bounds. . . . But Reconstruction as formulated after Lincoln's death betrayed the sentimental promise of mourning; the rituals of mourning failed to effect a utopian reunification of the national family. Instead they brought about an increasing sense of nostalgia for a time when it was possible to imagine the nation as a family bound together in the mutual project of forming "A more perfect Union." This nostalgia informs and structures Twain's comedy in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, while the profound cultural disappointment that followed the war informs The (sic) Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Such a discussion usefully frames these two books, adding richness to our understanding of Twain's ambivalence about sentimentality.
The next two chapters treat Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in sequence, developing this background by showing the interconnected uses of mourning and sentimentality in the two books. Not surprisingly, she charts Twain's increasing disillusionment, even as she shows the persistent sentimental tendencies of the latter book. The final Twain chapter, which is also the final chapter of the book, explains that Twain's disillusionment never rose beyond the boundaries of sentimentalism itself:
But, though Twain might imagine the desire to forgo the shaping bonds of affections (or at least the constraints of middle-class life), he was unable to imagine much of an alternative. Twain's alternative to a sentimental world is its binary opposite: a cynical world whose logic is a parallel inversion rather than a replacement of the sentimental. When Twain's characters do escape, they find themselves faced with a world dominated by the threats against which sentimentality had defined itself--loneliness, grief, arbitrary determinism, and meaninglessness--and from which Twain himself had fled. Having made similar points myself, I find it easy to agree. I am surprised, however, by how formulaic Kete's picture of Twain's work is. Beyond her careful exegesis of one aspect of the two Mississippi novels, she retails images of the cynical late Twain with no apparent awareness of the debates that have taken place in Twain criticism on exactly these points. Part of this may stem from Kete's limitation of her discussion of sentiment to mourning. She seems averse to seeing the sentimentality of humor, for example, and thus can see no alternative in Twain's works to the simply binary formulation that she carried into her project from the beginning.
In short, Kete does not seem so much interested in Twain per se as in using a conventional version of Twain to fit a larger argument. And yet that larger argument does cast important light not only on American culture as a whole, but also on one significant aspect of some of Twain's most important work.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Gregg Camfield teaches English at the University of the Pacific. He is the author of Sentimental Twain: Samuel Clemens in the Maze of Moral Philosophy (1994) and Necessary Madness: The Humor of Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (1997). He is currently finishing The Oxford Reader's Companion to Mark Twain.