Mark Twain and Human Nature. Tom Quirk. University of Missouri Press, 2007, cloth, pp. xvi + 289. $39.95. ISBN 978-0-8262-1758-5.

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The following review appeared 24 February 2008 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Martin Zehr

Every persistent reader of Mark Twain has had the experience of believing they have a fix on the man, only to be corrected in this regard as his infinitely complex and continuously evolving nature eludes and attracts us. The task of tackling the subject of Mark Twain and his views on human nature is daunting, one not suited for the faint-hearted or the impatient temperament. Tom Quirk's Mark Twain and Human Nature is testimony to the fact that Quirk is well-suited to the task.

Tom Quirk is a seasoned veteran of Mark Twain studies, someone who is not only thoroughly versed in the primary works of Mark Twain and the critical literature of the last century, but also understands the contemporary history of the man and the world in which he traveled. Defining a basic conception of human nature is, at best, an elusive proposition. In his introduction Quirk provides explicit guidelines for such a concept--guidelines which are grounded in genetics, biology, physiology, psychology and morality.

Quirk analyzes Mark Twain's well-known pronouncements regarding the importance of habit, training, the desire for social approval and humor in the context of the social scientists whose work attracted Twain's attention, e.g.--the historian William E. H. Lecky, philosopher-psychologist William James and Charles Darwin, as well as Twain's own life experience. Quirk also explicitly links Twain's observations regarding human nature to later social scientists. In his discussion of Following the Equator, for example, he shows that the "self-imposed moral restraint" resulting from European colonialism instills in the victim what philosopher Kenneth Burke would later term "trained incapacity." The empirical studies of "learned helplessness" conducted by the psychologist Martin Seligman in the last quarter century provide a firm scientific basis for Twain's typically insightful observations.

Quirk also discusses influences of little-known researchers such as Adolphe Quetelet, the Belgian scientist and statistician whose observations regarding institutions, habits, and education likely influenced Twain's own evolving notions of determinism. These ideas are evident in many of Twain's later writings, such as "Corn-Pone Opinions" and "What Is Man?" Twain's views of determinism were also informed, if not influenced, by others such as Herbert Spencer as well as lesser-known figures like historian Henry Thomas Buckle. Buckle's emphasis on observable sources for progress in civilization was at least consistent with what Quirk views as "the high tide of Twain's social optimism" (p. 170) in the late 1880s, illustrated by the hopeful social engineering of Hank Morgan in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

Quirk notes that Twain's lifelong interest in human nature did not have a consistently beneficial impact on his writing. He observes, for example, that "Twain's longstanding desire to inspect and comment on the human race also pushed him toward generalized, which is to say less particularized, dramatic fictions" (p. 145).

Quirk follows a chronological perspective, dividing Twain's developing perspectives on human nature into six distinct eras coinciding with recognizable historical landmarks. The first chapter covers the period 1852-69, during which the callow Hannibal youth makes his first notebook entries, to his emergence as a national celebrity with the publication of The Innocents Abroad. Each step in Mark Twain's metaphorical travels, observing his fellow members of humanity directly and reading what he could get his hands on that passed for scholarly work on the subject is documented by Quirk with the evidence of Twain's notebooks, his probable readings, his whereabouts, and influences to which he was likely exposed. For example, Mark Twain's knowledge of the popular practice of phrenology "may have helped to wean him of a Calvinistic view of the human condition" (p. 29). Quirk also cites evidence that Twain may well have been exposed to the tempering influence of Missouri voices rejecting notions of "eternal damnation" and promoting a more liberal, generous attitude toward the human condition. The early interest in phrenology, and, especially, its later, satirical rejection, as Quirk notes, underscores Clemens's lifelong interest and openness, not only to new ideas, or schemes, but openness to quick, scornful rejection at a point when Clemens reclassifies them as uninformed scams.

The chronological perspective in Mark Twain and Human Nature includes detailed analysis of the evolving nature of Twain's views as expressed in all his major writings, including essays, travelogues and fiction. Quirk's discussion of the moral struggle Huck undergoes while weighing Jim's fate in Chapter 31 of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn illustrates Twain's own dichotomous thinking regarding the view of conscience as "intuitionist" versus "utilitarian" in accord with his reading of W. E. H. Lecky's History of European Morals from Augustine to Charlemagne (1869). The struggle of the sound heart and the deformed conscience culminating in Huck's declaration, "All right, then, I'll go to hell" in a sense mirrors Twain's own intellectual contest, between the competing ideas of conscience as the product of an intuitive moral sense and an instrument derived from outside social directives in service of obtaining individual happiness. In Huck's case, of course, his status as an outsider, as yet not entirely indoctrinated by the St. Petersburg version of morality, allows the innate sense of right action, as it were, to triumph, if only temporarily, as Quirk observes, until the outside conventions, represented by the appearance of Tom Sawyer, reassert themselves, resulting in the moral "evasion" of the final chapters.

Mark Twain's shorter writings are analyzed in like manner, including significant early works such as "A True Story," "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut" and an 1885 speech "The Character of Man." Recurring themes relevant to Twain's evolving views of human nature, including the importance of training, outside influences, the ubiquitous need for the approval of others, and a gradually pervasive and pessimistic determinism are integral elements of these works, often occurring in conjunction with the humor and wit which serve the function of rendering an ultimately disappointing human experience more palatable. In each case, Quirk provides the reader with a sense of the contemporary social, historical and cultural influences which, in conjunction with Twain's current life circumstances and readings, likely informed his views on particular aspects of nature to be detected in his writing.

Quirk is reluctant to categorize Mark Twain's various musings on human nature under one unifying philosophy, e.g., determinism, although, certainly, the weight of later writings such as "What Is Man?" and "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" lean heavily in this direction. Twain's sometimes bleak determinism, based as it was on his own "corn pone" analysis and his absorption of the lessons of Darwinism, Herbert Spencer, and the scientific revolution of the late nineteenth-century, was seemingly reinforced by the sufferings he personally endured from the deaths of his brother Henry to the loss of his beloved wife Livy and the death of his daughter Jean.

Quirk's discussion of the later work Eve's Diary indicates that, even during the last decade of his life, Twain recognized the necessity, underscored by Livy's death, of experiencing a sense of community, an affirmation that man is, indeed, "unavoidably social," "entangled in a web of social relations" and "pleased by the other's happiness, fearful for his or her well-being, distressed by the other's displeasure" (p. 281).

In his introduction, the author states "human nature was one of the central preoccupations of Mark Twain's life, and, as such, his thinking on the subject deserved as open and charitable a hearing as I felt capable of giving it" (p.19). We might also append the adjective "thorough," although this will certainly be obvious to the reader. The detail and richness of the text would, at first glance, seem to place the work beyond the grasp of potential readers who have not immersed themselves in Twain's works for half a lifetime. However, the book is written in such a manner that the average reader can easily profit from its analysis. As an example, someone familiar with the mob's confrontation with Colonel Sherburn in Huckleberry Finn would likely find Quirk's discussion of this familiar incident (pp. 141-45) illuminating. Here Quirk underscores Twain's lifelong fascination with the subject of the average man being a coward. This pronouncement is given by Colonel Sherburn himself in Chapter 22 of Huckleberry Finn when Sherburn declares, "The average man's a coward." Quirk provides a listing of contemporary sources from Twain's reading which either led to or reinforced his own conclusions regarding the average man. In like manner, Twain's preoccupations with other facets of human nature are rendered accessible to both the Twain scholar and the average reader.

Quirk's book is scrupulously documented and consistently evidence-based. Footnoted discussions provide readers with collateral sources. Mark Twain and Human Nature is not a retrospective speculative analysis based on a fitting of Twain to the Procrustean bed of psychoanalysis. Tom Quirk has also spared the reader from sensational and unsubstantiated explanations for Mark Twain's writings and behavior. He has written the benchmark work on this subject by which any future attempts will be measured.


ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Martin Zehr of Kansas City, Missouri is a clinical psychologist in private practice. He has presented papers on Mark Twain at the Modern Language Association and International Mark Twain Studies Conferences. He is also the recipient of a Quarry Farm Fellowship. Zehr advises that he is a great admirer of Tom Quirk's works and that Mark Twain and Human Nature is "the best Twain-related book I've read in ten years, and nearly every page of the review copy has my penciled comments filling the margins, and finally, I can hardly wait till I have the time in the unforeseeable future to read it again."