Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited By Eric J. Sundquist. (New Century Views.)
Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1994.
Pp. vi, 204. Paper. $12.95. ISBN 0-13-564170-5.

The following review appeared 10 August 1994 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1994

Reviewed by:

Joseph A. Alvarez <>
C entral Piedmont Community College

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One of the first volumes of the Prentice-Hall New Century Views Series, Eric J. Sundquist's new collection of essays and book excerpts from the 1980s augments (but does not entirely supersede) Henry Nash Smith's Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays (1963), the "Twentieth Century Views" series analog predecessor from the same publisher. Both belong in any library (college, high school, public) to which students go for either research in or comprehension of Mark Twain and his works. Researchers can compare these two volumes for a simplified view of trends in Twain scholarship over the last thirty years.

For example, a quick comparison of the older Twentieth Century Views collection to the New Century Views under consideration shows Smith's collection emphasizes Roughing It over Sundquist's emphasis on Innocents Abroad. They compare almost exactly on the quantity of general material (Twain as "classic" writer) and on Tom Sawyer and Life on the Mississippi, each of the latter two having one essay in each collection. They both treat Huckleberry Finn quantitatively equally with three selections, but Sundquist's collection emphasizes both Connecticut Yankee (three essays) and Pudd'nhead Wilson (two essays) over the coverage of those two works in Smith's volume (one essay each). Bernard DeVoto's essay in Smith on the "Late Twain" is biographical, as is, to some extent, Forrest Robinson's analogous selection in Sundquist.

As editor, Sundquist not only chose well-known Twain scholars (e.g., Louis J. Budd and James M. Cox), but also included other well-known scholars (e.g., African-American biographer Arnold Rampersad). The New Century Views series (as was its predecessor) appears to be aimed at undergraduates and advanced high school students; however, some of the selections in this volume may cast their gaze--or rather, their vocabulary--slightly above that level. In other words, the selections do pique interest and do provide relatively "new views," but students and public library patrons will have to work a bit harder than graduate students or academics at comprehension with some of the essays. These works do not plumb the depths of postmodern theoretical critical density, although some of that discourse, which does appear, may be new to some of these readers. As one example stated to suggest positive use of those theories, consider James Cox's concluding remarks about the present generation of critics and their "problematics, their presences-become-absences, and their aporias."

Nonetheless, college or high school Mark Twain teachers who have not been keeping up with the "Mark Twain Industry," which hums along more reliably than either the Paige typesetter or Hank Morgan's man factories, would do well to acquire this collection to enhance their knowledge and to supplement their teaching. Those who have followed Twain research could also find this volume useful.

One of Sundquist's noticeable strengths is his comprehensive introductory essay, in which he (re)constructs Twain in an ironic way. For example, Sundquist notes Twain's "rhetorical puncturing of Old World artistic or intellectual sublimity" in Innocents Abroad. Sundquist also remarks that Twain "characteristically declared the lessons of the 'old masters' bankrupt" while pointing out the irony that Twain himself has become for many contemporary readers one of the (new?) "old masters." Sundquist's introduction contextualizes the remaining essays, and conflates ideas in Twain's work and in Twain himself with insightful comments such as the following:

Grounded in theories of Anglo-Saxon manifest destiny and popularized in the real life of Theodore Roosevelt, as well as the fictive hero's lives drawn by Owen Wister, Richard Harding Davis, and numerous dime novelists, imperial adventure, Twain maintained, was analogous to slavery in the moral burden that it imposed upon the nation and the sacrifice of humanity it made under the banner of American freedom. Not that Twain himself stood outside responsibility for that sacrifice: nothing is more clear than his recognition of authorial complicity in virtually every crime and frailty his essays and books condemn.
In other words, Twain tried to have it both ways, as we can readily see by the apparent paradoxical personal (especially financial) behavior versus his authorial voice. One need only think of how much Twain relied on Henry Rogers (and indirectly the Standard Oil Company) to clear the path through the complicated financial aftermath of his personal and corporate bankruptcy toward the end of the Gilded Age. About the time Twain emerged from the bankruptcy, he condemned American imperialism in Following the Equator (1897) and, later, in more strident attacks on America's Pacific and Caribbean territorial acquisitions. Is Twain hypocritical like the rest of the "damned human race," to which he also claimed membership? In a word, and to some extent, yes. Sundquist aptly likens Twain's personal case to the nation's economy with "cycles of debt, prosperity, inflation, and collapse." Twain's desire to live an upper-middle class, if not an American aristocratic, life is well known to anyone who reads into Twain's biographies, even his autobiographies.

The table of contents reveals the range of the essays: from Innocents Abroad to "Late Twain." Noticeably missing, however, is much discussion of the tales, sketches, speeches, and essays before the so-called "late" (dark?) Twain period (prior to the 1890s). And while Forrest Robinson's concluding essay does help link the late writings to some of the earlier ones, again, the collection would have fared better had it included more on pre-Pudd'nhead Wilson short works and post-Pudd'nhead Wilson works like Following the Equator and The Mysterious Stranger. The later works, as most Twainians know, have become the object of intense scholarship over the last few years. Publication of the two-volume Library of America's Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays (1992), edited by Louis Budd, has also helped spur scholarly interest in those shorter works--early and late. Granted, it is most likely that teaching Twain's work centers on the "big books" more than on the lesser well-known ones and on the shorter works; and this collection reflects that probable scenario. However, most of the American Literature anthologies commonly used in college courses include such famous short pieces as "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," "The Whittier Birthday Speech," and "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses." It is difficult to assert as indisputable fact that most college and high school teachers focus on canonical texts like Huck Finn and Connecticut Yankee, but that certainly is my sense of it.

Let us now turn to a tour through some of the essays themselves. Review space limits the commentary here, but I will emphasize the important features of several of the essays in order to characterize the value of the whole collection.

In "A Hero with Changing Faces" (from his 1983 book Our Mark Twain: The Making of His Public Personality ), Louis J. Budd explores the related concepts of Twain as hero and celebrity, grounding his discussion in theories of humor and popular culture. Budd enunciates four problems in judging the authority of "alleged culture-heroes" upon which he bases much of his discussion, the last of which I will elucidate. "The fourth problem is unique to Twain . . . because a sizable part of his late constituency had read little, if any, of his writing," and had never heard his lectures or speeches. From these problems, Budd proceeds to show that Twain bridged high and low culture to the point that he was hero-celebrity in both cultural spheres. Budd's amusing opening anecdotes prefigure this part of his discussion by exemplifying just that sense of celebrity across "cultures." Budd dwells on what he calls Twain's "dominant quality": irreverence, which Budd claims "worked through comedy and gained privileges of frankness from it."

As Budd concludes, however, he states that "the most important social fact about Twain was not humor but Twain as humorist, a likable personality who expanded into a comic hero." Twain accomplished "herohood," Budd asserts, essentially by working at it with "shrewdness, courage, toughness, and perseverance."

Susan Gillman's "The Writer's Secret Life: Twain and the Art of Authorship" (from her 1989 Dark Twins: Imposture and Identity in Mark Twain's America ) examines Twain's differing claims about his "authorial control." Twain likened himself as author to a "passive amanuensis/ unconscious plagiarist [on the grounds that 'all ideas are second-hand']/ . . .unwilling midwife/ proprietor/ father, and finally as the unconscious." Gillman's excerpt touches on most of the Twain oeuvre and asserts that he seemed to settle for an authorial persona that reflects the author's self in the book, but is itself an "alien other, . . . including self-knowledge of which even the self is unconscious."

She proceeds to note Twain's long-term interest in dream analysis, taking "My Platonic Sweetheart" for her text to "[confirm] Twain's habit of articulating perception in binary terms." Gillman applies that notion of duality to assert that "Twain's inquiry into identity. . . [moved] toward the. . . metaphysical. . . and speculative. That is. . .the double conceived as a character gives way to a structural conception of narrative doubling." Discussion of a January 1898 dream Twain recorded in his notebook involving "a negro wench" who propositions (?) the author and vanishes before he can respond with other than a rising stomach concludes Gillman's analysis of identity and authorial control. The entry and Twain's "hierarchy of selves" are "so confused and confusing" that they question epistemological order and "leave open the question posed by the title of one of [his fictional dream tales], 'Which Was the Dream?'. . ."

John Seelye (who wrote the 1970 novel The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) designates Tom Sawyer as "a subliminal projection of Sam Clemens" in the role of the Lord of Misrule. Seelye also describes Tom as a Puck-ish character who plays off the Thomas Aldrich Bailey character of the bad boy (The Story of the Bad Boy, 1869) to become the "Good Bad Boy. . .[who] may thenceforth become a Playboy, which is indeed what he does." Seelye's essay in this collection, originally published in Sewanee Review, "What's in a Name: Sounding the Depths of Tom Sawyer " (1982), has also served as the introduction to the Penguin Classics Tom Sawyer. As such, it covers the territory from St. Petersburg to McDougal's Cave, while pointing out that the sequel to the book outshines the original; but (like the book) Tom, "bears careful consideration. Like Hamlet he deserves studying."

Seelye notes that the novel acts like a drama: "of all Mark Twain's books for children [it] most resembles a play." The anomaly, of course, lies in the strict control of action in dramatic form while celebrating "boyhood's free spirit." Seelye identifies as one of the several ironies of both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn their use of "episodes clearly derived from the adventures concocted by those masters of the historical romance" (Cooper and Scott) whose "literary offenses" Twain recorded in a rather harsh comic castigation.

James Cox's "Life on the Mississippi Revisited" (1984) reinforces Louis Budd's comments about Twain as celebrity by asserting that "It is rather a book in which the life of Samuel Clemens is both converted and enlarged into the myth of Mark Twain." Cox's essay, reprinted from a collection of essays titled The Mythologizing of Mark Twain, develops that assertion by first noting how both the popular audience and the academic or literary audience have celebrated "Twain as a native literary genius." Cox sees this division of audience as an "initial; or 'master' division," the "index to a host of divisions Mark Twain has both represented and excited." Cox suggests the pen name serves as entry point into the divisions and states the books "were made to enlarge him precisely because they could not contain him."

One of Cox's interesting points relates to the alleged "safety" signified by the call "Mark Twain" when used on the steamboats. Far from being only the safe water level, Cox points out the equivalent of the "half-full, half-empty glass": the call could indicate entry into shallower water or passage into deeper water. Cox relates how master pilot Horace Bixby arranged a lesson in humility for the apprentice pilot Sam Clemens in which the call "Mark Twain" rings out in water Clemens thought safe. His reaction causes "a gale of humiliating laughter" to peel forth from Bixby and other witnesses. Thus, Cox claims, we

can begin to see the dimensions of the world Samuel Clemens was inventing under the signature of Mark Twain. It was a world where art was a guild of master and apprentice come into the industrial age of steam; it involved both experience and memory (the master artist and pilot, Bixby, had both to know the river and to remember it); and it was art as a performance before an audience--in other words, public art, or at least art performed in public.
Through a tour de force like this and others in this essay, the master American literature critic turns out a sensitive and sensible performance reifying the importance of Life on the Mississippi on its own (not just as memory refresher for and precursor of Huck Finn).

Of the three essays on Twain's masterpiece, Arnold Rampersad's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Afro-American Literature" (originally published in the Mark Twain Journal in 1984) most interestingly situates the novel within the context of Ernest Hemingway's famous praise for it in 1935. Rampersad takes the quote through the "cheating" part as well as the more often quoted "All modern American literature comes from one book. . . ." He then inquires if the novel serves that purpose for "black American fiction." Rampersad identifies two ways in which Huck Finn differs from "the bulk of black American fiction": the use of the first-person narrator and the "unbroken relationship. . .between autobiography and dialect." He notes that "countrified speech" liberates Huck's "poetic sensibility" and that few black writers have entrusted their narration "to members of the black folk or the black masses."

Rampersad's essay surveys black fiction as much as it traces the influence of Twain's work. One of his observations about children not being legible in black fiction he relates to the "social reality" described therein as restricting its writers from depicting "young lives relatively free from pain." Another aspect of both black and white American fiction, male bonding, Rampersad declares as negative in "most male black fiction" because of its "antifeminine behavior and values." A third observation concerns comedy in a racial context, of which he notes the dearth in black fiction until Invisible Man. In all these areas, he asserts, Huck Finn "clearly anticipate[s] eventual trends in black fiction."

Its most important prediction of "later black fiction," Rampersad concludes, "is in Mark Twain's depiction of a moral dilemma, or moral inversion, as being at the heart of southern, and by inference American, society." He relates the dilemma to W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, constructing it as the fountainhead of black fiction analogous to the place of Huck Finn in Hemingway's appropriately brief and quixotic view of American literary history. But he also places Twain in Huck Finn very near to Du Bois in their affinity, if not in direct influence.

I commend the selections on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and on the "late" writings (Forrest Robinson's "The Lie of Silent Assertion: Late Twain"), as well as the other essays in the collection. However, I will conclude the analysis of the individual selections with a close look at Carolyn Porter's 1990 feminist reading of Pudd'nhead Wilson, "Roxana's Plot," one of two intriguing essays on that book (the second: Sundquist's "Mark Twain and Homer Plessy").

Porter contends that traditional readings of Pudd'nhead Wilson (such as James Cox's) have accounted for the patriarchal repression embodied in Wilson's discovery of the murderer and in his role thereby as restorer of the status quo ante. But they have failed to account for Roxy's role as creator of her own plot and its eventual tragic (for her) reversal. Porter addresses Roxy's plot through both the reality and the trope of motherhood, especially slave maternity. Acknowledging the influence of the binary oppositions contained in southern black women's stereotypical roles of "Jezebel" and "Mammy," and the literary conventions contained within the "tragic mulatt[o]" story, Porter nevertheless claims that Roxy creates her own dynamic in the form of her plot to reconstruct her own son as white and wealthy. "In other words," as Porter states, "Pudd'nhead Wilson is the scene of conflict between a repressive paternal plot and a subversive maternal one."

Quoting Orlando Patterson's idea that slavery is a form of social death, Porter shows that Roxy "imitates the slaveholder's dominant position as commutator of a death sentence that he can always revoke" by switching babies. However, Roxy does not actually have the power to enforce the threat of exposing "Tom Driscoll." Porter concludes her essay by stating that Roxy's plot "drives in two directions at once." One direction subverts the white patriarchy (by erasing the name of the [white] father). The other direction "that makes Roxana a powerful weapon in Twain's arsenal" involves the reinscription of "matrilineal rule of descent. . .on the mulatto mother." Roxy's plot, then both drives home the "moral idiocy" of slavery and "exposes the similarity in [the] fates" of the two sons.

An overall negative point of criticism about this collection applies generally to publication of academic research: no doubt because of the time between conception of the ideas and their "birth" into printed books, new research blossoms. Indeed, some of the most exciting scholarship about Twain has been published just before, or nearly coincident with, this collection. I refer most pointedly to Shelley Fisher Fishkin's contested groundbreaking ideas about the influence of African-American voices in American culture, particularly on Twain's composition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (in Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African American Voices, 1993). Victor Doyno's revision of his Writing Huck Finn (1991) based on the rediscovered manuscript pages missing for about sixty years will come out later this year or early next year. The work of these scholars merits attention in any comprehensive collection of "new" views on Mark Twain. True, Sundquist's introduction does praise Fishkin's work as a "brilliant and innovative argument" that "has raised a striking set of questions for Twain scholars." And even though both Fishkin's and Doyno's books are listed in the bibliography, one could hope for more than a taste of their views. Legal restrictions concerning publication of the manuscript excerpts and acquisition of rights from other publishers may have influenced the book's final shape in these two cases more than did the editor's judgment. I would also speculate that either the timing of the actual collecting of the essays or the publisher's apparent budget restrictions contribute more to these omissions than does the editor.

A second, minor, complaint about the collection also pertains to the publisher: the lack of an index, a sin of omission rather than commission. Collections of essays like this one (including those from other publishers) frequently omit an index, making them rather difficult for researchers to find a specific reference with ease. As a teacher of the research process to students and also a researcher, I rely heavily on indices for helping to locate information efficiently. (Often errors in the index undermine their usefulness, but that varies from one book to the next.) Other volumes in this series (indeed, in the earlier Twentieth Century Views series as well) lack this valuable research tool. It is clearly the publisher's design, then. Fortunately, the titles of the essays in the Twain collection are not cloyingly deceptive; they do give us clear signals about content.

Despite these quibbles, Sundquist did select a number of fine essays that will bring "new views" into play for American Studies and Literature teachers, especially for those who are not Twain scholars, and for students. A reasonably short collection like this one compares favorably to the slightly broader On Mark Twain: The Best from American Literature, edited by Edwin Cady and Louis J. Budd (1987). Finally, I would recommend the book for all college libraries and for those high school and public libraries with a need for good, compact materials for students and others interested in Mark Twain and his works.


Introduction: Eric J. Sundquist
A Hero with Changing Faces: Louis J. Budd
The Writer's Secret Life: Twain and the Art of Authorship: Susan K. Gillman
Ants at the Picnic: The Innocents Abroad : Richard Bridgman
What's in a Name: Sounding the Depths of Tom Sawyer : John Seelye
Life on the Mississippi Revisited: James M. Cox
A "Raft of Trouble": Word and Deed in Huckleberry Finn : Lawrence B. Holland
Huck, Jim, and American Racial Discourse: David L. Smith
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Afro-American Literature: Arnold Rampersad
Mark Twain's Frontier, Hank Morgan's Last Stand: Richard Slotkin
Armies and Factories: A Connecticut Yankee : Walter Benn Michaels
Hank Morgan and the Colonization of Utopia: David R. Sewell
Roxana's Plot: Carolyn Porter
Mark Twain and Homer Plessy: Eric J. Sundquist
The Lie of Silent Assertion: Late Twain: Forrest G. Robinson
Chronology of Important Dates
Notes on Contributors