Stirring up the murky waters

A Companion to Mark Twain
June 9, 2006

Was the revered creator of Huck Finn the greatest American writer or an irascible prankster? wonders Jeffrey Meyers

Mark Twain was a typesetter, riverboat pilot, silver miner, stock speculator, would-be inventor, politico, publisher and entrepreneur as well as an extremely popular writer. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer , continuously in print since 1876, has been published in more than 1,300 editions, translated into 57 languages and made into about 20 films.

But the end of Twain's life was marked by tragedies that transformed him from a Calvinist, Deist and liberal Christian into a tormented unbeliever. Around the turn of the century he went bankrupt, suffered the deaths of his favourite daughter, his wife and an epileptic daughter who drowned in a bathtub. His savagely frank and offensive remarks about the mutilations practised by Indians, the thievery of the "heathen Chinee" and the pretentious absurdities of the Book of Mormon ("chloroform in print") now send shivers down politically correct spines.

This would-be vade-mecum contains 35 essays of about 15 pages each under six general headings: cultural contexts; literary associations; publishing and performing; travel; fiction and humour; with a bibliographical envoi that degenerates into a long list of articles. The best essays are on Twain's politics, the influence of his career in Nevada, the profession of writing, the literature of the American West and his late works.

The book depends heavily on previous criticism. The authors make statements, then quote critics who said the same thing. They incestuously cite each other, gratefully quote the co-editors and recycle their own published articles. They dutifully rehearse the now tediously exhausted multi-ethnic and multicultural topics of class and race, of gender roles, white hegemony and social philology. The style is academically leaden, sometimes pretentious and opaque.

The critical comments range from pointless - "The answer, in short, is yes and no"; "All I have just said threatens, at first glance, to reduce the term 'realism' to meaninglessness" - to, in this late stage of Twain criticism, laborious explanations of the obvious: "Twain's imaginative dependency upon the Mississippi has, of course, long been recognised"; and "In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Tom himself is Twain's main focus". Despite occasional epiphanies about Twain's contradictions, incoherence and "pretty dumb statements", his lack of focus and slapdash structure, and the confirmation of Hemingway's judgment that Huck Finn is "fatally flawed", they praise the novel as a "masterpiece" with a "superb sense of order" and Twain is mindlessly called, in this hermetic circle, "one of the world's great writers".

There are five essays devoted to Twain's humour, but none seems to realise that his crude practical jokes, tricks, slapstick, burlesque and farce lack subtlety and wit and are no longer funny. These jokes fail to fulfil Kierkegaard's definition: "Humour has its justification precisely in its tragic side, in the fact that it reconciles itself to pain."

Who, then, would read this companion - a perfect target for Twain's satire? Most of the material would be familiar to professors, and it would quickly extinguish any interest students might have in Twain's work.

The book lacks a first-rate critical intelligence. Its cultural range is limited and the comparisons are cliched. When discussing the Independent State of the Congo, in the context of Twain's King Leopold's Soliloquy: A Defense of His Congo Rule , and attempting to explain "the legal theory of the state", Scott Michaelsen asserts that "the king is commensurate with the state, which means that the figure in which sovereignty resides is equivalent to sovereignty itself". But the Congo was a special case that does not fit this theory. It did not belong to the state of Belgium but was the personal property of King Leopold II. Free of legal and moral restraints, his tyranny was stopped by the humane reports of Roger Casement, E. D. Morel and the Congo Reform Association.

Two critics quote Hemingway's strangely stilted statement, that "all modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn (1885)... There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." They fail to mention that Hemingway's statement is manifestly absurd.

Before Twain there were Poe's stories, The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick , Walden and Leaves of Grass . After came many writers in the genteel tradition who did not descend from Huck Finn: Henry Adams, Henry James, Edith Wharton and Scott Fitzgerald, as well as all the American poets, especially the mandarin Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot. Even Hemingway came from Tolstoy, Kipling, Crane and T. E. Lawrence.

This "companion" would have been greatly improved by contributions from leading poets and novelists and major critics outside the stifling confines of Twain studies; by comparing Twain to James in the chapter on travel writing; and by discussing Twain's influence on writers from Kipling to the similarly white-suited Tom Wolfe. The contract, for example, between Peachy and Dan in Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King clearly comes from the one Tom and Huck signed in Tom Sawyer; Kim and Huck Finn have similar structures, characters and themes. Twain's use of vernacular dialect, mixture of sentimentality and sadism, lowbrow philistinism, fondness for technical description, respect for expertise in work and devotion to duty all appear in Kipling.

Susan Harris notes in passing that Twain believed the moral value of the American Christian overseas mission was destroyed in the Spanish-American War of 1898 by the discovery that the American army tortured Filipino insurgents and "their elected representatives approved it". In the past century, this policy - from Manila to Baghdad and Guantanamo Bay - has not changed.

Jeffrey Meyers, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has published numerous biographies.

A Companion to Mark Twain

Editor - Peter Messent and Louis J. Budd
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 568
Price - £85.00
ISBN - 1 4051 2379 6

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