Fruits of the MLA

In response to:

The Fruits of the MLA: II. Mark Twain from the October 10, 1968 issue

To the Editors:

In the second of Edmund Wilson’s salutary two-part review of some of “The Fruits of the MLA” (NYR, October 10, 1968) he states, with respect to his discussion of the plot of Mark Twain’s The Great Dark, that he has “seen no proposed explanation of this second vessel’s [The Two Darlings] strange name.” But on the evidence of his own background account, it seems more than plausible that the ship’s name derives from the small son and daughter who “for [good] reason” are carried away on it. This ship, which disappears in a snowstorm and is eventually found stranded with everyone on board dead and their bodies “turned into mummified corpses,” would then be a symbolic projection of Twain’s feeling of guilt for his infant son’s death by exposure. As for the daughter: given the processes of symbolic displacement, no serious obstacle is presented by the fact that she is not the Edwardses’ but the captain’s daughter. Subsequently the Edwardses’ daughter is also killed (the deaths of the two girls thus projecting Twain’s feeling of guilt over the loss of his daughters), and this, together with the sight of the body of her little boy, results in the terrible grief and death of Mrs. Edwards (thus paralleling the breakdown and death of Twain’s wife).

The framing situation for Twain’s nightmarish “dream” seems no less significant. It begins with father and daughter examining that drop of water which expands under the microscope into the sea on which The Two Darlings sails and then contracts, towards the end of the story, under a “disastrous bright light” (associated with the microscope’s reflector) into the dried-up sea on which she is stranded. If the rigorous philosophical determinism of Twain’s What is Man? does indeed represent an effort to alleviate his own personal sense of guilt, then the microscope of The Great Dark takes on an obvious symbolic value—not only generally as a means of pushing back “the great dark,” but more specifically as an instrument for “determining” the nonhuman causes, i.e., meningitis, epilepsy, and, presumably, pneumonia, of his children’s death. From what can be gathered about the probable ending of The Great Dark, Twain seems to have been less than successful, however, in relieving himself of the burden of guilt.

George B. Alexander

South Kent, Connecticut