• Email
  • Print

An Exchange on Mark Twain

In response to:

The Parting of the Twains from the July 20, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

Frederick Crews discusses Twain with awe-some learning and good sense [NYR, July 20]; but I am puzzled by the degree of his reliance on commercialism to explain the problem of Huckleberry Finn‘s ending—the descent from Huck’s heroic decision for Jim to his complicity in all Tom’s humiliating tricks. But we have to remember that Huck’s nobility comes from his retention of the superstitious system that, he thinks, will send his soul to hell. When Tom volunteers to help free Jim, Huck is completely confused: Tom Sawyer is not the sort who goes to hell.

Well, I let go all holts then, like I was shot. It was the most astonishing speech I ever heard—and I’m bound to say Tom Sawyer fell. considerable, in my estimation. Only I couldn’t believe it. Tom Sawyer a nigger stealer! (ch. 33).

People who expect Huck to see through Tom want him to escape the constraints that give the measure of his sacrifice. Huck still believes that good people, like Tom, will do the right thing, though he has chosen to do the wrong thing where Jim is concerned. He goes along with Tom’s activities because he cannot fathom them; their surface silliness is no stranger to him than their underlying intent. Confusion is not cleared away till chapter 42:

And his Aunt Polly she said Tom was right about old Miss Watson setting Jim free in her will; and so, sure enough, Tom Sawyer had gone and took all that trouble and bother to set a free nigger free! and I couldn’t ever understand, before, until that minute and that talk, how he could help a body set a nigger free, with his bringing-up.

Twain works out Huck’s heroism within his bringing-up so thoroughly that people miss the point. Tom’s actions have the fuss and self-satisfaction of some abolitionists belatedly giving a freedom they have not to bestow. But abolitionism of any sort is a mystery to Huck. His act did not reach to the level of social policy; it was an isolated act of virtue performed with so little social calculation or bid for approval that he did not even experience it as an act of virtue but as its opposite.

Garry Wills

To the Editors:

I was amazed to read Frederick Crews’s review of Susan Gillman’s Dark Twins in your July 20th issue—not least because I know Mr. Crews to be an intelligent critic and I also know Ms. Gillman to be a serious and fairminded scholar. What most disconcerts me is Mr. Crews’s repeated insistence that Susan Gillman is “reducing” or “incriminating” or “submerging” or in any other way attacking Mark Twain. Ms. Gillman’s abiding affection for Mark Twain is widely known—so widely known, in fact, that her friends have had to set a limit on the number of times she can quote Twain’s mots during social occasions, since she would otherwise find a wise and witty remark of his to fit every circumstance. No author has been better loved by his critic (if love includes an awareness of fallibility, as indeed it must); yet Mr. Crews can only find insinuation and “raised eyebrow rhetoric” in Ms. Gillman’s book. It is he, I’m afraid, whose eyebrows are raised, and he who seeks to incriminate. If the kind of criticism that Fred Crews and I both treasure—the kind that depends on tact, and nuance, and an understanding of tone—is to survive the assault of “theory,” then he himself will have to do a better job of embodying it, for it is the tone of Susan Gillman’s book that he has got all wrong. Wendy Lesser
The Threepenny Review Berkeley, California To the Editors:

Who are Fred Crews’s “social constructionists” and why is he saying such terrible things about them? In his review of my Dark Twins, he says that I “reduce” Mark Twain to a “representative man” (the term borrowed, of course, from Emerson), that is, for Crews one whom is “merely assimilate[d]…to the crassness and prejudice of his age.” To match his dichotomized vision of the current critical scene, Crews invents two diametrically opposed Twains: either the unconscious creature of the (bad guy) historicizing critic or the (good guy) intentionalist’s “man possessed by an anguishing moral paradox.” This “parting of the Twains” ironically removes from Crews’s review its putative subject, Mark Twain, replacing him with a methodological straw man. Moreover, Crews’s devotion to a hidden political-theoretical agenda forces him to construe my work as deliberately denigrating Twain’s lifelong engagement with questions of identity—an individual engagement that I present as culturally grounded, in part to counter the well-known critical view of, in particular, the late Twain as escapist, eccentric, a sufferer of overwhelming personal tragedy. That Twain’s complex responses to race relations, individuality, and American identity partook of his culture—our culture—in addition to his own feelings should in no way detract from his unique expression as a great writer nor from our understanding of his work. Twain’s greatness is defined by his being both critic and child of his culture, a dual status that I insist upon repeatedly in Dark Twins.

In short, I do, indeed, urge us to read Twain as a “representative man,” not Crews’s “merely” representative but rather one of Emerson’s great—because—representative men. “He is not only representative, but participant,” Emerson says in Representative Men. “Like can only be known by like. The reason why he knows about them is, that he is of them…. We have never come at the true and best benefit of any genius, so long as we believe him an original force.” My Twain is not Crews’s social constructionist “hollow automaton,” entrapped by history, but an Emersonian hero, one of those people who answer questions others are unable to ask and who do so by a strength of individual character that is inseparable from social practices. Susan Gillman
Associate Professor of Literature and
American Studies
University of California, Santa Cruz

Frederick Crews replies:

Garry Wills’s cogent letter elaborates a point already found in my review: that Huck Finn “has never, not even in his grandest hour of defiance, been free from the weight of prevailing opinion about the correctness of slavery.” Agreed, then—Huck remains in character to the end. But Mr. Wills fails to address the real source of unease experienced by so many readers of the closing chapters. In the “Evasion,” Jim is degraded to minstrel status not just by Tom Sawyer but by Mark Twain, who seems all too willing to jettison the moral and psychological insight that earlier made Jim (however sporadically) into a poignant, fully human figure. It would be a relief to discover that Twain himself was troubled by this retrogression, but he apparently wasn’t. Not surprisingly for a book written by a former Confederate volunteer, Huckleberry Finn is finally tainted by the racial condescension that it elsewhere subjects to withering irony. As an editor/publisher (and a very good one), Wendy Lesser ought to know that a responsible review assesses the book at hand, not the author’s personality. That is what I attempted to do with Susan Gillman’s Dark Twins. Lesser’s protest, however, makes no specific mention of the book. I can only gather that she has perceived it through her affection for a valued friend, supplying remembered conversation to fill gaps in the text.

I am sure that Lesser is right about Gillman’s private pleasure in Mark Twain. It is all the more significant, then, that so little of that pleasure could find its way into Dark Twins. My contention is not that Gillman bears Twain any private ill will, but rather that her susceptibility to academic fashion leads her to ignore Twain’s humer and artistry, to dogmatize about his unconscious, to discount the limited but important ways in which he deviated from the racist-sexist norm of his day, and—in a quixotic effort to pay him a compliment—to imagine that he finally forsook Enlightenment values. Readers who come to Dark Twins without prior loyalty to either the author or her methodology will find, I believe, the same book that is characterized in my review.

I will let Gillman’s own letter stand as testimony to her respect for Twain as an “Emersonian hero,” and simply add that no such hero is discernible in the pages of Dark Twins.

  • Email
  • Print