Twain on the Grand Tour

Both Mark Twain and his inventor, Samuel Clemens, continue to give trouble to those guardians of the national mythology to which Twain added so much in his day, often deliberately. The Freudians are still on his case even though Dr. Freud and his followers are themselves somewhat occluded these days. Yet as recently as 1991, an academic critic tells us that Clemens was sexually infantile, burntout at fifty (if not before), and given to pederastic reveries about little girls, all the while exhibiting an unnatural interest in outhouse humor and other excremental vilenesses. It is hard to believe that at century’s end, academics of this degraded sort are still doing business, as Twain would put it, at the same old stand.

As is so often the case, this particular critic is a professor emeritus and emerituses often grow reckless once free of the daily grind of dispensing received opinion. Mr. Guy Cardwell, for reasons never quite clear, wants to convince us that Twain (we’ll drop the Clemens because he’s very much dead while Twain will be with us as long as there are English-speakers in the United States) “suffered from erectile dysfunction at about the age of fifty…. Evidence that he became impotent ranges from the filmy to the relatively firm.” This is a fair example of the good professor’s style. “Filmy” evidence suggests a slightly blurred photograph of an erection gone south, while “relatively firm” is a condition experienced by many men over fifty who drink as much Scotch whiskey as Twain did. But filmy—or flimsy?—as the evidence is, the professor wants to demolish its owner, who, sickeningly, married above his station in order to advance himself socially as well as to acquire a surrogate mother; as his own mother was—yes!—a strong figure while his father was—what else?—cold and uncaring.

No Freudian cliché is left unstroked. To what end? To establish that Twain hated women as well as blacks, Jews, foreigners, American imperialists, Christian missionaries, and Mary Baker Eddy. Since I join him in detesting the last three, I see no need to find a Freudian root to our shared loathing of, say, that imperialist jingo Theodore Roosevelt. Actually, Twain was no more neurotic or dysfunctional than most people and, on evidence, rather less out of psychic kilter than other major figures in the American literary canon.

Twain was born November 30, 1835, in Missouri. He spent his boyhood, famously, in the Mississippi River town of Hannibal. When he was twelve, his father died, becoming truly absent as Dr. Freud might sagely have observed, and Twain went to work as a printer’s apprentice. Inevitably, he started writing the copy that was to be printed and, in essence, he was a journalist to the end of his days. Literature as such did not really engage him. Don Quixote was his favorite novel (as it was Flaubert’s). He could not read Henry James, who returned the compliment by …

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Letters

Mark Twain’s Reputation September 19, 1996