“How empty is theory in presence of fact!”
—Hank Morgan in A Connecticut Yankee
One need get no further into Susan Gillman’s Dark Twins than the back cover to become aware that this will be a landmark book—one establishing a previously untested, if also an inevitable, vantage on America’s best-known writer. In Gillman’s study, says the publisher’s description, Mark Twain “stands forth finally as a representative man, not only a child of his culture, but also as one implicated in a continuing American anxiety about freedom, race, and identity.” And then follows a seal of methodological approval from Frank Lentricchia of Duke, now arguably the most influential of academic critic-theorists. Gillman’s “superb book,” Lentricchia says, “comes out on the side of those who find too much recent theory as [sic] needlessly abstract, formalistic, ahistorical; on the side of those, that is, who call for a materially dense, historically engaged practice.”
We see at once, then, that in the academic theory wars Susan Gillman has joined the currently ascendant army, which eschews the “formalistic” and the “ahistorical” (alias Yale-style deconstruction) in favor of a vaguely Marxizing (“materially dense, historically engaged”) spirit. And we get a forecast of the predictable result: here Mark Twain, that testy and rambunctious would-be individualist, will be exposed as merely “representative” after all, “implicated” in furtive anxieties that he shared with other men of the Gilded Age.
If this sounds a bit lugubrious, it is: Dark Twins turns out to be a grimly humorless work which all but overlooks Twain’s own humor. It does so, however, not through ineptitude but by design. Humor, in Twain’s assessment, is “the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges and all kindred swindles”—which is to say that the humorist is a born democrat who knows hypocrisy when he sees it. But in asserting that Mark Twain was “a deeply historicized writer,” Gillman means to erase any such analytic distance between Twain and the objects of his satire. In the righteous outlook that Gillman, Lentricchia, and the academic-critical vanguard in general now share, to “historicize” an author is precisely to set forth the ways in which, lacking full autonomy as a reflective consciousness, he fell in with the self-protective mental strategies of his day.
This sort of analysis is known in the profession as social constructionism, as in “the social construction of reality.” Social constructionists, that is, take as their starting point a belief—plausible enough in itself—that no values, ideas, or even selves are or have ever been primary units that resist further reduction. Instead, all aspects of culture, including the standards by which we might be tempted to judge the meaning or importance of a literary work, are thought to have emerged from power struggles, and the real object of critical attention ought to be the aftermath of such struggle—namely, the ideology devised by the winning party. The function of ideology is to justify the new structure of domination as something ordained by God or nature or history; and the proper function of criticism is to undo that mystification.
In theory at least, social constructionism looks like a promising if somewhat inconsistent critical approach.1 After all, culturally sanctioned “reality” in any given era is indisputably an artifact that serves the interests of ruling groups while suppressing or at least failing to tap the greater part of human potentiality. So long as social constructionists confine themselves to studying the common denominators of a belief system—its tacit consensus, say, about medical wisdom, political virtue, sanity and insanity, foreigners and outcasts, licit sexual practices, gender roles, race relations, or the supernatural—they can produce eye-opening results.
It is already evident, however, that this still-young style of discourse risks becoming a bore and even something of a sham. In the first place, the social constructionists’ exclusive claim to a skeptical apprehension of history is simply false; their sense of mission in purporting to strip the mask from a vanished society’s guilty face is made possible by a willful obliviousness to other people’s scholarship. Where they really part company with traditionalists is in their puritanical concern to maintain a politically correct position—one that will be guiltless of sexism, racism, economic individualism, and other distortions of a presumed state of nature. In practice, this spirit of post-Sixties conformism translates into a perpetually scandalized relation to the past—a phobic manner that is the very reverse of historiographic sophistication.
When social constructionism turns its attention from mass phenomena to the work of major artists, moreover, another crippling limitation comes to light. Most serious readers value classic writings not for their typicality but for whatever seems unique and irreplaceable about them. But the social constructionists’ campaign against hierarchy and transcendence leaves them unwilling to dwell on anything that might appear to exempt an author from the collective unconscious of his age. The result is a sharp disjuncture between our experience of the writer’s work and the critic’s leveling account of it. As this movement increases its sway, “implicating” more and more authors in its indictment of the past for falling short of egalitarian rectitude, we can begin to feel like viewers of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, wondering which literary figure will be the next to be replaced by a hollow automaton. And now we know: it is Mark Twain.
From the opening pages of Dark Twins, Gillman gives fair warning that she will be doing her best to submerge Twain in the ideological climate surrounding him. Her goal, she says, is to pass beyond “Mark Twain’s own unstable personal identity” and “to (re)create the dialogue between Twain’s language of identity and the cultural vocabularies available to him.” Such “literary analysis of cultural history” will allow her to show
how Twain’s most apparently unique and idiosyncratic representations of problematic identity engage with late-nineteenth-century efforts to classify human behavior within biological, sexual, racial, and psychological parameters.
“At the same time,” she adds, “Mark Twain’s America is also representative in its denials and silences, in what he, like his culture, dismissed as trivial, disguised, or concealed, or simply did not acknowledge.” Correlating Twain’s personal repressions with those of his milieu, Gillman will allow “otherwise apparently incoherent, vestigial, and even rather silly texts to begin to articulate themselves.”
Articulation, however, is not a concept with which social constructionists can feel altogether comfortable. It smacks to them of those tidy unities of theme and form that the long-vanished New Critics were all too eager to celebrate. Criticism, they insist, must now become centrifugal or “dialogic,” welcoming the warring voices and mixed effects that result from a thorough interpenetration of literature, culture, and material conditions. It is these innumerable correlations that Gillman intends to develop, remaining careful to avoid the fallacy of “privileging” any single factor over the others. As a consequence, her language remains deliberately opaque, relying on such all-purpose couplings as “speaks to,” “engages with,” “becomes entangled with,” “situates at the intersection of,” “perceived in terms that replicate,” and “thoroughly saturated in the context of.” The real point of Dark Twins would seem to be less an explicit thesis than the weaving of these loops, thereby thwarting at every turn the “idealizing” reader’s urge to consider a given work an intentional creation or to situate Mark Twain himself somewhere outside the sphere of generally shared ideology.
It is nonetheless possible to discern in Dark Twins a more particular biographical argument—even if it rarely stays in focus for long. Gillman takes as her starting point the familiar observation that Mark Twain, who was always fascinated by the idea of twinship or doubling, eventually developed a full-scale theory of dual personality and unconscious creativity. “I argue,” she declares in a characteristically soft-edged passage,
that Twain’s early reliance on literal, literary conventions of external, consciously divided identity becomes entangled with a social conception that treats identity as culturally controlled and then gives way to an imposture that is increasingly internal, unconscious, and therefore uncontrollable: a psychological as opposed to a social condition. Finally, though, even these distinctions—external/internal, conscious/unconscious, waking/ dreaming—collapse into an undifferentiated darkness, as Mark Twain, during the much-debated dark period of “pessimism” and artistic “failure,” confronted the impossibility of his arriving at any foundation of self and other.
According to this scheme, Twain began as a deft exploiter of conventions involving paired characters who bore a private meaning for his divided mind; later, influenced by current psychological and parapsychological theory, he transmuted those conventions into laws of mental functioning; and finally, wracked by a despair for which Gillman will provide her own psychopolitical explanation, he found himself unable to ascertain which was the imposter, his dream self or his waking self.
As it happens, this distinctly melodramatic account of Twain’s decline contravenes the judgment of some recent scholars—most notably Louis J. Budd and Everett Emerson—who have found that the author in his last decades was neither so consistently morbid nor so befuddled as was once believed.2 One wants to know, therefore, what new evidence of a collapse into “undifferentiated darkness” Gillman has turned up and how she feels entitled to discount the contrary findings of others. But to pose this challenge is to ask for a kind of scholarly give and take that social constructionists consider backward and servile. In their own view, they are diving for deeper psychological treasure than that which the traditionalists’ allegedly positivistic assumptions will allow them to perceive. Thus Gillman already knows on a priori Freudian grounds that even in the years when everything was going right for Mark Twain, under his seeming resilience seethed a cauldron of terror, guilt, and incipient disintegration. No particular evidence, then, needs to be brought forward in confirmation of his later collapse.
The hermeticism of Gillman’s method stands out clearly in the way she treats Mark Twain’s notion of his own creativity. In various testimonials to what he called his “amanuensis” or subliminal helper, the author counted himself fortunate to possess a benign and reliable muselike power. The following famous recollection about the interrupted composing of Tom Sawyer is typical:
I made the great discovery that when the tank runs dry you’ve only to leave it alone and it will fill up again in time, while you are…quite unaware that this unconscious and profitable cerebration is going on. There was plenty of material now, and the book went on and finished itself without any trouble.
This, surely, is a straightforward and confident statement that requires no gloss. To Gillman, however, the very term “unconscious” conjures up “unacceptable or forbidden knowledge” that must have “jeopardized” Twain’s fragile peace of mind. “Unlike some literary men,” she remarks, “Twain experienced creativity not through the model of the pen-penis disseminating its writing on the virgin page, but rather as illegitimately sexualized, a threateningly uncontrollable power.” Playing by these hermeneutic rules, the critic would have no trouble detecting a cry of pain in a greeting card.
One might think that even Gillman, in her effort to reduce Mark Twain to a “representative man,” would be unable to discount the fact that he was a critic of his age and a habitual partisan of the excluded. Indeed, she hastily concedes as much. Yet on a more basic level, she finds, he proved to be something less admirable—indeed, something not quite forgivable: a Caucasian man living in a time of “segregation for blacks and medico-legal regulation of women’s lives.” “For a white male in particular,” she explains, “what blackness and femaleness have in common is that they afford a psychic means of staking out an identity and of individuating the self by dint of difference and separation.” Which is to say that Twain’s very selfhood, or rather his galling pretension to selfhood, was itself a form of segregation and patriarchal appropriation. Never pausing to ask herself why the “individuation” of white males alone and not, say, of oppressed black females as well should be considered pathological, Gillman sets out to show that the social forces Twain allegedly tried to exclude from consciousness enacted a proper revenge on his psyche.
To make this case, the critic must first establish that Twain felt a susceptibility to all things black and female. And here, for once, supporting material lies everywhere at hand. With regard to race, for example, it is clear that Twain harbored a special, lifelong fondness for the slaves who had befriended him in his boyhood and who were never far from his thoughts. Furthermore, as Gillman emphasizes, in his equatorial travels in the mid-Nineties he was aesthetically smitten by black bodies and the bright clothing that adorned them—by what he called “that incomparable dissolving-view of harmonious tints, and lithe half-covered forms, and beautiful brown faces…and movements, free, unstudied, barren of stiffness and restraint.” Such language is chiefly striking, however, for its rhapsodic openness—its notable lack of the prurience we might be inclined to associate with “the repressed.” What is missing from Gillman’s argument about Mark Twain and race, then, is not raw evidence of a taboo-crossing sympathy but an acknowledgement of its place in Twain’s conscious thinking.
As for envy of the other sex, here again we have Twain’s own word that he experienced it. He railed, for example, against the drabness of Victorian male attire, voiced nostalgia for the vanished age of gaudy male costumes, eventually donned a theatrical white suit as his year-round uniform, and confided to his first biographer that “I should like to dress in a loose and flowing costume made all of silks and velvets resplendent with stunning dyes, and so would every man I have ever known; but none of us dares to venture it.” And as Gillman adds with a diagnostically knowing air, he kept reverting to cross-dressing themes in his fiction, briefly putting even Huck Finn in drag and writing a whole book about a woman, Joan of Arc, who compulsively dressed as a soldier.
In Dark Twins, all these facts are made to appear self-incriminating, but the charge itself is never specified. Was Mark Twain a transvestite? A closet homosexual? Did he fear that he, like many another southerner, would not be considered certifiably white if all his ancestors were known? Gillman doesn’t say, and it seems unlikely that she has thought these questions through. All that matters for her purpose is that we acknowledge in Twain’s psyche the same guilty divisions that characterized post-Reconstruction America at large.3 These will then become the fault lines along which his final “collapse” can be regarded as occurring.
Unquestionably, Mark Twain did chafe against Victorian sexual roles even while subscribing to the moral proprieties that safeguarded them. Unquestionably, too, he felt a powerful identification with the blacks whom he nevertheless kept as servants, and whose aunts and uncles could have been his father’s occasionally abused slaves. We will never unravel all the complexities that such tensions caused him. Yet a less prosecutorial critic than Gillman might well see strength rather than weakness in Twain’s ability to extend his empathy freely across racial and sexual lines and to brave ridicule and gossip by finally dressing as he pleased. Gillman’s own evidence, minus the raised-eyebrow rhetoric that accompanies it, suggests not that Twain’s manhood was precarious but that he felt no anxious need to put up walls of machismo around his sensuous and inquisitive imagination.
Here I must emphasize that it is methodological necessity, not obtuseness, that causes Gillman to get Twain wrong. Once the critic has plugged in her Freudian interpretative machine, with its automatic sorting of everything sexual, self-aggrandizing, and cynical into “the repressed,” she has no choice but to subtract those same qualities from Twain’s conscious mind. The author who allegedly trembled before the black/female Other must be cast as a model Victorian gentleman—one, for example, whose “deep attraction to authorial power” had to remain wholly submerged. Twain, however, was perfectly cognizant of that attraction on his part; he wrote about it at length and without apology. No less obviously, he made sex and egoism and cynicism, discreetly managed, into the tools of his daily trade as a humorist. And his comic wit derived crucially from his insistence on exempting no one, least of all himself, from his low opinion of humankind as foolish, selfish, and habitually dishonest. In order to restrict her attention to a “socially constructed” Twain, Gillman must leave out of account most of what really “individuates” him.
Nevertheless, Gillman’s Mark Twain did eventually distinguish himself from his contemporaries on one salient point. It is, she implies, the only matter on which he came to his post-Cartesian, antibourgeois senses. In his miserable final period—brought on in large measure, we are told, by the intolerable burden of trying to repress the black/female Other—he was allegedly compelled to realize that he had been foolish to rely on the white/masculine domains of science and law to stave off mental chaos.
In Twain’s time, Gillman asserts,
neither the law, which permitted and enforced the farce of “separate but equal,” nor science, which shored up racism with theories of “natural” degeneration, would hold out any promise of addressing America’s most pressing social problem.
Nor, she hints, should we ourselves ever trust “the ostensibly neutral, value-free variables of sciences and the syllogistic structure of logical reasoning,” since “increasingly complex systems of knowledge that divide and quantify experience” are nothing but vain attempts to “compensate for a lack of control over experience.” 4 Twain, she notes with satisfaction, had to learn this lesson the hard way, repenting of his delusive faith in science and recognizing the law at last for what it was, “an effort to determine individual identity and responsibility in a world where identity was unknowable.”
The trouble is, however, that Twain did no such thing. As we will presently see, in his middle and later years he became progressively more committed to a scientific (Darwinian) outlook that fed directly into his cosmic pessimism and his deflation of human moral pretensions. This friend of Thomas Edison’s, who claimed with pride that he was the first novelist to use the telephone, the fountain pen, the typewriter, and the dictating machine, always assumed that the technological fruits of science were integral to the extension and consolidation of American democracy. As for the law, he remained capable, as Gillman is not, of distinguishing between its constructive and reactionary uses and therefore of pressing for its reform.5
Gillman’s reluctance to concede these facts inevitably leads her into drastic misreadings of Mark Twain’s fiction. Take, for example, Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), whose penultimate twist of melodrama comes when the lawyer and amateur scientist David Wilson, hitherto considered a dunce by the self-regarding citizens of Dawson’s Landing, proves through the newly developed technique of fingerprinting that a light-skinned slave must have been exchanged in infancy with the patrician child who was to become his slave. In the process, Wilson also solves a murder to the satisfaction of all concerned, especially Mark Twain himself, who was relieved to have found such a riveting and up-to-date way of extricating himself from a rather jumbled, “jackleg” plot. For Gillman, however, “what is on trial in the courtroom conclusion is Wilson’s method of deducing identity, his ‘scientifics,’ the fingerprinting system.” And her verdict is guilty: “When the novel ends, its various scientific and legal bodies of knowledge—definitive means of identification and differentiation—result in no certainty at all.” “Not even in the world of his own making,” Gillman declares, “could [Twain] imagine liberation under the law or discover a secure basis for knowledge of self and other.”
To see how the critic could possibly arrive at such an inference, we need to recall the final twist of plotting in Pudd’nhead Wilson. The murderer, it turns out, cannot be sentenced; if he was really a slave when he committed the crime, then he was mere property and not a responsible agent. And so, in a bitter and callous flourish of comic justice on Twain’s part, the former slavemaster is sold down the river and the novel abruptly ends. This final surprise conveys the author’s loathing for the arbitrary and dehumanizing fictions that had kept the slave system in place. What it assuredly does not do, however, is to discredit science, technology, or law. On the contrary, as most readers have readily perceived, the technology of fingerprinting, combined with David Wilson’s brilliant use of forensic logic, is precisely what reintroduces certainty and a measure of justice into the deceitful, fantasy-warped world of Dawson’s Landing.
Gillman denigrates fingerprint analysis in part by stressing that its inventor, Francis Galton, expected it to reveal racial as well as individual traits, thus corroborating what was widely presumed to be the advanced evolutionary standing of whites. Here, then, is one of those sinister conjunctions between science and oppression that social constructionists love to bring to light. Galton, however, was obliged to admit that he had been wrong; in his own words, his “great expectations” about finding objectively discernible racial characteristics in fingerprints had been “falsified.” Though Gilman quotes this statement, she fails to see its plain implication. Fingerprinting proved to be a blow against theories of innate racial superiority, and that blow could be struck precisely because Galton and his empirically minded readers, including the enthusiastic Mark Twain, felt beholden to impersonal standards of verification. Gillman’s animus against such standards at once secures her vanguard academic credentials and renders her incapable of empathizing with Twain’s mental universe.
A final sign of this failing can be found in Gillman’s treatment, or rather her neglect, of Huckleberry Finn—of all Twain’s books the one that most memorably pits the claims of experience against the dehumanizing forces of prejudice and the herd instinct. Precisely because Huckleberry Finn demands to be read as a work of conscious irony about race and caste, Gillman has little to say about it; she feels more at home with what she twice calls Twain’s “ostentatiously incomplete” late fragments, which serve up morbid fantasies without the nuisance of ethical or aesthetic shaping. What she does remark in passing about Huckleberry Finn, however, is revealing enough in its way. For her, not just the troubling conclusion but the entire novel amounts to an attempted cop-out; it illustrates Twain’s supposedly typical quixotic attempt to flee from history. “This evasion,” Gillman says, “is especially potent in Huckleberry Finn, a book which gives vent to the writer’s will to turn his back on civilization and light out for the territory, but always by circling back to and through the Mississippi River valley.” In this formulation, any elements in Twain’s novel that complicate adolescent escapism are credited not to his moral intentions but to the unconscious pull of historical circumstance.
But we need only consider Huckleberry Finn in the light of its predecessor novel, Tom Sawyer, to realize that the primary impulse behind the later work cannot possibly have been escapist. In Tom Sawyer Twain had already tried his hand at creating an antebellum childhood idyll—albeit one that is haunted by violence, fear, guilt, sadism, and suggestions of universal egotism and cowardice. The condescending and self-satisfied narrative voice in that novel lulls us into blurred perception, allowing us both to distance ourselves from our nostalgic impulses and to indulge them anyway.6 Huckleberry Finn, by contrast, abolishes such comfort with one bold stroke—the elevation of an escaped slave to a major role. However disturbing are the consequences of this metamorphosis of sleepy St. Petersburg for both the author and his readers, we can hardly deny that in Huckleberry Finn Twain went out of his way to render the central shame of American democracy. Thus the most telling, but in another sense the most understandable, deficiency of Gillman’s Dark Twins is that it proposes to deal centrally with Mark Twain and race but cannot come to grips with the most pertinent and suggestive document in the record.
If, unlike Gillman, we wish to meet Mark Twain and his flawed masterpiece on terms that register what is distinctive about them, there would appear to be no adequate substitute for an intentionalist approach. By “intentionalist” I do not mean the ruling out of any interpretations at variance with the author’s own conscious apprehension of his work. Nor do I mean a presumption that everything in the text will be found to serve the same ruling end. Instead, I mean simply an attentiveness to signs of authorial control—a reluctance, in other words, to discount discernible purposes, however mixed, in favor of one or another deterministic scheme. If the author happened to be torn between incompatible goals—as Twain surely was in writing Huckleberry Finn—nothing prevents critics who take intentions seriously from laying out the confusion in all its detail. Indeed, because they are aiming at a faithful portrait rather than a deep-ideological diagnosis, intentionalists are on the whole more likely than social constructionists to acknowledge the results of an author’s expediency or forgetfulness.7
As if to illustrate these points, and more specifically to refute Susan Gillman on Mark Twain’s apprehension of science and race, a very different book demands our attention here: Sherwood Cummings’s new Mark Twain and Science: Adventures of a Mind. Cummings sets out to depict Twain’s philosophical development in all its intricacy and then to show how that knowledge affects an understanding of the fiction—including and especially Huckleberry Finn. While Cummings, too, is not without his blind spots, he is able, as Gillman conspicuously is not, to convey a sense of why readers care about Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn in the first place. Looking at Twain through Cummings’s analysis, we can appreciate the crucial difference that is made by granting an author a fully active mind, capable of reasoning its way into new positions that fundamentally affected his art.
The Twain who takes shape in Cummings’s pages is no less troubled a figure than Gillman’s. Cummings understands, however, that the author’s conflicts issued not in “undifferentiated darkness” but in a remarkably energetic struggle to make sense of a world that had come unhinged from traditionally given meanings. Thus Cummings can treat Twain’s eventually full-blown pessimism and determinism—most adamantly expounded in What is Man?—not as a clinical phenomenon but as the bold and at times exuberant development that it was. And this may mark a long-overdue shift of emphasis in Twain studies.8 With a few exceptions, critics have tended to shrink from Twain’s late vision of God as a morbid prankster, of man as a defectively programmed robot, of life as a meaningless chain of predators and prey, of civilization as a disease, and of death—preferably prior to emergence from the womb—as the only worthwhile gift. But as Cummings shows, Twain was responding creatively to a general crisis that involved much more than his own feelings. He was exploring the metaphysical void that had been opened by scientific reductionism, whose implications he seized upon more tenaciously and dramatized more radically than any of his contemporaries.9
Mark Twain and Science is substantially concerned with tracing Twain’s long preparation for that voyage. The story begins, of course, with the intimidating Calvinism and biblical literalism to which he was exposed in boyhood. It continues through his absorption in the deism of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, the mechanistic philosophy of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, the moral utilitarianism explained (though not advocated) in W.E.H. Lecky’s History of European Morals, the inductivism of Hippolyte Taine’s Ancient Regime, and finally, the evolutionism of Darwin’s Descent of Man. We have known for some time now that all those books bore extraordinary significance for the autodidact Twain; Cummings now shows us precisely how and why.
Twain’s readings, as Cummings says, “laid down incompatible strata” in his mind. But Paine and Darwin in succession—the first actively welcomed, the second resisted for decades and then embraced with a kind of bitter zeal—sufficed to doom his faith in anthropocentrism of any kind. From Paine he learned to regard the creation as strictly obedient to divine laws—the only exception being man himself, a free agent who could live according to the findings of his reason. And Darwin then taught him, appallingly, that the exception was false: man was just another species, subject to the same indifferent forces governing all the others. No higher purpose whatsoever, then, could be discerned behind the eons of nightmarish prehistory in which our ancestors and their predecessor species scrabbled for survival. The universe must be starkly absurd, and humankind nothing more than an assemblage of stardust that has somehow evolved unique forms of cruelty and a bottomless appetite for self-delusion and self-regard.
Thanks to Cummings, we can now appreciate why the sciences that Twain originally preferred were astronomy and the classifying branches of biology: they seemed to validate the deistic harmonies celebrated by Tom Paine. By contrast, Twain sensed from the first that archaeology, paleontology, anthropology, and Darwinian biology harbored threats to his culturally given idea of a special and benign creation, and he made uneasy fun of those disciplines for as long as he could. Geology, too, was a danger zone—yet Twain himself in his silver mining days had been an amateur geologist and had noted such disturbing signs as a layer of oyster shells in mountain rock, thousands of feet above sea level. Throughout his middle years, including the brief period when he tried to conform to his wife’s Congregationalism, his religious feelings warred against his devotion to fact for its own sake. But he had read and annotated The Descent of Man with pungent intensity soon after it was published in 1871, and two decades later he gave up the struggle against Darwin’s apparently unanswerable logic.
For philosophically minded American writers like Howells, Dreiser, Crane, and Norris, Darwin was the scientist who had proved that absolutes or ideals are only a hindrance to the proper understanding of nature, which he had represented not as a piece of handiwork or an illustrated sermon but merely as a locus of interlocking processes. Howells’s realism, Dreiser’s determinism, Crane’s satire on puny man, and Norris’s retreat into secular mysticism have all been plausibly associated with the impact of that revolution. Mark Twain, however, has been largely exempted from the account, thanks to both his critics’ weakness for Freudian explanations and his own unsystematic practice as a novelist. Yet Cummings shows that Twain learned the Darwinian lesson more thoroughly than his friend Howells, who was given to vestigial idealizing about an underlying truth to which appearances supposedly attested. And whereas sardonic nihilism came effortlessly in the fin-de-siècle cynic Crane, it was Twain whose surviving theism was subjected to a real collision with evolutionary theory.
Twain himself, Cummings reminds us, was keenly aware that the Calvinist God could never be completely dislodged from his mind. “The religious folly you are born in you will die in,” he wrote in middle age, “no matter what apparently reasonabler religious folly may seem to have taken its place meanwhile and abolished and obliterated it.” Thus we see in him, not surprisingly, a budding atheist who nevertheless continued to quarrel with—even to tremble before—the personal God he had deemed superfluous.
From his deistic phase onward, Twain in his more sanguine moments privately enjoyed portraying the Almighty as a doddering blusterer who lacked an adequate education. In science in the margin of Paine’s Age of Reason, for example, he wrote: “The God of the Bible did not know that the mountains & the everlasting rocks are built on the bones of his dead creatures”; and in 1908, annotating an obsolete geology text that had proclaimed, “The far-seeing Planner of the universe stored the carboniferous fuel in the repositories where it could never perish, and where it could await the uses of the coming race of man,” he added, “And man was on earth 200,000 years before God remembered whom it was He built the coal for.”
But Cummings reminds us that such Voltairean condescension couldn’t suffice to free Twain altogether from his childhood notion of a divine tyrant and persecutor. “Nature’s attitude toward all life,” he wrote in 1895, as if “nature” were an immanent deity, “is profoundly vicious, treacherous, and malignant.” And when his daughter Susy died of meningitis while he was off recuperating from his debt-paying world tour in the following year, he bitterly observed to Howells “how exactly and precisely it was planned; and how remorselessly every detail of the dispensation was carried out.” These are not the comments of someone whose whole spirit is permeated with Darwinism. No wonder Twain could still remark of hell, quite late in his life, “I don’t believe in it, but I am afraid of it.”
As Cummings acknowledges, however—here following the important lead of Howard Baetzhold—the chief conflict in Twain’s mature mind was not between belief and unbelief but between the two moral philosophies that W.E.H. Lecky had dubbed intuitive and utilitarian. An intuitionist holds that people can naturally discern the difference between right and wrong and will generally feel obliged to choose the right, whereas a utilitarian considers all moral notions to be products of training and thus socially relative. Temperamentally, by upbringing, and by exposure in middle age to the culture of Hartford and Boston, Twain was inclined to be an intuitionist. Intellectually, however, he found his intuitionism thwarted by one overwhelming phenomenon that continually gnawed at him: caste prejudice, whose most extreme form was the slaveholding system in which he himself had been comfortably and unself-consciously raised.
Cummings’s Mark Twain, then, is very far from being that manikin of simplistic “influences” scholarship, the figure who is passively tossed from one provider of “background” to the next. Rather, he is a man possessed by an anguishing moral paradox. How could his own extended family—how could the whole American South—have professed Christian ideals while deliberately brutalizing a class of fellow human beings whom they chose to regard merely as property? It is only a small exaggeration to say that Twain’s career as a serious writer was an extended meditation on that question and its historical corollaries. If he ended by embracing an extremely mechanistic form of utilitarianism, it was not necessarily because he had plunged into despair over his personal tragedies but at least partly because he needed a radical explanation for the human record as he had witnessed it.
Once we have grasped the thematic core of Twain’s thought, Cummings shows, we can sense the emotional urgency that underlay his adventures in reading. It was more than the Zeitgeist, for example, that drew him to Taine’s causative doctrine of “race, surroundings, and epoch” and to Holmes’s declaration that “the more we observe and study, the wider we find the range of the automatic and instinctive principles in body, mind, and morals.” Those sources offered him an absolving theoretical perspective on the caste intolerance practiced not just in prerevolutionary France and the cotton belt but in his own boyhood family and at the very fountain-head of his pastoralism, his uncle John Quarles’s farm. The same need to locate an impersonal necessity behind oppression left him susceptible to Social Darwinism, which taught him, as he put it in 1904, that “man has not a single right which is the product of anything but might.”10 And his cardinal idea from the 1880s onward, that conscience is shaped entirely by social pressures and thus can be enlisted in even the grossest evils, was at once a direct borrowing from The Descent of Man and a further means of putting slavery beyond the realm of personal moral responsibility.11
Twain persisted in being a residual intuitionist through it all, never ceasing to hope that his readers could be jarred by his bitter prose and their own dormant humanity into awakening to the wickedness of racism and its overseas extension, imperialism. Once he had become a Social Darwinist in the Nineties, however, his impatience and disgust with mob psychology tended to muffle his sympathies. The icy analytic detachment of the hero in Pudd’nhead Wilson turned out to be a portent for the rest of his creator’s career. As Cummings fully appreciates, if we want to see Mark Twain’s mind and heart, his utilitarianism and intuitionism, fully at work together—not in concert but at the highest pitch of intensity—we must return to Huckleberry Finn.
In Cummings’s analytic approach, the classic issue of divided purpose in Huckleberry Finn comes down to the question of whether that novel was written primarily in a sentimental (intuitionist) or a deterministic (utilitarian) spirit. On one interpretation—the most popular one among critics since the 1950s—the core of Huckleberry Finn resides in Huck’s stirring but transitory resolution to “go to hell” if necessary for Jim’s sake. Personal moral revolution, then, is possible even when every social pressure conspires against it; in Twain’s own language, a “sound heart” can trump a “deformed conscience.” Yet if this is so, how can we account for the coarse and trivial concluding chapters, in which Huck unprotestingly obeys the conformist Tom Sawyer, for whom Jim is a pawn and slavery an unexamined given?
The opposite reading says that institutions must win out over untutored feelings, as indeed they do here; Twain had no choice but to reinfantalize his characters at the end, diverting our attention to proposed high jinks in the Territory rather than facing the unaltered facts of the slave system. Critics who take this line, we may observe, enjoy a distinct advantage over those who think of the early Huck as a personification of antisocial freedom. They can show, first, that Twain’s hero has never, not even in his grandest hour of defiance, been free from the weight of prevailing opinion about the correctness of slavery; second, that for an alleged outlaw he is remarkably amenable to socialization by the Widow Douglas, the Grangerfords, the Wilkses, and Aunt Sally; and third, that he is quite capable of putting Jim out of mind whenever a prolonged distraction beckons. Still, we cannot purge our own minds of the great scenes of bonding and reconciliation on the raft. Why did Twain bother to create those scenes if he intended to reduce Huck to a satellite and Jim to a minstrel darky, agog over forty dollars?
Cummings’s way of addressing this problem, like that of such previous critics as Bernard DeVoto, Henry Nash Smith, and Walter Blair, is to study the emergence of Huckleberry Finn from Twain’s notes and drafts and to ask whether his mood may have shifted at some point. As is well known, the case for such an approach to the novel is especially compelling because of the notable hiatuses in its composition.12 In 1876, in the period just following the publication of Tom Sawyer, Twain wrote about one third of Huckleberry Finn but then put the manuscript aside, apparently stymied for a plot development that could keep an escaped slave heading down the Mississippi, along banks that Twain was determined to write about because he knew them well, instead of mounting the unfamiliar Ohio toward freedom. In 1879–1880, most critics have assumed, Twain composed chapters seventeen and eighteen, covering the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud, but the “downriver” problem remained unsolved. When he took up his pen again in 1882, however, he had found his key device: the comical and sinister King and Duke, who virtually capture Huck and Jim and thus shut off the novel’s pastoral phase.
What Cummings adds to this picture is both a proposed revision of Walter Blair’s compositional scheme and an argument that something graver than the quest for a neat conclusion troubled the later chapters of Huckleberry Finn. I will not recapitulate Cummings’s carefully reasoned and, in my view, convincing case against Blair. Suffice it to say that he plausibly contends that part of chapter seventeen and all of chapter eighteen acquired their final shape and tone not in 1879–1880 but after Twain’s trip down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans in 1882—a trip that definitely predated the writing of nearly all the subsequent chapters. Cummings’s general view of Huckleberry Finn does not stand or fall on this speculation, but he does succeed in showing that the chapters about the feud mark a watershed in theme as well as in time of composition.
It is in chapter eighteen, when the Grangerford family suddenly appears in an aristocratic light and when Buck Grangerford catechizes Huck about the propriety of feuding, that Twain first broaches the training-is-everything lesson that was to become his hobbyhorse. The Grangerfords are there transformed into exemplars of the “Walter Scottism,” or southern pseudo-medievalism, that Twain had come to regard, in Tainean fashion, as the main cause of the Civil War; and the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud, which happens to be situated precisely on what was to become the Union/ Confederate border, serves as an allegory of that fratricidal bloodbath.
Cummings sees two significantly different Mark Twains at work before and after the 1882 foray into the deep South. The author of (roughly) the first sixteen and a half chapters was a northernized southerner who felt that he had a vital intuitionist message for people who hadn’t grown up among blacks as he had: the revelation that feelings can be shared across racial lines. Twain knew it from his memories of “Uncle Dan’l,” a slave on the Quarles farm who had befriended him, and who became the prime model for Jim; and he was stirred by more recent experiences, especially his hearing the life story of Rachel Cord, an ex-slave and now his servant, who had been separated from her son Henry on the auction block and dramatically reunited with him toward the end of the war.
In “A True Story Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It,” Twain had recounted not just Rachel Cord’s moving tale but her awakening of a “Mr. C.” to her full humanity—and by implication to his own. A small masterpiece in the sentimental vein, “A True Story” fed directly into Twain’s fictional project of humanizing Jim in Huck’s eyes and our own. As Cummings puts it,
From “A True Story,” Mark Twain took both the main plot and theme for the first part of Huckleberry Finn. Henry’s determination to escape from slavery and earn money to buy his mother’s freedom is similar to Jim’s plan to run away to a free state, there to work and save money to buy his wife and two children out of slavery. As for theme, what Mr. C. learns in a flash about the equal humanity of blacks is akin to Huck’s growing love for Jim; and the sense of ritual and commitment with which “A True Story” ends is perhaps echoed at the end of Chapter 15, where Huck “could almost kissed” Jim’s foot before humbling himself to him.
Up until 1882, the Twain who had fled from the Civil War and had never embraced abolitionism did everything he could to convince himself that the race issue in America had been all but settled; in due time the victory of the North would inevitably lead to tolerance and opportunity. Traveling down the Mississippi and meeting in New Orleans with the acerbic civil rights activist George Washington Cable, however, he saw a very different picture: a resurgent southern racism that was as bent as ever on caste oppression and dehumanization. Twenty-one years of absence from the deep South, he realized, had kept him from grasping that its old blend of vileness and aristocratic pretense was still intact.
The result was, on the philosophical plane, a surrender to social determinism; and artistically, a recognition that it would be a historical travesty to grant Jim authentic freedom as an adult. It was in the light of that knowledge, according to Cummings, that Twain wrote the horrific scenes of Buck Grangerford’s death, of the redneck animality of Bricksville, of Colonel Sherburn’s murder of Boggs, and of Sherburn’s scornful address to the lynch mob indicting its herd mentality. Here emerged the Mark Twain who could eventually identify himself with Satan, anesthetized against the incurable failings of a contemptible species.
Cummings thus sides with the increasing number of Twain critics who find yet another miniallegory in Huckleberry Finn: the final episode of Jim’s artificially prolonged imprisonment alludes to the post-Reconstruction fate of the ex-slaves, freed in name but subjected to depersonalization and physical terror. Yet Cummings also recognizes that, just as the relatively cozy Wilks chapters resist the antisentimental tide of Twain’s post-1882 mood, so the Jim Crow allegory fails to account for all the details of the “evasion” episode. Huckleberry Finn remains open to “currents and countercurrents” of feeling that are ultimately traceable to what Cummings calls Mark Twain’s “moral loneliness,” produced by his combination of affection for the black race, mortification over his early failure to embrace abolitionism, and emotional loyalty to family members who had never doubted that slavery was God’s will.
Penetrating though it is, this approach to the contradictions in Huckleberry Finn must still be called incomplete. Cummings, it may be, suffers from an amiable but besetting weakness among traditionalist Twain critics: a need to supply altruistic-looking alternatives to nakedly commercial motives. As other commentators have stressed, Huckleberry Finn began as a “boy’s book,” and Twain as a best-selling author felt obliged to finish on the same note. At the end he may have been not so much struggling to keep Huck’s new moral grandeur intact as trying to prevent the still-scandalous theme of interracial brotherhood from alienating his least enlightened readers. After all, there is no sign that he felt the least remorse about “cheapening” his great novel with a juvenile finale. On the contrary, it is reasonably clear that in wrapping up this “sequel” to Tom Sawyer, he was doing his best to whet appetites for the next sequel, the shallow (but never completed) Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians.
Cummings’s idea of Twain’s “moral loneliness,” however, is not invalidated but merely complicated by this tangle of motives. In addition to Twain’s mercurial relation to the past, we must make allowance for an ongoing struggle in his personality between democratic impulses and an irrepressible opportunism and theatricality—a struggle not very different in the end from Huck Finn’s own. As in Huck’s case, the outcome is not a fixed position but a kaleidoscopic succession of initiatives to extend sympathy, to denounce injustice, to avoid needless trouble, and to advance his interests by telling people what they want to hear.
To take due account of Twain’s calculating side, finally, is by no means to hand him back to the systematically ungenerous social constructionists—to those, that is, who would merely assimilate him to the crassness and prejudice of his age. As we saw in exploring the limitations of Gillman’s Dark Twins, Twain’s self-division is not reducible to a standard contest between noble protestations on the one hand and “the repressed” on the other. It is precisely because he was consciously both guilt-stricken and grandiosely ambitious, both sentimental and cynical, that we can never be quite sure we have got Mark Twain right. Only a criticism that can flexibly interpret intentions—one that is ready, without ideological tendentiousness, to entertain every manifestation of a conflicted authorial will—can explain why sensitive readers feel frustrated and even betrayed by Twain’s greatest book, yet also feel compelled to keep returning to it and testing its hopes and compunctions against their own.
July 20, 1989
Inconsistent because, of course, social constructionists have no stomach for seeing their own values, ideas, and selves submitted to reductive analysis. ↩
See Louis J. Budd, Our Mark Twain: The Making of His Public Personality (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983); and Everett Emerson, The Authentic Mark Twain: A Literary Biography of Samuel L. Clemens (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984). ↩
“Mark Twain’s views of sexuality,” Gillman writes, “were never formulated as consciously or self-consciously as they were on the (for him) closely allied subject of race . But when sex was wedded to race, as in antebellum legal regulation of miscegenation and in turn-of-the-century popular fiction justifying Negrophobia on the grounds of uncontrollable black sexuality, the pair was obsessively returned to, in a kind of cultural return of the repressed. In this context, Mark Twain was very much a representative man.” Which is to say that the critic will feel entitled to treat even Twain’s disapproval of racial and sexual myths as a sign of his unconscious complicity in them. ↩
“The process that once outlawed slavery in the late 1860s legalized segregation in the 1870s and 1880s,” writes Gillman, as if she had here caught out “the law,” an indivisible entity, in a shameful self-contradiction. A person of good character, one gathers, should give a wide berth to such an untrustworthy institution. But as Gillman’s historical examples suggest, the enemy will pop up wherever vigilance is relaxed for even a moment. She remarks fastidiously that turn-of-the-century newspapers showed themselves incapable of protesting the outcome of a trial without also “granting [the law’s] premises, assuming its modes of inference,” and she finds it noteworthy that Mark Twain failed to purge his vocabulary of legalisms like “I judge” and “proves him a fool.” Odd as it must seem to outsiders, such unworldliness is common among those critics who now most strenuously insist on the need to “historicize” and “contextualize.” ↩
Gillman, one would think, could hardly avoid conceding this latter fact, since she devotes her final chapter to the last of Twain’s lobbying visits to Congress, in 1906, in behalf of that most “individuating” of legal causes, copyright reform. For her, though, his performance “subverted itself, making its actual legal goals appear irrelevant.” (To whom, one wonders?) On that very day, she points out, he first wore his flashy white suit, thus distracting attention from copyright to “male identity” and “gender roles.” But Congress apparently proved less susceptible to such distraction than Gillman is. The copyright code did get liberalized in 1909, as it had previously been in 1891, and there is good reason to think that Twain’s agitation contributed to both outcomes. ↩
On this point, see Forrest G. Robinson, In Bad Faith: The Dynamics of Deception in Mark Twain’s America (Harvard University Press, 1986). ↩
Among the critics of Pudd’nhead Wilson, for example, the one who least insists on unifying patterns is Hershel Parker, an old-school intentionalist who nevertheless demonstrates that Twain’s failure to make a clean break with the Ur-text Those Extraordinary Twins left Pudd’nhead Wilson incoherent in several important ways. (See Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons: Literary Authority and American Fiction, Northwestern University Press, 1984, pp. 115–136.) Susan Gillman takes passing note of Parker’s argument but cannot absorb its implications. On her level of analysis—that of Twain’s participation in the cultural unconscious of the Gilded Age—everything in Pudd’nhead Wilson fits together nicely. ↩
Which is not to say that Cummings is a pioneer. He appears especially indebted to Louis J. Budd, Mark Twain: Social Philosopher (Indiana University Press, 1962); Howard G. Baetzhold, Mark Twain and John Bull: The British Connection (Indiana University Press, 1970); and Alan Gribben, Mark Twain’s Library: A Reconstruction, 2 vols. (G.K. Hall, 1980). Those books have been largely responsible for correcting the longstanding impression that Twain was an anti-intellectual who never bothered to think through the implications of his ad hoc ideas. With acknowledgment, Cummings now takes their work a step further. ↩
Indeed, in his relegation of all meaning to the realm of illusion. Twain became a “poststructuralist” before his time—a fact, ironically, that our own poststructuralists have trouble perceiving, since their determinism tells them not to credit him with enough intellectual autonomy to arrive at such insight. ↩
See also, however, Stan Poole, “In Search of the Missing Link: Mark Twain and Darwinism,” in Studies in American Fiction, 13 (1985), pp. 201–215. Poole’s article supplements Cummings by giving a more nuanced account of the “soft” and “hard” Darwinisms that were at play in Twain’s culture. In Poole’s view, even Social Darwinism was such an ambiguous phenomenon that Twain could readily adapt it to humanitarian and anti-establishment purposes. ↩
“An Indian Thug,” Darwin reported in The Descent of Man, “conscientiously regretted that he had not strangled and robbed as many travellers as did his father before him.” In What Is Man? Twain made the same point with his own illustration: “I knew a kind-hearted Kentuckian whose self-approval was lacking—whose conscience was troubling him, to phrase it with exactness—because he had neglected to kill a certain man—a man whom he had never seen.” ↩
See Walter Blair’s summary in his introduction to the magnificent new edition of Huckleberry Finn edited by Blair, Victor Fischer, and others and issued by the Mark Twain Project (University of California Press, 1988), pp. xxiii–xlv. ↩