The Parting of the Twains

Mark Twain and Science: Adventures of a Mind

by Sherwood Cummings
Louisiana State University Press, 224 pp., $27.50

“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;…

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