|Fathoming Twain’s Mark
Jeremy T. Headrick
Literary artists refuse to be categorized, defined, and completely fathomed by any standardized paradigm, but a writer’s work exhibits his or her personality traits. Though authors are incapable of being defined by mere personality traits, literary accomplishments, and literary criticisms, an author’s personality can be used to sketch a limited definition of his or her literature. Mark Twain’s literature manifests his personality’s candor, graphicness, humor, and criticalness that William Dean Howells describes in "My Mark Twain," and these attributes are evident in "Old Times on the Mississippi," The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," "Fennimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses," and "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg." Howells’ portrayal of Twain facilitates some understanding of Twain’s fiction, but by no means is Mark Twain’s literature as simple as four personality traits. The traits of Twain’s literature transcend simple entertainment, and he enlightens the reader about the need to reform literature, religion, society, and the individual.
In the midst of the dishonesty, greed, and corruption of his time, Mark Twain’s characters and stories display great candor. Candor is the ability to express frankly, openly, and unabashedly an opinion or depict a situation, and the letters that William Dean Howells received from Twain are brimming with candor. Howells recounts, "He has the Southwestern, the Lincolnian, the Elizabethan breadth of parlance which I suppose one ought not to call coarse without calling one’s self prudish [. . .]" (351). As Twain’s stories unfold, he realistically and vibrantly describes outrageous events with an unblinking narrator. Likewise, sometimes the honesty of Twain’s characters is shocking and naive, but these characters take pride in saying what they choose to say. Although the theme of deception pervades Twain’s work, truth always emanates from both the plot and characters.
While many Romantic authors elevate their childhoods to idealistic terms of good or bad, Twain walks the line between Romanticism and Realism. After romantically heralding the position of a steamboatman in Old Times on the Mississippi, a young Mark Twain realizes and expresses his new belief on the unfairness of life because of his recent knowledge about the rise of an ungodly boy to the position of a steamboatman. Twain writes, "This thing shook the bottom out of all my Sunday-school teachings" (275). Instead of glossing over his young self’s questioning nature, Twain acknowledges the ability to question the authority of the church, even if it is based on jealousy. Similar in honesty and naivete to the young Twain is the forthright Huckleberry Finn. He will not accept society’s conventions about both religion and history, and he denounces the Widow Douglass’ story about "Moses and the Bulrushers." Huck states, "so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people" (26). Huck ceaselessly disdains efforts to civilize him, but the Widow Douglass continues to try to change him. After Huck first learns about Hell from the Widow Douglass, his earnest initial response is memorable. Huck covertly thinks, "Well, I couldn’t see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn’t try for it" (27). Twain utilizes the candor of his situations and characters to rebel against the status quo, and it leads to some brilliant scenes of conflict between authority and noncomformist characters.
During his use of candor to describe situations and characters, Mark Twain employs his talent as a regionalist, local colorist, and realist to evoke graphic scenes in the reader’s mind. Graphicness is shown in Twain’s writings as the ability to create a vivid, realistic, and memorable display of scenery, language, and life. William Dean Howells felt the power of Twain’s image, but he would not dare imitate his art. Howell’s writes, "Throughout my long acquaintance with his graphic touch was always allowing itself a freedom which I cannot bring my fainter pencil to illustrate" (351). Twain’s inspiration of imagery came from his experiences. Based on his childhood and adolescence, he grandly details the habits and scenes of Mississippi River life. By means of serving in the United States Civil War, he presents the perspective of continual movement and the senseless death of an innocent man in The Private History of a Campaign That Failed, and gleaned from the loss of a daughter and entanglements with speculation, he enunciates the darker images of existence. The diversity of Twain’s images and the graphicness are rooted in his experiences.
Dually capable of writing about probable and improbable occurrences, Mark Twain’s graphic writing did not shy away from farfetched Romantic storytelling. Twain vividly demonstrates the ability to portray improbable events in a realistic manner. The reader gawks at the mesmerizing picture of the "fifteen-minute nag" in "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" as Twain brings to life the contortions of the horse. By inspirations of tall tales and frontier oral traditions of the United States, Twain grabs the reader’s attention with his story of Dan’l Webster, the "notorious" frog, and once again the reader is dumbfounded by the miracles of a jumping, flycatching frog. Twain writes, "He’d give him a little punch behind, and the next minute you’d see that frog whirling in the air like a doughnut—see him turn one summerset, or may be a couple, if he got a good start, and come down flat-footed and all right, like a cat" (271). But if the reader frowns upon the outrageousness of this story, then the description of a steamboat’s arrival in Old Times on the Mississippi might be more appealing. Twain depicts the town as an awakening organism, and the steamboat glides majestically to shore. Twain glorifies the awe-inspiring steamboat:
She is long and sharp and trim and pretty: she has two tall, fancy-topped chimneys, with a gilded device of some kinfswung between them; a fanciful pilot house, all glass and "gingerbread," perched on top of the "texas" deck behind them; the paddle-boxes are gorgeous with a picture or with gilded rays above the boat’s name; the boiler deck, the hurricane deck, and the texas deck are fenced and ornamented with white railings; there is a flag gallantly flying from the jack-staff [. . .]. (274)
The pinnacle of Twain’s achievements in imagery is his ability to make a living scene arise from the words of a story, and his ability to transform black letters on white paper into present tense colors of prose deserves recognition. Twain makes inanimate pages flourish with the graphicness of his imagery.
Not merely basing his humor on one-liners or endless slapstick comedy, Twain utilizes the candor and graphicness of his storytelling ability to initiate laughter. Although humor has often been labeled as merely something that has the ability to amuse a person or to make a person laugh, Twain’s humor rises above simple ridicule or farce. His humor is commentary on conformity, society, and religion. William Dean Howells denies that Twain’s eccentricity is only humorous when he describes Twain’s affection for unusual clothing. Howells asserts, "He has always a relish for personal effect, which expressed itself in the white suit of complete serge which he wore in his last years, and in the Oxford gown which he put on for every possible occasion, and said he would like to wear all the time" (351). Twain has the capacity to produce hollow humor, but he cannot write without the urge to reform society. He brings forth the most outlandish and farcical situations in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and the fight scene at the beginning of the novel between Tom and the new boy is a universal mockery of fighting. Though The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is often stereotyped as being strictly children’s literature, this so-called simple work also displays Twain’s critical humor.
What separates Twain’s low and high brow humor from simple gutter smut is the ability to transform a chuckle into a cackle or a guffaw. The structure of a story within the story of "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras Country" seamlessly weaves a ridiculous narrator, Simon Wheeler, into a tale that could have stood on its own merits, but the description of Wheeler’s delivery increases the reader’s amusement. Twain illustrates, "He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the gentle-flowing key to which he tuned his initial sentence, he never betrayed the slightest suspicion of enthusiasm [. . .]" (270). Scene after scene of comic grandeur ensues as Wheeler details Jim Smiley following a straddle-bug to Mexico, losing a bet on his dog, Andrew Jackson, to a hind-legless dog, and finally teaching a frog, Dan’l Webster, to catch flies and to jump. But beyond the wildness of events, Twain emphasizes that even the gambler, Jim Smiley, can be duped in the "Gilded Age."
Twain is also skilled in the ability to lampoon prominent literary figures, and if humanity had accepted his jealous appraisal of James Fenimore Cooper’s fiction in "Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses," then neither Cooper’s name nor his works would remain present in modern society. The key feature of Twain’s ridicule is the juxtaposition of exaggeration and understatement. For example, Twain writes, "Cooper’s art has some defects. In one place in The Deerslayer, and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record" (303). Though Twain’s decimation of Cooper’s work is overwrought and excessive, he does make a point about the necessity to change literature and about the definition of a masterpiece. All of Twain’s humor, no matter how ridiculous, eventually elicits an urge to reform some element of existence.
As a culmination of Mark Twain’s candor, graphicness, and humor stands his criticalness. He will not mutely stand behind society and exalt its many achievements, but he feels compelled to write about the many injustices of society. If his rebellion could be as simple as his choice of clothing, then so be it. Howells writes, "yet he also enjoyed the shock, the offence, the pang which it gave the sensibilities of others" (352). Relishing every opportunity that he had to write about reform, Twain constantly calls for action in his work. Whether or not distinct national scandals such as Credit Mobilier, Tea Pot Dome, and Tammany Hall, or individual examples of greed, corruption, and power were his motivating factors, he always appreciated the chance to make others cringe with the recognition of injustice. For a cringe is a response that exudes pain, and when readers have realized the origin of their pain, they will reform society.
Although Twain never exalted idealism or the perfection of society, he knew that society, family, religion, and the individual need changes. He attacks self-righteousness, greed, and betrayal in his construction and deconstruction of Hadleyburg, and he harshly examines the morals of a humble and representative family, the Richards. Not even the church is exempt from Twain’s criticism, for he mocks orthodox religion’s mass hysteria when he describes the chanting as Mr. Burgess reads the selfish and lying letters of the elite members of Hadleyburg. But the most scathing attack of humanity is Mr. Richards’ betrayal of a well intentioned Mr. Burgess. Twain destroys the town’s old beliefs, but he acknowledges that Hadleyburg has learned a lesson. He writes, "It is an honest town once more, and the man will have to rise early that catches it napping again" (342).
Dually attacking religion and slavery, Mark Twain molds the conscience of Huckleberry Finn. This young boy feels the conviction of society’s urge to justify slavery, but he also remembers his relationship with his true friend, Jim. Huck decides that he must help Jim escape from Mr. Phelps’ captivity, and he makes a forceful affirmation of his stance by tearing up his letter to the Widow Douglass. Huck proclaims, "All right then, I’ll go to Hell [. . .]" (264). Huck’s choice about slavery, friendship, and religion marks a definitive stance on a tremendous issue, and his decision impels a reader to stand for change even at the cost of being damned by society.
Mark Twain’s literature may be loosely defined by means of his personality traits described by William Dean Howells in "My Mark Twain," but his writings will never be simplistically confined by candor, graphicness, humor, and criticalness. Twain is a youthful and vibrant contributor to the American voice in literature because he refused to acquiesce to convention in his writings. Though he viciously attacked the wrongs that permeated his world, he did not solve the problems of humanity with his literature. But the vital voice of his literature is not dead, and it offers guidance for those seeking to fathom Twain’s mark.
McQuade, Donald, et al., eds. The Harper American Literature.
2nd ed. 2 vols. New
Howells, William Dean. "My Mark Twain." McQuade, et al. 2: 351-52.
Twain, Mark. "Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses." McQuade, et al. 2: 302-11.
—. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Dell, 1960.
—. "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg." McQuade, et al. 2: 311-42.
—. "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." McQuade, et al. 2: 269-73.
—. Old Times on the Mississippi. McQuade, et al. 2: 273-84.
"Fathoming Twain’s Mark" was written by Jeremy Headrick, at the time of this writing a senior majoring in English. It was written for Dr. Barbara Murray’s ENGL 2131 class during Spring 2001 semester. Headrick is an honorary member of Phi Theta Kappa and Signma Tau Delta.