restricted access Mark Twain and Science: Adventures of a Mind, and: Dark Twins: Imposture and Identity in Mark Twain's America, and: Twain's Heroes, Twain's Worlds (review)
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Reviewed by
Sherwood Cummings. Mark Twain and Science: Adventures of a Mind. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1988. 222 pp. $27.50.
Susan Gillman. Dark Twins: Imposture and Identity in Mark Twain's America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. 217 pp. $32.50 cloth; pb. $12.95.
Andrew Jay Hoffman. Twain's Heroes, Twain's Worlds. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1988. 203 pp. $23.95.

As their titles suggest, these texts are literary histories: analysis of the fiction is guided and illuminated by references to Twain's reading and to the meanings of words and events in his past—the world as he knew it. I do not think this methodology has much to do with "new historicism"—the trails these three authors have wisely followed were blazed by Henry Nash Smith and Bernard DeVoto. Although none is indispensable, all three books are useful. Cummings and Gillman cultivate scholarly detachment and try carefully to document every claim of knowing what Twain knew; Hoffman is not shy about admitting that his reactions are sometimes personal, but his methodology is for the most part respectable enough.

A touchstone passage from Life on the Mississippi illustrates Cummings' purposes. In the final four paragraphs of Chapter Nine, Twain takes us through "a stunning descent from a mythical and deistic view of nature to a Darwinian view." The pilot who has learned that a delicately carved sun-dappled ripple may hide a snag or a wreck has become an interpreter who can no longer see beauty as divine emblem; like the physician who understands that a young woman's comely blush may hide some deadly disease, he is doomed to search every surface for signs of disaster. This remarkable ambivalence characterizes all of Twain's work, and of course he was deeply afflicted by the timeless question about whether or not the universe signifies anything other than itself.

How well did Twain understand the scientific writings of his time? What kind of language was available to him for dealing with the conflict between his fundamentalist upbringing and the flood of new discoveries about nature? Cummings points out that Twain was an intelligent reader of books (especially crucial to his thinking were Darwin's, Taine's, and Thomas Paine's) and of the [End Page 739] numerous magazines devoted to the technological explosion of the nineteenth century. But because Twain had no formal training as a scientist or philosopher, his response to the discoveries of the new geology and biology was to accept them at face value. He welcomed the destruction of the selfish, narrow Protestantism that weighed down his childhood but at the same time regretted the loss of magical possibility in the world. We may remember Huck and Jim's debate over whether the stars "was made, or just happened." Because the argument cannot be resolved, they simply obliterate the question by collaborating in the creation of a new and more sensible myth: "the moon could a laid them." Twain feared his own impulse toward atheism, and in his later fiction ideas about the impossibility of free will and moral order emerge as a powerful rhetoric that, paradoxically, his authorial presence struggles to resist. It was a battle he lost, as far as his writing was concerned: all those tangled and depressing stories from his last years collapse in a ruthlessly mechanistic vision of a closed future. If his humor was kept alive and healthy on stage, perhaps it was because the intense immediacy of stand-up delivery keeps the artist from plunging into the labyrinthine implications of "determinism." Cummings' telling of the story of what Twain knew about science and how this knowledge shaped his writing is convincing and thorough, and it culminates in a lucid examination of that odd, simplistic nihilism that leaves Twain's heroes—and his readers—both "free" and "appalled."

The cover of Gillman's book is a photograph of two sideshow performers billed as Adolph-Rudolph, Siamese twins. They were phonies. The theme of doubling is trouble enough, but when the doubling is itself a deception, where are we? Four-square inside Mark Twain's world, that's where. And "world" here means...