- Centenary Reflections on Mark Twain's "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger"
This valuable new collection of critical essays concludes with an afterword by Alan Gribben, whose comprehensive, richly detailed overview of the scholarship and lore bearing on No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger might have been more usefully placed near the front of the volume. "Since the 1960s," Gribben observes, "we have steadily tended toward grim and even sinister interpretations of [Clemens'] most famous boy books." While this trend toward the dark side has also been reflected in much of the recent scholarship on the late works, Centenary Reflections affords the reader a varied array of perspectives on the novel's mood and purport. Harold K. Bush, Jr., develops a carefully balanced view of No. 44 as "an energizing celebration of the possibilities of the liberal self, coupled with [a] cautionary assessment of its unspeakable potential." Aligned on the positive side are David Lionel Smith, who regards the novel as "a kind of victory lap" in which Clemens delivers "an affirmation of his own existential aloneness," and Bruce Michelson, who construes the text as the exuberant "expression of a desire for personal transcendence, into a condition of immortality and endless energy." James S. Leonard takes the more familiar—and, to my mind, the more plausible—position that the narrative leads to "the crushing understanding that no revelation is possible beyond our unalterable ignorance." Michael J. Kiskis agrees and mobilizes literary and biographical sources in support of a reading that effectively emphasizes Clemens' "aloneness and grief."
There is a somewhat kindred parting of the ways in critical responses to the abrupt and anachronistic intrusion of blackface minstrelsy into the narrative. For Sharon D. McCoy, this is Clemens' way of emphasizing "the artificiality, [and] culturally constructed centrality, of race both in American society and in our conceptions of identity." Henry B. Wonham concurs: "blackface performance," he argues, is an "effective shorthand for suggesting . . . the idea of an unmediated self." Peter Messent is more cautious—and therefore rather more persuasive—in his assessment of the novelist's intentions. "Given what we know of Twain's love of minstrelsy," he writes, "we might see [End Page 80] the author here as reconnecting with an artistic form, and the sentimentalism it released, which still spoke powerfully to him despite its problematic aesthetic ('blackface') and uncritical sociopolitical message."
The contributors are more uniformly in agreement that the novel is inconsistent—and even incoherent—in its development of ideas. "No one ever said Mark Twain was a logician," quips Leonard. There is consensus as well that in No. 44 Clemens drew heavily on his reading. Horst Kruse argues very convincingly that Adelbert von Chamisso's The Shadowless Man; or, The Wonderful History of Peter Schlemihl (1814) was a major source "of inspiration for the character of the mysterious stranger." Meanwhile, Gregg Camfield invokes Johann Friedrich Herbart, William James, and Mary Baker Eddy to illustrate his bold but well-founded belief that No. 44 "is all about . . . theories of the human mind." In a learned and beautifully written essay, Randall Knoper situates Clemens' materialist psychology in "the larger currents of British psychophysiology, French neurology, German psychophysics, and American mental science."
Editors Csicsila and Rohman are to be commended for bringing these informed and wide ranging critical perspectives together in a single volume. Thanks to their efforts, No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger now claims our attention in a more settled and serious way than ever before.