Mark Twain, Memory, and the Failures of Historicism
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Mark Twain, Memory, and the Failures of Historicism

I want to begin with the rather simple statement that Mark Twain’s autobiographies—and here I am referring mostly to Life on the Mississippi and the text we now call the Autobiography—hold open the past as a resource for slowing down time. In itself this isn’t a highly provocative claim; I imagine that many would agree that we find in Twain’s work a desire to hold off futurity. I think, too, that it is fair to say that his continual return to the materials of the past is in part motivated by modernity’s culture of planned obsolescence. Obsolescence becomes an issue when the speed of “progress” requires a diminishing of the present in addition to the past. Temporality, under modernity, is organized into the past, present, and a horizon of expectation known as the future. The future increasingly encroaches on the present by directing our thinking and desires forward; Twain well understood the risks and anxiety of this minimized present through the market logic of investment. Planned obsolesce exploits such anxieties through the introduction of looming future dates of expiration. While ancient, dead forms of culture were of no interest to Twain, those still-working elements of the past had some attraction. The ability to use these elements, to repeat certain experiences, to laugh twice at the same joke: these are what he understands to be threatened by obsolescence.1

While we recognize the extent to which narrative has broken down in his Autobiography—it is precisely this feature that has made this text’s reputation—we might not immediately link this formal feature to Twain’s anxious response to modernity. If we carefully consider how individual moments of breakdown are framed and what they might contribute to any possible larger narrative structure and authorial strategy, we expose what I would like to suggest we recognize as narrative leftovers or remainders. These originate in, and are signifiers of, a failure to fall into line with the requirements of a certain temporal [End Page 62] regime—specifically the inability to master the fantasy of a unified present tense associated with modernity in which temporality is constructing as a flowing of the past into the present leading to the future.

My argument here is that Twain produces spaces of temporal possibility within his autobiographies through the telling of short and partial, yet by necessity linked narratives, anecdotes, and that in so doing, he comes to the surprising realization that he can mine his own past as part of an effort to resist the aforementioned logic of planned obsolescence. Further, as a prolific and practiced deployer of anecdotes, it is my hunch that Twain might be able to help us answer the question of why a previous generation of critics, the new historicists, so devalued the genre of autobiography.

What many are coming to call the “temporal turn” in American studies troubles many of the assumptions that have for the past three decades provided critics with stable tools and methodologies through which they could situate their objects of interest.2 Like its spatial analogue, the transnational turn, the temporal turn unsettles what was once taken for granted, that our authors and their readers participated in a shared single and even temporality. It is in literature, that much diminished thing of the new historicist period, that recent critics like Lloyd Pratt find evidence or disclosures of the multiple and competing temporalities that composed the author’s milieu. Pratt argues that literature—insofar as it depends on narrative ordering—“refracts its readers’ understanding of time,” and thereby engages in what he refers to as a mutually constrictive double-hermeneutic.3 This refracting renders literary texts an “archive of time” that both reveals the temporal complexity of its moment of composition and wraps up and delivers new configurations of time for readers. Even in the smallest of literary archives that Twain scatters throughout his autobiographies, we can unfold complex temporalities.

The existence of these multiple and competing orders of time are made possible by certain formal features that increasingly become visible in what comes to be the dominant mode...