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J O H N E. B A S S E T T North Carolina State University Life ontheMississippi: Being Shifty in aNew Country In Chapter 44 of Life on the Mississippi Mark Twain briefly discusses an oil painting he observes in New Orleans.1 Depicting Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee on horseback, it is generally viewed as the “Last Inter­ view between Lee and Jackson.” Nonetheless, it might signify any of the following: First Interview' between Lee and Jackson. Last Interview between Lee and Jackson. Jackson Introducing Himself to Lee. Jackson Accepting Lee’s Invitation to Dinner. Jackson Declining Lee’s Invitation to Dinner—with Thanks. Jackson Apologizing for a Heavy Defeat. Jackson Reporting a Great Victory. Jackson Asking Lee for a Match. With neither title nor gloss it need not represent any one more than another. In Rome, Twain recalls, people “weep in front of the celebrated ‘Beatrice Cenci the Day before Her Execution.’ It shows what a label can do. If they did not know the picture, they would inspect it unmoved, and say, ‘Young girl with hay fever; young girl with her head in a bag.’” The indeterminacy of meaning in texts, a lesson embedded in this chapter, is also the central means by which Twain controls subject and audience. Unlike the indeterminacy of texts described by deconstructive criticism, it is a matter of deliberate method not just an intrinsic aspect of Active discourse. Unlike Hawthorne, whose ambiguity is a matter of alternative reading of signs, Twain establishes control by shifting the terms of the discourse, even by implying contradictory codes. Life on the Mississippi begins ostensibly, however, as a “standard work,” a veracious travel book with historical backgrounds.2 The hero of the book, the River itself, then turns out to be a deceptive and unreliable center. If over centuries it can radically alter its course, even overnight it 40 Western American Literature can leave a man without a state. Similarly in Huck Finn the river carrying a man to freedom really carries him deeper into slavery; the river liberating Huck from the confinement of “sivilization” carries him to the dregs of civilization. The narrator-protagonist of Life on the Mississippi, moreover, returns after twenty years not straightforwardly but in disguise, and con­ tinues to practice disguises. At other times he valorizesthe successful actions of characters who deploy disguises (as in “The Professor’s Yam” ) and authenticates folk personae such as Uncle Mumford to comment to a society which repudiated the direct and often accurate criticisms of Frances Trollope and other visitors. While using this kind of strategy, however, Twain also satirizes forms of sham, hypocrisy, and duplicity. The bogus sentiments and false values of a Sir Walter Confederacy, the veneer of the House Beautiful, the brutal treachery of John Murrell, the absurd extravagance of funeral customs— all are directly or implicitly condemned. Sham is repudiated; masks are justified. Similarly, in Huckleberry Finn one kind of lie is denounced, but Huck can only survive—and be sympathetic—by lying well. The dialectic, in effect, is shifted from Truth vs. Lie to Good Lie vs. Bad Lie. Moral lessons are denied by the author even as they are foregrounded in Huck’s narrative. The author proclaims the use of multiple frontier dialects even as he authorizes a persona who would not know a pidgin from a creole. Throughout his career, in addition to platform performances and marketing a public persona, there were at least three ways in which Clemens inscribed his own quest for authority and the dimension of power that accompanied it. In both The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee he directly dealt with themes of political power through fables of English kings. In both cases a powerless outsider through happenstance, shrewdness, and thespian skill insinuates himself into a position of power in such a way as to effect actual changes in governance. Whereas The Prince and the Pauper posits a merely temporary educative function for the role-playing outsider, A Connecticut Yankee implies more radical— although less sanguine—changes in the social order. Secondly, in tales set near his Mississippi River home, Twain fabricated a myth of childhood power—first in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 39-45
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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