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  • Introduction: Mark Twain and Economy
  • Henry B. Wonham

Questions of economy have always played a central role in Mark Twain studies. In fact, for an early generation of commentators, Twain’s vexed relationship with money served as a major critical fault-line. Van Wyck Brooks issued an eloquent opening salvo in the debate, arguing in The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920) that the crass materialism of Sam Clemens’ frontier environment stunted and perverted his inclinations as an artist. For Brooks and some later psychoanalytic critics, Clemens’ personality was substantially formed at the side of his father’s coffin, where, according to family lore, his mother exacted promises that he would “retrieve his father’s fortune . . . [and] realize that ‘mirage of wealth’ that had ever hung before his father’s eyes.”1 The whole unfortunate saga of Mark Twain’s “ordeal” originated, for Brooks, in this acceptance of financial imperatives that distorted his capacity as an artist. Bernard De Voto challenged this “Puritan” view in Mark Twain’s America (1932), mocking Brooks’ prudish distaste for all things Western, including the raunchy humor that De Voto considered Mark Twain’s great gift to world literature. Rather than distorting his art, commercialism, materialism, and provinciality were for De Voto the sources of “a realism that extends to the basis and conditions of the mind.”2 For critics of that rich early chapter in Mark Twain studies, the culture of money either nurtured or disfigured the artist in Mark Twain, depending upon one’s point of view.

The Brooks/De Voto fault-line still produces occasional tremors in criticism, but Mark Twain’s most provocative recent commentators tend to accept his contradictory relationship with money, rather than take sides [End Page 1] in the traditional debate. Robert Sattelmeyer captures the tone of much recent commentary when he explains that, whatever Mark Twain “may have said about the American economic system in satirical works such as The Gilded Age, his own practices constituted an uncritical endorsement of it.”3 Sattelmeyer’s Twain manages to be both an avidly naive enthusiast and a trenchant critic of American finance, a paradox that resonates with the work of great biographers, such as Justin Kaplan, who long ago taught us to view Clemens/Twain as a chronically divided personality, one part reckless business man, given to building castles in the air, the other part worldly-wise writer, skeptic, and ironist, ever alert to sham and fraud.4 The bohemian side of Sam Clemens’ personality never stopped believing that the next risky investment would make him incomprehensibly rich, while Mark Twain of Hartford crafted a literary persona by poking fun at human foolishness in all its forms, including especially that of homo economicus.

This binary story of opposed and only occasionally reconciled personalities— one wisely literary, the other naively economic—has had such staying power because it is largely true, and yet the essays collected in this special issue of ALR encourage us to reassess Mark Twain’s purported economic naivete. There is no question that he took enormous and ill-considered risks as an investor, and the biographical record is accurate in understanding him as a quixotic financier. Nevertheless, Plasmon and typesetting machinery aside, the most significant investment of Twain’s business career was unquestionably the literary persona he crafted with such care and over which he asserted rights of “ownership” that tested the era’s understandings of authorship, patent law, the nature of property, and literary copyright. Scholars such as Lawrence Howe and Judith Yaross Lee have begun to explore this largely uncharted commercial terrain, and their essays in this issue produce a different image of “Mark Twain, Business Man” than the pudd’n headed one we thought we knew.5 The other two contributors extend the boundaries of our thinking about Twain’s economic sensibilities in new directions. Brian Gazaille invites us to reconsider Twain’s thinking about technological progress by exploring Connecticut Yankee’s fraught relationship with the rhetoric of industrial reform. He argues that, “a more complicated understanding of the novel’s industrial critique emerges when we read it alongside concomitant changes in the era’s concept of machine efficiency.” For Christine Benner-Dixon, a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-5103
Print ISSN
1540-3084
Pages
pp. 1-3
Launched on MUSE
2014-09-05
Open Access
No
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