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Achilles and the Tortoise

Mark Twain's Fictions

Clark Griffith

Publication Year: 2000

 Covering the entire body of Mark Twain's fiction, Clark Griffith in Achilles and the Tortoise answers two questions: How did Mark Twain write? And why is he funny? Griffith defines and demonstrates Mark Twain's poetics and, in doing so, reveals Twain's ability to create and sustain human laughter.

 Through a close reading of the fictions–short and long, early and late–Griffith contends that Mark Twain's strength lay not in comedy or in satire or (as the 19th century understood the term) even in the practice of humor. Rather his genius lay in the joke, specifically the "sick joke." For all his finesse and seeming variety, Twain tells the same joke, with its single cast of doomed and damned characters, its single dead-end conclusion, over and over endlessly.

As he attempted to attain the comic resolution and comically transfigured characters he yearned for, Twain forever played, for Griffith, the role of the Achilles of Zeno's Paradox. Like the tortoise that Achilles cannot overtake in Zeno's tale, the richness of comic life forever remained outside Twain's grasp.

The last third of Griffith's study draws parallels between Mark Twain and Herman Melville. Although the two authors never met and seem not to have read each other's works, they labored under the sense of what, in Moby-Dick, Ishmael calls "a vast practical joke . . . at nobody's expense but [one's] own." The laughter occasioned by this cosmic conspiracy shapes the career of Huckleberry Finn fully as much as it does Ishmael's voyage. Out of the laughter are generated the respective obsessions of Captain Ahab and Bartleby, of Pudd'nhead Wilson and Hadleyburg. Reduced at last to a dry mock, the laughter is the prevailing tone of both Billy Budd and The Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press

Cover Page

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p. 1-1

Title Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

It has occurred to me that among the handful of colleagues whom I both admired and liked during thirty-five years in the academy, three were Mark Twain experts. The late Walter Blair did me a good many kindnesses over the years. John C. Gerber was my first graduate teacher of any real value, and later a colleague and friend. ...

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Introduction: The Essays: Form and Content

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pp. 1-18

These essays attempt to show how Mark Twain organized his fictions and, in tum, was himself reorganized in the process of creating them. Seeking an answer to Wright Morris's question (what were those sad, cold eyes looking at?), the essays arrive ineluctably at the conclusion that, over and over, they were focused upon the bitter realization, ...

Part I: Three Polemical Essays

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Mark Twain and the "Infernal Twoness": An Essay on the Comic

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pp. 21-52

Of course my title juxtaposes the great funny man's pen name with a phrase from the great writer of horror fiction. As it happens, Poe used the phrase in one of those places where he was trying to be egregiously funny. It likewise turns out that the funny man was led by the implications of the phrase to perceive life as a horror story. ...

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Mark Twain and the Sick Joke: An Essay on Laughter

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pp. 53-83

With or without Mark Twain bestriding it like a colossus, an essay on laughter must begin with obligatory references to the instinctive life of nature in contrast to human life which is both instinctive and self-conscious. Here in this nexus (this often uneasy but always inescapable meeting ground between partly nature's, partly ours) ...

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Sam Clemens and G. S. Weaver; Hank Morgan and Mark Twain: An Essay on Books and Reality

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pp. 84-120

When Huck complains of not seeing "A-rabs," "jewels," and "elephants" on the St. Petersburg landscape, Tom Sawyer tells him that it is because he did not read the right book. "He said," Huck reports, "if I warn't so ignorant, but had read a book called Don Quixote, I would know without asking. He said it was. ...

Part II: The River Trilogy

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Tom Sawyer: An Essay on Romantic Folly

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pp. 123-143

A reader I know has not always appreciated the way the chapter ends. He remembers reading it first as a child, no doubt envious of Tom Sawyer's triumph, yet irked by the thought that had he behaved so there would have been no curtain of charity. Lightning bolts from Heaven–or a cloakroom paddling ...

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Huckleberry Finn: An Essay on the Dilemmas of Realism

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pp. 144-179

In St. Petersburg, it is as though a curtain ascends to reveal him. Partly because of his recent heroism-primarily, one suspects, because of the half-interest he owns in a $12,000 fortune-the onetime drunkard's son and village outcast is suddenly the object of every eye and mouth in town. ...

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Pudd'nhead Wilson: An Essay on Triumphant Reality

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pp. 180-212

The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894) is framed by an act of creation and an act of resolution. Near the beginning, two babies are exchanged in their cribs at midnight, and the course of life in Dawson's Landing, Missouri, is, for nearly twenty-five years, diverted into wholly new channels. ...

Part III: A Last, Speculative Essay

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Mark Twain and Melville: An Essay on the Metaphysics of Twinship

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pp. 215-268

At the end of the 1880s, Melville had for some years been a householder in East 26th Street of New York City. During the same period Mark Twain came not infrequently to New York, for both business and social purposes. (In 1886 he created a stir of interest in the metropolitan newspapers when he read excerpts from an early version ...

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 269-278


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pp. 279-284

E-ISBN-13: 9780817385248
E-ISBN-10: 081738524X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817310394
Print-ISBN-10: 0817310398

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2000