- Acting Like Mark Twain: Performance in Nineteenth-Century American Culture
Americans have long been trying to define both America and Mark Twain, often tackling both in the very same paragraph. 1 Regarding the latter, William Dean Howells was Twain’s foremost critical champion and, as we now know, a prophetic seer of Twain’s unique and lasting place in American literary history. Simply put, Howells likened Twain to Abraham Lincoln and labeled Twain’s style, “the American Western.” Similarly, Barrett Wendell noted that Mark Twain was “so characteristically American” and “thoroughly American,” and in 1915 Fred Lewis Pattee influenced scores of readers, including the young Ernest Hemingway, when he dubbed Twain the fountainhead of all later American literature. 2
And yet, among these early critics, Wendell’s analysis is notable for his not-so-subtle repugnance toward Twain’s stylistic achievements: “On the whole, however, we may say of our great confused West, that just as surely as New England has made its mark in the literary history of America, so as yet this West has not.” 3 In effect, the negative perspective toward Twain espoused by critics like Wendell corresponds, not surprisingly, to a view of cultural tradition privileging Boston’s genteel upper-crust. In contrast, positive views of Twain such as Howells’s emphasized his role as spokesperson for cultural and social phenomena related in one way or [End Page 429] another to the expansion of democracy, the rise of realism, and the championing of the common folk of America west of New England.
Howells and Wendell, and later Van Wyck Brooks and Bernard DeVoto, disagreed vehemently about the achievement of Twain; still, these disparate critics tended to frame Twain as representative of the West and in turn of the aspirations of the entire nation. Vernon Louis Parrington exemplified the emergent tendency to view Twain as prophet of democratic egalitarianism and essentially as the incarnation of America itself:
Here at last was an authentic American—a native writer thinking his own thoughts, using his own eyes, speaking his own dialect. . . . A strange and uncouth figure . . . yet the very embodiment of the turbulent frontier that had long been shaping a native psychology, and that now at last was turning eastward to Americanize the Atlantic seaboard . . . Twain was indubitably an embodiment of three centuries of American experience—frontier centuries, decentralized, leveling, individualistic . . . Mark Twain was the child of the frontier past. 4
Among other remarkable features of Parrington’s mythic concept, the most telling is perhaps his creation of a single American incarnation, one encompassing all things good and lovable about the democratic and individualistic West: the man, Mark Twain.
Currently, Twain scholars would like to think that they are much more sophisticated and historicized in their approach to this one certifiably American literary icon. 5 Such scholars share several tendencies: Twain’s major and minor texts are often given equal weight; intensive scrutiny is brought to bear on Twain’s somewhat ephemeral writings (such as his lesser-known or even recently excavated journalism, speeches, and plays); and these writings are most commonly viewed primarily as instances of ideology and belief. Further, as Christopher P. Wilson has noted concerning the more general tendencies of “New Historicist” Americanist critics, recent Twain scholarship demonstrates
an interest in the “temporality of rhetoric,” the historicity of a specific discursive context; they focus on the network of discourses and representations which inform or inhabit texts, or (to use the seminal term) are “inscribed” into them. Consequently, all dispense with a monologic text, positing instead either a plurality of texts, or a single text which speaks with a multitude of voices; these texts are not seen as emanating from individual geniuses or “subjects,” but as accumulative, intertextual, even collaborative productions. 6
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In this way, many of the most influential recent studies of Mark Twain are tantamount to close analyses of America’s cultural and social environment of which he was a chief exemplar. This observation is corroborated by Robert Sattlemeyer, who has noted in his annual...