- Mark Twain and Male Friendship: The Twichell, Howells, and Rogers Friendships by Peter Messent, and: The Jester and the Sages: Mark Twain in Conversation with Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx by Forrest G. Robinson, Gabriel Noah Brahm, Jr., and Catherine Carlstroem
As a reviewer, I’m always grateful for an assignment to report on interesting books. Being asked to review these two volumes together provides an especially intriguing opportunity. Both are highly commendable books, [End Page 273] containing several illuminating correspondences that make a comparison of their merits all the more satisfying. Both books treat Mark Twain in light of three additional figures, and each of those figures represents a different mode of understanding the world. The Jester and the Sages places Mark Twain in a “conversation” with three notable European philosophers of the nineteenth century—Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx—of whom he had little if any knowledge and between whom and himself there is no direct influence. Mark Twain and Male Friendship traces Sam Clemens’ relationships with Joseph Twichell, W. D. Howells, and Henry H. Rogers. And where the first book’s sages were critical thinkers about the human condition with respect to theology, psychology, and economics, the three friends of the second book achieved authority and Twain’s respect through their roles in allied arenas: Twichell, a highly regarded Congregationalist minister; Howells, an influential writer, editor, and theorist of the role of the imagination in shaping social reality; and Rogers, an executive with Standard Oil who exemplified the capitalist. Taken together, the two books reflect on the ways in which discursive theory and personal practice can deepen our understanding of the man Samuel Clemens and the writings of Mark Twain.
As with all comparisons, though, as interesting as the similarities may be, it is more often the differences that “make the difference.” And the many structural and substantial differences in the composition and interpretive strategies of these two books are worth noting. The Jester and the Sages is collaboratively written, consisting primarily of three essays, each dealing with Twain and the other featured thinker. Although ranging widely across Twain’s writing, the essays themselves are discreetly focused and relatively compact. All three reflect the critical temperament of Forrest G. Robinson, collaborator on two and sole author of one. His earlier work on Twain—In Bad Faith (1992) and The Author-Cat (2007)—and his biography of Henry Murray (1992), the pioneering clinical psychologist, are reflected here in his essay on Twain and Freud, the longest of the three essays and the centerpiece of the book. His continuing interest in the human propensity to engage in self-deception and in Twain’s personal sense of guilt as a feature of his writing is framed in a deep intellectual context that includes psychoanalytic interpretation, cultural criticism, and literary interpretation.
The other two essays are somewhat less detailed, though nonetheless thought provoking. Robinson and Brahm’s essay on Twain and Nietzsche appeared previously as an article in Nineteenth-Century Literature, so its scope is accordingly limited. Robinson and Carlstroem’s reading of Twain and Marx is more sustained, though the essay spends as much time on religion and mythology as on the materialism of economics that one might expect. The essays axiomatically assume a consensus reading of the three “sages” [End Page 274] in order to highlight Twain’s ability to write for a popular audience while reflecting many of the concerns that the trio of philosophers introduced into nineteenth-century intellectual discourse. The readings that Robinson et al. provide are adept and flexible, somewhat abstract in focus, to be sure, and presume the reader’s familiarity with a wide array of Twain’s works. Avoiding the kind of systematization that tends toward reductive reading, they yield a pixelated, impressionistic picture of Twain rather than...