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TheCanadian Review of American Studies, Volume 11, No. 2, Fall 1980 Moreon Mark Twain Sholom J. Kahn. Mark T_wain's "Mys~erious Stra~ge,:: .\Studyof the Manuscripts. Co~umb1a, Mo.: University l,fMissouriPress, 1978,252 + xix pp. \\tlhamR.Macnaughton. Mark Twains Last Years as ,zWriter. Columbia,Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1979. 254+x PP· DaHd E. E. Sloane. Mark Twain as a Literary Comedian. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 1979.221 + xi pp. John Lauber Thesethree new books on Mark Twain are of varying quality, but none is essentialto anyone but the Twain specialist. To be fair, none of them pretendsto be more-their titles announce their modest ambitions. Only Sloanedeals with major works, although Kahn does his best to persuade us that The Mysterious Stranger is a major work. New material steadily accumulatesas unpublished manuscripts appear in print, and special studies multiply, but the work of synthesis remains undone. Instead, Twain scholars stillrelyon, or set out to refute, the established interpretations of Brooks, of DeVoto, of Smith. Sloane'sbook, the most ambitious of the three, commences by distinguishing betweensouthwestern humor, found in such books as Longstreet's Georgia Scenesor Hooper's Adventures of Simon Suggs, and the humor of the "literary comedians" ("John Phoenix," "Artemus Ward:' "Petroleum V.Nasby," "BillArp," and others) who flourished during the 18S0's and '60's. The southwesternerswere story-tellers and writers, the literary comedians were jokerswhose most appropriate medium was the lecture platform. Twain's workfuses three literary traditions: that of southwestern humor (offering localcolor and dialect, anecdote and characterization); that of Dickens and Thackeray("creating unreal situations using realistic diction in characterization "and suggesting "the possibility of serious literary possibilities 256 John Lauber for the comic mode" and that of the literary comedians, expressingthe ethos of the middle-class citizen of the urban northeast. Beginning with the "egalitarian humor" which he learned from the literary comedians "Southwestern local color and English fancifulness expanded the comi~ moments of characterization into narrative episodes" (p. 12).What exactly is "English fancifulness"? Sloane does not define the term, and this vagueness is unfortunately typical. Neither does he actually provide very much information about the literarv comedians. Anyone who is curious about Artemus Ward will learn mor~ from reading Edgar Branch's reconstruction of Ward's once-famous "Babes in the Woods" lecture (PMLA, October 1978) about the nature of Ward's humor and the reasons for its brief success than from Sloane's chapter: "Artemus Ward as Pioneer Funnyman.'' Sloane tries to demonstrate that Ward formulated a clear, consistent and original satirical position: "His viewpoint is pragmatic and egalitarian, preeminently; vanity, sham, and social position are consequently subject to his irony. With a kind of early populism, the comedians registered suspicion of government, church, and political organizations ... the detachment and naivete [sic] of the Ward figure is a statement for immediate human relationships and against social convention" (p. 45). But "vanity, sham and social pretension" have beenthe subjects of satire for centuries, if not millennia, and the naive observer was used by Chaucer and Swift, among others. None of the topics or methodsof satire in Sloane's list, either individually or in combination, is distinctiveof nineteenth-century America. Furthermore, Twain need not have derived the "populist" or democratic attitudes of his earlier work from the literary comedians, any more than Whitman derived his from them. No singlesource is necessary: such attitudes permeated every aspect of American culture during Twain's formative years. To be American, for a westerner, wastobe egalitarian. That Twain knew, thoroughly, the popular humor of his time is well· established; that he was influenced by it, particularly in his early work,is highly probable; that this work is "egalitarian" or "populist" in its viewpoint is self-evident. Sloane's study of literary comedy can justify itself onlyifhis thesis generates new insights into major works. Unfortunately, it does not.In regard to Huckleberry Finn, it leads only to source-hunting for Jim's account of his investment in a cow, or his description of "Sollermun's" harem, orto resounding cliche: "Huck makes his decision for human relationships against what Twain has depicted ... as overwhelming social and religious authority. Nature and personal freedom...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 255-261
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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