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  • The Year's Work in American Humor Studies, 2018
  • Gretchen Martin (bio)

The Center for Mark Twain Studies held its Eighth International Conference at Elmira College in August 2017. The theme was "The Assault of Laughter," which derives from the unfinished "Chronicle of Young Satan" in the posthumously published Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts. Scholars presented papers addressing the claim that "against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand" and debated Satan's intention and Mark Twain's intention, as well as whether laughter has the potency that Satan claims.1 To say that scholars were divided on the issue would be an understatement. Yet the theme of the conference pertains both implicitly and explicitly to inquiries in American humor studies across a range of disciplines in 2018. Many of the papers presented at the conference were later published in the Mark Twain Annual, the Mark Twain Journal, and Studies in American Humor, and a number of scholars published work focused on the effects of humor in the world of politics, many of which took up the topic of the current US president. Indeed, Twain and Trump dominated studies in terms of the sheer number of topics covered; inquiries in television, film, and the internet received a substantial share of coverage as well. What emerges from the whole is a general question regarding what role can humor play in effecting change, particularly in the world of politics. At issue in many projects is the ongoing [End Page 124] culture wars between the political left and right. Other scholars explore aspects of religious intolerance, gender, and race, as well as congressional matters, international crises, and America's place in the world. Some scholarly works see signs of hope for American stability, while others sound the alarm on environmental concerns, dangerous policies, and our increasingly fraught international relationships around the globe. Regardless of one's perspective regarding the power of humor to effect positive social and/or political change, what these projects show collectively is that humor studies continues to be a viable discipline for highlighting the importance of laughter, humor, and comedy in an otherwise rather serious, often humorless, era. This year's review of this scholarly effort is divided into three large categories: literary studies, politics and culture, and media.

As noted, Mark Twain dominated the arena of literary inquires this year, and one of the most valuable contributions to the field was the publication of the first of a three-volume biography, The Life of Mark Twain: The Early Years 1835–1871. Noted scholar Gary Scharnhorst chronicles the author's ancestry, family relationships, friendships, work as a printer's apprentice, newspaper journalist, brief stint as a Confederate soldier, and his travels to Nevada, California, Europe, and New York. The volume provides a meticulous account of not only Samuel Clemens's early life but of the cultural, political, and social contexts that shaped his frequently changing views, ideas, and opinions. The portrait that emerges often stands in sharp contrast to Albert Bigelow Paine's sentimental biography as well as other biographies that focus more narrowly on specific themes, locations, or time frames. In response to the question of why yet another biography is needed, Scharnhorst contends that "my best answer is that Paine was unable—for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was his lack of professional training—to write a thoroughly satisfactory biography, even in the space of a half million words, and all Clemens biographers since Paine have tailored their narratives to fit the parameters of a single volume."2 Drawing from recent scholarship and newly discovered documents, columns, and letters, Scharnhorst sets himself the formidable task of providing readers with a fully comprehensive narrative that fills in biographical gaps and blind spots, [End Page 125] demythologizes the myths, sets the record straight when necessary, and offers the first part of what he calls "a biography plotted from beginning to end from a single point of view on an expansive canvas," without, he adds, "apologetic purpose" (xxvi).

Peter G. Beidler in his book Rafts and Other Rivercraft in Huckleberry Finn provides a nuanced analysis of raft culture in Huckleberry Finn and poses a wide range of questions...