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The following review appeared 30 March 2009 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Cosmopolitan Twain is an excellent collection of essays that considers Mark Twain's status as a "cosmopolitan" writer, and more generally as a resident for lengthy periods in some of the seminal urban centers of the western world. These chapters, edited by Ann M. Ryan and Joseph B. McCullough, and written by some of the leading scholarly voices in Twain studies today, provide much new information about Twain's residency in these far-flung locations. They also present some interesting (though often somewhat covert) theoretical considerations of cosmopolitanism as a phenomenon, along with shorter excursions into lesser topics such as bohemianism, sentiment/sympathy, psychoanalysis, and domesticity.
Ryan sets up the general parameters of the book with her engaging and informative introduction. She provides some ideas about what cosmopolitanism might actually be, and goes on to argue that "Twain is a cosmopolitan: he is competitive, skeptical, necessarily tolerant, passionately secular, multilingual and multicultural, frankly materialistic and acquisitive. . . . [his writing] evinces a progressive, modernist critique of American politics and history, a critique provoked by his life as an urban citizen" (p. 4). Admittedly, this is not a precise rendering of what the term might mean for every author represented in this book, but it seems to serve well as a brief and plausible account. Elsewhere, Ryan considers cosmopolitanism as an identity that is "at once displaced and interconnected, of being unified and connected," a way "of living at home abroad and abroad at home" (p. 8). Both of these statements ring true for Mark Twain. Finally, Ryan quotes from Marshall McLuhan's 1964 description that the cosmopolitan "transcends national boundaries and . . . articulates the commonality of human suffering and human potential. . . . sympathetic, engaged, yet also distanced from his subject" (p. 10). Again, a bullseye for Twain.
Ryan is careful to provide some of the common criticisms of any theory of cosmopolitanism, perhaps none so troubling as its association with privilege and wealth. An interesting concept that emerges here is the argument of Mark Twain's "strategic narrative distance" (p. 12), a theme that comes up in a number of the later essays. It may be that a global perspective does require such a distance to emerge, even a "lack of engagement" (p. 16) as Ryan asserts; however, it is not self-evident. Still, as Bruce Michelson echoes Ryan in his own chapter titled "Sam Clemens and the Mississippi River Metropolis," there are advantages to learning the ways of the "perpetual outsider," and this is arguably the major authorial fruit of Twain's travels and cultured connoisseurship. One might also question the repeated notion of cosmopolitan as a secular phenomenon, about which I will say some more later. For now, this opposition of religious or spiritual belief vs. cosmopolitanism is questionable at best, and raises some questions that the book fails to address. Indeed, the relative lack of discussion of why religion might somehow weigh against an emerging modern cosmopolitanism, or in fact the ways that spirituality might abet a cosmopolitan worldview, provide grounds for further research for interested scholars. An important recent entry into this long debate is Charles Taylor's magisterial tome, A Secular Age (2007). But overall, a good working definition is provided by Ryan for going forward into the rest of the volume's essays, most of which do not attempt to further theorize about cosmopolitanism. One notable exception is Michelson's coverage in his chapter of some of the intricacies and eccentricities of cosmopolitanism in the academy today; as usual, Michelson's writing is both highly learned and darned funny at times.
What the chapters do accomplish are some marvelous historical accounts and descriptions of Mark Twain's engagements with the major metropolitan areas of his adult life. These chapters illustrate an emergent concept of a cosmopolitan awareness in concrete images and events, rather than wasting a lot of time theorizing in abstract terms. Covered in order are Twain's experience in seven major cities, all by recognized Twain scholars: Ryan on New York City; Michelson on the Mississippi River metropolises such as St. Louis and New Orleans; James E. Caron on San Francisco; McCullough on Buffalo; Kerry Driscoll on Hartford; Peter Messent on London; and Janice McIntire-Strasburg on Vienna. The volume ends with Michael Kiskis offering a refreshingly different, and somewhat oppositional view to all this focus on cities; Kiskis shows the importance of rural Elmira's Quarry Farm and its genteel family home as agencies of sentiment and cosmopolitan identity.
I could go into further details about each of the chapters here, all of which are intriguing in their own rights. But for brevity's sake I will focus the spotlight on one chapter, the longest as it turns out: Kerry Driscoll's impressive and at times brilliant analysis of the music box that was given to Twain by Livy as a birthday gift, in 1879. This dazzling essay, coming in at just under 50 pages, and which is one of the most intriguing contributions to Twain studies that I've read in recent years, exemplifies precisely the kind of argument that the book is attempting. Driscoll's richly-contextualized piece of writing is indebted to the cultural studies tradition of the "representative anecdote" insofar as it "reads" the purchase of the music box, and the artifact itself, as manifestations of a variety of social practices and discursive fields.
Driscoll first discusses at great length the way that the Clemens family's lengthy trip to Europe in 1877-78 was in many ways a shopping spree designed to turn their Hartford home into the genteel Victorian museum that characterized Nook Farm, with one goal of filling it with antiques, artworks, and exotic bric-a-brac. The music box exemplifies both the desire to augment such a cosmopolitan home environment, along with the tensions and ambivalences that Twain evidently attached to such an enterprise. Driscoll shows convincingly how Twain stressed out over the selection of the ten songs for the box, worried that his choices might reflect upon his lack of cultured taste in music. Further, the box simply did not sound the same in Hartford as it had in Switzerland--or at least, so Twain imagined. As they say, sandwiches always taste better at a picnic. I think I was most impressed by how Driscoll's contribution helped me to see how the Hartford home was very much a consciously-conceived display of cultured cosmopolitanism--and how such a display was itself both culturally enforced by the neighbors, and the source of much anxiety within the household.
I might take issue with certain aspects of Driscoll's work: for instance, and perhaps most egregiously, in a 50-page essay on Hartford, there is again no mention of the liberal religion that permeated that city's environment. This omission contributes to the volume's general association of cosmopolitanism with secularism, an association that I would opine is at the very least questionable, if not deeply flawed. Again, perhaps we are simply wrangling with unwieldy words here, but I must point out that such an insistence might simply be another illustration of what C. S. Lewis once called "chronological snobbery": meaning, in other words, the view that in order to be properly cosmopolitan, one must necessarily also be secularist, if not atheist. Such is along the lines of the now rather dated "secularization hypothesis" of late twentieth century sociology and religious studies, which often associates loss of belief with intellectual progress and a more cosmopolitan view. The secularization hypothesis is a view under sustained critique these days, given the ruthlessly spiritual character of our nation, and as a result is possibly destined for the ash heap of historical curiosities.
Along similar lines, Michael Kiskis ends the book with a cagy critique of his own, suggesting as he does that Hartford and Elmira were both centers of progressive Christianity in concert with a cosmopolitan sensibility. His fine essay, which focuses on the idyllic scene of Quarry Farm, perched on its hilltop overlook of the Chemung Valley in rural New York, reminds us of the deep sentiment and sympathies at the heart of Mark Twain's cosmopolitanism. Tellingly, Kiskis's essay begins with a quote from Wordsworth, the king of romantic thought; and the point is a simple reminder that "Clemens found his voice in the midst of home" (p. 241). It is a stirring close to a book on cosmopolitan travel, urban chaos, and intercultural dispersal, to be reminded that always, at the heart of Twain's achievement, is the Victorian home, symbolic of perhaps the century's most thoroughly spiritualized environment.
I hope that my brief discussion of Driscoll's and then Kiskis's fine essays does not imply that the others are not themselves worthy of similar treatment. Each of the essays supplies some valuable insights into the topic at hand: from Ryan's own depiction of a hectic and chaotic New York, to McIntire-Strasburg's elegant explanation of how Twain's residence in Vienna birthed a new and more socially prophetic voice in his latter-day writings. Theoretically, most of the discussion of cosmopolitanism is limited to Ryan's brief but pointed coverage in the introduction, but I do not take this to be a great loss; much recent critical analysis of major authors is often so bogged down with eclectic theory and intractable jargon that I become fed up fairly easily. It is worth noting that, in the very large field of Twain scholarship, we have somehow managed to resist the strong temptations toward opaque and even unreadable professional writing. That is not to appear as a basher of "theory," but only to lobby for its deployment in clear and accessible prose. All of these essays are highly readable, the work of good story-tellers; and I, for one, value that aspect of our collective field, and I applaud my colleagues here for attempting real communication in the English language.
Finally, the University of Missouri Press does a great job of producing handsome, well-edited, and well-illustrated volumes, and this one is no exception. It includes just enough scholarly apparatus for one to take whatever interest they acquire to the next stage of research. The book's font and design are generous. Footnotes are at the bottom of the page, which I have always preferred (and, as a side-note, I often wonder why more publishers do not do this--I loathe trying to keep one finger in the notes, to determine the sources of quotes and other information). All these details make for a book that is a pleasure to review.
In short, the volume is a valuable and timely contribution in our "global" age to the growing interest in both urban studies and transnational studies, two emerging approaches in the study of American literary culture. As such, it shows (again) that Mark Twain must be reckoned with as one of the most obvious and prominent figures in that culture, especially the later chapters. Overall, it will be a widely-read new work in the Twain scholarly industry, as well as a potentially quite suggestive new entry into these other emerging fields of inquiry.
Harold K. Bush, Jr.
Saint Louis University