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The following review appeared 5 June 2017 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Mark Twain's public and private writings are often filled with contradictions that have left scholars searching for clear and convincing answers regarding changes in his attitudes. In Mark Twain & France: The Making of a New American Identity, the latest in the Mark Twain and his Circle series from the University of Missouri Press, Paula Harrington and Ronald Jenn tackle questions surrounding Mark Twain's relationship with France. Their book offers the most nearly definitive answers yet regarding Mark Twain's early "free floating" dislike for all things French which dissipated later in his life.
Harrington, on the faculty of Colby College in Maine, and Jenn, a professor of translation studies at Universite de Lille in France, make an ideal team for this study which incorporates an examination of French and American cultural history, Mark Twain biography, and literary analysis. Their study documents how Mark Twain expressed some of his most hateful and vengeful thoughts about France and the French over many years. It traces his reversal of attitudes which enabled him to write a book that idolized the French martyr Joan of Arc.
The book opens with a scene from 1902 in St. Louis, Missouri, with Mark Twain standing aboard a harbor boat being renamed in his honor alongside members of French aristocracy. His speech on this occasion praises the French explorer La Salle. Mark Twain's anti-French sentiments from his early years as a writer were well known but Harrington and Jenn explain that at that point in his life he could afford to be gracious. America had prevailed in a cultural battle with France and Mark Twain had played a role in constructing that new American identity.
Harrington and Jenn begin their search for answers by examining the history of the French in Missouri long before the Clemens family settled there. French trappers and traders left a reputation of being sympathetic to Indian interests and being their partners in crime. With a surgical precision the authors examine such minute details as the first McGuffey reader young Sam Clemens encountered in his Hannibal, Missouri, schoolroom and what it taught youngsters about America and France.
Harrington and Jenn lay out their theory that Clemens saw France as a foil and a competitor to be defeated in order for America to be the world's political and cultural leader. They also compare Clemens's attitudes to "a sibling rivalry" on a national level (p. 13). In this same process, he competed to be an author who was superior to any French writer. In addition to his reading material and books about France that he collected, the authors examine Clemens's letters sent home to his family from his steamboat piloting days and his lengthy description of a New Orleans Mardi Gras. They highlight several pieces from his Western journalism that saw him perfecting the art of using French jokes to comment humorously on Americans while at the same time truly criticizing French lifestyles. They recount the experiences he had in Nevada territory with men and women of French descent. From Roughing It they carefully analyze what was omitted stating that "Twain inserts fake Frenchness when he wants to associate it with loose morals but removes real Frenchness when it connotes good behavior" (p. 43). The authors also find additional French commentary in the notebook Mark Twain kept during his visit to the Sandwich Islands when he wrote "the French nation spit in the face of Hawaii" (p. 53).
Harrington and Jenn dissect Mark Twain's first major publishing success The Innocents Abroad, published in 1869, written after Clemens had visited France and experienced French culture firsthand. The authors identify four scenes in the book where the French become an American foil. "These scenes highlight American white Anglo-Saxon Protestant virtues by opposition: the French--who are overwhelmingly Catholic--are dirty, lazy and promiscuous, while the 'WASPs' are clean, industrious, and chaste" (p. 74). The authors also speculate these French traits were ones that "he recognized--and was afraid of--in himself" (p. 79). This theory of obsession and "projecting" was also one put forth by biographer Justin Kaplan who stated that Mark Twain's invective against the French often "went far beyond the conventional split in the Victorian psyche" and "far beyond France itself" (p. 116).
Harrington and Jenn analyze several minor sketches written while Mark Twain was part owner of the Buffalo Express newspaper including "Dining with a Cannibal" which features the narrator being offered a Frenchman to eat. "Mark Twain's Map of the Fortifications of Paris," also written during the same time frame, has often been misjudged as a slapstick dig at journalist practices of the day. However, Harrington and Jenn interpret the piece in light of the events in Clemens's own life as well as the Franco-Prussian War in 1870--with nuances often lost on many of today's scholars. They conclude, "However much Twain is poking fun at American journalism--and surely it is substantial--his map shows France in a diminished, surrounded, easily defeated position that encourages readers to have a laugh at French expense as well" (p. 91).
By 1872, Mark Twain's popularity was growing among American readers and it attracted the attention of French literary critic Therese Bentzon, who published a profile of Mark Twain in the popular French publication Revue des Deux Mondes. In it she provided a French translation of Twain's jumping frog story. At this point in Mark Twain's life he had achieved a reading and writing level of the French language, fully understood what she had written, and was clearly offended. Harrington and Jenn point out that, in spite of being an accurate translation of the jumping frog story, the underlying tone of Bentzon's article was condescending and "she minimizes him [Mark Twain] personally as well as the new American literature he is coming to represent" (p. 93). Twain's response was to publish a rejoinder "The 'Jumping Frog' in English. Then in French, Then Clawed Back into a Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil." His essay ignores Bentzon's personal degradation of his background and talent and instead mocks her French language translation of his work and by extension French culture. The authors agree with previous scholarship that this incident "contributed significantly to [his] angry store of loathing for the French" (pp. 97-8) but believe his foundation for French antipathy had already been established with this incident only helping solidify it.
One of the most enlightening and extensive studies in this volume relates to the four months Clemens and his family spent in France in 1879 while he gathered material for his forthcoming book A Tramp Abroad. The weather was bad, he was in poor health, and his personal notebooks show him writing hateful things about the French. However, blaming ill will on sickness and the weather is to oversimplify. The authors point to previously unstudied materials such as Clemens's own carte de visite album of French personalities put together during this trip which "belies the idea that Twain's only responses to the French during that unpleasant stay were to dislike them personally and demean their way of life" (p. 110). The album, sold by Clara Clemens in 1951, is now in the special collections at Cornell University. The authors offer it as evidence that Clemens was as compelled to learn about the French as he was repelled by their way of life.
Harrington and Jenn believe any study of A Tramp Abroad must include the three French chapters he wrote for the book but ultimately decided not to make public, perhaps because of his wife Livy's disapproval. Upon examining the whole body of these manuscripts, a pattern of authorial intent emerges. "Twain is creating an inverted scale of civilization, with the French falling at the bottom" below Indians (p. 127). Harrington and Jenn describe the three chapters that were left out of A Tramp Abroad as a chapter extolling female virtues which are the key to civilization; a burlesque of a French etiquette book; and a chapter comparing the French with Comanche Indians. This last chapter was eventually published by Bernard DeVoto in Letters from the Earth (1962) and is identified by Harrington and Jenn as his "most vicious piece of writing" and one in which he probably realized "he had finally gone too far by moving from satire to vitriol" (p. 129). By the time the Clemens family returned to the United States in the latter half of 1879, Harrington and Jenn suggest he had worked through his inferiority complex with the French and had won. Or as Twain himself might have said, "I emptied the bile out of my system."
In a chapter titled "Less to Prove" covering the years 1880-1892, the authors document Mark Twain's rise as a world famous author and his return trip to France in 1891. The authors pay particular attention to the unfinished manuscript "The Innocents Adrift," a story about his river trip down the Rhone in September 1891. The story was left unfinished although Albert Bigelow Paine did publish a gutted version of it in Europe and Elsewhere (1923). The authors describe this manuscript in detail and identify it as a "universal tale of human experience and friendship" (p. 150) and not the travelogue that Paine's version presented. Unfortunately, a series of Kodak photos Clemens made on this river trip appear to have been lost when the negatives were delivered to Nice for printing. In an essay titled "Some National Stupidities," also not printed during Mark Twain's lifetime, he addressed the incident in comparatively mild terms writing, "Pray get no Kodak pictures developed in France--and especially in Nice" (p. 160). In spite of this mild and understandable rebuke, the authors see "The Innocents Adrift" as signaling an improved relationship with the French, a turning point, and bridging the gap between the unpublished vitriolic chapters of A Tramp Abroad (1880) and Mark Twain's reverential Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc which began appearing in serial installments in 1895.
Although Mark Twain had rid himself of much of his anti-French sentiment by 1894, an incident sparked by French travel writer Paul Bourget did cause him to take up his anti-French pen once again. When Bourget wrote about his impressions of American society in a series of newspaper articles, Mark Twain took offence and published his own response. Harrington and Jenn dismiss this war of words as akin to a sibling rivalry that set off a "mini-feud probably driven more by a desire for press attention than actual outrage" (p. 175).
In a chapter titled "Coming to Terms" the authors believe that Mark Twain was finally able to "meld French and American identities" (p. 167) as he wrote Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. After this book he discontinued his practice of using the French as a competitive foil. Subsequent works such as Is He Dead? and his public praising of French writer Emile Zola are examples of an author at peace with French culture.
Errors in this volume are few. With the exception of Henry Clapp's name rendered as Henry "Capp" (p. 45), other errors relate to reference notes that fail to fully document the location of sources cited. This current volume features a "Timeline of the Clemenses in France 1867-1895," seven chapters devoted to specific time periods, a photo section, extensive annotations, a bibliography that features both English and French resources, and an index. The resources utilized are impressive and indicate Harrington and Jenn left few stones unturned. Their writing style is direct and to the point. Their arguments that the French served Mark Twain as a foil to advance American culture and his own reputation as a distinctly American writer are strong and likely to convince future scholars for years to come.