Florence, Don. Persona and Humor in Mark Twain's Early
Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1995.
Pp. 166. Cloth, 6-1/4" x 9-1/4". Notes, bibliography, index. $34.95. ISBN 0-8262-1025-2.
The following review appeared 23 March 1996 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1996. This review may not be published or
in any medium without permission.
John Bird <email@example.com> or <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Don Florence has written a valuable and often perceptive study of Mark
and humor in the early writings. While the book has some problems and may
frustrating for some readers, especially in its first half, it sets forth a
argument in a clear way, laying the groundwork for, one would presume,
of Twain's complete career.
The book has four chapters, with the first devoted to theory and
three chapters on Mark Twain's early works: early Western tales and
sketches, The Innocents Abroad,
and Roughing It. Florence's first chapter promises much, and indeed has much ground to
it attempts to define humor in general, to argue with many critics about
of Mark Twain's persona, and to set up an epistemological approach to a
humor and persona.
An important early point for Florence, one that will guide him through much
study and provide many of its strengths as well as some of its weaknesses,
critics have made too much of the dualism in Twain. While he recognizes
of dualism, he posits from the beginning that "[t]his study, however,
is concerned almost
exclusively with Twain as the controller of his works, a personality much
than dualities can suggest" (1-2). That personality, he argues, is a
both the author and the reader:
. . . to adopt the terminology of the Geneva School of
Mark Twain is the mind that we sense both governing a work and expressing
through that work the literary mode of thought, if you will, that Samuel
entered into whenever he sat down to write. In short, Mark Twain is what
Samuel Clemens becomes and
perhaps in some ways fundamentally is
as a writer and a persona: it is the way we are induced to conceptualize
Twain's persona or Mark Twain as
a persona is the basic way Twain is projected in a given work; it is how
him as a literary consciousness. To a large extent, we construct the
Mark Twain, the metaphysical entity behind and creator of a given work,
manifestation as narrator and character (persona) in that work.
(2)We read, then, the early writings as "narrative
histories" of Mark Twain, as what
Florence calls "fictive truths, or better yet, true fictions"
(3). And that Mark
Twain, Florence argues, is complex, changeable, and dynamic, rather than an
between dualities. The result is a persona that becomes a free-standing
"mind" who "humorously
observes and shapes his world" (10). Florence claims that "Twain
as a literary self by 1872 and maintained it throughout his career"
(12). "Indeed," Florence concludes, "the writings through
form a distinct, self-contained movement that takes Twain as far as he is
to go in
a certain direction; namely, that of a variable, inclusive personality who
plasticity of humor to unsettle our notions of a fixed world" (16).
The first chapter covers much, promises much, making large claims without
as one might expect in an overview. It is rich and suggestive, introducing
ideas without being jargon-filled. Even so, in a chapter so obviously
based on theory (phenomenology, humor theory, narrative theory), a bit more
might be helpful. The reader gets the sense that the terms of argument
set up without being fully defined. Subsequent chapters can fill in
claims, but it is very difficult after an opening to fill in definitions.
In the place of
traditional critical emphasis on dualities, Florence argues for complexity,
several terms he will use interchangeably when analyzing Twain's persona:
"volatile" (and, as a verb, "volatilizing"), and
"protean." These terms are subsequently
asked to carry so much of the weight of the argument that they perhaps
For example, "fluid" and "volatile" seem to suggest at
least a metaphorical connection
to physical science, and Florence seems to use them implicitly with this
however, without an overt discussion of such a connection, the terms seem
to have been chosen as random synonyms for "changeable." Thus,
they lose some of their
potential specificity; their constant repetition may also frustrate some
Some readers may also question in a chapter devoted to a study of Twain's
the lack of reference to such a seminal study on the topic as John C.
Gerber's "Mark Twain's
Use of the Comic Pose" (PMLA
77 : 297-304). Gerber is discussed later, but, given the centrality
of his argument, he might be better dealt with in this opening. Still,
this is a
rich and suggestive chapter, and anyone interested in Twain's humor and
persona will learn much from it and be challenged.
In his second chapter, an examination on the early Western sketches,
on Twain's "fascination with hoaxes, illusions, and
exaggerations" (37). His writing,
Florence argues, is a way for him to gain control over the bewildering
West, with the result that "Twain is liberated, not diminished or
endangered, by his transformations
of the world" (37). Florence covers a number of these early pieces:
"A Bloody Massacre Near Carson," "Aurelia's Unfortunate
Young Man," "The Lick House Ball," and, of course, "The
Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," among
others. Florence argues that Twain is at his best when he avoids
"fixity" or "duality"
and achieves "fluidity," and the chapter traces those properties
through the various works.
The readings of some of the lesser-known and lesser-examined works are
and enlightening, but Florence slights "The Jumping Frog,"
certainly Twain's most
important piece of the period, and arguably one of his finest creations.
he sees "The Jumping Frog" as being based on a duality between
the two narrators, Florence
barely mentions it; surely it deserves full study in any examination of the
works. Indeed, if Florence sees a demerit in the piece, this might be a
attempt to demonstrate the merits of fluidity over duality. Not to have
done so might
strike some readers as evasive, given the importance of the piece in
career and national recognition; is it not the way most readers of the time
introduced to the persona of Mark Twain? This chapter is the most
disappointing of the book,
perhaps because the subject is so unfocused, or perhaps because so many
have covered this same ground at much greater length Southwestern humor,
tale, burlesque, to name subjects that will call to mind specific critical
Twain. This chapter does not flesh out or support the promise of the introduction.
The second chapter, on The Innocents Abroad,
is much stronger. Florence argues that Twain confronts the Old World and
it with the force of his humor; in Florence's terms, "He [Twain]
challenges the Old
World's standards, traditions, and beliefs; he uses the power of humor to
his own elastic models of reality" (63). Florence solidly and
Mark Twain's persona and humor in key passages of the travel book, showing
both persona and humor help Twain solve the puzzle of the Old World and the
of his own identity. In addition, Florence does a good job of showing the
the humor, touching as it does on the serious subjects of death, fear, and
"As a result," Florence argues, "he [Twain] emerges as much
more than a mere 'humorist':
he emerges as a variegated and thoughtful mind, cognizant of existential
also cognizant that humor can shape new perspectives on these dilemmas. By
new perspectives, humor lets him shape a relatively free identity"
(83). The result,
Florence argues quite convincingly, is that The Innocents Abroad
is more about the mind of Mark Twain than it is about the Old World. This
is much more successful, perhaps because of its more unified subject, but
Florence makes better use of his epistemological approach. His point about
the seriousness of the humor is quite important.
The final chapter, on Roughing It,
is stronger still. Rather than the usual critical position that the book
around a dualistic transformation from tenderfoot to old-timer Florence
the narrative is structured around "a pattern of humorous
transcendence" (95). He
reads various episodes with this in mind, pointing out the complexity of
and persona in the scene of the town dog and the coyote, the blind lead
Buck Fanshaw's funeral, and the great landslide case, among others.
play of language and humor, Twain manages to impose order on the chaos of
his Western experience
(113); as a result, the West becomes a West of the mind (118). Florence
"By shaping language, history, and even basic conceptions of reality,
illustrates the play of the mind the restless, pioneering tendency of the
to stay settled with a given idea but to push at that idea, transforming
it into new frontiers" (123). By the end of the text, according to
Twain has become more real than Samuel Clemens (128). With excellent,
of key scenes and much better attention to the central thesis, this chapter
Overall, Don Florence's book is a good, often excellent, contribution to
study of Mark Twain's humor and persona. The book definitely gets stronger
goes, and readers who can mentally fill in some of the vagueness of the
the unevenness of the second chapter will find much that is instructive and
the analysis of the early travel books. The book's jacket promises that
is at work on a study of Mark Twain's middle period; perhaps he could take
to set a firmer critical and definitional foundation as he moves on to the
in Mark Twain's career.