Florence, Don. Persona and Humor in Mark Twain's Early Writings.
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 This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed by:

John Bird <> or <>
Winthrop University

Buy the book from
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project

Don Florence has written a valuable and often perceptive study of Mark Twain's persona and humor in the early writings. While the book has some problems and may even prove frustrating for some readers, especially in its first half, it sets forth a clear argument in a clear way, laying the groundwork for, one would presume, further study of Twain's complete career.

The book has four chapters, with the first devoted to theory and definition, then 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 cover, as it attempts to define humor in general, to argue with many critics about the nature of Mark Twain's persona, and to set up an epistemological approach to a study of humor and persona.

An important early point for Florence, one that will guide him through much of the study and provide many of its strengths as well as some of its weaknesses, is that critics have made too much of the dualism in Twain. While he recognizes the presence 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 more complex than dualities can suggest" (1-2). That personality, he argues, is a creation of both the author and the reader:

. . . to adopt the terminology of the Geneva School of phenomenological criticism, Mark Twain is the mind that we sense both governing a work and expressing itself through that work the literary mode of thought, if you will, that Samuel Clemens 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 him. Mark Twain's persona or Mark Twain as a persona is the basic way Twain is projected in a given work; it is how we know him as a literary consciousness. To a large extent, we construct the implied author Mark Twain, the metaphysical entity behind and creator of a given work, through his 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 interplay 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 achieved fluidity as a literary self by 1872 and maintained it throughout his career" (12). "Indeed," Florence concludes, "the writings through Roughing It 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 uses the plasticity of humor to unsettle our notions of a fixed world" (16).

The first chapter covers much, promises much, making large claims without much support, as one might expect in an overview. It is rich and suggestive, introducing complex ideas without being jargon-filled. Even so, in a chapter so obviously based on theory (phenomenology, humor theory, narrative theory), a bit more theoretical substance might be helpful. The reader gets the sense that the terms of argument have been set up without being fully defined. Subsequent chapters can fill in support for 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, introducing several terms he will use interchangeably when analyzing Twain's persona: "fluid," "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 deserve closer attention themselves.

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 meaning; however, without an overt discussion of such a connection, the terms seem rather to have been chosen as random synonyms for "changeable." Thus, they lose some of their potential specificity; their constant repetition may also frustrate some readers. Some readers may also question in a chapter devoted to a study of Twain's persona 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 [1962]: 297-304). Gerber is discussed later, but, given the centrality and importance 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, Florence concentrates 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: "Petrified Man," "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 often perceptive and enlightening, but Florence slights "The Jumping Frog," certainly Twain's most important piece of the period, and arguably one of his finest creations. Because 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 early works. Indeed, if Florence sees a demerit in the piece, this might be a place to 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 Twain's early career and national recognition; is it not the way most readers of the time were 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 earlier studies have covered this same ground at much greater length Southwestern humor, hoax, tall tale, burlesque, to name subjects that will call to mind specific critical books on 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 transforms 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 substitute his own elastic models of reality" (63). Florence solidly and perceptively traces Mark Twain's persona and humor in key passages of the travel book, showing the way both persona and humor help Twain solve the puzzle of the Old World and the puzzle of his own identity. In addition, Florence does a good job of showing the seriousness of the humor, touching as it does on the serious subjects of death, fear, and decay. "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 dilemmas but also cognizant that humor can shape new perspectives on these dilemmas. By shaping 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 chapter is much more successful, perhaps because of its more unified subject, but also because 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 is based around a dualistic transformation from tenderfoot to old-timer Florence argues that the narrative is structured around "a pattern of humorous transcendence" (95). He reads various episodes with this in mind, pointing out the complexity of Twain's humor and persona in the scene of the town dog and the coyote, the blind lead episode, Buck Fanshaw's funeral, and the great landslide case, among others. Through the 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 writes, "By shaping language, history, and even basic conceptions of reality, Roughing It illustrates the play of the mind the restless, pioneering tendency of the mind not to stay settled with a given idea but to push at that idea, transforming and expanding it into new frontiers" (123). By the end of the text, according to Florence, Mark Twain has become more real than Samuel Clemens (128). With excellent, persuasive readings of key scenes and much better attention to the central thesis, this chapter is rich and rewarding.

Overall, Don Florence's book is a good, often excellent, contribution to the ongoing study of Mark Twain's humor and persona. The book definitely gets stronger as it goes, and readers who can mentally fill in some of the vagueness of the opening and the unevenness of the second chapter will find much that is instructive and rewarding in the analysis of the early travel books. The book's jacket promises that Florence is at work on a study of Mark Twain's middle period; perhaps he could take that chance to set a firmer critical and definitional foundation as he moves on to the richest period in Mark Twain's career.