The following review appeared 21 April 1998 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 1998 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Kim Martin Long <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
At first Joe Fulton's title bothered me; in it are contained enough ideas on which to base several books. I mean, is this a book about Mark Twain's realism? Is it one about ethics in Twain? About Mark Twain's aesthetic accomplishments? Is it a book about Twain's treatment of the hot topics of race, class, and gender? No, because all this has been done. What Joe Fulton does in this book is to examine the intersection of these ideas within the context of Bakhtin's ideas on dialogism.
Okay, I'll admit that while I was preparing this review, I followed the strand on the Mark Twain Forum about academic jargon; if one is looking for good examples of the kind of critical jargon that can't help but be self-conscious, this book has them. Here's a representative sentence: "Twain's desire for authenticity in characterization conflates an aesthetic awareness with an ethical desire; character is the aesthetic fact that saves an ethical criticism from irrelevancy" (7). At times I had to reread sentences and sections in order to decode the messages, a fault not entirely Fulton's, I'm sure. Mark Twain's Ethical Realism, however, sets forth a carefully constructed thesis based on the concept of "answerability," and each chapter explicates a novel within the central context. The format of the book is simple, therefore: thesis, support, conclusion. By the time I had made it to the end, I was convinced that Fulton's argument is strong and valid, despite some personal objections to style and presentation.
The introduction of the book is crucial: Fulton explains key concepts like realism, ethics, aesthetics, dialogism, answerability, and "insideness." After a brief survey of uses of realism, Fulton says that an "inquisitive attitude toward the everyday components surrounding and involved with human behavior in society, and the stylistic effects that accompany that inquisitive attitude, lies at the core of the artistic movement called realism" (4). Fulton claims that Twain's realism focuses on speech patterns as a way to reveal everyday reality. Ethics he defines as "the process of character as ethos is developed and revealed within a given society," drawing from Aristotle and Wayne Booth (6).
Cautioning that an ethical criticism may become a reductionist criticism (right or wrong, good or bad), Fulton says that he is "particularly interested in the mutual implication of ethics and aesthetics" (6). As he says, "character is the aesthetic fact that saves en ethical criticism from irrelevancy" by giving the work artistic authenticity (7). Fulton claims that Twain's fiction reveals the "other" as crucial to understanding the identity of the "I," and this book provides example after example of switching, doubling, and dialogue in the Bakhtinian sense. According to Fulton, Twain abhorred rules that limited people or made them monologic; he much preferred the dialogism that occurs when people "share otherness on the social level and on the psychic level; Bakhtin conceives of identity as a cross-fertilization that produces a hybrid, dialogic consciousness" (14).
So what is Fulton's book really about? Characters who change places, go inside the other, trade voices in order to achieve an ethical consciousness of the other and, hence, to develop, to grow, to become more ethically aware. Each chapter looks at one of Twain's novels in which this switching of voices occurs. While each chapter focuses on a slightly different method of working out the theme, the primary intent of the chapters as a whole is to convince readers that Twain was interested in probing identity: "Twain uses the doubles to question the concept of a unitary identity, and to suggest that one constructs identity through the constant accretion of alien elements" (20).
Fulton begins by discussing The Prince and the Pauper, claiming that he looks at the book slightly differently from others; Fulton sees Twain's theme as political and social responsibility: "The politics at the heart of The Prince and the Pauper are the politics of social change as implicated in the individual changes that result when two people learn to speak other's language" (29). Summarizing the novel's plot within his context of dialogism, Fulton demonstrates that Edward achieves a kind of ethical renewal by becoming Tom Canty; "Edward's ethos is refashioned" by interacting with common people, by using another's voice (45). Fulton concludes the chapter: "Throughout that ordeal [of being degraded by his own people] Edward is silenced by his own absolute language, but by retelling his own story, he quells his own voice, and in that silence hears, finally, the voice of his people" (52).
Humor me with another jargon-y sentence from the chapter on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: "Wherever one looks in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, characters adopt alternate identities, and their failure to achieve answerability serves as the 'negative example' that illustrates both the shortcomings of rules for behavior and the possibilities offered by a nontranscendental ethics" (54). Translation: in Huck Finn characters "play double" and, therefore, do not achieve any kind of ethical renewal by genuinely going "inside" others. The achievement, however, in ethics is not among the characters; it occurs between reader and character through the author's ability to truly go "inside" of Huck and reveal him authentically.
As Fulton says, "Twain is concerned not with how Huck appears to the world, or with how the world appears to Huck, but with how the world appears to the readers who have viewed it through Huck's eyes" (64). Although this chapter is strong--possibly because Twain's achievement with the novel is strong--I did make one note in the margin: "dissertation-like." Fulton does survey a lot of criticism and drop a lot of names in the course of delivering his own argument. Depending on your point of view, this is either informative or irritating.
Fulton's thesis in the chapter on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court centers around the idea of one century switching with another: "this switch, like others in Twain's fiction, holds out the prospect that each age might become like another conscience for the other" (93). Twain's "technology novel," Connecticut Yankee explores the role of the machine in human contact and communication. Fulton, again surveying critic after critic, concludes that "Twain seems to say that by destroying the 'immediate juxtaposition' normally occurring between people, technology destroys also the dialogue that would ensue, leaving nothing but 'unreplying vacancies'" (116).
The last novel Fulton puts under the dialogic microscope is Pudd'nhead Wilson, and this chapter may be the strongest because the novel itself may present more opportunities to see the thesis in action. In the literal switching that occurs in this book between Tom and Chambers, Twain is able to carry out his experiment in identity; Twain's "switched characters become 'like another conscience' for each other, and they each gain a privileged intrusion into the other's life that reveals itself in altered language and altered ethics" (121).
Restating his book's thesis, Fulton says that "Twain reveals changes in character or ethos by changes in language and that his concern for realism and ethics are thus closely allied" (121). As the characters trade places, their "dialogic possibilities" increase; they become the other as the other becomes their conscience. This novel shows how identity is a "negotiated entity, as social interactions determine character and even race" (137). Fulton contrasts the boys' voices with the absolute voice of David "Pudd'nhead" Wilson, who "intends his calendar to silence others in much the same way that he attempts to silence Tom in the courtroom" (138).
Fulton's brief conclusion seems a little unnecessary; it does not add anything new, the thesis having been hammered home chapter after chapter. In fact, it almost changes the book's focus at the very end: "The ultimate import of Mark Twain's ethical realism is that by applying the lessons learned from literature, we conjoin ethics and aesthetics in the most significant way possible; only then do readers become authentic" (146). Instead of focusing on Twain's art in the dialogic process of characters becoming each other's conscience, Fulton here seems to need to justify his work, to bring it to a higher moral plane. The book does not need the help; as it is, it presents some insightful examination of voices in Twain, of Bakhtinian dialogue at work.