The following review appeared 14 October 1999 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 1999 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This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.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
You'll notice Griffith's title for this book: Achilles and the Tortoise. Certainly, I was more like the tortoise than Achilles in getting this review out to the Forum. I suppose the advantage in taking so long is that many of you will have already read this interesting book, and so my review may produce more dialogue. Whether you agree with everything Griffith asserts in these essays or not, you must surely agree with me that he has brought to the table careful readings of Twain's texts, a supportable thesis, and commendable support for his claims. Reading this book was a satisfying experience for me because it expresses many of my own thoughts and intuitions about Mark Twain's work, especially in his connection to writers like Herman Melville. Griffith claims that Twain's work is all about the comic illusion of getting nowhere, the great cosmic joke, perpetuated on humankind by what Melville calls the "Marplot of Eden." If you do not like to think of Twain's nihilism and pessimism, but rather prefer to see him as the jolly entertainer in the white suit, stop reading now and do not buy this book.
Griffith says that his book is a series of essays, not integrated chapters in a book. While this is true, they do, taken together, contribute to a whole (unlike, for instance, Tom Quirk's Coming to Grips with Huckleberry Finn, which represents a lifetime of different thoughts about that novel). Together they make the claim that the "discrepancy between the appearance of motion and the actual underlying stasis of all things is nothing less than Mark Twain's standard joke" (5). Using Zeno of Elea's paradox (as recorded by Aristotle in Poetics), Griffith gets his title from the idea that if the tortoise got a head start in a race, even swift-footed Achilles could not catch up, the same idea in the myth of Sisyphus, the image of running in place, always pushing up hill, never catching up to the frontrunner. He asserts that this image is found all over the fiction of Mark Twain, arguing that "the sad, chill eyes of Mark Twain reflect the fact that when he looked at reality he found a perfect fixity and futility, and reflect as well that in the frozen features of the real world he found the perfect sources for creating laughter" (14-15). Griffith's book seeks to honor "the funniness of his vision of moral and social futility" (262).
Divided into three main sections--"Three Polemical Essays," "The River Trilogy," and "A Last, Speculative Essay" (dealing with Melville and Twain)--Griffith's book examines the fiction carefully within the general thesis. Griffith does not attempt to deal with the travel fiction, only the "real" fiction, especially The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Pudd'nhead Wilson, and A Connecticut Yankee. Erudite without being pretentious, Griffith discusses Mark Twain's comedy, his obsession with twinning (doubling, Manicheanism), and the "going nowhere" theme continually throughout the book.
The first essay in section one, "Mark Twain and the Infernal 'Twoness': An Essay on the Comic," discusses Twain's obsession with the idea of duality (even seen in his pseudonym). Moving from the "Bad Boy"/"Good Boy" stories to the Siamese twins Chang and Eng, Griffith accounts for Twain's interest in the idea of "twoness" and its connection to comedy: "Traditional comedy thus proceeds dialectically; it exploits the built-in or the intrinsic doubleness of experience, in order to push forward, to affirm, to 'get somewhere'" (33). As Griffith explains, however, Twain's comedies "result, rather, in repetition, fixity, a sense of standing stock still," and this quality brings about "feelings of entrapment and frustration" (35). See, for instance, "The Jumping Frog" story or even Roughing It. Although both contain a semblance of movement and experience, neither really goes anywhere; nothing is learned. Once a reader gets this thesis in mind, s/he reads most of the fiction as Griffith wants: after the long journey down the Mississippi, after all, Huck ends up right back where he started, with Tom. Twain's fictions contain only the illusion of progress, rite of passage, and movement. Again, Griffith's thesis: "The world that rotates and rotates to stand stone still, that changes and changes to deny every and any possibility of change, is Mark Twain's sine que non: his standard joke" (47).
Essay two, "On Laughter," deconstructs what it means for a story to be funny. Griffith discusses the idea of "how the laughable consists of an unexpected submergence of the conscious into the mechanical, or . . . of an intrusion of the purely mechanical performance into what we expected would be a consciously controlled situation" (55). In other words, to be funny something must be anti-human, irrational, mechanized. Quoting Henri Bergson, Griffith says that the comic must show someone who is actually enslaved to the mundane, to the mechanized. Using "The Notorious Jumping Frog" and Simon Wheeler, Griffith analyzes humor in this essay and what he calls "the aesthetics of the sick joke" (62). As Griffith says, Wheeler and his narrator/stranger remain "conjoined like twins and catering to one another in the mutual helplessness they share" in Mark Twain's vision of humor (63). Griffith's thesis once again, within the context of Twain's humor: "From the outset [Twain] seems to have intuited that his fictions would be patterned by helplessness in combination with great energy, the lassitude of getting nowhere, but also a furious running in place which preceded the dead ends" (68). It is in this chapter that Griffith introduces his word "enhumored," which he will use throughout the book to describe the idea of people and events (the world) and its motionless motion. As he says,
Jim and Huck are twins created for the joy of telling Mark Twain's favorite joke, which . . . is but a reworking of the race in Zeno's famous paradox. The twins have been coupled to make manifest existence in an "enhumored" world, a world without meaningful motion. They define life as an "enhumored" process which, from starting blocks to destination, remains fixated and inalterable, and is always engaged in the busy-busy, pointless-pointless, funny-funny activity of getting nowhere. (77)
Ending the first section with an unwieldily titled essay called "Sam Clemens and G. S. Weaver; Hank Morgan and Mark Twain: An Essay on Books and Reality," Griffith shows connections between Twain's thought and the nineteenth-century ideas of phrenology and earlier theories of the bodily humors. Griffith here does a nice job of discussing realism and naturalism in Twain as well as accounting for his pessimism much earlier than usual, the standard end-of-the-century personal tragedies period. Griffith claims that George Sumner Weaver's book, Lectures on Mental Science, read by Twain in 1855, "is a source not only of the bleakness of Mark Twain's art, his sense of reality as paralyzed by fixity and futility, but also of the art's glory, its capacity for equating paralysis with absurdity, so that (humor being humor) laughter could be coaxed from the paralytics" (94). Here Griffith does some interesting biographical work.
Section two of the book presents three essays on what Griffith calls the "River Trilogy," Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Pudd'nhead Wilson. These three essays are broken down into "mini-essays" on various topics surrounding these three novels: romanticism, realism, the ending of Huck (of course), the "triumphant reality" of Pudd'nhead. Difficult to summarize, this section examines these three seminal novels within Griffith's major thesis. Of Tom, Griffith says: "Tom's marvelous endowments consist of plucking a stunt-for-the-day from a single bag of tricks, then being thrust back into nothingness again" (137). He says of Huck, "the River on which Huck and Jim appear to move has all along caused them to move in place. It has subverted 'away' and 'toward,' with all the connotative richness both terms acquire in the narrative, into the actual stasis of standing stock still" (165). And of Pudd'nhead, he claims: "In his ultimate account of a God without love, presiding over a world without hope, Mark Twain breaks free [in Pudd'nead] to a versatility and virtuosity of technique which we never much look for because, the author being only 'old Mark Twain,' we never much expect it" (207). (I provide this quote here because many of the members of the Forum may enjoy Mark Twain purely for his humor, not his serious social commentary. Do not read Griffith's book if this kind of academic analysis of Twain bothers you.)
The final, and shortest, section of the book pairs Twain with Melville. This section made me very pleased since I have always thought of them as kindred spirits (with, in a different way, Flannery O'Connor). What is Moby-Dick but Huck Finn on a whale ship (water quest, meaningless search, American Adam)? As Huck flees to the territory, Ishmael gets picked up by the Rachel. Griffith pairs Twain and Melville in their obsession with twins and duality (think of the "Monkey Rope" chapter of MD), Gothic fiction (New England Gothic and Southern Gothic), and basic responses to the idea that the "whole universe [is] a vast practical joke." Primarily examining Moby-Dick and Billy Budd, Griffith draws important parallels between these two curmudgeonly geniuses, Twain and Melville. "A shared interest in Chang and Eng has led to fictions where darkness must invariably prevail and a fiction [Billy Budd] where freely choosing raises the suggestion that nothing is certain except the dark absence of every certainty" (244). As Griffith concludes, "Melville and Mark Twain conspire to present a world of fools, a world wherein the act of presentation itself is but another form of foolishness--though it is one that remains always vitally necessary" (260).
Griffith writes with a comfortable authority that is (most of the time) unpretentiously intellectual. He makes bold and broad assertions; however, he generally provides enough evidence to support his claims. At times one is apt to consider his points "Much Ado about Nothing," but further reading satisfies the desire of criticism: thoughtful, informed dialogue about meaningful texts. Griffith's work (creative criticism?) is artifice of its own, even down to the arrangement of the chapters and sub-chapters. He experiments with critical presentation in this work, keeping the thoughts self-consciously fresh despite the repetition of the primary thesis in various forms. One gets the feeling that Griffith likes the sound of his own words, which is OK.
This work is not for the new Twain reader, nor is it for the casual research-paper-writer. It is a book for the Twainiac who wants to know better the man behind the smile. In focusing so much on Twain's static fictions and on his philosophy of futility, Griffith has written a "wicked book," but I'm sure he feels "spotless as a lamb" with its completion.
About the reviewer: Kim Martin Long, a long-time friend of the Forum, received her PhD in American Literature in 1993. She can usually be found in south-central Pennsylvania teaching, reading, and talking about Twain, Melville, O'Connor, or other American writers who write about serious subjects in a funny way.