The following review appeared 21 December 1998 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Jason G. Horn
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Something is not quite right in Mark Twain's novels. The problem, as Lawrence Howe defines it in Mark Twain and the Novel: The Double-Cross of Authority, lies in Twain's contradictory approaches to authority and social control in his major novels. For while Twain's novels certainly work to undermine authoritative voices, traditions, and institutions, they also exhibit the same motivations that drive these authorities. In fact, Howe claims, Twain's novels subvert their own critical potential by circumscribing their liberating potential with a final imposition of order and control. "Double-crossed," is the way Howe describes this literary turn of novelistic discourse, and what is wrong with Twain's novels is not just his own divided attitude toward authority; rather, according to Howe, Twain, his novels, and the American ideology that impels them, all work to restrain the very cultural impulse for freedom that each promotes.
Howe integrates multiple interpretive lines of thought as he supports such hefty claims. He brings to his aid the narratological speculations of Lukacs, Bakhtin, and Said (to name a few), the cultural theories of Marx, Freud, and Foucault, and the historical interpretations of Woodward, Fliegelman, and Perry Miller. Such a wide range of perspectives enables Howe to better approach Twain's career in dialectical terms, to read Twain's works in pairs as he examines the way in which his critical response to authority wavered between the pairs and ultimately split into opposing camps. Howe, in fact, argues that Twain's novelistic involvement with the concept of authority shaped much of his career into a cyclical denial and confirmation of authority.
Howe turns first to Life on the Mississippi, a divided text that initiates this career cycle. Howe claims the book's division between Twain's recollections of his cub pilot experiences, based mostly on "Old Times on the Mississippi," and the narrative of his 1882 trip down the Mississippi, reveal a "series of staged conflicts" that provide "both a critique of oppressive control and a prototype of the novel as a genre that attempts to assert its own authority against restraining conventions" (17). The conflicts spring from the cub pilot's desire for the superior position of pilot, as Howe notes, a desire that fades beneath Bixby's and Brown's oppressive treatment. Twain, however, eclipses their control in the book's second part as he appropriates the cub-pilot's text and "subordinates the pilot's authority to that of the writer" (26). In a complex intermingling of an "oedipal element" with "patricidal defiance," Howe presents the conflicts in Life on the Mississippi as key elements in Twain's transition from the pilot Samuel Clemens to the writer, Mark Twain. And in this transition, Twain comes to know the power of novelistic discourse, Howe suggests, as he transcends the "Old Times" section of the book, an old time model of authority with its formal and epical structure of Bildungsroman, with a "narrative whose intention requires the purposeful freedom of a more expansive vision" (36).
In following this intention, however, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn seem to lose their way. Tom Sawyer, as Howe points out, resembles "Old Times" in structure, as its hero learns how to construct his identity upon authoritative forms of knowledge, whereas Huck Finn aims at breaking free from those very forms. But Howe shows that even this more radical aim of Huck Finn misses its mark. Even the novel's central symbol of freedom thwarts its liberating possibilities, for the raft is no match for civilizing forces like the steamboat that rips it in half or the river's current that continuously draws it southward toward a threatening sort of civilized people. Howe carefully reveals how Huck, himself, often teeters between accepting and rejecting cultural norms and beginning with his escape from Pap exemplifies a curious American "anxiety about freedom and control"; such a problem takes on greater significance for Howe, as he casts Huck's entire narrative as a dramatization of this cultural anxiety.
Howe shifts toward another of Twain's tangles with authority in his examination of The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. On one level, he reads these two historical narratives in direct opposition. The Prince and the Pauper begins subversively enough by dismantling traditional authority only to reestablish the same by novel's end, whereas A Connecticut Yankee refuses to compromise its novelistic attack of authority. The Prince and the Pauper proves to be a more complex text for Howe, nonetheless, and he provides us with one of the more sustained readings of this novel. And here he gracefully blends historical and literary scholarship as he accounts for the social, political, and literary discourse focused on poverty and pauperism in Twain's day. Indeed, Twain's book does seem to speak to his readers' ambivalent attitudes about social conditions in general and a nostalgic desire for an aristocratic heritage even in the midst of a progressive democracy. In fact, critics often split their readings along similar lines, and Howe offers a detailed appraisal of discussions of the democratic and nostalgic thesis. And he fairly acknowledges those who think outside this critical dichotomy--Walter Blair and James Cox, for instance--but maintains that the final reestablishment of authority in The Prince and the Pauper provides a prime example of Twain's own desire for literary authority and, perhaps unconsciously, a conservative need to legitimize American culture within the trajectory of history" (135).
A Connecticut Yankee shuns such romantic links to an aristocratic past, according to Howe, as it radically attempts to reshape history in a novel manner on the American plan. Here Howe ties Hank Morgan's own attempt to remake and control the world closely to the Enlightenment project, which instilled in its final American promoters a desire for power over one's destiny, or simply power itself. And here lies the nub of Howe's own critical tale. He finds novelistic discourse and American ideology to be flawed by the philosophical perspective that produced them. Both, that is, generate a "dialectic of freedom and control that generates totalitarianism" (164). A harsh dose of interpretive light in itself, though Howe suggests that Twain's growing awareness of this literary and cultural bind nearly drove him to artistic defeat. But not quite.
Twain made a last desperate attempt, as Howe describes it, to avoid this double-cross inherent in American novelistic discourse and ideology through writing his final complete pair of novels: An American Claimant and Pudd'nhead Wilson. Howe only briefly considers An American Claimant, a narrative he claims "cops out," as it ultimately accepts the "status quo" of an American caste system, one of the primary targets of its novelistic critique. Attending more closely to Pudd'nhead Wilson, however, he makes his strongest case for the "insurmountable challenge that the American paradox of freedom and control poses for the novelist" (175). In Pudd'nhead Wilson, Twain again comes up short, according to Howe, as he finds himself split in his identification with his two main characters: Roxana and Wilson. As the novel's "opposite agents of narrative control, they dramatize Twain's ambivalent desire both to subvert authority and to contain the threat of that subversion" (184). And here, Howe emphasizes, Twain inadvertently reveals a tragic flaw within his own "liberal consciousness" as he opts for containment through Wilson's clever reestablishment of conventional order. The same flaw cripples the effectiveness of the American novel in general, Howe argues, and the ideology that informs it.
No serious flaws mar Howe's book, however, as it carefully traces Twain's literary fascination with control and freedom and his ongoing resistance to and accommodation of authority. At times, however, Howe's argument tends to reduce Twain too simply to a power hungry novelist, to a writer primarily driven by an obsession with usurping authority in order to authorize his own. And Howe's method of reading Twain's major novels as dialectical pairs that fuel the author's debilitating desire for power and paradoxical attacks on authority seems a bit contrived in spots, and even unnecessary. Most of Twain's works focus on some challenge or exploration of powerful forms of authority, and Howe's clear exposition of this thematic strain needs little help from a theoretical frame of dialectical pairs. His use of Freud and Bakhtin, however, brings fresh insights into Twain's mind and work, and his analysis of the novel as a particularly American form of "cultural performance" provocatively paves the way for more inquiry along the same lines. Perhaps most importantly, Howe shows as others before him have shown, that Twain may indeed be America's most representative writer, even though what he represents remains always open to new interpretations.