The following review appeared 26 April 2000 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2000 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any mediumwithout permission.
Janice McIntire-Strasburg <firstname.lastname@example.org>
St. Louis University
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
The past few years have seen a bumper crop of books relating to Mark Twain, including as their subjects his life, his literary canon, and the consequences of his rhetorical choices. Bruce Michelson's Mark Twain on the Loose, Jeffrey Steinbrink's Getting to be Mark Twain and Ron Powers' Dangerous Waters, an excellent biography of Twain's early life and its impact on his later literary career all add significantly to the study of America's favorite humorist. Leland Krauth's Proper Mark Twain merits a place on this list as a major contribution to Twain studies precisely because it sheds light on a side of Twain that is often overlooked in the rush to acknowledge him as a literary subversive. In his introduction, Krauth announces his intention to "attempt to show how much--and in what ways--Twain was on the side of orthodoxy" and to "reveal how thoroughly he was the product of his culture" (11). He posits the humorist as both a "conventional person, honoring the voices of authority, and a rebel, trying to outshout them."
As such, this text bridges a significant gap in Twain studies. It demonstrates clearly a man divided between two seemingly incompatible positions--the moralist who wishes to instruct and the humorist who wants to laugh. Krauth begins with a study of Twain's early life and an analysis of his relationship with his father, John Marshall Clemens. He describes Twain's early interest in satire as a rebellion against John Marshall Clemens's stern and conservatively conventional mind-set. The Freudian implications are suggested rather than treated in depth: the point is to demonstrate a mind divided by competing influences and show the rhetorical consequences of these paradoxical influences.
The text is organized chronologically, and deals with each of Twain's major works from earliest (The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It ) to latest (Mysterious Stranger). It places side by side instances of Twain's toying with authority and at the same time acquiescing to it, and includes significant evidence from Twain's letters and autobiography as support for notions of dominant social Victorian attitudes and his often complex relationship to them. The chapter entitled "Southwestern Sentimentalist" develops from Henry Nash Smith's early study, deftly treating Huck's "feminized" reactions and shedding new light on the old argument of the "sound heart and deformed conscience." Krauth states that:
"Twain's melodrama with its sentimental affirmations and his humor with its denigrations are constantly commingled in Huck Finn. The two together create the fundamental dynamic of the novel: what is undercut through the disruptive humor is reestablished through sentimental melodrama,... On the one hand, the humor negates its objects, suggesting that the world is morally meaningless, while on the other, the melodrama values its subjects, positing an ethical order." (186)
Through Krauth's eyes and text, we see juxtaposed the fundamental conflict that tormented Twain throughout his lifetime, and receive insight into the often bitterly satirical works such as "Does the Race of Man Love a Lord?" and other late writings. The final chapter, "Icon," deals with Twain the public persona, and includes an interesting discussion of Twain's dominant public image in his later years. He sees the white suit as both rebellion against social mores (white suits were worn only in summer) and at the same time a nod to the "clean" and "civilized" world.
"If the transgressive Mark Twain distanced himself from society by attacking it, the bounded Mark Twain both attached himself to and departed from society by claiming to possess its virtues more fully than society itself does. Paradoxically, in wearing white out of season, he violated the conventional and proclaimed his conventionality at one and the same time." (256)
Krauth's argument has merit, and even though I still prefer to think of Mark Twain thumbing his nose at social convention and standing Brahmins on their ears, Proper Mark Twain offers a fuller picture of the man and his writing, thus earning a place on the shelves of Twain scholars.