Copyright © 2004 Mark Twain Forum
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Jeffrey W. Miller
University of Tennessee at Martin
While many studies of Mark Twain and his works have focused on the duality of Sam Clemens and Mark Twain (most notable, perhaps, is Justin Kaplan's Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain), Leland Krauth's Mark Twain & Company posits a Mark Twain with multiple personalities--at least with multiple writing personalities. Krauth asserts that Twain's membership in the "literary guild" (1) forms an important part of his writing identity; he claims that Twain's literary relations with other writers are among his most important relationships. This rather straightforward assumption forms the foundation of Mark Twain & Company and provides for its organizational strategy. In successive chapters, Krauth pairs Twain with six authors (three American and three British): Bret Harte, William Dean Howells, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Matthew Arnold, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rudyard Kipling. Each pairing illuminates a different Twainian "personality." With Harte, Twain is a sentimentalist; with Howells, a humorist; with Stowe, a Gothicist; with Arnold, a cultural sage; with Stevenson, an adventure writer; and with Kipling, a travel writer.
Each chapter first explores these relationships through biographical connections. With some writers, such as Howells and Stowe, this is fertile territory, as both enjoyed long-standing personal relationships with Twain. With others who did not benefit from an extensive relationship, such as Arnold and Kipling, Krauth has a more difficult task. Despite this seeming flaw in his strategy, Krauth makes some original and clever connections between the writers with what might be termed "mirroring"; he examines similar formative experiences in each writer's life. Arnold and Twain, for instance, both sowed "wild oats" in their youth--Arnold in Oxford and Twain in Virginia City (126). The essence of each chapter, however, lies not in this biographical ephemera, but in Krauth's astute analyses of "parallel texts" (10), which focus on thematics important to understanding one of Twain's writing personalities. The chapter on Stowe, for instance, reads Uncle Tom's Cabin and Dred alongside Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer as Gothic texts.
Krauth looks at a diverse group of writers in this book, and does an admirable job of reining in what might have become an unwieldy mess of information. In fact, such an assortment of issues and texts are examined that one might think Krauth would venture out of his element at some point. This is not the case, however, as the chapters are remarkably consistent--Krauth examines the short stories of Bret Harte with as much eloquence and aplomb as the poetry of Matthew Arnold. Individually, the chapters of Mark Twain & Company are exemplary scholarship.
Collectively, however, the book seems more like an anthology of variations on a theme than a complete symphony. Krauth even admits in his conclusion that Mark Twain & Company offers an "odd, disjunctive composite" picture of Twain (262). Krauth seems to attribute this composite to Twain's inherent multiplicity, but Krauth's own authorial strategies may have something to do with this disjunction. Because Krauth focuses so completely on the personality themes of each individual chapter, the reader often gets a rather fractured picture of Twain's work; Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, appears in Mark Twain & Company as a sentimental text (38-41), a Gothic story (113-17), a discursion on manliness (198-204), and a picaresque tale (236-38). While Huck Finn is versatile enough to support all these readings, a reader of Mark Twain & Company does not emerge from the book with a coherent sense of how Krauth reads Huck Finn. Krauth asserts that a complete picture of Twain is not possible, and claims his work is only a "partial portrait" (262). I admit that literary criticism must assemble incomplete puzzles, but does this mean that the critic should leave the puzzle pieces in a jumble, or should he put the puzzle together, even if it has missing pieces?
Sometimes book reviewers will lament the "book that might have been" rather than evaluate the actual book in question. Without falling into that trap, I do lament the "chapter that might have been." Krauth's conclusion, "Viewing Mark Twain," begins with some promise, but it ultimately leaves this reader wondering what kinds of conclusions Krauth may have been able to push for, if he were so inclined. He begins by quoting Twain's memorable assessment of the Lee-Jackson painting in Life on the Mississippi, where he asserts that it "means nothing without its label"; for Krauth, this moment is an avenue towards asserting the "indeterminacy...of reading a picture--or literary text, or historical figure" (258). Just as Mark Twain & Company gives a somewhat fractured picture of Twain's works, it gives a fractured picture of Twain as a writer. Krauth seems content with his five-page conclusion, claiming that Twain was a writer among writers--a member of the "literary guild," one who "continues to elude exact critical focus" (262). While this is certainly true--no literary biography or critical text could completely explain any writer or her work, it seems to contradict the rest of Mark Twain & Company, which so eloquently clarified Twain in a variety of ways. Throughout my reading of these splendid essays, I continually wondered how it is that Twain seems such a master of versatility. How is Twain able to metamorphose his writing to such great extent? What about Twain, or about us as readers, makes this possible? Alas, no such questions are probed by Krauth. Admittedly, they are large questions, but I think such a visionary study deserved a more inventive ending.
To some extent, I am probably disappointed in the conclusion of this book because
I like the rest of it so much. Krauth has the rare ability to write for both
the masses (at least the Twainiac masses) and an academic audience. The book
is extremely well-researched and eminently readable. It breaks ground, I think,
in fusing Twain with the establishment of cross-cultural Victorian studies,
and it does so with a flair often absent in academic writing.