The following review appeared 20 October 1996 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1996.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Glen M. Johnson <Johnsong@cua.edu>
The Catholic University of America
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
"Authorship studies" are a recent wrinkle in the unfolding fabric of postmodern literary theory. Paradoxically, this field had its origin in the "death of the author" first announced by Roland Barthes. Seeking to counter the romantic myth of the solitary creative genius, theorists have enmeshed the author, first in the text and then in the culture. Today, authors are likely to be seen as functions of ideology, and this emphasis can sometimes overwhelm them as historical human beings. (A recent example in Twain studies is Randall Knoper's Acting Naturally: Mark Twain in the Culture of Performance, where Mark Twain is less performer than performance.)
Richard Lowry takes a moderate approach to authorship as a social phenomenon, insisting on "historicity of 'the literary'" but also seeing Mark Twain as an active operator among cultural paradigms. So: within "a strategic rhetoric aimed at validating and reconfiguring a form of labor that nonetheless eluded the discourses produced to define it," Twain "engaged these contradictions with unique energy." (Note: Lowry has mastered the lingo of contemporary theory, but most of his writing reads better than that.) Lowry's model has two primary emphases: first, authorship as the selling of goods in a capitalist economy; second, authorship as a cultural ideal, the belief that literature should be the source of transcendent values.
Neither of these emphases is new. Samuel Clemens's intense innovative interest in publishing and marketing has long been acknowledged. So has his problematic relationship with high literary culture. Lowry devotes his first extended analysis to the Whittier birthday banquet of 1877, where a story parodying Emerson, Longfellow, and Holmes became (in retrospect more than on the spot) a deep embarrassment for Twain. The reader will recognize in Lowry's analysis of an ideologically confused writer essentially another version of Justin Kaplan's Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (1966)--indeed, a replay of Van Wyck Brooks's Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920). Lowry acknowledges as much in calling the Whittier banquet "a kind of primal scene of Twain criticism."
Nevertheless, Lowry offers significant insights into the occasion. He does this by closely reading the tale Twain performed, suggesting that its most radical move was to appropriate the names of three men who embodied literary culture in America. In effect, Lowry has it, Twain spoofed some carefully developed trademarks of high culture. Noting that the banquet was also a celebration of the Atlantic Monthly, whose new owner was seeking to make it the dominant voice of literate culture in America, Lowry can see Twain's tale, which assigns august names and honored words to tramps, as breaking the presumption of sincerity that props up the unique status of the literary. Lowry then expands in two directions. First, he discusses Twain's fondness for burlesque quotations (most famously the Duke's Shakespearean pastiche in Huckleberry Finn), which turn literary language into unreality and pretension. Second, he notes the absence of women at the Whittier banquet--which the excluded writers protested--and suggests that Twain used the "mythic masculinity" of his tramps to expose cultural elegance as a mask of social power. As Lowry sums up, Twain's canny "imposture of comic subversion was itself the product of the posturing rhetoric of cultural authority"--a crux for a conflicted author who wanted to claim such authority at the same time he burlesqued it.
Three subsequent chapters deal with published volumes: the early travel books (The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (Lowry claims that, after Huck, Twain stopped developing as an author. This is not convincing, but it leaves room for another critical book.) Pursuing the conflicts, Lowry characterizes The Innocents Abroad in terms of "an authentic inauthenticity"--the rhetoric of high culture coming from a persona Twain called "an American Vandal." In this encounter with Europe, says Lowry, the swings back and forth between rapture and disappointment, reverence and burlesque effectively turn culture into "textual consumption." Putting together the logistics of subscription book selling with the popularity of travel writing at the time, Lowry can see Twain's readers as tourists, trying to turn consumption into intellectual fulfillment. This is where Twain pitched his own early books, both as sellable products and as artifacts of cultural aspiration. In Lowry's formulation, Twain "explicitly relocated authenticity in the historical process."
To fit Roughing It into the paradigm, Lowry replaces high culture with authentic experience. In other words, the persona of Twain's second travel book makes his claim based on realism of the kind put forward by Clemens's friend and patron William Dean Howells. Howells, of course, made strong cultural and ethical claims for authenticity. Nevertheless, Lowry says, Roughing It subverts realism by revealing its persona as a poseur, even a confidence man, trying to pass off tourist's reactions (many of them derived from books) as the real West. So we get, once again, a self-deconstructing volume. And Lowry manages a neat trick by making all that padding and source- mongering integral to what Roughing It is about.
It is difficult to say much that is original about Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn on the basis of what is at base a well-tried critical approach. When he turns to Tom Sawyer, Lowry offers predictable "dialogic tensions" between Tom and the narrator, melodrama and parody, performance and narrative representation, boyhood and masculine authority, inauthenticity (St. Petersburg's propriety) and actuality (Injun Joe). There's some interesting discussion of Jacob Abbott's Rollo series of boy books and of the role of women in socializing boys into men (in a presented society with few adult male role models).
Lowry's reading of Huckleberry Finn is more provocative. I find it unconvincing, but profited from reasoning out why. Twain's masterpiece, as Lowry has it, is an ideological performance which challenges readers to distinguish two divergent senses of the literary. To make this point, Lowry must emphasize the Huck who started out illiterate but is now writing his autobiography, the ultimate product of his having been "sivilized." Huck's ordeal of writing (a notion based on the novel's last paragraph) gives him a degree of authority denied to him within the story--but it also "implicates him in the very process of incorporation he resists."
This emphasis on the framing authorial Huck was put forward a decade ago, by Lee Clark Mitchell in Louis Budd's collection of New Essays on Huckleberry Finn. It brackets the conventionality of first-person conventions to an extent I find excessive. Still, Lowry's discussion is valuable as a contrast to the vernacular Huck championed by Henry Nash Smith and others. At the center of Lowry's reading is a comparison of Huck's written book to the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, a connection suggested thirty years ago by James Cox (Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor) but not developed until now. Beyond that, Lowry discusses the relationship between eloquence and violence (a replay of the propriety-violence conflict in his previous chapter, with Pap replacing Injun Joe), conscience as "the language of brute property," Tom Sawyer as a parody of Franklinian self-fashioning through reading, and Huck, too, as a "prisoner of style."
The chapter on Huckleberry Finn, like the rest of Lowry's study, uses contemporary theoretical language to tease out new insights while remaining within the traditional interpretation of a self-divided, ambivalent Clemens-Twain. Lowry handles the language and the theory expertly.