The following review appeared 10 January 1995 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1995. This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
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Scanning the table of contents of David E. E. Sloane's Mark Twain's Humor: Critical Essays, one question leaps to mind: Why? The heart of this anthology comprises well known, readily accessible critical works by Walter Blair, Edgar M. Branch, Louis Budd, Franklin Rogers, and oft-printed works by Leslie Fiedler ("Huckleberry Finn : The Book We Love to Hate") and Henry Nash Smith ("A Sound Heart and a Deformed Conscience"). Some less available nineteenth and early twentieth century material and the new essays written for this volume, however, will be useful additions to school and public libraries, despite the volume's repetitiveness and somewhat confusing scope.
What is most askew about Mark Twain's Humor is its title. Very little material is focused on humor but rather traces Twain's literary development and reputation. The volume's scope includes both historic and modern criticism, tracing Twain's growth from a contemporary humorist to a major comic and social critic. But many essays are puzzling by their inclusion. Will Clemens's survey of Twain's lecture career, for example, is straightforward biography; why repeat a well established path that neither contributes new insights nor analyzes Twain's onstage material? Another example is Shelly Fisher Fishkin's succinct study of Twain and African-Americans, again more historical than critical, and miscast here, as humor is not within the essay's focus. Other misplaced articles include a miscellany of Twain anecdotes from the Ladies' Home Journal (humorous but hardly critical) and reprinting nearly the entire text of "To A Person Sitting in the Darkness" followed by comments critical of Twain's politics, not his humor.
The volume is strongest when it is on target, despite its reliance on previously published sources. Mark Twain's Humor begins with Edgar Branch's 1967 examination of Twain's development from "Ben Coon's Narrative" under the influence of Artemus Ward when the young Sam Clemens expressed his first doubts about pursuing a career as a humorist and Pascal Covici's summation of Clemens's realism drawn from Southwest Humor. Covici's essay, along with Louis Budd's insights from his Mark Twain: Social Philosopher (both originally published in 1962) remain especially useful despite their age, as no work has superseded their analyses. Sloane's organization here is confusing, as his own "Toward the Novel" should logically precede Budd's essay primarily discussing The Gilded Age.
Subsequent articles trace Twain's well established path of finding his
voice and personae,
moving from the tenderfoot to the old-timer in Roughing It,
and the east/west dichotomy of Mr. Brown and "Buck Fanshaw's
Funeral." Some of
the contemporary reviews are pertinent and fresh in this new context,
Ade's affectionate "Mark Twain and the Old Time Subscription
Book," and The Idler
review of Puddn'head Wilson
speaking on behalf of the wounded Southern readers satirized in the novel.
such as the reviews from The Athenaeum
could have been judiciously edited to remove superfluous reviewer
humor in general rather than Twain in particular. One example that seemed
than on target is Rufus A. Coleman's "Trowbridge and Clemens,"
only half of which
is relevant for readers interested in Twain.
More useful are Edward Foster's and James M. Cox's 1968 and 1966 studies of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and Twain's "Yankee Slang." Like Alan Gribben's 1976 overview of "Twain's Library of Literary Hogwash" from American Literary Realism, these essays are perfectly suited for this volume's ostensible scope. Clyde Grimm's 1967 American Quarterly remarks on An American Claimant are also typical of the better essays, fusing history with analysis of Twain's use of humor.
Many of the reprinted critics, such as Franklin Rogers, both discuss Twain's work and the flow of critical thought in the twentieth century, putting into perspective both Twain's literary reputation and re-evaluating critical responses. Sloane's insightful introduction, for example, notes how Twain's later often self-indulgent works, not intended for publication, have been given exaggerated emphasis by critics and a "hungry public" eager for new material to dissect.
Other essays are notable for their discussion of Twain's place in literary history. Archibald Henderson's dated 1910 survey of Twain's international reputation and Edith Wyatt's 1917 analysis of Twain's political views are only interesting given their own historical context. But A. C. Ward's 1932 comments on Twain's humor in general, along with the 1894 Academy review of Tom Sawyer Abroad, are particularly pertinent critical overviews reflecting the more thoughtful responses of Twain's contemporaries and immediate critical heirs.
The volume's last five essays offer views from new critics which, along with the less familiar material, will make this a needed addition to any school and public library, particularly the discussions of Twain's late-life writings. Susan K. Harris's explication of "The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg" as a satire on then-popular fiction is instructive, and Suzanne Weil's examination of Twain's last satires explores why the humor left Twain's private texts, putting the prose he never intended to publish in a new light. (Her frequent references to Leslie Fiedler's essay "As Free as any Cretur" [sic] on "the good bad boy" pose arouse speculation as to why this essay was not included in this volume, as its points seem far more pertinent than his frequently anthologized essay on Huck Finn noted above.)
Michael Kiskis is also helpful in his discussion of the Autobiography, convincingly showing Twain's humor was maintained in his memoirs and essays after he moved away from sustained fictional narratives. However, Laura Skandera-Trombley's discussion of Twain and feminine consciousness (the volume's final essay), again seems out of place more a nod to political correctness and an attempt to touch all the bases than contributing to an understanding of Twain's humor. This essay, like many preceding it, would be far more appropriate in an anthology addressing Twain's literary reputation.
Mark Twain's Humor, despite its misleading title, is still an interesting miscellany of articles on Twain's artistic growth and the historical contexts in which he is appreciated (or denounced). One advantage of this volume is the index, making most of the older essays more accessible for scholars than in their previous incarnations. Still, much of the repeated material could simply have been listed in the helpfully annotated bibliography, and many essays could have been shortened to fit the volume's stated focus, thus making Mark Twain's Humor more attractive at half the size and half the price.
Contents of Mark Twain's Humor: Critical Essays
General Editor's Note
Introduction (by David E. E. Sloane)
The Early Writings of Mark Twain: The Growth of the Comedian
Edgar M. Branch, "'My Voice is Still for Setchell': A Background Study of 'Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog"The Middle Career of Mark Twain from Tom Sawyer to Pudd'nhead Wilson : The Comedian as Major Author
Franklin R. Rogers, "Burlesque Travel Literature and Mark Twain's Roughing It "
Pascal Covici, Jr., "From the Old Southwest"
Louis J. Budd, "A Curious Republican"
David E. E. Sloane, "Toward the Novel"
"Novels of the Week: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," AthenaeumThe Later Career of Mark Twain: The Comedian as a Cultural Representative
Walter Blair, "On the Structure of Tom Sawyer "
William Dean Howells, "Mark Twain"
Rufus A. Coleman, "Trowbridge and Clemens"
Blackwood's Magazine, "Musings without Method"
George Ade, "Mark Twain and the Old Time Subscription Book"
Will M. Clemens, "Mark Twain on the Lecture Platform"
Durant Da Ponte, "Life reviews Huckleberry Finn "
Leslie A. Fiedler, "Huckleberry Finn : The Book We Love to Hate"
Henry Nash Smith, "A Sound Heart and a Deformed Conscience"
Edward F. Foster, "A Connecticut Yankee Anticipated: Max Adeler's Fortunate Island "
James M. Cox, "Yankee Slang"
Alan Gribben, "'I Kind of Love Small Game': Mark Twain's Library of Literary Hogwash"
Clyde Grimm, "The American Claimant : Reclamation of a Farce"
Henry Watterson, "Mark Twain An Intimate Memory"
The Idler, "The Book Hunter" [review of Pudd'nhead Wilson ]
Martha McCulloch Williams, "In Re 'Pudd'nhead Wilson'"
Shelley Fisher Fishkin, "'The Tales He Couldn't Tell': Mark Twain, Race and Culture at the Century's End: A Social Context for Pudd'nhead Wilson "
William Dean Howells, "Mark Twain: An Inquiry"Selected Bibliography
Archibald Henderson, "The International Fame of Mark Twain"
Edith Wyatt, "An Inspired Critic"
The Ladies' Home Journal, "The Anecdotal Side of Mark Twain"
A. C. Ward, "3. -Mark Twain"
The Academy, review of Tom Sawyer Abroad
Susan K. Harris, "'Hadleyburg': Mark Twain's Dual Attack on Banal Theology and Banal Literature"
John Kendrick Bangs and Mark Twain, "Is the Philippine Policy of the Administration Just?"
Susanne Weil, "Reconstructing the 'Imagination Mill': The Mystery of Mark Twain's Late Works"
Michael J. Kiskis, "Coming Back to Humor: The Comic Voice in Mark Twain's Autobiography"
Laura E. Skandera-Trombley, "'The Mysterious Stranger': Absence of the Female in Mark Twain's Biography"