The following review appeared 31 August 1995 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1995. This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Timothy Beals <email@example.com>
Grand Rapids, MI
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
As a new member of a small group of contemporary writers and books that
connections between established literary figures and modern psychological
and tastes, J. D. Stahl and his volume titled Mark Twain, Culture and
add significantly to this growing literature by taking a balanced, studied
Mark Twain's vision of "what it meant to be a man in Victorian
America; what Twain
thought it meant to be a woman; how men and women did, could, and should
each other" (jacket).* Stahl does this, as the book's subtitle
suggests, by looking closely at five of
Twain's major works and a handful of his shorter pieces all of them set in
and all but one, The Innocents Abroad, set in the past.
This book is interesting and important for both Twain scholars and general readers alike chiefly because it explores and reevaluates the works of Twain that were important to Twain but are now seldom read outside the academy. With complete chapters dedicated to The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, and "The Mysterious Stranger" manuscripts, Stahl looks carefully at Twain's shifting ideals of American culture and gender, with stress on Twain's notions about gender and sexuality.
In his preface the author asserts that his objective "is not to confirm a preconceived theory of what Mark Twain's text says but rather to discover what his fiction and nonfiction tell us that he himself may not have been willing or able to state analytically or directly" (x). With healthy respect for evidence and an unwavering resolve to uncover the plain meaning of the text and its significance to his thesis, Stahl largely succeeds in exposing Twain not merely as a representative of his age, but as an often complex and contradictory thinker and writer for all times.
By using his substantial powers of observation and critical facility, Stahl stays within the tradition of literary scholarship that values honest investigation and clear thinking over the temptation to reproduce the humorless, amateur psychoanalytical approach of Susan Gillman's Dark Twins (University of Chicago Press, 1989). And yet it is clear that Stahl's writing is generously informed by psychology, gender study, cultural theory, and traditional Twain criticism. The result is a satisfying collection of insights into Mark Twain's public and private imagination that will serve anyone interested in Twain studies generally or in Twain's European writings in particular.
Moving through Twain's writing chronologically and tracing the development of his shifting values and perspective, Stahl begins his assessment of the European writings by examining Twain's notion of cultural authority in The Innocents Abroad (1869), "Mark Twain's first full-length, coherent book, which Robert Regan calls 'the first great monument of American prose' (American Bypaths 187)" (28). In this first chapter, Stahl's prose slips occasionally into the kind of jargon that produces such sentences as, "The text dramatizes an uneasy, frequently ritualized relationship to the European and female Other" (31), and "The fear of dissipation could be overruled by its attraction, particularly in circumstances in which the romantic approval of illicit activity could be expressed as meretricious" (41).
But within this searching, abstract fog, Stahl is able to affirm with some clarity that Twain "invented, staged, and elaborated cultural dramas in The Innocents Abroad in which he confronted European females whose supposed experience and sophistication confirmed his innocence. These dramas reveal the merging of sexual anxiety and cultural anxiety. Economic power was a less equivocal symbol of American confidence than sexual maturity, yet both the confidence of American purchasing power and his fears about courtship provided the young American male author with material to dramatize what it meant for him to confront, challenge, and incorporate European culture in an extended act of declaration of American identity" (46).
The author next turns his attention from Twain's assertion of male American independence to a fascinating analysis of Mark Twain and female power, looking especially at "the distance between the dominant public veneration for European cultural artifacts and a submerged private fascination with 'corrupt' European morals, which is nowhere clearer than in the contrast between 'A Memorable Midnight Experience' (collected in Mark Twain's Sketches, Number One, 1874), his polished reverential account of a visit to Westminster Abbey, and 1601: Conversation As It was by the Social Fireside in the Time of the Tudors (1876), his bawdy and scatological reenactment of conversation among Queen Elizabeth's private circle," a piece he took pains to keep private (13).
Here Stahl develops a hypothesis about the dichotomy between Twain's public and private worlds between the respectable strategies Twain employs in his writing intended for publication and the simultaneous ambivalence toward sexuality and appropriateness demonstrated in his writing intended for a private audience. This chapter, an earlier version of which appeared in Studies in American Fiction is among the most revealing in the book because it deals clearly with the dichotomy and paradox of Twain's persona, and because it takes Twain enthusiasts into new perspectives on the author by looking at his lesser known works.
Stahl turns next to the more familiar fiction of The Prince and the Pauper (chapter 3) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (chapter 4), focusing on the natural theme of fathers and sons and identity in The Prince and the Pauper and its parallels in Huck Finn, and a similar emphasis in Connecticut Yankee. According to the author, "In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), Mark Twain again addresses the filial-paternal themes of The Prince and the Pauper in the context of a fictionalized European past, but this time he chooses to address them mainly from the parental perspective, with a more political agenda" (85). Throughout his discussion of these works he shows their thematic similarities: a commoner takes power and changes the nature of rule in a backward monarchy. And while his arguments regarding Prince and the Pauper run along conventional lines that look closely at Twain's biographical and historical sources for the book, the author's analysis of Connecticut Yankee turns up a novel, highly plausible, and satisfying read of the story, especially its problematic ending.
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc is the next target of Stahl's analysis, and throughout the examination of this remarkable but little-read work**--one of Twain's own sentimental favorites--Professor Stahl demonstrates his ability to synthesize the current feminist criticism and carve out a new middle ground that acknowledges the difficulties of Twain's characterization and the contradictions that mark the text's escape from sexuality. In Joan we meet a real woman, as seen through the eyes of the male narrator de Conte. But what we see, as Mark Twain represents her, is "an incongruous and implausible combination of sensitive delicacy and fearless authority" (145). "Her main function, in psychological terms, is to enable men to be men," and this confirms the notion, says Stahl, that "woman is represented only in relation to the male self in Twain's work" (145).
Finally Stahl's book contends with the "Mysterious Stranger" manuscripts, among Twain's last writings and perhaps the clearest illustration of his mature view of culture and gender. Ranking among Twain's most imaginative and experimental creations, these fragmentary tales about young Satan allow Twain to "look at the borders between psychological and social realities in new ways" (152). "Gender and nation (masculine and feminine, America and Europe), polarities Mark Twain earlier frequently presented as simple dichotomies, here become transparent not insignificant, but conduits for more abstract and complex speculations" (153). Stahl carefully compares Twain's earlier European writing to these final traces to provide a sense of the author's development on issues of culture and gender.
In his conclusion to the book, Stahl writes, "Mark Twain's constructions of European culture and of gender were a significant part of his construction of American culture. In particular, his interpretations of gender in the European context are a rich source of revelation of the culturally conditioned ideas, anxieties, and desires of a powerfully imaginative nineteenth-century American male author" (187).
Thus the book provides yet another lens through which to view many of Mark Twain's most important creations. It is thoroughly annotated and generously illustrated with interesting drawings and photographs, many of which will be new to Twain devotees. The only significant disappointment for scholars is the bibliography, which cites all the classic books and articles and many more obscure studies, but in over a hundred bibliographical entries includes just two published in the last five years, and just a handful more published in the last decade.
Overall, Mark Twain, Culture and Gender should become required reading for anyone interested in Twain's accounts of culture and gender in both Europe and America, and for those looking for fresh insight into Twain's writings with European historical settings.
* Some of the recent contributors to the works that look critically at literature and its psycho-sexual dimensions include Allan Bloom (Love & Friendship ) and Frederick Crews (The Critics Bear It Away ). In his final book, Bloom looks at European authors primarily Rousseau and Shakespeare and tries to "recover the power, the danger, and the beauty of eros" lost to the sterile, scientific notions of Alfred C. Kinsey and Sigmund Freud (13); Crew's collection of critical pieces examines American authors chiefly Hawthorne, Twain, and O'Connor and explores the shortcomings of the Freudian psychoanalysis that colored much of his own earlier criticism.
** In 1994, after the publication of Stahl's volume, the Library of America brought back into print in one volume a new authoritative edition of Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc and two other historical romances by Twain: The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.