Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Challenging the Conventional Mark Twain

My last post focused on the benefits of seeing writers from a different perspective.  Today let me offer a thought about what impact this has when dealing with a canonical writer -- Mark Twain.

When you begin to work with the history of criticism for one writer, you are often surprised at the way individual critics respond to a piece of writing or to a writer's life.  We are often taught that there is such a thing as the truth when writing about an author, that we are able somehow to create an objective interpretation of a story, novel, or a life.  The reality, however, is that each critic brings an intensely personal focus to the reading.  And critics have their own agendas for interpreting works.  If you read a series of biographies of Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain), for example, you will see that each biographer has his or her own perspective.  Even the point at which their story begins says a lot about what they think is important about Clemens' life:  for example, Justin Kaplan's Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain opens after Clemens has come east in 1867 and then follows the events of his developing career.  That suggests that there is a relatively clear break between Sam Clemens and the literary persona Mark Twain (Clemens first uses the pen name in 1863 but develops the full character of Twain over the next decade).  If you are drawn to this idea of the split personality, the work that you will do will be colored by the theory.

Something akin to that happens even earlier in Twain biography:  Albert Bigelow Paine and Clara Clemens (Sam Clemens' middle daughter -- the one that survived him [an interesting expression that could lead to yet another post eventually]) each set a specific ideal image of "Mark Twain" in the biographies they wrote. Twain is presented as a serious writer and sage who uses humor to poke at human nature.  It is the Twain of the white suit and wicked wit.  And that is the image that has come to dominate our culture.

But what happens when you look at the reality of Clemens' life and look behind the curtain that Paine and Clara (and a legion of later biographers and critics) used to obscure Clemens' reality.  And what happens when a critic or biographer challenges the long held image.  The Twain establishment is very particular about this image and will do what it can to discredit new perspectives.  Don't for a minute think that scholars are primarily interested in truth.  They are interested in making sure that their own theories and ideas are duplicated.  They want to make sure that there is a dominant view of their subject and that this view remains dominant.  There is self-interest as well as an intention to maintain a position in the hierarchy of criticism.

In future posts, I'll try to suggest how this works with Twain studies.  And I hope to offer some notion of what can be done to break the image of "Saint Mark" and find the reality of the man who was Samuel Clemens.

1 comment:

  1. I believe this is the main reason we are teaching When Worlds Collide. Always, always, more than one way to "skin a cat."