Mark Twain celebrated his 70th birthday with a party sponsored by George Harvey and Harpers. There were a host of writers present that evening, including William Dean Howells, a young Willa Cather, and Charles Chesnutt. Mary E. Wilkins Freeman was Twain’s escort into the dinner. She sat at the main table with Twain. I have always liked that connection between two powerful realist writers.
Class discussions this term have focused on the writing of Twain, Crane, Freeman, (Sarah Orne) Jewett, Crane, Norris, and (still to come) Dreiser. Twain, I think, stands as a transition between high realism and the movement into literary naturalism. For our purposes The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson offered a shift toward naturalism, especially with its dominant questions over nature/nurture and its methodical beat of determinism. Twain used that novel to extend his explorations of identity and self that shaped Huckleberr Finn, and he used the novel to ask questions about the nature of human action and the definitions of class and race. He didn’t, I think, have any answers, but he did have a lot of questions.
What I found most compelling in all of this, however, was the variation in voice between the so-called “regionalist” or “local color” writers – Twain and Freeman and Jewett. In many ways the three share an interest in the veracity of everyday life, from the careful creation of vernacular speech to the often pinched lives of small towns in transition and in decline. And while Twain was a master at describing the realism of small towns and at criticizing the narrow perspectives and intentions of the citizens (think of St. Petersburg or Dawson’s Landing or Hadleyburg), I come away lately with a sense of the realistic failure of Twain’s vision of “small” town life. Artistically, his mimetic approach to the image and limits of small town life seems to me seasoned with caricature even more than character. His descriptions themselves offer a limited description of the limited lives. This is naturalism at its most effective. And I wonder what the function of art can be when it is so dominated by his kind of ruthlessness.
Against (or perhaps supplementing) Twain’s small towns I find Jewett’s New England, especially in The Country of the Pointed Firs. Even it its decline, it is a more complicated and artistically significant venue. Jewett’s Elijah Tilley, Captain Littlepage, or William Blackett or Joanna, Mrs. Fosdick, or Almira Todd offer a deeper experience of a people and the strains (geographical, social, economic, personal) they feel than anything that Twain creates in his mid-career fiction. The adults of St. Petersburg are at the service of its children (especially Tom Sawyer); the adults of Dawson’s Landing are corrupted by the omnipresence of slavery and racism. Neither is reality at its most effective. But the complicated lives of Jewett’s Dunnet’s Landing open to the panorama of reality and its myriad stresses – primarily the stress of domestic relationships. There is much to contemplate in the dropped stitches of Elijah Tilley as he knits and recalls his youth and his taking for granted the loyalty of his now dead wife. That kind of strain is rare in Twain and comes only at a sideways glance as he conjures loss in Hank Morgan’s Camelot or Adam’s Eden.