Commentary Magazine


Mark Twain & The Crtics

To the Editor:

Peter Shaw’s review of Mark Twain, An American Prophet by Maxwell Geismar [Books in Review, March] is both mean and petty. It evades the issues. Mr. Shaw treats imperialism and the cold war as fictions made up by imaginative radicals. The result is that his criticism is disembodied, empty. Mr. Shaw never responds to Geismar’s arguments; first, that Mark Twain denounced the atrocities of the American Empire, and second, that our attitude toward Twain has been distorted by the cultural and political atmosphere of the cold war. Mr. Shaw admits that the “Mark Twain controversy is a dispute about America,” but he backs away from the real controversy. He’s afraid to grapple with the issue of the cold war, the corrupt state of our academic criticism, and American racism and imperialism. Mr. Shaw tries to defuse Twain. He dredges up that awful Jamesian word—ambiguity—and tries to stick it on Twain. But it won’t hold. Twain won’t sit still like a good boy for Mr. Shaw to glue him down. Twain isn’t ambiguous when it comes to denouncing modern American society. There is nothing opportunistic about this book, as Mr. Shaw suggests. Geismar does not appropriate “the fashionable leftism of the day.” Rather, he brings Mark Twain to life. He shows us the Twain who was as enraged about the genocide of Third World peoples as today’s revolutionaries are angry about the genocide committed by the United States in Southeast Asia. And Geismar shows us a Twain who, like today’s hippies and yippies, took a real pagan joy in life.

Mr. Shaw is afraid of the real Twain and the flesh-and-blood Geismar. They both rock the boat, question the Establishment, and give us words which soar and explode. Mr. Shaw doesn’t like strong emotions. We mustn’t be too angry or too passionate, he says. The effect of his review is to demand that writers and critics be well-behaved. Mr. Shaw glides over the sickness of American culture. The critics of the 50′s rewrote our literary history to conform to the status quo. Mr. Shaw apologizes for them. He’s one of them. He tries, but he can’t kill Geismar’s Mark Twain, a living artist, and no academic corpse.

Jonah Raskin
Department of English
State University of New York
Stony Brook, New York

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To the Editor:

Peter Shaw’s review contains a few errors. My book, Mark Twain on the Damned Human Race, which he mentions, is not a collection of Twain’s “social and political observations”—such a book would run to several volumes—“especially his attacks on American capitalism.” There is nothing in it about American capitalism. It is rather a comparative study of civilizations, including Mark Twain’s most savage attacks on the human race, with special, unloving attention to its white-skinned branch, and attacks on several nations, one of which is the United States. By no means is this material, as Mr. Shaw imagines, all in Mark Twain’s collected works.

Some cruel joker has also misinformed Mr. Shaw about the Brooks-de Voto fight. This is not a small matter. Van Wyck Brooks, in his The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920), presented the first and still living portrait of Mark Twain the arch villain, the failure, the ignoramus, the mercenary, the hypocrite, the henpecked husband (he was guilty of respecting his wife), and above all the writer who was guilty of regarding writers as craftsmen, and not, like Mr. Brooks (and Matthew Arnold before him), as divinely inspired leaders of society. Bernard de Voto, then literary editor of the Mark Twain papers, made his devastating reply in Mark Twain’s America (1932). After that it was no contest. So powerful a man was Brooks, and so meek a lot are critics, that to a man they lined up behind Brooks and for half a century now have been elaborating his nonsense. Mr. Shaw is only the latest to do so. . . . De Voto never changed his mind (I have no space to discuss the complicated myth that he did) and the collective mind of our critics has never changed either. In fact, I will make Mr. Shaw an abject apology if he can name one critic who, during and after the “controversy,” wholeheartedly defended de Voto and, by implication, Mark Twain. I will also send him a list almost as long as the telephone book of critics who have reverently endorsed and followed Brooks’s line—and lo! Mr. Shaw’s name shall lead all the rest.

Then there is Mr. Shaw’s statement that Mark Twain’s “greatest admirers have to admit that he never experienced a true ‘rebirth’ of his creative powers” after 1896. Those powers had never died. In fact, the pattern of the criticism has long been to compare one period of Mark Twain with another period—it doesn’t matter with which—and to deplore one or the other. . . . But since Mr. Shaw has chosen to deplore his later work, let me note that Letters from the Earth was done in his last years and—but I shall quote from that to illustrate the work of a man who Mr. Shaw imagines was a “self censoring Victorian about sex.” This is from the report of an angel visiting earth and reporting back to heaven.

The human being, like the immortals, naturally places sexual intercourse far and away above all other joys. . . . The very thought of it excites him; opportunity sets him wild; in this state he will risk life, reputation, everything—even his queer heaven itself—to make good that opportunity and ride it to its overwhelming climax. . . . They prize it thus highly; yet, like all their so-called “boons,” it is a poor thing. At its very best and longest the act is brief beyond imagination—the imagination of an immortal, I mean.

This, like so much of Mark Twain, was unpublishable at the time, so I trust I shall not hear from Mr. Shaw on Mark Twain’s grave character deficiencies in not sending it off posthaste to the North American Review .

Further: Mark Twain wrote Following the Equator in the very year of his daughter’s death, that last and worst of the private misfortunes which are supposed to have caused, or marked, the decline of his power. That book is the tale of Africa, India, Australia, and New Zealand, and, of course—since it is by Mark Twain—of all the world beside. His admirers admire it immensely. In the remainder of his life he produced, among other things, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” . . . “Concerning the Jews” . . , and Christian Science, in which Mary Baker Eddy is shown as a greedy illiterate (no such thing could be published nowadays) and her religion as a successful faith cure. I know no more brilliant Twain. Along with that he also wrote in his last years “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” “What is Man?” . . . and, of course, all versions of The Mysterious Stranger. . . .

Since Mr. Shaw knows so much, he doubtless knows too that on three occasions (one in a private conversation) Mark Twain is known to have lost his temper and damned universal suffrage. No life, and no literature, has been so thoroughly combed for misdemeanors as Mark Twain’s.

And yet, in some respects Mr. Shaw is wholly uninformed. For the “scholars and editors” who, he thinks, have “patiently explained” that Mark Twain’s Autobiography, as created, would “add up to an utterly unwieldy and unreadable book” are in the process of bringing that book out, precisely as Mark Twain wrote and dictated it. They will be discouraged to know that it is unreadable. They are, of course, Frederick Anderson, and other editors of the Mark Twain papers—the only people who have seen the full Autobiography .

It is true that Mark Twain lived in “plutocratic luxury.” I find it difficult, but not impossible, to believe that Mr. Shaw seriously considers this fact literary criticism.

Janet Smith
New York City

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Peter Shaw writes:

My colleague Jonah Raskin says that I “evade the issues” and “never respond to Geismar’s arguments.” He repeats Geismar’s assertions, saying first that I treat them “as fictions made up by imaginative radicals,” then that I ignore them, and finally that I am “afraid to grapple” with them. Each of Geismar’s claims about Mark Twain certainly did imply all that Professor Raskin assumes: that America is a racist-imperialist-genocidal state and that its sick cold-war culture is typified by academic corruption and worship of the status quo. Instead of arguing with the items in this familiar indictment I showed how Geismar failed to make a case for any of them. When Professor Raskin repeats the claim that Twain denounced “the genocide of Third World peoples” he fails, as did Geismar, to square this statement with Twain’s support of the Spanish-American War. When he repeats the assertion that Twain “took a real pagan joy in life” he does not explain, if this was so, why Twain was so genteel a prude that his sense of social propriety led him, when Maxim Gorky was traveling with a mistress, to refuse to see him, even though Gorky sought Twain’s help in raising money in the United States for Russian revolutionary causes.

Professor Raskin concludes that “Twain is not ambiguous when it comes to denouncing modern American society”; but these contradictions would seem to suggest “that awful Jamesian word—ambiguity.” I used the term in the sense that Professor Raskin uses it in his article, “Henry James and the French Revolution” in which he writes that “James’s attitude toward his own society is colored by . . . ambiguities.” It should be noted in Professor Raskin’s favor that in the same article he writes that “It is quite misleading to speak of Henry James, as Maxwell Geismar does, as a ‘royalist.’”

Professor Raskin suggests that his state of mind is one of high spirits which I would have him abate: “The effect of Mr. Shaw’s review,” he writes, “is to demand that writers and critics be well-behaved.” Herein lies his fantasy (his conviction that there exist “imperialism and the cold war” is quite sound). If asked to prescribe for Professor Raskin I would not ask that he be well-behaved, whatever that phrase may mean when applied to writing, but that he adopt occasionally some of the simpler rules of reasoned discourse.

I cited Miss Smith’s book in my review to refute Maxwell Geismar’s support of the claim by Russian critics that Mark Twain’s social writings had been “suppressed.” In his preface to her book Geismar notes that it is “mainly . . . concerned with the themes of social justice, of American civilization in its dawning age of imperialism . . . and of the sinful nature of man in general” and he indicates that it provides American readers with the texts which the Russians had in mind. Since, in addition, the writings in Miss Smith’s collection provide many of the examples of Mark Twain as a radical in Geismar’s book, I noted that Geismar was wrong to charge that they had been suppressed (I should have written that the texts were all in collected editions of Twain and Miss Smith’s collection) . That Twain, not cold-war critics, suppressed his own work is not part of a lecture on “grave character deficiencies” but simply a fact. I contested the notion that Twain was a political radical, so that I quite agree with Miss Smith when she says that he does not appear as one in her book. (If anyone cares to check page 88 of my review he will see that the phrases “social and political observations” and “especially . . . American capitalism” do not refer to Miss Smith’s book but appear in the sentence previous to the one which mentions her, where they refer to the charges of the Russian critics).

My descriptions of Mark Twain as a self-censoring Victorian about sex, a worshiper of the English class system, an opponent of universal suffrage, and a pursuer of a life of plutocratic luxury were offered neither in denigration of Twain nor as “literary criticism.” Geismar called Twain an “enraged radical”; I simply showed that the evidence contradicted him. Miss Smith will have to argue with Geismar about the first three descriptions of Twain, for as I said in my review, they are his.

Mark Twain wrote a number of memorable works during his last period, it is true. As Miss Smith’s descriptions show, however, these were by and large not imaginative works but discursive ones: that is why his critics have been agreed that Twain “never experienced a true ‘rebirth’ of his creative powers.” Nor do these writings support the contention that Twain was a consistent anti-imperialist. It is in Following the Equator, in fact, that Twain, and here I quote Maxwell Geismar, “could not quite attack either the Indian ruling classes or their English masters. Here, strangely, was no mention of the white man’s imperialism and exploitation. . . . He even admired and flattered the Indian princes who in turn feted and courted him during the tour. Commenting only that English rule had been better for India than native Indian rule . . . Clemens in fact became almost sentimental in his Anglo-philiac rationalizations.”

The editors of the scholarly edition of Twain’s autobiography that is in preparation should perhaps be allowed to speak for themselves, but nowhere in the prospectuses do they suggest that their volumes are intended to turn out as a good read. As Miss Smith notes, these editors are the only ones who have studied the full text of the autobiography; that was why I objected to Geismar’s praising what he could not have read.

Miss Smith offers to supply a long list of critics who supported Van Wyck Brooks. It is interesting that what she considers to have been a unanimity of opinion against de Voto does not suggest to her that de Voto may have been wrong. The “meekness” of these critics, she explains, prevented them from speaking out for de Voto. But why would radical critics hesitate to support him? I offer Miss Smith the following partial list of my own self-styled radical critics who, in her sense, supported Brooks against de Voto: Matthew Josephson, Newton Arvin, Max Eastman, F. O. Matthiessen, Dwight Macdonald. Miss Smith offers me an abject apology if I can name “one critic who wholeheartedly defended de Voto” against Brooks. The name is DeLancey Ferguson, who in 1939 wrote: “I do not . . . just . . . refute Mr. Brooks. After Mr. de Voto got through with him, Mr. Brooks resembled Jacob Blivens, the Good Little Boy whom nitroglycerine so diffused over five counties that it was necessary to hold five separate inquests to prove that he was dead.”

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