Commentary Magazine

Mark Twain: An American Prophet, by Maxwell Geismar

Partisan View


Mark Twain: An American Prophet.
by Maxwell Geismar.
Houghton Mifflin. 574 pp. $10.00.

The Mark Twain controversy is a dispute about America. Van Wyck Brooks, in The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920), was the first to suggest that the crudity and shallowness of American society—first on the Missouri frontier of Twain’s youth and in the genteel East where he lived his adult life—kept Twain from achieving his full artistic maturity. Starting with Bernard de Voto, whose Mark Twain’s America (1932) was the first challenge to Brooks, the opponents of this thesis have tended not to argue that Mark Twain’s achievement was higher than Brooks claimed, but rather that Brooks failed to appreciate the virtues of 19th-century American culture. As is now well-known, these critics have ended by coming over pretty much to Brooks’s view (de Voto after editing the late works of Twain’s decline) while Brooks, as he developed into a celebrator of the American 19th century, went over to the opposition. Maxwell Geismar continues the tradition of focusing on Mark Twain’s America, but he is the first party to the controversy to state unequivocally that, far from showing a decline, Twain’s “late work far surpassed his earlier in knowledge and insight, in its range and complexity of artistic vision.”



When he was sixty-one, Mark Twain suffered personal tragedy: he went bankrupt, his wife’s chronic invalidism grew worse, and his favorite daughter died. Twain recovered slowly from his personal grief and, becoming rich again, doggedly paid off his creditors; but, as even his greatest admirers have had to admit, he never experienced a true “rebirth” of his creative powers. Geismar’s claim that Twain went on to become an even greater writer than he had been before his reversals would hardly merit serious attention were it not accompanied by his additional charge that Mark Twain’s later greatness has not simply been overlooked, but has been systematically suppressed by “Cold War critics.” Geismar argues, or rather proclaims, that because Twain was “a natural (and unconscious) Marxist in part of his thinking,” he threatens the 1950’s-like conformity and complacency of these critics who either deny or ignore Twain’s espousal of revolutionary violence, his “repudiation of . . . white Anglo-Saxon culture,” his exposures of “the genocide on which American culture rested,” and his general insight into the “American racist culture.” The Russians, however, are “accurate” in their charge that Americans know only a Mark Twain censored of his social and political observations, especially his attacks on American capitalism. It must be understood that Geismar is making an ideological point here, so that it would be a mere quibble to point out that the documents to which he refers all appear in the numerous collected editions of Mark Twain, or that they were specifically brought together in 1962 in a volume called Mark Twain on the Damned Human Race, with a foreword by . . . Maxwell Geismar.

If Geismar’s glaring contradictions are worth attention, therefore, it is only as examples of how a literary critic may go about the appropriation of the fashionable leftism of the day. Himself a figure of the 30’s, Geismar has seen fit to revive the vulgar Marxism of that period, only bringing it up to date by dressing it in the stylish garb of youth-worship, Reichian sexual license, Third World polemics, and, at last, the inevitable equation of the United States with Hitler Germany.



Geismar calls “nonsense” the view that Huckleberry Finn was Mark Twain’s one masterpiece since “his whole career was a classic.” Most readers would agree that there are brilliant passages throughout Twain’s writings, but they would nevertheless have to notice much that is unfortunate. From his first major book, The Innocents Abroad, “as in almost all Twain’s work from start to last, the quality is uneven” because of “padded material” and “dragging and belabored narrative.” The first volume of The Gilded Age, a collaboration, is “poor as literature and disappointing as a historical document.” Sketches New and Old has “many . . . sections of trivia; casual, hasty little familiar essays.” Even Tom Sawyer “hinge[s] upon a ridiculous melodrama” and suffers from Twain’s “uneasiness” about handling sex. A Tramp Abroad, with its “sluggish prose” is an “ordeal” to read, while The Prince and the Pauper, with its “execrable language” and its “affected” central character, amounts to so much “silly stuff”—“contrived and inadequate.” The second volume of Life on the Mississippi, a better book, is “an inferior travelogue.” A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court has both a “confused structure” and “improbable characters.”

Beginning in the 90’s, these weaknesses become even more common. In Pudd’nhead Wilson, the “literary execution” of Roxy, the heroine, “is uneven and sometimes quite false.” It is to be remarked that Twain “did not create an effective heroine in the whole body of his work.” Later, “it is difficult to find anything of interest in Joan of Arc—except its badness.” The sequels to Tom Sawyer “cause one only to wonder how Clemens could so openly exploit his famous earlier book while debasing the original characters and concepts.”

If these judgments appear too harsh or exaggerated that is because the tone in which they are expressed carries Maxwell Geismar’s harsh assertiveness: all of the quotations in the previous two paragraphs are his. Were Geismar not so insistent on branding any criticism of Mark Twain as part of the “Cold War” critics “fashionable and herdlike theory,” one might have tried to suggest that, like Bernard de Voto and others who over the years have challenged The Ordeal of Mark Twain, he inevitably fell into the Brooksian orbit. But Geismar exempts himself from any such generosity; as fast as he piles up refutations of his own thesis, he pours out anathemas on all who disagree with him. Van Wyck Brooks gets off fairly easily. He “did not understand Twain’s humor” and, unlike Geismar, “falsely used this great artist” to prove a thesis. Others—Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, F. R. Leavis, Irving Howe, Leon Edel, to give a partial list—are either “prurient Freudians,” aesthetes, or “Cold War” ideologues. The remarks on Lionel Trilling are particularly ill-taken since Geismar owes a debt to Trilling’s pioneering analysis of Huckleberry Finn. Charles Neider, Geismar reveals, omitted certain sections from his edition of Twain’s Autobiography not “on grounds of ‘taste’ or ‘esthetics,’ as Neider claimed” (nor because they were already available in other editions and would have made his too long), “but really because of the prevailing Cold War theology in the American fifties whose narrow values many critics accepted so blandly, so smugly, so piously. And still do.”

Geismar’s political assault rests on his contention that Mark Twain’s writings from 1897 until his death in 1910 not only constituted his great period, but are characterized by a critique of America that stemmed from the fact that Twain “alone among American writers . . . had discovered the true nature of modern imperialism.” Geismar’s own strictures on the works of this period, however, are more severe than those of any of its denigrators. The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg is an “indistinguished lot” of “poor fiction,” and the title story is itself “uneven in craft, rough in detail.” A Double-Barreled Detective Story is “a heavy-footed parody”; The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories contains “too many trivial and minor tales for padding”; the “tedious” and “boring” What Is Man? is “not only tangential . . . but self-contradictory”; Christian Science is “uneven”; A Horse’s Tale, with its “sadistic ending,” is “cruel and hard.” And so on.

Geismar makes similar comments about the two works of this period that he holds up for praise: The Mysterious Stranger and Twain’s Autobiography, both of which have had their champions, contrary to what he suggests. But more important, what he values in these books is not so much their social or political content as that purely imaginative aesthetic he so despises when “Cold War critics” talk about it. Unfortunately for even this unwitting capitulation, the excellent passages Geismar likes best in the Autobiography were written in the 1870’s, while the unfinished condition of The Mysterious Stranger, even if Geismar were right to praise its adolescent nihilism, remains a sad testimony to Twain’s confusion near the end.

Of course Geismar disdainfully and in italics dismisses both “the academic controversy over the various editions” of The Mysterious Stranger and the textual problems of the Autobiography. The fact is, however, that he has chosen two works where these matters are crucial. He fulminates against editors who have “suppressed” parts of Twain’s Autobiography, twitting them for their elitist notions of form: “One must understand and accept” Twain’s “lack of form . . . in order to grasp the secret of his greatness.” Charles Neider, ignorant of this principle, has left out certain portions of the Autobiography: “And very likely this was done at the cost of some of Twain’s best passages of writing.” But just a moment. If it is “very likely” that Neider has omitted passages, if Geismar is not certain whether or not he has, then Geismar has not seen all of Mark Twain’s Autobiography. He insists that this is a neglected and bowdlerized masterpiece, that its formless form has been misunderstood, and that it must be printed exactly as Twain wrote it to be appreciated, yet he has never read the work he praises.

More accurately, what he has not studied is the jumble of manuscripts which Mark Twain wrote and dictated over a period of nearly forty years. Including reminiscences, essays, letters, journal entries, and other odds and ends, all the sheets that Mark Twain designated to be included in his Autobiography would add up to an utterly unwieldy and unreadable book, as the scholars and editors have patiently explained. One may argue about the different principles of selection used by the three editors who have done editions of the “autobiography.” But to talk of suppression, even in the service of a faltering thesis like Geismar’s, is absurd. Once again Geismar himself provides the evidence against his own claims, for he eventually admits that the Autobiography is “tedious” and “repetitious,” and that Neider was right to put the disordered manuscripts into a chronological order, formless form notwithstanding.



It would be superfluous to document how Geismar also undermines his own case against the despair which characterizes Twain’s late works, how he provides the sort of Freudian interpretations of Twain’s books as projections of his life that he complains of in critics like Justin Kaplan (in fact neither Van Wyck Brooks nor Justin Kaplan has a Freudian thesis, though both avail themselves of psychological insights), how he shows Twain to have been a self-censoring Victorian about sex (despite his claim that Twain showed in his works a pagan love of the flesh), or, finally, how he reveals that his “enraged radical” lived in plutocratic luxury, hobnobbing with the head of Standard Oil, and spurning first the Haymarket rioters and then Maxim Gorky when he came to America in 1906 to raise money for the Russian revolutionary movement. (Twain was, you see, a “spy in the house of the oligarchy.”)

But Geismar’s accusing tone in praising Twain’s social criticism in essays like “King Leopold’s Soliloquy,” “A War Prayer,” and “The United States of Lyncherdom” is pure comedy worthy of Mark Twain himself. For Geismar neglects to mention that Twain acquiesced in his publisher’s reluctance to print these works; he accepted the suggestion that he donate the first to be printed as a pamphlet by the Boston Congo Reform Association while he suppressed the other two—the last lest it hurt his sales in the South.1 In view of these facts, Geismar’s hilariious comment on “The United States of Lyncherdom”—“who knows, if Paine had not published it in 1923, and if, still later, it had fallen into the hands of the Cold War critics of the 1950’s, it would still remain unpublished”—deserves a special place in the literary history of our times.



Geismar’s obsessive irrationality suggests how potent the anti-American emotion has grown in the space of a few years. For notice that any ordinary resentment against the society would be satisfied by Brooks’s thesis that Mark Twain’s failure was the consequence of his being an American. But Geismar is concerned to indict political America as well as American society, though he seems not quite aware of the distinction between the two. To do so he employs the myth of an “Old Republic” with democratic revolutionary values (though based on genocide) under which Mark Twain grew up and was nurtured, and a “Modern American Empire” (also engaged in genocide) against which Twain presciently rebelled. (That Twain in the Republic period repudiated American democracy in general and universal suffrage in particular even as he worshiped the English class system, which Geismar does not mention, or that he approved the Spanish American War in the Empire period, which Geismar does note, need hardly give us pause. Any such deviations are simply “very un-Twainish Twain.”)



The spirit of fury against the nation combined with assertive praise of what it once is supposed to have been marks a resurgence of the self-righteous strain in native radicalism. Mark Twain hated America, it is proclaimed, and that damning truth has been kept from us; but Mark Twain was a red-blooded American, like Maxwell Geismar an old-fashioned American democrat of the sort that Jamesian aesthetes fear and cannot understand (the book jacket of Mark Twain: An American Prophet appropriately features a slanted red, white, and blue stripe with stars across its face containing the last three words of the title). This foisting of partisan politics on the past is what is known as making history “relevant.” The historical revisionists having invented an American imperium responsible for the major ills of the 20th century, literary revisionists may now add that certain writers always knew the terrible truth, that their revelations have been shamefully obscured by literary helots, and that the only true patriots are those who have the courage to proclaim the great anti-American tradition in American letters.

Yet despite Geismar’s effort to misread him, Mark Twain’s rise to greatness, fortune, and then tragedy with the fulfillment of his dream remains a classic American example. Not quite destroyed by the society, as Brooks at first had it, nor yet its unambiguous champion, as de Voto for a time believed, Mark Twain embodied and sometimes made into art that ambiguity toward the mother country that many of us feel and a few allow to degenerate into blind hatred.



1 This information comes from a book Geismar understandably abhors, Justin Kaplan's splendid Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain.

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