Joe B. Fulton. Mark Twain Under Fire: Reception and Reputation, Criticism and Controversy 1851-2015. Camden House, 2018.

With his latest publication, Mark Twain Under Fire, Joe B. Fulton has added significantly to the area of Mark Twain Studies. This highly academic text is an important resource for any scholar interested not only in Twain but in exploring America’s Gilded Age and into the early twentieth century, the period in which Twain’s political voice reached its seniority. Fulton makes it clear in his Introduction that this work is not simply a literary history, “it is a work of criticism as well” (7), and in the course of his narrative Fulton does not hesitate to critique some well-known Twain critics. As might be expected of any narrative by or about Twain, argument or controversy is immediately apparent, with the conflict beginning on the front cover. While this is perhaps not the wisest way to judge a book, in this case the image of Mark Twain feigning to aim a pistol at intruders gives a sense of what to expect from the five chapters which make up Mark Twain Under Fire. For many general Twain enthusiasts, the “under fire” (11) portion of the title will immediately draw the mind to the reception Adventures of Huckleberry Finn received in 1885. As Fulton recounts, Twain’s most famous novel was initially attacked as “low and dangerous.” It is well known that this “trashy and vicious” narrative was banned from the Concord, Massachusetts Public Library, home to the more urbane writers, Louisa May Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson (10). Fulton’s critique begins with Twain’s own view of Concord’s style of critical condemnation—“At the worst, criticism is nothing more than a crime, and I am not unused to that” (1). The text’s Introduction reminds us that the author’s familiarity with delinquency did not begin in New England. Instead, Mark Twain Under Fire opens its analysis by reaching back to the very beginning of Twain’s writing apprenticeship in Missouri, when he attempted to make the Hannibal Journal a bit more “lively” by “lampooning” the editor of a rival paper, only to then find his work critiqued by the dual barrels of a shotgun (1). In the five chapters which follow, Fulton takes us from this initial 1852 controversy through the heated criticisms, both personal and professional, which Twain received during his lifetime. By the time the narrative reaches its final stage you realise that the debate remains ongoing. When the iconic author decreed that the publication of his Autobiography should wait until the centenary of his death, Twain effectively wrote himself into the twenty-first century canon, where he remains under fire.

Fulton launches his in-depth scrutiny with the critical reception of Twain’s early work. For many nineteenth-century reviewers, Twain was merely a “humourist, and a rather low one at that” (11). On the other hand, he was revered as one of America’s finest writers by influential contemporary critic William Dean Howells. Despite Howells’s praise, Twain remained “rankled” by those “who considered him unliterary” (11). This pique, it seems, often led him to respond with satiric fire. Fulton’s first chapter, “A Reputation That Can Stand Fire,” gives a very thorough overview of the reviews for Twain’s initial work, primarily Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing it (1872), and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), but it touches on many other works as well. It also includes painstaking analysis of Twain’s fluent responses, sometimes in French as well as English, proving the writer to be more than simply a “phunny phellow” (16). Across the continent in San Francisco, where Twain’s literary roots first flourished, his writing was considered with more seriousness. The concerns around “coarseness and bad taste” advanced by Concord Massachusetts (10) were “Rul[ed] out” as “absurd” in California (23). Fulton highlights that the San Francisco Chronicle addressed the sensitive subject of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’s “‘Evasion’ ending,” which still can remain challenging to present-day scholars and readers and is often cited even by devotees of Twain’s work as a fundamental flaw in the narrative. The eastern critiques of the novel were read as “absurd” by contemporary western critics, particularly those at the Chronicle. They believed that the novel’s serious elements were “entirely missed” (23):

Take the whole latter part of the book, which is given up to the ludicrous attempt to free the negro, Jim, from his imprisonment on the Arkansas plantation. This is a well-sustained travesty of the escapes of great criminals, and can only be fully appreciated by one who has read what it ridicules. Running through the book is the sharpest satire on the ante-bellum estimate of the slave. Huckleberry Finn, the son of a worthless, drunken, poor white, is troubled with many qualms of conscience because of the part he is taking in helping the negro to gain his freedom. This has been called exaggerated by some critics, but there is nothing truer in the book. (23)

For nineteenth-century critics like Frank Stockton (1893), Huckleberry Finn ushered a “philosophic spirit” into Twain’s work. Humour remained, but the writer’s work had matured, thus, “the figure in the tragic mask stalk[ed] through” much of his later writing (23).

Perhaps one of the most interesting critical analogies brought to light in Fulton’s survey comes from one of Twain’s detractors, Charles Miner Thompson. Thompson maintained that Twain was “not a great or a skilful writer. The influences of his early years were not such as would make him one.” Because of this Thompson assumed that “Americans would outgrow Twain’s juvenility” (24). However, along with other critics, Thompson had the grace to later argue that while Twain lacked the skills of a great writer, he “occupie[d] a strangely conspicuous position in the world of contemporary letters. He has long been accepted by the people, never the critics” (25). Thompson offered a significant and compelling comparison with another beloved nineteenth-century figure whose lack of decorum in no way diminished his public appeal—the late president Abraham Lincoln:

In the conventional sense, Mark Twain is no more a literary artist than, in the conventional sense, Lincoln was a gentleman. But in spite of lack of polish Lincoln was great: may not Mark Twain, the writer, in spite of his crude literary manners, be great also? … [A]fter all, is not the feeling of kinship the people had with the statesman the same which they have with the writer? (25)

Fulton’s highlighting of this analogy, and the detailed research material which he ably uses to support it, offers an interesting vein to be further mined by future scholars of nineteenth-century American icons or by those wishing to link Twain’s early humorous satire to the biting political invective of his later work.

In Chapter two, “‘All Right, Then, I’ll Go to Hell’: Mark Twain’s Disputed Legacy, 1910-1950,” Fulton delves into the type of critical fire Twain’s writing came under after the author’s death. It would seem that even posthumously Twain had the ability to keep things “lively” (1). The voices of Twain’s official biographer Albert Bigelow Paine and cultural critic H.L. Mencken enter the fray at this point, arguing the pros and cons of the legitimacy of Mark Twain’s appearance in the American literary canon. The rightfulness of his position there is shown to be further compromised in Van Wyck Brooks’ narrative account The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920). In this text the deceased writer is viewed as a Jekyll and Hyde-type character who attempted to “redeem” American society by “the fullest use of his own powers,” while the contrasting side of his writing seemed to “shirk” this “responsibility” and conform to the status quo instead (55). Fulton, along with many of the cited twentieth-century reviewers, does not allow Brooks to have the final word in this assessment, however. Fulton quotes German Twain scholar Friedrich Schönemann, who maintained, “To understand the American humorist and writer Mark Twain, a person must have two things: a sense of America and a sense of humor”; as Fulton views it, Brooks had neither (57). Chapter Two continues to provide a chronology of twentieth-century writers, scholars, and critics who enter into the Brooks-led debate concerning the acceptability of Mark Twain’s position in the literary culture of the United States. It steadfastly argues that the reputation of few writers has undergone this degree of “mental-spiritual autops[y],” as Twain’s daughter Clara would later characterise it in a mid-twentieth-century letter (90). To have the entire debate laid out so effectively in this single volume is a boon to any researcher of the Twain archives.

In chapter three, “‘Only One Right Form for a Story’: Mark Twain and Cold War Criticism 1950-1970,” politics rears its contentious head and once again Mark Twain is under fire. One would be forgiven for assuming that by the 1950s Mark Twain and his work might have been consigned to American Literature’s Hall of Fame, to be read and admired by students, and critiqued and analysed by scholars. However, as Fulton’s research makes clear, the popular writer was not allowed to rest. The first sentence in chapter three opens the discussion with a bang. “Forget the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Fulton declares: a war of words had begun that would leave “a Twain scholar pleading his case to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev” (93). This line alone prompted this reviewer to delve deeper into the controversy. It appears that the 1959 The Autobiography of Mark Twain edited by prominent American Twain scholar Charles Neider received a “very negative review” from Russia’s Literary Gazette (93). They accused Neider of “purposely squelching Twain’s criticisms of America…his fiery diatribes against America’s ‘predatory wars’ and his [condemnations] of the ‘knights and henchmen of American expansionism’” (93). While Neider’s version of the Autobiography evoked the great American humourist, according to the Russians, the man being eulogised was “not the genuine article” (94). Fulton does make it clear that Neider’s narrative did not entirely please some American critics. Several felt that Neider had “played pretty freely and loosely [when] compiling his book” and thus, according to the Journal American Literature, it was not deemed to be a useful text for “the serious student or scholar” (93). Where the Americans attacked Neider on the grounds of shoddy erudition, the Russians read his work as “a supreme example of scholarly ill faith” (93). Their reasoning had some merit. While Americans were reading of a folksy and comical Mark Twain, readers in the Soviet Union “were encountering a Twain unafraid to launch salvos at the hypocrisy and failings of the country that he loved” (96). Fulton’s analysis in “Only One Right Form for a Story” ably chronicles the serious academic argument which took place during the Cold War era surrounding the author’s “status” and even his loyalty (130). He pulls no punches in this chapter, particularly when he exposes plagiarism within Mark Twain: Social Critic, the work of pioneering American labour historian Phillip Foner (101-03). For anyone interested in the more serious or fraught side of Mark Twain scholarship, this chapter should be the first port of call.

Chapter Four, “‘Everyone Is a Moon, and Has a Dark Side’: New Phases of Mark Twain Criticism from the 1970s through the 1980s,” ushers in “new phase[s] in Twain criticism” (131). Here Fulton looks at how Twain has been read through the lens of late twentieth-century literary theorists. Provocative as ever, Fulton’s text examines and dismisses the approach to Twain’s work taken by Norman Kiell in Varieties of Sexual Experience: Psychosexuality in Literature (1976) along with the work of a plethora of other scholars from the era. Fulton’s criticisms are not entirely unfavourable, however. The feminist work of Judith Fetterly is seen to look “afresh at the dynamics at play in the works” (135). The work of other prominent Twain scholars, such as William M. Gibson and Alan Gribbe, is also positively critiqued. The articles and books covered in this chapter are so extensive and varied that it would be difficult to determine whether Fulton has failed to include any work published that discusses any aspect of Mark Twain’s work during the twenty-year period indicated in the chapter title. The Trojan work of the Mark Twain Project comes under some direct scrutiny: nevertheless, the group is rightly considered to have “advanced” Twain scholarship into the current century (138). Fulton declares that, although Twain had continuously held his place as a “major figure in world literature,” it was during this period that he was elevated to a position among the greats and came to be discussed alongside Homer and Cervantes (138). He uses Leon Gottfried’s 1972 article “The Odysseyan Form” to support this contention and develops a convincing argument. No discussion of literary critique during the 1980s would be complete without turning to look at New Historicism, and Fulton does not neglect this “most important methodology” (157). The latter part of this chapter examines the approaches taken by scholars working in this field, and it seems no one is left out. Overall this chapter surveys late twentieth-century scholarship, offering extensive information to scholars already working in Mark Twain studies. Additionally, it contains many threads which could be further unravelled by those with a serious interest in the author.

True to form, in the fifth and final chapter, “‘It is Difference of Opinion That Makes Horse-Races’: Mark Twain as a Partisan in the Culture Wars, 1990s to 2015,” Twain’s work and that of his critics again comes under fire. Fulton begins this analysis by reminding us of the 1996 Jane Smiley article “Say it Ain’t so Huck” that began an academic row, primarily in Harper’s, that, Smiley declares, “received more ‘hate mail’ than [the magazine] had received since its founding in 1850” (171). The argument made here is really very interesting for current scholars as it not only takes on Twain critics but engages with the problem of political correctness, which has only intensified in the intervening years. The problem is further escalated by the highlighting of the elimination of Twain and his work from the Cambridge History of American Literature (2005), a removal which seems remarkable considering that Twain’s voice was expected to enter the fray again with the publication of the first volume of his Autobiography in 2010. “Dissensus [had certainly become] the master narrative” around Twain’s work during this period (172), and it might be argued that this disagreement led to Twain’s exclusion from the Cambridge History. Fulton highlights the differences of opinion around both the author and his work at this time and places them to the fore in the “Horse race […]” he presents here (171). Chapter five raises a very real issue that might give a clue to Twain’s omission from the scholarly text. It is a controversial problem that enters into many critiques of Twain’s work, in particular his most widely taught novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This is the question of recognising and understanding “how to read satire” (177). Twain himself acknowledged the conundrum and was, it seems, perplexed by it. Although the satirical elements in Huckleberry Finn were:

“so broad and so perfectly palpable that even a one-eyed potato could see it” some people inevitably miss “the ‘nub’ or moral,” sometimes due to “the superior glare of something in the body of the burlesque itself.” With Huckleberry Finn, that “superior glare” is the word “nigger.” (178)

It is at this point that Fulton touches on the true “[d]issensus” within twenty-first-century Mark Twain Studies, the elephant in the classroom, the “N-word” (178). The arguments presented here are cogent and particularly useful for any teacher/lecturer called upon to supervise class discussion around this politically sensitive issue. Most of the reasons for and against keeping Twain’s work on the US school curriculum are usefully mapped out here, and the reader or teacher can use this to inform their own personal approach to teaching the narrative.

Overall, as a historical survey of Twain criticism Mark Twain Under Fire is a remarkably valuable resource. Fulton appears to have extensively covered most of the relevant instances when Mark Twain and his work have been seen to be under fire either personally or politically. The book is usefully broken down into periods that reflect the “the tenor of [the] times” in which the work was critiqued (208). This arrangement not only points the scholar toward controversies surrounding the iconic author, but it offers the reader some solid insight into the American culture of each era. Due to the density of the narrative, however, the author does not appear to have intended it for the casual reader. Nonetheless, it deserves a place in the library of any serious Twain scholar.


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