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Mark Twain's perceptual revision: using the structural differential to map change. (Practical Application of GS Formulations).

IN AN "IDEAL" WORLD, every educational institution would have at least one formal course in general semantics and would liberally saturate general semantics formulations across, over, under, and through the curriculum. Unfortunately, because we time-binders have proven such an adaptable, accommodating, and diplomatic group, we sometimes have resorted to smuggling general semantics pedagogy through "safer" rubrics such as Critical Thinking or Understanding the Language Process. I have bootlegged general semantics and Korzybskian methodologies into my writing and literature courses and will continue to do so even after attaining general semantics as a capstone course in our English curriculum.

In this article, I would like to begin a dialogue with all of you educators using g.s. formulations in your classes, encouraging you to share your ideas with your time-binding colleagues. To initiate this process, I'd like to share with you one modest example of how I use the structural differential and the dating extensional device to illustrate Romantic, Realistic, and Naturalistic perspectives in American Literature, demonstrating how Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) revised his perceptual map three times, accommodating Romantic, Realistic, and Naturalistic perspectives into his literary repertoire.

Literary historians have chosen to characterize the high order abstractions Romanticism, Realism, and Naturalism as both time periods and unique modes of expression. It would seem more productive to regard these vastly different literary periods as choices in the perceptual or evaluative processes. A major key to understanding these movements would be to focus on the abstracting process from the event level to the perceptual level. The various kinds of details selectively abstracted by Mark Twain 1876, Mark Twain 1883, and Mark Twain 1886 reflect vastly different world views, evaluating life experiences through vastly different nervous systems. Mark Twain successfully transitioned from Romantic to Realistic to Naturalistic perspectives, accomplishing this metamorphosis by choosing to abstract different characteristics from the event level at different time periods in his life.

M. H. Abrams in his Glossary of Literary Terms describes Romanticism as both a time period (generally reckoned the first thirty years of the nineteenth century 1800-1830) and a particular outlook on life, in which the human emotions and the human imagination would consider things as one would like them to be - rather than as they necessarily are. Abrams continues:

* It went to the distant past for a glorious, more glamorous interpretation of life.

* It sought escape in the unknown.

* It gloried in the mystic.

* Romanticism is highly individualistic and subjective.

* Romanticism was characterized as youthful, rash, and enthusiastic.

* Romanticism was characterized as a state of dissatisfaction with what is.

* Romanticism was fascinated with the supernatural, the macabre, and the ghoulish.

* Romanticism lays the greatest stress on the individual - on his introspective interior monologue - on his private thoughts and feelings and on his own ego.

* Romanticism has been termed the very essence of the subjective.

* Romanticism has a deep and unsatisfiable yearning for the remote, the unusual, and the unattainable -- emphasizing the seeking rather than the achieving.

I have emphasized some of Abrams terms as characteristics that individuals would abstract from the event level, giving their writing a decidedly Romantic bias. On the accompanying diagram, I have assigned a plus sign, thus [PLUS SIGN INSIDE CIRCLE], to these characteristics. I have already cautioned my students that different writers will choose different characteristics. Romantic [(Poe).sub.1] is not Romantic [(Hawthorne).sub.2] is not Romantic [(Emerson).sub.3] and that [Twain.sub.1876] is not [Twain.sub.1883] is not [Twain.sub.1885.]

Literary historians also characterize Realism as both a time period (roughly the second half of the nineteenth century 1865-1895) and a mode of describing life -- partially a reaction to the excesses of Romanticism and as a response to the grim realities of the American Civil War. This mode of expression coincides with the Victorian movement in British literature.

The key to understanding this approach is to observe the abstraction process. The individual writing Realistic fiction selectively abstracts certain characteristics, creating the illusion that this reflects life 'as it is' or 'seems to be' to the 'common reader.' The writer of Realistic fiction will choose an 'ordinary citizen' living in Middletown U.S.A., living on Main Street, engaged in the real estate or hardware business. The writer of Realistic fiction is just as selective as the writer of Romantic fiction, preferring the everyday occupations like shoe salesmen or clerks as opposed to motorcycle policemen, vice detectives, or actors.

Abrams suggests that writers of Realistic fiction "prefer people of the middle class, without exceptional endowments, having normal life experiences such as childhood, adolescence, love, marriage, parenthood, infidelity, and death." Abrams, also, suggests that the writer of Realistic fiction prefers to portray a certain reaction to life, finding life "dull, unhappy, occasionally brightened by touches of beauty and joy. Under special circumstances the characters display something akin to heroism." (p.141, 3rd Edition) Abrams and other literary historians generally regard Defoe as a precursor of the Realistic perspective because he "rendered the fabricated events in a reportorial manner using matter of fact, seemingly unselective, exaggerated attention to detail." (p.174) (Emphasis mine.)

Abrams concludes that the term 'Realist' is reserved for those who render a subject seriously as though it were a direct reflection of the casual order of experience. In order to achieve the Realistic perspective, one has to leave out many characteristics which give a different life picture. On the accompanying diagram, I have chosen to represent the selective abstractions of the writers of Realistic fiction with an asterisk, thus

Bruce McElderry describes Naturalism as an extreme form of Realism -- almost an anti-Romantic bias in the abstracting process. Abrams suggests that Naturalism "subscribes to the Darwinian thesis, which holds that humankind belongs entirely in the order of nature and does not have a soul or any other connection with a spiritual world beyond nature. Man is merely a higher-order animal whose character and fortunes are determined by two kinds of natural forces: heredity and environment. He inherits his personal traits and his compulsive instincts, especially hunger and sex, and is subject to the social and economic forces in the family, class, and milieu into which he is born." (Emphasis mine.) Like the writer of Romantic and Realistic fiction, the Naturalist has to become highly selective, choosing to magnify cause and effect relationships, choosing to subscribe to a deterministic nature of the universe consisting of two principal determinants -- heredity and environment. (p.175) McElderry suggests "a thoroughly Naturalistic novel read by a thoroughly fatalistic reader would produce a response of apathetic acceptance. (p.5)

At the end of Chapter VIII in Stephen Crane's The Blue Hotel we see the Naturalist's selective abstraction of what we would call pessimistic characteristics: "One viewed the existence of man then as a marvel, and conceded a glamour of wonder to these lice which were caused to cling to a whirling, fire smote, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb." (p.1736) Crane also captures the essence of the Naturalistic perspective in his aphoristic "A Man Said To The Universe":

A man said to the universe:

"Sir, I exist!"

"However," replied the universe,

"The fact has not created in me

"A sense of obligation."

On the accompanying diagram, I have chosen to represent the pessimistic abstractions of the writers of Naturalistic fiction with a minus sign

Mark Twain provides for us a macrocosm of all three perspectives. One could say that his great trilogy, Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Life On the Mississippi (1883) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), all ostensibly falling within the Realistic time frame, give the reader an odyssey of Twain's shifting perspectives from Romanticism to Realism to Naturalism. Perhaps we have the sharpest focus of these marked perceptual changes in an excerpt from Twain's Life on the Mississippi, given the title "Two Ways of Seeing a River" by William Dean Howells to start off the 1875 volume of the Atlantic. The first excerpt describes the set of selective abstractions Twain made at a youthful, optimistic, romantic phase in his life recalled retrospectively at a more mature and reflective phase of his life:

I still kept in mind a certain wonderful sunset I witnessed when steam-boating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling; tumbling rings that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced. (p.85)

As Twain studied this waterscape with the eyes of a skipper, the romantic hue started to give way to another set of abstractions, intent on maintaining the well-being and safety of his passengers and crew:

This sun means that we are going to have wind tomorrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody's steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling 'boils' show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously. (p.86)

Robert Spiller in his Cycle of American Literature takes three time-lapse photographs of the beloved American humorist, discovering three distinctly different human beings. The Romantic Twain (the creator of Tom Sawyer) was "a lover of life, filled with its mysteries, alarmed by its terrors, amused by its inconsistencies." (p.124)

The Realistic Twain (the creator of Huckleberry Finn) was a skeptic or agnostic who had "turned against mankind because of its inhumanity to man." (p.124)

To turn Twain into a bitter, disillusioned Naturalist required a series of personal tragedies, including the deaths of his brother, two daughters and his wife, mounting debts, and his own deteriorating health. Spiller points Out that "from 1884 to the end of his life, the inner Mark Twain was a different person from that of his public image. In his heart he thought of himself as a disillusioned cynic whose personal life had ended in a succession of tragedies and who believed in nothing." (p.125)

Spiller concludes that Twain in his final work The Mysterious Stranger accepted the deterministic Darwinian thesis, depriving mankind of his free will. Spiller suggests that The Mysterious Stranger "is one of the most bitter commentaries on human nature ever written." (p.127) In one section of this work, "The Chronicle of Young Satan," the following appraisal captures the essence of the Naturalistic perspective:

You belong to a singular race. Every man is a suffering-machine and happiness-machine combined. The two functions work together harmoniously, with a fine and delicate precision, on the give-and-take principle. For every happiness turned out in the one department the other one stands ready to modify it with a sorrow or a pain -- maybe a dozen. In most cases the man's life is about equally divided between happiness and unhappiness. When this is not the case the unhappiness predominates -- always; never the other. (p. 112)

Twain once characterized the human race as a "museum of diseases, a home of impurities," who "begins as dirt and departs as stench" -- "created for no apparent purpose except the nourishment of microbes." (Leary, p.5)


Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. New York: Rinehart, 1957.

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms 3rd. ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms 6th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1993.

Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Baldanza, Frank. Mark Twain: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Barnes And Noble, 1961.

Crane, Stephen. "The Blue Hotel" in The Norton Anthology of American Literature Shorter 5th edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.

Leary, Lewis. Mark Twain. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minn. Press, 1960.

Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts. Ed. William Gibson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

McElderry, Bruce R. Jr. The Realistic Movement in American Writing. New York: Odyssey Press, 1965.

Spiller, Robert. The Cycle of American Literature. New York: The New American Library, 1956.

Twain, Mark. "Two Ways of Seeing a River" in Patterns of Exposition 8th ed. Randall E. Decker. Boston: Little Brown, 1982.

David F. Maas *

* David Maas, Ed.D., Professor of English at Wiley College, Marshall, Texas, author of many ETC articles, currently serves as VP/Education, ISGS.
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Author:Maas, David F.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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