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Mark Twain and William James: Crafting a Free Self.

HORN, JASON GARY. (Columbia, Missouri: Unix of Missouri Press, 1996). 189 pp. $34.95.

Says Jason Gary Horn, early in this study of William James's presence in Mark Twain's thinking: "On one level, I am arguing a case for direct influence" (p. 17). In most of what follows, however, Horn is apparently arguing no such thing, as witnessed by a succession of cautions in the last chapter of this brief book. For instance: "Twain, of course, was not merely a satellite of James, and though his portrayal of Huck, Joan, and August may be read as particularly responsive to James's line of thinking, other characters such as Hank Morgan and David Wilson remain less susceptible to Jamesian readings" (p. 150). And soon after: "By no means, then, have I intended to suggest that the use of James completes our knowledge of Twain: James only provides another angle of vision and a different interpretive point of view" (p. 151). Here and elsewhere, the prose wavers, perhaps because of the difficulty of what this book is trying to accomplish. Horn navigates the treacherous mire of Mark Twain's intellectual collisions, funks, and fancies, and seeks to explain how one such encounter, a sketchily-documented relationship with James, shows up in some of Twain's fiction. In making this trek, Horn has researched his subjects carefully and sought to keep his conclusions plausible. There are facts to build on: Mark Twain and William James met (apparently for the first time) in 1892, and there are a few extant letters between them on nothing of literary importance. James and Twain were members of the Society for Psychical Research; they belonged to the Anti-Imperialist League, and as Horn notes, they "described one another in letters to others, and kept personal notes about each other in workbooks, notebooks, and copy texts" (p. 17). Though the book quotes nothing of substance from these materials, it does review the best piece of evidence that Twain took special interest in James's formulations: Twain's copy (now in private hands) of James's 1902 masterwork The Varieties of Religious Experience, in which Twain "entered various marks, underlinings, and comments on the opening chapter" (p. 120), and drew some wavy lines on later pages. Horn finds additional cues for rereading Twain with James in mind: "By the completion of No. 44, all of James's major works were available to Twain," and the "marks and comments in his own copy of the Varieties reveal that Twain took a special interest in James's theory of the divided self." (p. 110). In the last ten years of Mark Twain's life, therefore, there is evidence that Mark Twain had seen some of what William James had written, and could have seen more.

How to proceed from there? Horn summarizes his strategy: "Reading Twain's ideas against the notions of William James, who was working toward a like philosophy of mind, provides us with a clarifying angle of vision, an opening view into Twain's concept of a divided self" (p. 30). Horn is aware, however, that the idea or dream of a divided self, a subliminal, supernal, demonic or angelic "other" within, was already an old literary trope when Mark Twain was a boy, and that Transcendental yearnings and determinist denials of all that had no need of William James to bring them to Twain's attention. Horn also knows that we cannot escape conundrums embedded in what we know of Mark Twain's other intellectual interests and habits: that his reading was wide, unsteadily intense, and chaotic, that ideas (intellectually-respectable and otherwise) flowed over him from every quarter, and that philosophically-rigorous habits of inquiry were never his long suit.

Therefore, in looking for traces of James in Mark Twain's writing from the years before Twain and James actually met, and before Twain demonstrably settled down to look at any essential text by James, Horn's tactic is to focus on the minute particular. He reads fragments of two long texts, Huckleberry Finn and Joan of Arc, as signaling a generally-Jamesian sort of thinking about the intellect, modes of reasoning, and possible alterity within the self. With regard to Huckleberry Finn, the study treats a handful of paragraphs: Jim's thoughts on the wisdom of King Solomon; Huck describing his experiences alone in the fog; and Jim's famous response to Huck's last practical joke: "Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en makes 'em ashamed." Horn's reading of this last passage lands on Jim's conjunction, that "en"--and discovering momentous implications, Horn lets his pronouns float away: "In this passage, Jim's conjunction `en' clearly claims an ordinating precedence. Although Twain is surely expressing Jim's emotional state and following his sense of the demands of vernacular realism, his conjunctive emphasis at the same time points to the more complex relations between word and thought occurring within the consciousness of Huck" (p. 44).

Focusing on such discrete words and short passages, the discussions of Huck Finn and Joan of Arc are offered as demonstrating that the complete texts require interpretation with William James in mind. The chapter on Joan of Arc centers on the title page of the novel, finding indications there that Twain's narrative intends to overthrow conventional ideas of textual authority, as a way of continuing "to explore the problems that complicated his earlier theorizing upon consciousness in Huckleberry Finn" (p. 70). Regarding the "front matter" of Joan of Arc, the chapter reveals that the name of the fictitious Sieur Louis de Conte, who tells the tale, is a corruption or modification of Sieur Louis de Coutes, who was a real-life comrade of Joan. Ergo, we are offered, in the opening credits, a made-up translator (Jean Francois Alden) of a fictitious narrative by a fictionalized actual man. This could be significant, especially if such disruptions of writerly authority and readerly expectations could be uncovered in the actual narrative. They aren't. Instead, the chapter dwells on concealed significations in the shortest word on that title page: "Twain's `de Conte' can, by the instrumental sense of the French particle `de,' signify `by means of the story' as well as echo a real historical name; Twain may be playing with his narrator's name in an effort to loosen his story from the single historical perspective of de Coutes and link it more into the kind of authority we associate with fiction" (p. 75).

So the mistake lies in assuming that Joan of Arc was a sentimental Mark Twain novel with flat characterizations and injected pieties, when all the while it was an anti-story by Nabokov. Hereafter, invocations of James as "another useful lens for reading Twain's decentering (though not annihilation) of textual authority" (p. 91) keep Joan of Arc at arm's length. Horn ultimately refers to it as an argument "for an independent center or axis of creativity within each person, his vehicle for a true idea of freedom" (p. 104).

In the last chapter, on Number 44, The Mysterious Stranger, Horn once more opens a difficult Mark Twain narrative as if it were inherently a philosophical or psychological tract, or a delivery system for a worked-out theory. Chiding James Cox, Hamlin Hill, Henry Nash Smith, Leslie Fiedler, and William Gibson for "critical blindness" (p. 108) about this late text, Horn acknowledges after a while that most of these critics were talking about a different story from the one which Horn is rereading. To show the better narrative that the academic world has been so blind to (no commentary from the past twenty years is cited), the chapter moves around the edges of Number 44 rather than directly and patiently into it. In these forty pages, The Mysterious Stranger has to share space with Christian Science, A Connecticut Yankee, several of Mark Twain's short works from a twenty-year range of output, Piers Plowman, Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Tolstoy, Banyan, Freud, William James on Freud, and William James on the subliminal self, and on melancholy, theology, and psychotherapy. The chapter therefore gives an impression of avoiding its own reckoning with its chosen text, even as it chides other opinions of it. The end is abrupt, and vatic: "With the self unveiled, Twain's closure leaps back and opens forward as a funding and final gift of human freedom" (p. 148). This is one of several places where word-choice falters, in the complex task of intimating, rather than demonstrating, that James is an informing presence here and elsewhere in Mark Twain's narratives.

The book includes three appendices: a speculation about where the name "44" comes from (James's mention of a woman's age in a narrative about multiple personalities); a reprint of a Twain essay from 1884 about "Mental Telegraphy"; and two letters from Mark Twain to James, one about a heart specialist, the other about the virtues and proper ingestion of Plasmon, a health drink that Twain was then infatuated with, emotionally and financially, in that whirling way that bothers our thinking about Mark Twain as a thinker. Mark Twain and Henry James therefore makes a useful contribution to Mark Twain studies, as it directs us towards the relationship between these two writers, and describes ways in which both of them engaged with questions of identity and the possibilities of paranormal and mystical experience.
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Author:Michelson, Bruce
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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