Mark Twain as a Literary Comedian, by David E. E.
(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979)
Readers who relish the caustic wit of Mark Twain will be generally bored by this dry literary analysis of Twain’s prose, written by David E. E. Sloane and published in 1977. The reason why this book drags is because the author gives a lengthy historic context of Twain’s contemporary writers, such as Artemus Ward and P.T. Barnum. Sloane repeatedly compares Twain’s writing style to theirs, and often leaves off talking about Twain all together for pages at a time. If you want a reason for reading this book at all, I would recommend it only after we read the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a Connecticut Yankee, and Pudd’nhead Wilson because he spends entire chapters discussing references from these works, and it’s hard to relate to the texts when they are taken out of context.
Several of his quotes from other authors and critics are revealing to our current study of what fuels Twain’s humor and the question of his dual personality in works we’ve already studied in class, like Innocents Abroad. He quotes the reviewer Bret Hart from the Overland Monthly: “Most of the criticism is just in spirit?it should be remembered that the style itself is a professional exaggeration, and the irascible pilgrim, ‘Mark Twain,’ is a very eccentric creation of Mr. Clemens’. There may be a question of taste in Mr. Clemens permitting such a man as ‘Mark Twain’ to go to the Holy Land at all; but we contend that such a traveler would be more likely to report its external aspect truthfully than a man of larger reverence” (81). The references to Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer were the most engaging sections of the book to me. And by engaging I mean the least uninteresting.
Specifically the analysis of Innocents Abroad struck me because it was so unimpressive. Sloane writes that Twain: “complained that the travel books had shamefully deceived him...the diction serves a distinct function in such passages, reflecting the outraged humanity of the narrator...the traveler finally becomes an antagonist, and his travels take on some of the aspects of a plot in which corporate Europe is the enemy” (98). This is nothing we haven’t already discussed in class at length, and specific examples of the “diction” he is referring to would have been illuminating.
It is only when we arrive in Chapter 6 that we are given some analysis of Twain’s voice alone, and for the rest of the book, Sloane spends whole chapters analyzing the Gilded Age, the Prince and the Pauper, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee, The American Claimant and Pudd’nhead Wilson. These close readings are somewhat useless if you aren’t familiar with the characters, and I was unimpressed with the lack of humor in the quotes Sloane chose to discuss.
It may be harsh to suggest that this book takes the fun out of Mark Twain’s comedy, but maybe I should have suspected an analytical book about humor would not live up to its subject. I suppose naively I was expecting an analysis of Twain’s funniest excerpts--therefore it was depressing for me to learn that Sloane thinks Twain copied his style and voice from his contemporaries. I think his main point was that Twain’s: “most significant humor occurs when his pose is most united with his material, contrary to the traits noted here. His response to consciously inflicted pain varies between complicity, as in the Southwest anecdotes, to moral outrage. Perhaps most important, even in humorous episodes, his ironic deadpan commentary builds a democratic social vision opposed to corporate power and social mores. His attitude toward human beings is, at its best, egalitarian, and at his zenith he finds natural symbols in which he can transmute these values into sustained fiction; his humor asserts positive values” (3).
I would recommend Sloane’s text to someone who has read most of the works he references, and who is familiar with and interested in the comparative literature of obscure 19th century humorists. Otherwise it is an exercise in discipline not to skim.