Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor, by James Cox
(Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1966)


Reviewed by Sarah Dickey


James Cox’s Mark Twain: the Fate of Humor is an interesting book that traces the evolution of Twain’s humor and how this humor complements Samuel Clemens’s real life, but it is not necessarily essential reading for the course. The book makes an interesting point of tracing the rise and ultimate decline of Twain’s humor.

Cox begins with Clemens’s discovery of “Mark Twain” juxtaposed with the discovery of silver in the West. “Mark Twain” was born February 3, 1863, in Virginia City at the Territorial Enterprise, at a time when Nevada’s entire financial system lay in its goldmines. Cox concludes that the first humorous quality seen in Twain arises out a commitment to the “extravagant and grandiose dream of territorial glory” he finds in the west (9). However, Twain’s discovery of himself as a writer depended on his failure in this glory, and not the success.

According to Cox, after Twain’s initial period of discovery, he becomes the “professional traveler”. His book The Innocents Abroad was his first great success, identifying Twain as a national figure instead of Western humorist. While The Innocents Abroad was the definition of Twain as a humorous traveler, his other travel books lacked confidence and were relatively unsuccessful.

Cox makes a particularly interesting remark when he says that the real autobiography of Clemens as the myth of Mark Twain ended with “Old Times on the Mississippi.” After “Old Times” Twain realized that as long as “Mark Twain” was in the story, it was nothing more than a tall tale. “To achieve true fiction, Mark Twain had to invent a character to take his place and discover a plot which would free him from history” (128).

Twain’s freedom comes with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Cox describes Tom Sawyer as Twain’s greatest discoveries as a writer. To find Tom Sawyer, Cox says, Twain had to “discover, exploit, and exhaust the myth of himself” (128). It is in this story that we first see Twain as an observer to the action and not the central figure. One interesting argument Cox makes about Twain’s style is that he created a character to impose it on a form. The first example of this is the creation of “Mark Twain” himself, and the trend continues with the narrator of The Innocents Abroad and finally with Tom Sawyer.

In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain burlesques the good boy cliché, and Tom and Becky’s relationship burlesques romantic notions. The action of the novel burlesques the adult world. Twain’s writing has all of these elements of burlesque, parody, and satire, like in The Innocents Abroad, but instead of primarily satirizing, he sits back as the observer, allowing the characters to portray the humor.

Cox’s main argument seems to be that Twain cannot escape his fate as a humorous writer, despite the change of that humor through time. This becomes evident when we see the failure of Private History of a Campaign That Failed. The genius of Twain’s humor, Cox says, is that the form takes humor to the heart of seriousness. For example, Twain’s contemporaries deemed it bad taste for Twain to make fun of the Old Masters like Michelangelo in The Innocents Abroad. If Twain had only poked fun at minor masters though, he would have only been able to laugh at the ridiculous and not at the revered. This irreverence for the revered is the boundary that Twain pushes on relentlessly to form his humor.

I don’t necessarily think this is a must-read book for our course. It seems reasonable that we could all deduce the same thing about Mark Twain’s humor that Cox does. One of the most interesting sections in this book however was “The Muse of Samuel Clemens” that detailed his relationship with his wife Olivia. This section would make an interesting supplement to a paper on Twain’s relationships with women, especially since women do not make large appearances in any of his works (and when they do, he is often poking fun at bad women).

Interestingly, at the time that Twain was finishing his manuscript of The Innocents Abroad, a journey of irreverence and skepticism, he was on a lecture tour and writing letters to Olivia. These letters, according to Cox, “chronicled the pilgrimage of a reverent lover toward the object of his worship and belief” (71). He even called Olivia his Human Angel, his muse, and most importantly his censor. Twain felt threatened by Olivia’s death because so much of his work had been under her censorship. Cox compares this relationship of “resistance in order to achieve expression in the same way that Tom Sawyer required Aunt Polly’s indulgent suppression in order to create the dream of freedom” (80). It is particularly interesting to see Twain, the author of irreverence and young boys’ stories, show such interest in a woman

The section “The Ironic Stranger” is good if you are interested in following Twain through his later years when he went bankrupt and his daughter died. Twain tries to make his books serious. “Determining to write a satire, he had destroyed his humorous genius” (224).

Overall, if you are particularly interested in how Twain’s humor takes shape, this is an interesting read. It is easy to get bogged down in though.


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