Mark Twain and the Feminine Aesthetic, by Peter Stoneley
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)

Reviewed by Alice Gillet

What are Mark Twain’s views on gender? We raised this question several times in class, noticing the absence of women in his travel books except when mocking them, and the very masculine world in which they appeared in Tom Sawyer. Peter Stoneley’s study of Mark Twain’s relation to and use of the feminine aesthetic gives us clues to answer this question.

Stoneley argues that Twain developed a reactionary masculine counter-culture to the rise of the "feminine aesthetic", that is, in literature, the development of an aesthetic claiming what were seen as the feminine values: sentimentality, romanticism, nurturance, spirituality. Twain opposed to this feminine aesthetic his masculine aesthetic, which we saw in the first three books of our reading list. Think for instance of the male mining society of Roughing It, which constitutes an ideal society from which women are excluded. But this masculine aesthetic didn’t appear only in his literary work. Sam Clemens was permanently performing his Mark Twain character – think of his appearance, the moustache, the clothes, the cigar – which was also meant to embody the masculine aesthetic. Stoneley thus argues that Twain created an ideal of American masculinity. On the other hand, Twain made a mockery of women and their feminine aesthetic, as we saw in Chapter 2 of Roughing It, when he describes the horrible woman who travels with him for a day or two, talking and gossiping for hours and hours, or in Chapter 15 about the Mormon wives, desperate and jealous housewives who care about nothing but having jewels and tormenting their husband.

Nevertheless, this Twain’s attitude towards gender evolves during his career. His travel books are very masculine, but later in his life he wrote books in which he used the feminine aesthetic. In The Prince and the Pauper, and in Personal recollections of Joan of Arc, Twain manipulates the feminine aesthetic in order to assert his vision of femininity. Joan of Arc corresponds, in Stoneley’s opinion, to Twain’s ideal of womanhood: she is girlish, na´ve, pure, kind, young, and vulnerable despite her being heroic. But he not only uses the feminine aesthetic in the content of his books, but also in their physical form as objects. This intersects our reflection in class about how Twain used the subscription publication. The prospectus of The Prince and the Pauper announced the "ornamental title" of the "elegantly bound in cloth and leather" book, that was made to attract and conquer a female public.

Stoneley draws a parallel between this evolution of Twain’s use of the feminine and the masculine aesthetic, and geography. This helps us complete the binaries we put into light about Twain’s vision of the world and the literary motives derived from it – East/West, North/South, Europe/America. In the same way that Twain associates, for instance, the East with civilization and the West with political and judiciary anarchy, he associates the South, Europe and monarchy with a feminine and romantic aesthetic, and the North, America and democracy with a masculine and utilitarian aesthetic. In other words, all the binaries we discussed in class can be related to this feminine/masculine binary.

Inferior values
and aesthetic for
Superior values
and aesthetic for
South North
Europe America
Monarchy Democracy
Feminine Masculine
Old world New world
Romanticism Utilitarianism

Interestingly enough, these binaries can also answer several other questions we raised in class: why Twain never lectured in the South, and why he permanently deconstructs Europe in Innocents Abroad in order to elevate America and the aesthetic he considers superior – the masculine values.

Nonetheless, Stoneley argues that we can also study Twain’s relation to gender through another binary which takes precedence over the other binaries, and is one of the main focuses of our class. That is the private/public binary, or the Twain/Clemens binary. Indeed, Stoneley’s essay is based on very different materials than the ones we use in class, such as letters to his wife, letters to his daughters and testimony of his daughter Susy for instance. I thought it was very interesting for our class since we often wondered if there were documents about Clemens’s private life. This deals with the whole problematic of who was Twain and what were his relations to Clemens. If Twain built his fame on the masculine aesthetic, with the books we read, the feminine aesthetic was much more present in his private life. For instance, the letters he wrote to his wife were highly sentimental, and used the feminine aesthetic he rejects and criticizes in his public life. Further more, he even modified aspects of his private life that didn’t correspond to the masculinity he claimed. For instance, in his books, he called himself the owner of the house he built, but in fact his wife was the true owner of the house. But this element contradicted the patriarchal man he pretended to be in public, but who he wasn’t in his private life.

I really liked this book because it gives a broader image of who Twain was, and of the way in which Clemens used Twain to build his fame on. Further more, I discovered in this book, not only other books and texts of Twain, but also a part of his private life, and it was very interesting since it differs from the materials we use in class.