Mark Twain's Humor: An Image of the World, Pascal Covici Jr.
(Dallas, Texas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1962)
Pascal Covici Jr.’s 1962 literary analysis of Mark Twain proves a unique interpretation of the ways in which the quintessential American author both capitalizes on and deviates from the traditional treatment of humor. Covici deconstructs the techniques Twain employs in his work in order to examine their effectiveness in rendering significance to a literature that is at large, comical. The analyst argues that while MT is renowned for his ability to make light of the world, he avoids the potential of undermining the seriousness of his content; in fact, the writer from Hannibal Missouri “is seriously concerned with problems of existence, [and] with what it means to live.” (249) Thus, Pascal’s analysis of Mark Twain proposes that the American author employed his humor as vehicle through which he could address the more serious concerns he had with notions of the human condition.
An especially poignant issue stressed by the book’s author is the complexity of Twain’s relationship with America. The author’s “use of humor is, at least partly, to put oneself in tune with early frontier and western humor,” reflecting his strong sense of patriotism. However, Covici attempts to point out that the author was not a strict optimist when speaking of the United States. (3) In fact, Twain employed his literature as a means of communicating subjective aggravation with his immediate social atmosphere. The analyst claims that, “Twain [often] presents his impatience with America’s failings in terms of the problems confronting the artist who must deal with the country in fiction.” (130) Therefore, works presently considered paradigms of American literature, are not necessarily national propaganda. Though antithetical to the popular image of the novelist, this distinction is certainly worth recognition, as it reminds the world “there clearly is more to Twain’s treatment of America than simpleminded adulation.” (35)
Pascal goes on further to suggest that Twain’s humor surrounding America is dense and frequently lacks the straightforwardness that a naïve reader might expect. MT’s texts reflect hesitancy, or rather unease, with the idea of claiming a specific political, social, or economic platform. Covici maintains, “Twain himself had difficulty defining his position, and the unevenness of his sympathies often mars his books.” (92) While this may manifest some point of truth, the statement is a harsh criticism of MT. Perhaps a more appropriate contention is that the author’s work conveys the complicated reality of the modern American environment by employing “the materials of realism—the events and objects of the daily life of the region,” in order to render a convincing portrait of the world. (13) Examples of such images can be found in Twain’s many depictions of racial stereotype and the dramatic performances of religious institutions. Interestingly though, the novelist avoids pin pointing a specific over-riding moral to his work intentionally, mirroring his propensity, “to leave the reader ‘up in the air’.” (150) Thus, while Twain certainly addresses serious concerns for contemporary American culture, such as the contradictions of social convention, as well as a collapse of morality, his position on many matters remains ambiguous, leaving the reader to extrapolate the deeper meaning of his works and use those to shape their own conception of the world.
The idea of creating convoluted versions of the truth proves a valuable instrument for Twain throughout the course of his literary career. Covici refers to these incongruities as “hoaxes” and emphasizes in his analysis, that “a major source of [MT’s] humor is the sudden revelation of a discrepancy between appearance and reality.” (180) Pascal claims that the author applies a typical technique of humorists, which highlights the inconsistency between actual events and the interpretation of such, by both characters and audience members. Twain, for instance, renders false impressions surrounding many of his characters, so, “that Twain’s American laughs, does not mean, always, that he is happily at ease in the world.” (31) Often, he presents the human condition as intrinsically flawed, and his sympathies are often expressed through the internal characterization of his literary figures. Covici feels that Twain “presents human beings as more disposed to misunderstand themselves, […] than to mislead others deliberately.” (19) This further supports the notion that the author believes that “man is not deliberately corrupt himself—he cannot help himself.” (218) Ultimately the hoax, or twisted reality, is used to jolt the reader and deliver a message regarding the human condition through humorist rhetoric.
Pascal Covici’s literary analysis claims Mark Twain’s writing throughout the nineteenth century has been misattributed by many American readers as a series of simple works of comedic fiction. Contrastingly, the analyst proposes a different view of the novelist, which is that the genius of Twain lies in his ability to present personal concerns regarding human existence, in a palatable manner through the manipulation of rhetoric. Mark Twain’s humor is “especially important [to the author] as it serves to reveal hidden truth about the reader himself.” (160) The renowned writer uses his talents to incorporate issues of American culture, as well as images of the human condition between the lines of his pages. “The realist, the social critic, and the visionary become fused in the woven texture of Twain’s work,” and for this reason, his humor will remain relevant and at the heart of American literature for years to come. (250)