Mark Twain and the Novel: The Double Cross of Authority, by Lawrence Howe
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)
Lawrence Howe’s Mark Twain and the Novel: The Double-Cross of Authority deals with Twain’s struggle between assuming and distrusting power. We have already seen what a controlling force his voice can be. In The Innocents Abroad, for example, he assumes the task of telling an American what the authoritative voices cover up with bombast and false flattery. Even while he claims to be undoing authority, he claims absolute authority over the truth. Howe’s investigation of this uncomfortable contradiction is most interesting and, I think, worthwhile when he looks closely at the workings of the texts themselves. He describes his project as finding meaning in the texts that seem to have "something wrong" (2) with them. In each chapter, he examines two related works, one of which he sets up as the response to the other. He first explores "Old Times on the Mississippi" and Life on the Mississippi as a way into Twain’s trouble with authorial authority. His explanation of Twain’s mastery over the river and his simultaneous destruction of the god-like image of the steamboat pilot is an effective way into his argument. It establishes Twain’s impulse towards gaining power and his repulsion from it once he gets there.
In discussing ,Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Howe relies heavily on Twain’s biography and autobiography to make sense of his work. This leads him to reduce Huck to an ironic figure, disowned by the author Huck tries to disown in the beginning of the work. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn fails as a response to the problems of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, claims Howe, because Tom and Huck end up being not that different after all. Huck never actually gets that far away from society or his longing for it, despite his contempt for the widow’s lifestyle, and Tom allows Huck’s theatrical impulse to come out at the end when he "frees" the already-free Jim. Howe ties this reading of Tom and Huck very closely to the texts themselves and offers a convincing reading of Twain’s distrust even of his own anti-authority voice.
When he claims that Twain’s oeuvre consists of a series of "successive failure[s]" (226), he argues that Twain could never succeed in adequately subverting the form of the novel. His claim that Twain could never get over his twin desires to control a narrative absolutely and to subvert any authority he encountered is convincing. However, Howe uses the word "failure" too liberally throughout this book. He never gives a satisfactory definition of the "failure" he sees, except in showing how the novels may have ended up in a different place than Twain had intended at the outset. I think he tries to see in these books and characters things that may never have been there to begin with and that this is Howe’s failure and has nothing to do with Twain. Over and over again, Howe insists that Twain’s lingering guilt over not experiencing the Civil War deeply affects his writing. Sometimes, this provides an interesting way of looking at Twain’s treatment of general issues that were also general issues in the Civil War. Howe goes too far, though, when he asserts that A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court condemns the South’s voting record during Reconstruction while it "simplistically ignores" (170) Jim Crow legislation. At moments like this, Howe attempts to force Twain’s work into the mold of a reaction to a historical moment. It works only when he opens up the general question of America’s "promise of freedom" (11) in the face of social authority. The titular "double cross" is in part the pattern of "narrative repetition and reversal" (166) that Howe argues defeats all of Twain’s novels. When he reveals these moments, when the texts seem to rewrite themselves, his argument finds its greatest strength. When he moves into vague meditations on American democracy, he sometimes seems to confuse Twain’s thoughts with his own, as he presents little evidence backs up his conviction that it lodged in Twain’s consciousness. I enjoyed reading Mark Twain and the Novel for the truly revealing ways in which he pitted Twain’s texts against themselves and even against their author. The author’s suggestions about Twain’s reaction to American society, and especially the Civil War, could use another book entirely.