Going Old School, Going New School With Henry Nash Smith



I wished I could talk like that!”

—Mark Twain, Old Times on the Mississippi

If a graduate student were to come to me tomorrow and ask where to begin a critical study of Mark Twain's works, I would recommend one book: Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer, by Henry Nash Smith. My student might question why I, an old man of 56, would recommend a book published when the old man was just starting the second grade. The student would consider the date and conclude that I, old-stick-in-the-mud, was trying to get her to read some discredited (and perhaps suspect) relic from the dreaded Age of New Criticism. Her assumptions would be incorrect, as the second paragraph of Smith's preface would prove:

Just as the diction of the humorists contrasted violently with the diction considered appropriate for the upper ranges of literature, vernacular values were at odds with the values cherished by accredited spokesmen for American society. The vernacular perspective was potentially subversive: conservative critics accused the humorists not only of coarseness but of irreverence. This state of affairs placed formidable obstacles in the way of Mark Twain, who presented the paradox of a humorist seeking recognition as a serious writer. His efforts to find an alternative to the prevailing cult of gentility and to define his own role in society appear in his work as a series of difficulties in the management of narrative viewpoint. His degree of success in solving all three problems can be traced in his progress toward the creation of a consistent fictional persona to serve as the protagonist of first-person narratives. Thus his technical innovations might be described with equal accuracy as an ethical, a sociological, or a literary undertaking. (vii)

In the conflict that Smith saw Mark Twain facing as an artist, Smith himself was confronting, head-on, a conflict with the prevailing New Critics: his study of Twain's career draws on history, cultural backgrounds, politics, biography, psychology, sociology, and ethics. In addition, he skillfully conducts the kind of close reading of literary texts that New Critics are now pilloried for–a skill, of course, that lies at the heart of nearly all new school critical practice. (When I teach theory to those graduate students, I am astonished at how often the era of the 1950s and 1960s is painted in the textbooks as a nearly monolithic structure, and New Criticism itself reduced to a caricature, if not a straw man.) In Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer, Henry Nash Smith shows the richness and subtlety that a critic could achieve, smack dab in the middle of the Age of New Criticism, a richness that should not be overlooked or abandoned in our new school era just because we suspect or wrongly discredit the old school times that produced it. In fact, Smith's little book (212 pages, including index) is quite current and new school in its focus on American Studies–a movement Smith spearheaded, if not founded.

Smith's study of Mark Twain's writing career is thesis-driven, which can be a big problem if the thesis is not both rock-solid and flexible. Consider Smith's remarks on what I take to be his thesis:

The vernacular perspective that figures prominently in my argument is not easy to define. Mark Twain himself never made fully articulate what he was trying to affirm; any explicit statement would falsify his presentational mode of thought. Provisionally, however, one might say that his highest good was freedom from stereotyped attitudes. In a society encumbered by a traditional culture that had hardened into a set of conventions having little relation to the actual experience of its members, he fell back on the integrity of the individual, the capacity to face any situation flexibly and with a minimum of preconceptions. (viii)

Some might object to Smith's emphasis on the individual and his valorization of vernacular speech and values, and admittedly, his thesis at times drives him to explore certain works and downplay others, as a thesis is apt to do. But throughout the book, Smith is careful not to see his conflict in stark terms, recognizing, for example, that both Brooks and DeVoto are correct in certain assumptions, but that they are “flawed,” that “ . . . both critics draw too sharp a contrast between East and West” (3). The subtlety and flexibility of Smith's thought is striking–and for that alone I would feel confident in making my hypothetical recommendations to my hypothetical graduate student.

A couple of passages from Smith's fine chapter on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “A Sound Heart and a Deformed Conscience,” show clearly not only his point but also his balanced and flexible reasoning. They also demonstrate the way we as readers could mistakenly label what Smith is up to a “mere formalism”:

The recognition of complexity in Huck's character enabled Mark Twain to do full justice to the conflict between vernacular values and the dominant culture. By situating in a single consciousness both the perverted moral code of a society on slavery and the vernacular commitment to freedom and spontaneity, he was able to represent the opposed perspectives as alternative modes of experience for the same character. Furthermore, the insight that enabled him to recognize the conflict between accepted values and vernacular protest as a struggle within a single mind does justice to its moral depth, whereas the device he had used earlier–in The Innocents Abroad, for example–of identifying the two perspectives with separate characters had flattened the issue out into melodrama. The satire of a decadent slaveholding society gains immensely in force when Mark Twain demonstrates that even the outcast Huck has been in part perverted by it. Huck's conscience is simply the attitudes he has taken over from his environment. What is still sound in him is an impulse from the deepest level of his personality that struggles against the overlay of prejudice and false valuation imposed on all members of the society in the name of religion, morality, law, and refinement. (122)

In that last sentence, Smith moves from a formalist's close reading to sweeping cultural criticism. What a subversive critic he was, carrying his Trojan Horse of extrinsic criticism into the very fortress of the New Critics, the horse appearing to be an intrinsic reading, but with the warriors of all that was “heresy” to Wimsatt and Beardsley concealed within.

His next paragraph continues the masquerade, seeming to focus on style, perfectly acceptable to any New Critic:

Finally, it should be pointed out that the conflict in Huck between generous impulse and false belief is depicted by means of a contrast between colloquial and exalted styles. In moments of crisis his conscience addresses him in the language of the dominant culture, a tawdry and faded effort at a high style that is the rhetorical equivalent of the ornaments in the Grangerford parlor. Yet speaking in dialect does not in itself imply moral authority. By every external criterion the King is as much a vernacular character as Huck. The conflict in which Huck is involved is not that of a lower against an upper class or of an alienated fringe of outcasts against a cultivated elite. It is not the issue of frontier West versus genteel East, or of backwoods versus metropolis, but of fidelity to the uncoerced self versus the blurring of attitudes caused by social conformity, by the effort to achieve status or power through exhibiting the approved forms of sensibility. (122-123)

Smith hews to his thesis here, a thesis that shows its flexibility by refusing to draw stark and rigid conflicts, a flaw that riddles some of the other classic Mark Twain studies of that time (and of course, of our time as well). As Mark Twain says in admiration of his cursing pilot in “Old Times on the Mississippi,”“I wished I could talk like that!”

When I entered into a few extended critical conversations with Henry Nash Smith in my book Mark Twain and Metaphor, one reader of the manuscript questioned why–just as I imagine my graduate student questioning my recommendation of this musty old book. My response to that reader is that Henry Nash Smith decidedly still matters. When I disagreed with Smith–as I do on several points–I have an obligation as a new school critic to explain why. But despite my occasional disagreements, I honor his old school achievement, and I know that he would be the leader of the new school if he were still with us. As he is–in Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer, and in the rest of his esteemed body of work. I make no apologies for still caring about a book–and a scholar–from so long ago.