The Anarchy of Imagination



“She was not quite what you would call refined. She was not quite what you would call unrefined. She was the kind of person that keeps a parrot.”

Pudd’nhead Wilson's New Calendar, Following the Equator

So there I was, a modernist on the fence, standing in the Literary and Cultural Studies section of my local Borders. I wasn't simply browsing (though it may have appeared that way to a casual observer), but in fact contemplating mutiny—shifting my critical gaze away from Ulysses, Spring and All, and the heady stylistic experimentalism of the 1920s on which I’d cut my academic teeth for what seemed the distant past of the Mississippi River valley and high desert of Nevada's Great Basin. The specialist in me bristled at the very presumption of this thought: Who did I think I was? What exactly did I know about the 19th century? And why did I—of all people—think I had anything new or worthwhile to say about that colossus, Mark Twain? Countering that castigating inner voice, however, was the irresistible siren call of the subject itself. A few years earlier, I’d given two very tentative conference presentations on Mark Twain's complex, often paradoxical, views of Native Americans, and sensed there was a book to be written on the topic. But I was hesitant, chary, and like Prufrock, a bit afraid. For even then, I understood that any substantive analysis of the circumstances and sources underlying Twain's often antagonistic representation of native peoples would challenge his cherished image as an icon of racial progressivism, inevitably ruffling the feathers of some of the writer's most ardent champions. How, I fretted, would such a work—particularly one written by a person whose only street cred was a book on William Carlos Williams—be received?

At that moment, five words emblazoned on the spine of a red paperback caught my eye: MARK TWAIN ON THE LOOSE. I pulled the book off the shelf, and unconsciously drew in my breath when confronted with the startling image of a bare-chested (and remarkably hirsute) middle-aged Sam Clemens on its cover. Hmm, I wondered, what's this all about? Flipping to the opening chapter, I encountered some of the liveliest academic prose I’d ever read, crackling with incisive wit and provocative turns-of-phrase, such as the author's wry characterization of Twain as a “shade-tree metaphysician.” And then this: “I have heresies to suggest about Mark Twain as a personage, as text, and as myth: that all of these Mark Twains—whether we labor to differentiate them or not—might be more broadly and absolutely heretical than commentary about them has usually granted” (3). I was riveted, and could scarcely believe my eyes. Heresies. Right there in print. It seemed uncanny—as if Bruce Michelson's words were directed at me. I was suddenly emboldened; perhaps my project was not so unthinkable or preposterous after all. I bought the book and raced home, eager to devour it.

In the first chapter of Mark Twain on the Loose, I subsequently discovered words that have served as a beacon of inspiration, illuminating the often bumpy, circuitous path of my research for more than a decade. After briskly summarizing the ways in which Twain has been fashioned into a “many-sided legend” since his death, Michelson observes:

As the critics and historians talk on, the loss is always to wildness. Delving to the assertion, the grand serious theme, the noble design that lurks (or ought to, as Mark Twain's readers have usually assumed) in the depths of a text or its creator, commentary risks degrading whatever must be dug through—and in the case of Mark Twain the violated surfaces include his uncontainable humor, rambunctious barbarism, spontaneity, changefulness, insouciance, and anarchy. (3)

The fundamental truth of this assertion resonates with me today no less than when I first read it. Michelson had eloquently and succinctly put his finger on what's unique and important (as well as endlessly fascinating) about Twain—the ineffable quality of “wildness” that allows him to feint, sidestep, and ultimately elude you, just at the point when you think you’ve finally got him firmly within your critical grasp. Twain's “changefulness,” spontaneity,” and most emphatically, “rambunctious barbarism”—all descriptors of the writer's unparalleled imagination—defy linearity and logic, explode binaries, and subvert all attempts at pegging him in too neat (and confining) a pigeonhole. Michelson's words were a revelation—akin, in some ways, to the lightning flash of a Joycean epiphany—clarifying passages of Twain's writing that had long perplexed me, such as his riff on Tahoe's superiority to the much-extolled beauty of Italy's Lake Como in Chapter XX of The Innocents Abroad:

People say that Tahoe means “Silver Lake”—“Limpid Water”—“Falling Leaf.” Bosh. It means grasshopper soup, the favorite dish of the Digger tribe—and of the Pi-utes as well. It isn't worth while, in these practical times, for people to talk about Indian poetry—there never was any in them—except in the Fennimore Cooper Indians. But they are an extinct tribe that never existed. I know the Noble Red Man. I have camped with the Indians; I have been out on the warpath with them, taken part in the chase with them—for grasshoppers; helped them steal cattle; I have roamed with them, scalped them, had them for breakfast. I would gladly eat the whole race if I had the chance.

Twain's tone and narrative stance here are notoriously slippery—shifting with protean speed from the authoritative presentation of an apocryphal etymology (“Tahoe” in fact derives from the Washoe word meaning “lake” and has nothing to do with either grasshoppers or leaves) to “real” Diggers and Pi-utes as distinguished from Cooper's idealized noble savages—propelling readers headlong into the spring-loaded trap that awaits them at the paragraph's end. After initially proclaiming himself an intimate associate and comrade of Nevada's Indians—embracing a traditional native life style of camping, hunting, and raiding—the writer abruptly undercuts that stance of allegiance with a appalling admission of genocidal and cannibalistic desire: “I have roamed with them, scalped them, had them for breakfast. I would gladly eat the whole race if I had the chance.” The punch line, of course, is the terse understatement of Twain's next sentence: “But I am growing unreliable. I will return to my comparison of the Lakes,” which he does, imperturbably, without missing a beat. I’d spent many an hour pondering these strange lines, with their curious melding of earnestness and irony, gruesomeness and unbridled glee, wondering where—and how—or even if it were possible—to deduce the actual views of Sam Clemens, the grand puppet master who pulled the strings, hidden in the interstices of all that hyperbolic rhetoric. Michelson's book offered me an invaluable critical lens through which to do just that: Spontaneity. Changefulness. Insouciance. Anarchy.

Looking back, I now realize that like the speaker in Robert Frost's poem, “The Road not Taken,” I stood at a metaphorical crossroads—a place where “two paths diverged in a yellow wood”—on that fateful day in Borders. Though I did not consciously choose one scholarly path over another, my serendipitous discovery of Mark Twain on the Loose was the threshold through which I crossed into the realm of Twain studies. And that has made all the difference.