Mark Twain and Helium
Article first published online: 3 NOV 2010
© 2010 The Mark Twain Circle of America/Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
The Mark Twain Annual
Volume 8, Issue 1, pages 38–47, November 2010
How to Cite
MICHELSON, B. (2010), Mark Twain and Helium. The Mark Twain Annual, 8: 38–47. doi: 10.1111/j.1756-2597.2010.00037.x
- Issue published online: 3 NOV 2010
- Article first published online: 3 NOV 2010
It seems to me that it was far from right for the Professor of English Literature at Yale, the Professor of English Literature in Columbia, and Wilkie Collins to deliver opinions on Cooper's literature without having read some of it. It would have been much more decorous to keep silent and let persons talk who have read Cooper.Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in “Deerslayer,” and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.
—Mark Twain, “Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses”
Besotted with essays to screen and books to review, a Founding Editor of a top journal in American literature grouses, in my direction, that anything with a title beginning “Mark Twain and … ”– followed by any random noun or phrase in the English language, can get itself published. Okay, so ‘Mark Twain and Helium.’ Tap the brakes and recall that his “Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses” does not jump on Cooper at the start. The trigger was laudatory gas (there's the hook) about Cooper, emanating from a couple of Big Name academics: the eminent Thomas Lounsbury at Yale, and Brander Matthews, Professor of Dramatic Literature at Columbia and former student of Lounsbury. A sound-byte from Wilkie Collins is targeted; but because Collins was not only a far-away Brit but also defunct, he wasn't a nuisance like these others – or rather like the much greater force they represented. The real menace was an astrophysical process through which literary fame would thereafter be generated and confirmed, a process that ranting, playful or otherwise, by Mark Twain or other mortals could do nothing about. Budging the Classical curriculum out of the skies, American professors were clearing space for the veneration of authors who had lived in decades that some people could actually recall; and with publishers eager to hawk ‘Complete and Uniform’ Editions to sag bookshelves in middle class homes, new stars were required – and the star-making analogy does hold up, especially if I force it here and there.
As the Hubble has taught us, the fiery lights condense within vast clouds of superheated gases; and in keeping with those thermodynamics, our forebears Matthews and Lounsbury, on upholstered seats of cultural authority, were obligingly pumping it out. The Fenimore Cooper of Clemens's boyhood had been famous because young people had wanted to read his work without being compelled to it by school assignments and menacing exams; but by 1890, what was left of Cooper needed to coalesce into the kind of blazing prodigy to which public attention would have to be paid, and at Yale and Columbia they were seeing to that. What Clemens may not have realized was that these same vaporous convergences, these laws of gravity and heat, would in due course transmogrify him as well. It is true that in the condensation and ignition of astronomical stars, the inert gas hydrogen plays a much bigger role than helium – but helium makes for a tidier analogy. With enough helium, you can float away happily like Pooh-bear with paws-full of balloons; and as every third-grader gleefully discovers, if you talk while you’re full of it, you sound like Donald Duck. So the parallel runs on a couple of wheels. Let's go for a spin.
One caveat: we really shouldn't sqawk about scholastic hot air as Mark Twain did when he saw it being expended for Cooper. As functioning academics, we too must respect natural laws as forces that care not whether their consequences are appreciated or loathed at our level. Not only has expended helium done Mark Twain a service; it makes possible the incandescence under which the rest of us keep warm. Therefore, to pay homage to some of the great spewing that creates and sustains our universe of discourse, we can start with Lionel Trilling and T. S. Eliot around the year 1950, their transmogrification of Huckleberry Finn into a Symbolist epic. Back in the knuckle-dragging Gilded Age, Matthews and Howells and other benighted readers had admired the book as a breakthrough in voice and in comic Realism. Basta!Trilling struck first. You know the words, hum along:
Huck himself is the servant of the river-god, and he comes very close to being aware of the divine nature of the being he serves. The world he inhabits is perfectly equipped to accommodate a deity, for it is full of presences and meanings which it conveys by natural signs and also by praeternatural omens and taboos … . He lives in a perpetual adoration of the Mississippi's power and charm. Huck, of course, always expresses himself better than he can know, but nothing draws upon his gift of speech like his response to his diety. (320)
On upper Broadway, Trilling has worked himself into a Golden-Bough frenzy, and a moment later he's hallucinating Jim into these rites as a fellow worshipper, a ‘saint’ in this river-god cult. Sixty years on, we can enjoy seeing these lines scrambled in the Cuisinart of the sophomore mind and poured back at us in term papers. But it is still a challenge to find anyone in our racket who can plausibly explain, without eructation of additional helium, whatever it is that Lionel Trilling is talking about. In my instructional rounds, when I am flung back suddenly into his commentary, strange tableaux flash into the head. In garlands and goatskin, here again is Huck, sacrificing borrowed roosters to the River God on an altar by the St. Louis Arch. Salvador Dali could have had a ball with that. However, Trilling's reverie of Jim as assisting in this worship is harder to keep steady. Jim wants to get to free soil and make money to buy his family out of servitude. Doing reverence to river-gods may not be high on his list of priorities. The noble task that Trilling took up, however, was to haul Mark Twain and his muddy-footed novel uptown, polish them up, and situate them in the bling company of High Modernism; and if we can accept these vacuous accolades without asking too many questions, in our scattered offices we can bootleg Huckleberry Finn onto the same bookshelf as Eliot's Four Quartets.
But aha!– Trilling did cross a line here, quoting a big chunk directly from those murky Quartets, and that kind of trespass had to be answered. As a kingpin in the mythic archetypes trade (karma fusion uppers for bummed-out agnostics), Eliot couldn't let some West Side upstart (and possibly Jewish to boot) barge in and shoplift like that. So a year later, the Greatest Living Poet retaliated with his own intro to another redundant Huck edition; and towards the end of his piece, true to his habit of blowing smoke and waxing vatic to get out of jams, Eliot lets fly with ventilations that outdo Trilling's:
Thus the River makes the book a great book. As with Conrad, we are continually reminded of the power and terror of Nature, and the isolation and feebleness of Man. Conrad remains always the European observer of the tropics, the white man's eye contemplating the Congo and its black gods. But Mark Twain is a native, and the River God is his God. It is as a native that he accepts the River God, and it is the subjection of Man that gives to Man his dignity. For without some kind of God, Man is not even very interesting. (334)
You don't recall Joseph Conrad touting ‘the Congo and its black gods’ in Lord Jim or Nostromo or Under Western Eyes or Victory or stacks of his other stories? Not wowed by this Sunday-afternoon community radio flatulence about Man “without some kind of God” being “not even very interesting?” Tough luck, peon. In short order, two Modernist oligarchs decree the Huck-overhaul, from River-bottom Roughneck to New Age Water-Nymph. Opacity, sonorous and evocative, works the magic; and for years after, no ordinary working critic, coming along with facts and complications, can break the spell. Om Shantih to you, too.
Writing introductions to Mark Twain entices American scholars to take refreshing breaks from plausibility and accuracy, and in the wake of Trilling and Eliot, other experts have tried embellishing the case for Huck and his author as transcendental pagans. One of my favorites in this array comes from mighty Harpers, the corporation that held title to barrels of Mark Twain's work for much of the twentieth century and can dispense wisdom about their prize with perfect authority. These observations are salvaged from their lamentably abandoned Second Compact Edition of The Harper American Literature, edited by eight named-chair heavyweights, and crushing my home postal scale at 5 1/4 pounds. We are quoting this right – no typos below:
Mark Twain (born Samuel Longhorne Clemens) looked back with longing to what he recalled as the innocence, simplicity and rectitude of pre-Gold Rush America. Yet no other writer partook so hungrily of the wealth, status, fame, and other rewards that the Gilded Age offered. A divided sensibility who alternately craved attention and solitude, he lived on the scale of a prince of industry or banking in New York, Hartford, and the great cities of Europe. … (1471)
So now we know why Sam fled Hannibal as soon as he could. From the hour when his full moniker was spilled on some September morn at the schoolhouse, all those inevitable nicknames – Moo Clemens, El Toro, Stampede, Red Bull Clemens – whirled round his person like gnats in a backwater, and from such vexation there could be no refuge closer than the innocent rectitudes of Saint Louis. But wait, this gets better. Trilling and Eliot have propped open the mystic portals, and the 2857-page Compact Edition cavorts on through:
The words ‘when I was a boy’ were his mantra, with magical power to unlock memory and emotion.
Which is why Moo's in-laws at Quarry Farm had to build his study a hundred yards from the house. Imagine their humiliation, clumping downstairs to the porch every morning to find their own hungrily-partaking wannabe-Prince-of-Industry in-law stripped to his dhoti, lotusing himself into a pretzel, and chanting the Magical Mantra of Memory and Emotion (‘Ooommm … whaaan-Iwazza-boyabooooy … ’), for the edification of the Upstate skunks. Compared to that, any bother from El Toro's plumes of cigar smoke had to be trivial.
Even so, laudatory nonsense cannot by itself squeeze Mark Twain all the way to incandescence and keep him aflame. The physics are complex. Other elements and catastrophes are required. As a red-giant star of an older sort, Cooper took shape in a simpler eon before the Artist, in order to be Great, also needed to be Anguished. On Mark Twain's behalf, Van Wyck Brooks took care of that. While it might seem that the aristocratic and ambitious Brooks, fresh out of Harvard in 1920, went after Mark Twain unfairly and opportunistically with retail Freudian hatchets, he was playing an important part in the natural process. In our own moment, suspicions are rife that one-sided set-tos with literary celebs are contrived to boost the challenger's notoriety. To a skeptical gaze, the cover of a New York Review of Books might suggest a gentrified ad for a WWF Saturday Smack-down or a Wyoming bull-ride: “John Banville on Vladimir Nabokov. Wyatt Mason on David Foster Wallace. Claire Messud on Deborah Eisenberg. Michael Wood on Peter Carey” (Go for it!Sit on his head!). Fifty years before the NYROB, however, Brooks was a pioneer in seeing clearly what the age required of an artist worth keeping – strategic demolition, and not of the art, but of the life. America had grown weary of its modulated Howellses, its die-happy Thoreaus and Whitmans, its steady-tempered Holmeses and Longfellows. Over in Europe they had shifted happily to tormented crazies, and thanks to Brooks and his peers we would soon acquire the taste: Van Gogh, Verlaine, Toulouse, Rimbaud, Gauguin, Piaf, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Fritz the Cat (If you’re vague about Fritz, Google him when you’re done reading this. In the Nineteen Sixties, deploying his tormented-soul café-act in order to get laid, Fritz the Cat was the ultimate artiste from a golden age of groovy Sensitivity). Shabby affable Mark Twain needed rehab to make it in this new league – and fresh pump-up apparatus was available. Plentiful in the bookshops, Freud was bringing us a halcyon era of armchair postmortem psychoanalysis with zero credentials required. In The Ordeal of Mark Twain, Brooks achieved a pseudo-shrink rhetorical style that has inspired generations of talk show hosts and divorce lawyers:
That conscience of his – what was it? Why do so many of his jokes turn upon an affectation, let us say, of moral cowardice in himself? How does it happen that when he reads Romola the only thing that ‘hits’ him ‘with force’ is Tito's compromise with his conscience? … Was there any reason why, humorously or otherwise, he should have spoken of himself as a liar, why he should have said, in reply to his own idea of writing a book about Tom Sawyer's after-life: “If I went on now and took him into manhood, he would just lie, like all the one-horse men in literature, and the reader should conceive a hearty contempt for him”? That morbid feeling of having lived in sin, which made him come to think of literature as primarily, perhaps, the confession of sins – was there anything in the moral point of view of his generation to justify it, in this greatly-loved writer, this honorable man of business, this zealous reformer, this ever-loyal friend? (12). …
The spirit of the artist in him, like the genie at least released from the bottle, overspread in a gloomy vapor the mind it had never quite been able to possess. Does this seem too rash a hypothesis? (14)
Oh please don't chicken out there. Mark Twain, thus Brooksified, is fit to go slice off an ear and ship it to an ex-girlfriend, and if Brooks blinks now we will miss the good part. But Wyck (or Van, or whatever they called him at the Harvard Club) is only getting warmed up, having expended just forty-six of the five hundred and four rhetorical questions that upholster The Ordeal (as we can appropriately call it now).
Even though Brooks wrote like an alderman with a pompadour the forces that manufacture Greatness will continue to do their natural creaking back and forth, in direction and mood, like the motions of the universe. Rejoinders and counter-forces would be required by and by; and out of the noisy Sixties we received a beaut: Maxwell Geismar's massive Mark Twain, American Prophet, a great fat book published by Houghton Mifflin, an enterprise with pedigree and dignity to match the mighty Harpers.
In 1964, the New York World's Fair featured an upscale restaurant atop a building called “The Festival of Gas” (no joke: you can look it up when you’re checking on Fritz the Cat). All over America the times were gaseous: geologists report that by 1970, the continental United States faced perilous accumulations of redundant English, noxious buildups of superfluous modifiers and useless phrases and clauses that nobody but Geismar knew how to get rid of, and in Mark Twain: American Prophet, it was Geismar's project to gather them all and flare them off like miasmas from a city landfill. Though the carbon footprint of Prophet is substantial, where else in the works about Twain can you find paragraphs like this, glowing like ignis fatuus over a Wisconsin swamp?
There is no doubt, of course, that those visions and fantasies of horrible destruction had come partly from Clemens’ personal life, as reflected also in the dream life which he used so openly and fully in his work. And indeed the thought of his own destruction translated into the terms of mass destruction and social suicide was only the opposite side of that coin whereby Clemens also identified his own joys and pleasures with nature itself: his primary narcissism in the mythic sense. The state of his personal ego, as a true folk bard, was hardly distinct from the world around him, transmuted into both nature and society. The whole secret of Sam Clemens is right here again in the natural (or “animal”) fusion of his own identity with the landscape he occupied; as distinct from a later race of “artists” who deliberately set themselves apart from their society and culture, to become “alienated,”“thinking,” and “superior” individuals. (But it is safe to say that American literature as whole until 1910, say, was a folk art when compared with the work of the modern group of expatriated individuals whether at home or abroad.) … What is curious is how the critics of his collapse – his breakdown, his spilt career, his return to childhood, and his escape, above all, from contemporary American society into the past (!) – all following in each other's footsteps, mouthing the same truisms, have managed to ignore or distort Clemens’ mature and later works in order to follow their fashionable and herdlike theory. (124-125)
Geismar's other triumphs here are less obvious. In these five hundred-odd authoritative pages, for instance, there are only a dozen footnotes, most of which simply drag the argument into smaller fonts. Citations, documentation – pah! As an American Prophet in his own right, Geismar was above all that. The back matter to this tome does offer up one single page of “Selected Readings,” but why should anyone want to read farther? When I hit upon Geismar in my furry and impressionable grad-student youth, I was floored by the encounter and for several weeks afterwards I went around expressing myself in the Geismarian style, until my thesis director and my fiancée both threatened to throw me out.
In due course Geismar got his reposte, and luckily it was of comparable quality. In the nineteen eighties, Guy Cardwell decided to prove (yet again) that Samuel Clemens, despite stubborn innuendo to the contrary, was a troubled, fallible human being. In Cardwell's America a pernicious lie was still afoot, and he scolds everybody for believing it:
It is a major irony that Americans should take a man like Clemens to be benignly humorous, optimistic, meliorist, and democratic, that the public at large should choose him – above Cooper, Emerson, Thoreau, or anyone else – as our primary literary icon of a wholesome America. (223)
Stiffened with the passing of years, Cardwell's allusion to ‘anyone else’ may not stretch easily to encompass Rod Blagojevich, John Edwards, Paris Hilton, and Plaxico Burris. But so what?Cardwell was going to set America straight, which is why he published The Man Who Was Mark Twain with Yale University Press, whose titles are cherished by the obtuse rabble he needed to reach. So right back to armchair Freud:
Samuel Clemens suffered from severe psychological conflicts: his pathogenic psychological structures were, as is testified to by his life and writings, powerfully narcissistic. He demonstrated an exceptional need of sympathetic support, of assistance in shoring up his notion of himself and of his capacities. In psychological terms, he was unable to establish ego dominance as opposed to dominance by some aspect of the archaic (infantile), grandiose self. He often gave the appearance of being audacious or commanding but he never attained anything like secure psychic adulthood, never achieved a mature, integrated personality, never became independent. Signs of his psychic arrestment and disorder are manifest in his vanity, oscillation between megalomania and paranoia, hypochondria, short-lived rages, moments of ebullience, periods of emotional depletion, exaggerated expressions of guilt, vulnerability to indifference or disapproval, and fascination by ideas of twinship. (221-2)
When Cardwell's helium gives out, he finishes with methane:
His taste embraced a very restricted gamut: favorites were popular songs, ballads, Negro spirituals, and the music of military bands. During his several periods of residence in France … he seems to have acquired no knowledge of the remarkable late-nineteenth century masters who gave new directions to art and poetry. One looks in vain for a sign of interest in Manet, Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, or Mallarmé. To be so blinkered, to have such cultural limitations, was, to be sure, very American. (221)
There we have it. That emptiness you feel when flipping through anything in the collected works is the hunger deep in the unconscious: Where is the Mallarmé, the Rimbaud, the Verlaine, the Cézanne?– and not one dollop of Monet! Every reader of Connecticut Yankee expects a dose of that, and Mark Twain couldn't bring it! Yet come to think of it, even the über-Aesthetic Henry James couldn't bring it either. His Lambert Strether stumbles over Impressionists everywhere on his rambles along the Seine, but the only artist he has reveries about is Emile Lambinet, a B-list Barbizon thirty years dead at the time of The Ambassadors. Not exactly au courant, this Strether. In London, James's art-happy Prince Whatzisname shops for busted crockery while ignoring specials on Renoir and Cezanne down the street; and as for James himself, he ducked the opening night of Ubu Roi, cringed about Oscar Wilde, and carped in the newspapers about the building of the Eiffel Tower. Philistine! Anyway, if Twain couldn't pass this Cardwell physical, neither could anyone else.
One final cloud of lit-crit helium and we can call it quits. Long ago, on the muddy shores of some random lake in what is now Tanzania, a freshly-ordained Great White Hunter, closing a happy day of slaughtering harmless wildebeest under adult supervision, and having a grand time bossing around his waiters and bearers, kicked back in his camp-chair, popped open his XXL safari vest, cracked another beer; and to pass an evening without cable, condescended upon American literature with the full weight of his eighth-grade education. On that dozy, decisive African evening, what Ernest Hemingway vented has brought us no end of insight and joy:
The good writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain. That's not the order they’re good in. There is no order for good writers. … All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it's the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since. (22)
Thank you Bwana, for what a Godsend your gratuitous pontificating has been for the trade. Door-stopper anthologies still enfold this stuff into blurbs for their Twain selections, assuring that your students in the survey will have it, and straight from the top, that for the past eight weeks of the spring term you – you beardless, gun-less, welter-weight wuss!– have been wasting their time with Melville and Dickinson and other schlubs, and also that from Huckleberry Finn onward there is no point in their paying attention. Some day soon, when English professors take over the Macy's Board of Directors, a great round helium-loaded Hemingway on Thanksgiving Day will float high over the trees along Fifth Avenue, restrained from soaring up and away by platoons of cable-yanking sales associates in clown-suits. Fitting tribute to Papa – and an overdue tribute to 2he, as a simple element that sustains us all.
- The Ordeal of Mark Twain. New York : E. P. Dutton & company, 1920. .
- The Man who was Mark Twain: Images and ideologies. New Haven : Yale UP. 1991 .
- Introduction.” 1950. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. SculleyBradley et al. New York : Norton. 328-335.
- Mark Twain: An American Prophet. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1970. .
- The Harper American Literature Anthology, Second Compact Edition. Eds. DonaldMcQuade, RobertAtwan, MarthaBanta, JustinKaplan, DavidMinter, RobertStepto, CeceliaTichi, HelenVendler ( New York : HarperCollins College Publishers, 1996).
- The Green Hills of Africa. (1935) New York : Simon & Schuster. 1996. .
- Introduction.” 1948. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. SculleyBradley et al. New York : Norton. .
- The Literary Offenses of James Fennimore Cooper.” Mark Twain: Tales, Essays, and Sketches. Ed. TomQuirk. New York : Penquin. 1994. 377-390. .