The Mythologizing of Mark Twain

The Mythologizing of Mark Twain

The Mythologizing of Mark Twain

The Mythologizing of Mark Twain

Excerpt

The question of Mark Twain's worth as a writer has been an intriguing and problematical issue since he began his literary career in the 1860s, when the debate was largely a matter of whether he was just another funny fellow or a serious author. With protean vitality, the forms of the issue have changed but refuse to resolve themselves into answers or to vanish. So we are left with this nagging contradiction: We accept Mark Twain as a major American writer-- perhaps even as our most typically native product--at the same time that we register our disappointment over his recently published Notebooks, which read, as Harold Kolb says, like the jottings of a journalist. That is to say, not like an artist's, not like a "true" writer's. Or we think of Hemingway's nearly untempered admiration for Twain masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when he said that all American literature came from that rich source yet warned readers to stop at the point in the narrative where Tom Sawyer arrives at the Phelps farm. That is to say, even his best work is seriously flawed, though from generation to generation we disagree even about what those flaws are. One symptom of the current fluctuation in values regarding Twain is the intense debate among scholars over the significance of his late works, those written after about 1898. There seems no middle ground: While conventional scholarly wisdom has deemed these mostly unfinished and unpublished pieces inferior, other critics proclaim . . .

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