Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Terrible Dreams of Creative Power: The Question of No. 44

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Terrible Dreams of Creative Power: The Question of No. 44

Article excerpt

Enigmatic characters fill the pages of Mark Twain's later fiction. The heteroglossic voice of Hank Morgan and the question of Pudd'nhead Wilson's life in Dawson's Landing both leave the reader with an unsettling sense of the characters' identities. Is Hank a model liberal democrat or a proto-fascist? And just how much control does Pudd'nhead Wilson have in his investigative hobbies? Is he an astute interpreter of texts, or a mere amateur blessed with dumb luck? In his later works Twain raises to a fine art the vertiginous construction of enigmatic figures, combining child-like play with adult moral posturing, prototypes of Huck and Tom with a frightful modern vision, and a grand progressive rhetoric with dark and fatalistic undertones. These characters are the dialectical representations of the varying moods and conflicting philosophies that vexed Twain in the last decades of his life. Little wonder that they leave the critical reader perpetually frustrated.

Perhaps no character better illustrates this fictional enigma than does the god-like child in Twain's unfinished Mysterious Stranger manuscripts. No. 44, more than any other of Twain's creations, remains a mystery to the end.(1) Any attempt to wrestle with this mystery must spring from the most general but nonetheless pertinent of questions: What is the nature of No. 44? This question is not as simple as it first appears, for the figure refuses neat critical categorization and eludes the grasp of even the most careful examination. He is simultaneously an impish prankster, a satanic figure, a benevolent fatalist, a childlike innocent, a philosophical pragmatist, a social determinist, a showman and performer, dream substance, and, perhaps most important, an artist and creator. In fact, one could well address the text as Katzenyammer does No. 44, "Nobody knows how to take you or what to make of you; every time a person puts his finger on you you're not there."(2)

While many scholars have struggled with the placement of Twain's "Conclusion of the book," few have attempted to place their critical finger directly on No. 44.(3) If we assume that the manuscripts remained unfinished because of Twain's unresolved intentions behind the figure of 44, then we are compelled to conclude that this character stands as the keystone of the text. To grasp the problematic ending, one must first confront the enigma of No. 44.(4)

Ever since the publication of John S. Tuckey's Mark Twain and Little Satan in 1963 and William Gibson's edition of the Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts in 1969, most of the criticism on "The Mysterious Stranger" (both the Paine-Duneka version and the No. 44 version) has focused on its structural and solipsistic implications, especially as it sheds light on the psychology and philosophy of Twain's later years. This criticism usually takes one of two diametrically opposed positions on the manuscript and the author's world view: either the text reveals a nihilistic stopping point in Twain's ever-increasing pessimism, or it presents a promising alternative to his paralyzing despair.(5)

What most critics fail to consider, however, is the possibility of both a negation and an affirmation in the Mysterious Stranger manuscripts. Much like the paradoxical figure of No. 44, who remains aloof and difficult to pin down, the text itself contains contradictions. There is at work in the unfinished manuscripts a dialogue of differences that, whether Twain was aware of it or not, translated itself into the character of the Mysterious Stranger. After all, these are texts written by a man who could embrace a theoretical socialism and, at the same time, sing the praises of capitalist ventures; who would argue that men are completely determined by their social surroundings while nonetheless holding out for an imperial autonomy of self; who would vigorously condemn the government's laissez faire economic policies yet personally befriend-and benefit from-such financial giants as Henry Huttleston Rogers and Andrew Carnegie. …

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