Academic journal article Humanitas

Realism, Romanticism, and Politics in Mark Twain

Academic journal article Humanitas

Realism, Romanticism, and Politics in Mark Twain

Article excerpt

Mark Twain and Irving Babbitt

Imagination shapes society and politics.

According to Irving Babbitt, the imagination plays an "all-important role in both literature and life." For Babbitt, society and politics are shaped by the imagination, because it is within the context of the imagination that one's reason and will inevitably must function. He explains that

man is cut off from immediate contact with anything abiding and therefore worthy to be called real, and condemned to live in an element of fiction or illusion, but he may ... lay hold with the aid of the imagination on the element of oneness that is inextricably blended with the manifoldness and change and to just that extent may build up a sound model for imitation. One tends to be an individualist with true standards ... only in so far as one understands the relation between appearance and reality--what the philosophers call the epistemological problem. [1]

Imaginative truth and error.

For Babbitt, the development of a sound ethical center involves a degree of imitation and adherence to standards. What Babbitt has in mind is not slavish imitation of artificial external models but the careful building up of sound models for imitation. To accomplish this, one must be solidly anchored in reality and able to glimpse what Babbitt calls "the one in the many." Claes Ryn has said that Babbitt's solution to the epistemological problem is "to move closer to the truth above all by training the imagination, which is intimately related to the will. This is done negatively by unmasking perversions, ... positively by discovering and absorbing the visions of the imaginative master-minds." [2] For Babbitt and Ryn, the work of artists and writers helps to shape one's imagination and, hence, one's will, which in turn further shapes the imagination. The shaping of the imagination may help one move closer to, or further from, truth. Works which move one toward truth are those which are anchored in reality. This does not mean that they flatly and indiscriminately portray a shallow empirical 'reality,' but that they possess a deep sense of the "oneness that is always changing." Such works help men to "find ... concrete modes of ordering their lives, individually and in social cooperation, which are directly experienced as conducive to happiness and a heightened sense of reality." [3]

If it is true that artists and writers have played, and continue to play, significant roles in shaping the American imagination, one of the most important influences must surely be that of Mark Twain. In addition to achieving enduring popularity and becoming a part of the American literary canon, Twain, and, in particular, his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been the subjects of extensive discourse in many fields of study, including political philosophy. The purpose of this article is to offer a unique interpretation of Twain, one that approaches his work from a perspective informed by the thought of Irving Babbitt. Twain and Babbitt have something in common: they both viewed the romantic imagination, at least in some of its forms, as failing to move man toward truth. In Rousseau and Romanticism Babbitt offers an excellent account of the nature of the romantic imagination and its influence on modern thought and politics. Various literary scholars have observed that "Twain's literary opinions have been ti ed to realism because they seem to be based on an ingrained hostility toward romantic literature ..." [4] Twain is typically classified as a member of the loosely defined 'school' of American Literary Realism associated with his friend William Dean Howells, although in recent years certain scholars have questioned the appropriateness of this classification. This question will be left for others to pursue. What is important here is that Twain would have wholeheartedly agreed with Babbitt's contention that the romantic imagination is one of the "perversions" which must be "unmasked. …

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