Mark Twain at Work, by Bernard DeVoto
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1942): 144
Reviewed by Alex Applebaum
In Mark Twain at Work, Bernard DeVoto thoroughly examines the famous American author's creative process. In the preface, he legitimizes his Mark Twain expertise by proclaiming his official appointment to the custodianship of The Mark Twain Papers by the Mark Twain Estate. Having access to the collection of original manuscripts and notes, DeVoto extracts some crucial evidence about the creative process behind some of Twain's greatest works. DeVoto's book is essentially divided into three parts; the first one primarily focusing on Twain's working habits for Tom Sawyer, the second one on Huckleberry Finn, and the final one on the works written after his daughter's death. Although DeVoto takes us through his creative process as an established author, he never bothers to take us back to his earlier days as an up-and-coming writer. The Twain DeVoto leaves us with is the struggling genius trying incredibly hard to escape the traps of mixing life and art. In the end, DeVoto explains that Twain is unable to separate real life from his fiction. Since we have only read up to Tom Sawyer in class, I will primarily concentrate on its conception.
The first section of the book, titled "The Phantasy of Boyhood: Tom Sawyer" suggests that Twain worked "sporadically" depending on fits of "inspiration." Instead of forcing himself to work for a certain amount of time, Twain relied heavily on "improvisation" and would some times work furiously for days; sometimes not write at all; sometimes start projects and leave them hanging for years; sometimes finish them quickly; etc. DeVoto insists that Twain did not work in "the way of a conscientious literary workman." His genius lay instead in his moments of spontaneous creativity. He didn't finish nearly as much as he started, but, nevertheless, he wrote prolifically. There are still thousands of unpublished pages and ideas he never carried through with. DeVoto concluded, however, that this spontaneity was also the source of many inconsistencies in his writing. For instance, Devoto discovered by looking at the manuscripts that "the man who forgot Becky Thatcher's name between Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and who called her father Judge Thatcher through a long section of the manuscript in which she first appears is quite capable of innocently changing Aunt Polly's name for a page"(5). Devoto continues through much of this section with a tedious list of all the typos and inconstancies he made in his original manuscript.
DeVoto then goes on to describe the interaction between Twain, an advisor named Howells, and interestingly enough his wife. Twain's work, according to DeVoto seems to have gone through a series of filters before it got to the public. The most important filter was obviously his advisor, or his "arbiter and censor"(10), Howells. DeVoto explains that Twain pretty much submitted to every one of Howells' suggestions. For instance, in discussing the manuscript for Tom Sawyer, Howells writes "I don't seem to think I like the last chapter. I believe I would cut that"(11). Twain would reply, "As to that last chapter, I think of just leaving it off and adding nothing in its place." DeVoto then explains how his wife made additional suggestions about cutting out some profanity and inappropriate religious terminology. DeVoto gives us the sense that Twain listened to almost all of the advice these two people had to give. As to the subject of sex, an intense taboo in his age, Twain was his own most strict censor. One of DeVoto's most severe criticisms is the apparent lack of sex in all of his works.
After going into excruciating detail about the editing of Tom Sawyer, DeVoto ends on a great note of admiration for both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. He concludes by praising it for its universality - "Both are masterpieces, both transcend their own weaknesses...."(18). Quickly covering some points made by the other two sections, DeVoto explains that creating Huckleberry Finn provided much more trouble for Twain. He left it half finished for six years(56) for his "tank had run dry"(53). DeVoto said it was a trip back to the Mississippi that provided the impetus for continuing with Huckleberry Finn and to further more write Old Times on the Mississippi. In the last section, DeVoto concludes that Twain, after the death of his daughter, had lost all ability to successfully carry through with his good ideas. Twain had resorted to working by a regimented schedule. He worked long unproductive hours, creating incredible numbers of pages, but unfortunately they ended up more contrived than his earlier works. DeVoto reasoned that his later works were consumed with his daughters death and that every story he wrote after this tragic loss came too close to being autobiographical for them ever to succeed as great fiction.
Although I agree with much of what DeVoto had to say and learned a great deal about the creative process behind some of Twain's great works, I had to disagree with the final criticism - that his later works came too close to being autobiographical. As far as I am concerned, the works we have read so far were remarkably autobiographical. Innocents Abroad and Roughing It were both written in the first person and closely based on real experiences. The lines between one's life and art are not perfectly clear. Art will always be based on one's own imagination, one's own thoughts, and most importantly for Twain, one's own experience. Even the characters in the renowned Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were admitted to be based on real kids from his childhood. I don't understand why autobiographical association should present such an inexcusable problem in his later works. The final problem I have with DeVoto's Mark Twain at Work is when he refers to Mark Twain on a first name basis. He kept calling him Mark. It's not like he is Oprah dumb ass. He was a professional writer. Would you ever read a professional literary criticism about Shakespeare with the critic referring to him as Will? No. You would think a Harvard guy would know something like this. Fortunately, I got over it...but it bothered me for a long time. Nevertheless, DeVoto succeeded in giving some fascinating insight into Mark Twain's individual working style, and especially Tom Sawyer's consistency as a product of a sustained, spontaneous creation.
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