Henry B. Wonham and Lawrence Howe, eds., Mark Twain and Money: Language, Capital, and Culture (Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2017), 271 pp.
The collection is designed to overcome “romantic notions of the literary artist” as “divorced from the market” (258) and the “biographical habit of judging Twain,” after Justin Kaplan, as “chasing the money” (257, 256) without understanding business. The essays discuss what is considered the author’s “compulsive engagement with [...] economy less as a regrettable distraction than as a [...] source of literary creativity” (5). Carefully compiled, the collection addresses diverse thematic relations between the story of Samuel Clemens’s life, his life writings, Mark Twain’s fictional narratives, and the economic exchanges, monetary activities, market relations, and opinions on personal, company, and public finances depicted therein. The twelve contributions plus an Introduction by co-editor Henry B. Wonham and a Coda by co-editor Lawrence Howe all evince the expert knowledge of scholars specializing in cross-genre research on the writings of Twain and in nineteenth-century U.S.-American literature, and all articles are well argued and composed. Four of the twelve articles are republished in the collection, after first appearance in the special issue Mark Twain and Economy of American Literary Realism (2014) or in English Literary History (2015).
Based on detailed study of archival records, Lawrence Howe’s contribution addresses disputes and hopes about landed property in the Clemens family, and makes a case for narrative as similarly “subject to interpretive variance” (18) and “rhetorical conditions of ownership” (35) as is property with respect to laws and contracts fashioned after Lockean natural rights doctrine. Ann M. Ryan’s article discusses patterns in Twain’s narratives that demonstrate a deterministic ethos in responses to poverty and poor people, showing the fictional narrator’s as well as autobiographer’s contradictory “hostile response” (84), “gamesmanship of charity” (90), “characteriz[ation] of himself in royal terms” (93) after becoming wealthy, and satire of “nouveau-riche aspirations” (95-96), including the “political corollary” in Calvinist ethics of poverty as “a moral failing” and in medical metaphors as a “cultural infection” (84). Explicating images related to disputes about socialism and bourgeois elitism in capitalism, the article draws connections to racialization, institutional racism, and international relations in what is abbreviated as the antagonism of labor and capital in the later nineteenth century. Both Howe’s and Ryan’s articles stand alone in the collection with attention to property in land and poverty, respectively, whereas the further arrangement underlines interests shared across articles in marketing and branding; Clemens’s finances; metaphors and psychology of transaction, debt, and obligation; humor and satire in relation to monetary crises and financial speculation; and attribution of value or accumulation in the monetary economy and in fiction.
The articles by Judith Yaross Lee and Mark Schiebe critically consider the management of the Mark Twain brand and Clemens’s professionalism on the literary market with respect to emerging copyright laws and comic literature in commodity consumption. Lee applies theory and terminology of branding—denotation, differentiation, connotation—and marketing—spin-off including the suppression strategy of the Autobiography of Twain being released in 2015 only—to life narrative and fictions by the author, including attention to historical branding and trademark laws. Schiebe reads A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court as an allegory of “brand loyalty” (71) and of branding as a strategy to control consumer demand and create consumer belonging. As a “work of radical historical relativism” (71), the novel exemplifies the “marketing of useless products” (74), Schiebe holds. Investigating aspects of the financial biography of Clemens, Gregg Camfield discusses dependencies between author and patrons—“public, political, peer and plutocratic” patronage (106)—while Joseph Csicsila reviews critical reassessments of Twain as a businessman to further dispel the argument on the financial ineptitude of the author before the historical context of the supra-individual forces of the Panic of 1893 considered not a crisis but a “full-blown depression” and “industrial collapse” (129, with Steeples and Whitten; emphasis deleted). The articles by Susanne Weil and M. Christine Benner Dixon extend the discussion of the finance market by a shared focus on credit and debt. Following the approach through semantic alignment of monetary debt and moral guilt, Weil autobiographically reads unpublished fiction by Twain as well as Clemens family correspondence to analyze the perception and psychology of threats to autonomy, masculinity, and productivity of the provider. Evoking critical discussions since the 1980s of the “economy of pain” (175, fn. 1) after William D. Howells, Dixon turns attention to economic metaphors and the way Twain “practices the pain-pleasure exchange” (161) between author and his fictions to “mak[e] his pain an exchange currency” (163), “spring[ing] from a kind of commercial acumen” (164) and dependent on “masochistic [...] reckoning tactics” (163, 166) in affectual as well as factual remuneration. In their contributions on humor and satire in dramatizations by Twain, Sharon D. McCoy and Jonathan Hayes compare financial speculation and generation of capital to comic effects or excesses and ambiguities of fiction. Setting literary production in conversation with the popular culture of the times, McCoy reads Twain’s “uses of blackface minstrel masking” as satiric and depicting “sympathy with both poverty and aspirations for economic advancement” (178) in exposing classism, corruption, bribery, and racialized politics to growing appreciation by audiences as well as financial success. Hayes’s contribution on The Gilded Age applies the Marxian term “fictitious capital” (passim), derived from the works of David Harvey, to argue that the novel by Twain and Charles Dudley Warner uses both “financial narratives” and “sentimental melodrama” to show that “circulation [...] in the finance economy sustains itself through desire-based discourses” and in “social actuality” continues “uncertainty” (204) and precarious conditions (216) for middle- and working-class people. The final two essays by Jeffrey W. Miller and Henry B. Wonham engage capital generation according to materialist and nominalist theories of money respectively: After Marc Shell, Miller’s text discusses mining for silver as a source of metallist money and compares this to the “figurative mining” (228) of the “literary vein” (227) performed by Roughing It and turned marketable. Wonham considers the low risk of arbitrage, among other instruments of the finance market, as the most illustrative figure for Twain’s reliance, in life as in fiction, on what is the Aristotelian claim that “money begets money,” combined with a modern insight into profits derived from prices varying across time and space. The “image of dividends rolling in” for the nineteenth-century author stood for “financial security” as much as for “literary productivity” (245).
In the Introduction to the collection, the field of economic criticism, as internationally developed in the past five decades, is briefly acknowledged. When the four approaches in economic criticism as described by Martha Woodmansee and Mark Osteen (35-39) are applied to the essays in the collection, an equal number—predominantly, with many that mix approaches—fall into the biographical approach to literature and money that addresses cultural circumstances of production of texts; into the second, formalist approach that addresses “internal circulation” and exchange in texts between tropes that may, but do not have to be monetary metaphors; and into the approach through address to “external circulation and consumption” that studies “market forces,” canonization, and reception; all articles—some to little and barely explicit, some to greater degree—entertain the fourth approach, the “metatheoretical” one that addresses relations between the theoretical, methodological, and terminological premises and assumptions both of economics or finance studies and of literary studies and interpretation.
Besides brief remarks or footnotes on some very selected works of early economic criticism of the 1970s and 1980s by Jean-Joseph Goux, Shell, or Walter Benn Michaels, however, theories, categories, and results of economic criticism are rarely considered in the contributions and not used to provide systematic or methodological coherence. Moreover, definitions of terms according to economics and finance studies might have been provided in a more methodical way. Differences between recurring terms such as economic, monetary, financial, or fiscal, for example, are not explicated. The articles also pay little attention to literature or language in the sense of patterns that, besides semantics, would concern grammar, semiotics, and mediality, or to the analytics of narratology differentiating between author, narrator, characters, or focalizers, for example. Economics are pursued at a popular level in themes and pecuniary motifs or characters’ handling of monetary matters in Twain’s fiction, read as a window unto nineteenth-century lives and experiences.
While there are lots of biographical historical details on economic or financial activities of Clemens or Twain, there is no consistent attempt at interdisciplinarily uncovering which economic theories or dogmas current in his times Clemens might have been familiar with or, most relevantly, Twain might be poking fun at in his prose. A few articles use theory of economics or capital selectively after Adam Smith and Karl Marx, but the question if Twain ever read works by Marx and Friedrich Engels, for example, is not taken up. Discursive patterns like the opposition of democratic or republican and aristocratic or monarchical political organization that is noted to recur all over Twain’s writing are not pursued with respect to their economic basis. Regarding the biographical approaches and frequently autobiographical readings of Twain’s fictions, positions across the contributions waver between logics of autonomy and identity or more relationalist readings of narrative selves, without methodological consistency that might be derived from life writing studies.
The national focus of the contributions limits the perspective on economy in a way inadequate to U.S. economy and economics of internationalization under the imperialism and globalization determining world relations of the late nineteenth century. Hardly an article reflects how the Gilded Age in the United States might have been entangled with international trade and commerce or determined by transnational features of finance—aspects and questions that do seem in keeping with the scope of Clemens’s life story as much as Twain’s writings and their distribution, no matter how locally delimited personal economic transactions by the author might appear. The collection seems hermetically U.S.-American whereas Twain’s works and their worldwide influence, also beyond anglophonicity and through translations, are not restricted in this way, or, offer multiple points of entry into a wider context for their discussion. Twain’s international, even so-called world reading tours offer themselves to economic criticism as images of transnationalization. What is missed by the reader is attention to the historical expansion of the U.S. national economy in the second half of the nineteenth century in relation to other nations and empires on a worldwide market with a global scale of exchange of goods, labor migration under indenture, or international financial transactions. The economy of language, capital, and culture is not national, contrary to any eighteenth-century assumptions about the wealth of nations or to views of autarky in totalitarian or imperial economics. Beyond making up for oversights in biographical criticism of the author between American business and art, Introduction and Coda do not succeed in theoretically integrating Twain’s works in economic criticism nor in bringing them appropriately in touch with concerns in global economics, finance, policies, and geopolitics.
In how far, for example, is it significant in internationally economic readings of Twain and money that the publishing company Clemens co-owned released a book of Hawaiian legends, attributing the collection, for reasons of marketing, to the authorship of Kalakaua, the last male monarch of Hawai‘i, rather than to the U.S. diplomat who apparently produced the book of legends (51-52)? Who earned from this collection—the U.S.-American company or the King of Hawai‘i struggling with debts to U.S. financiers, trying to stabilize Hawaiian currency against the U.S. dollar and to build an alliance of Pacific island states against Euro-American imperialism until shortly before U.S.-American annexation of the Hawaiian islands? Not unrelated, the mythologization in the Clemens family of the “Tennessee land” property is treated in the collection outside decolonial consideration of Indigenous ethics and relation to the land.
Such regrets about limitations aside, Mark Twain and Money freshly elucidates complex relations of Twain’s work and Clemens’s life story with aspects of nineteenth-century U.S.-American economy. The detailed and in-depth specialized research brought forth by the articles in the collection might provide the incentive for a collection on the inter- or transnational aspects of economy in Clemens’s lifetime, life story, and works. The relation of the biography of either Clemens or Twain, or both, to economic and financial categories and the explication of the narratological and author-theoretical aspects of Clemens’s publishing under a pen name also suggest good ground for further investigation of fiction, marketing, and making a living from the writing of lives. Any reader who enjoys the Mark Twain universe and its academic study will find pleasure in the scenes of loss and gain in monetary and literary signification that the collection is invested in.
Nadja Gernalzick (Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz / Universität Wien)