Amy Kaplan & The McDonaldization of Mark Twain

Readers of Amy Kaplan’s The Social Construction of American Realism (1988) may be surprised to find that the dissertation out of which it developed, “Realism Against Itself,” begins with a chapter on Mark Twain. In Social Construction, Kaplan mentions Twain only in passing, as a contributor of William Dean Howells’s Atlantic Monthly, an important venue for the construction of the realist aesthetic in the United States. She also briefly compares the critical reception of Howell’s A Modern Instance to that of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, presuming that the latter will be more familiar to her readers. Howells is the primary subject of the opening chapters of Kaplan’s book. As a combination of gatekeeper and realist exemplar, he sets the standard against which the other authors in her study will be compared.

But, in “Realism Against Itself,” the pole position, and everything that goes with it, is ceded to Mark Twain. Kaplan’s 67-page opening chapter, “Realism & Power in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” is as illuminating as anything written about the novel, before or since. (It is unfortunate that it has never been published as a stand-alone essay in a venue that would make it more accessible.) However, for Kaplan, the chapter is not only a reading of Twain, but, more importantly, a preparation for using Connecticut Yankee as “a paradigm for reading the other novels.” Twain makes explicit what is “implicit in the other novels” (a phrase Kaplan uses repeatedly), and thus Kaplan positions his novel not only to precede, but to hover over her remaining chapters, as readers are tempted to invoke the parable of the Yankee, even when Kaplan does not.

The Connecticut Yankee, Hank Morgan, is, Kaplan argues, a prototype of the realist writer. As a fantasy of social change without the sacrifice of social control, the Camelot he aspires to engineer is the secret wish of Howells and all realists, as well as their curse, as the continual arbitrage of political stability and social progressivism eventually crashes into despair, violence, and devastation. Morgan cannot sustain his belief in the conveniences of capitalism – arrived at by mass culture, scientific education, and industrial organization – and simultaneously sustain autocratic power justified by superstition and enforced by subjugation. Likewise, realists like Howells cannot simultaneously fetishize the traditions and manners of Victorian society while also advocating for expanding rights. The tyranny is the barbarism. Morgan cannot hold on to the former without dooming himself to the latter. Our manners are our oppression, part and parcel.

Kaplan would, unfortunately, orphan her Twain chapter before publishing The Social Construction of American Realism, and, perhaps equally surprisingly, exclude Twain from her contributions to Cultures of United States Imperialism (1993). But the method of her dissertation, deploying Twain’s work as both a critical object and an operative critique, resurfaces in what is, arguably, her most influential work, The Anarchy of Empire in The Making of U.S. Culture (2002).

In “Realism Against Itself,” one can already see flickers of Kaplan’s fascination with Mark Twain as more product than creator. She marvels at the incongruence of the promotional materials for Connecticut Yankee (which advertised the novel as nationalist reply to “modern English criticism of America” and “the Godly slurs against us”) and the Daniel Beard illustrations (which caricatured Gilded Age Americans like Jay Gould). The selling of Connecticut Yankee clearly had little in common with the aggressive critique of capitalist political economy which Twain offered within it. It was premised instead upon a mythic representation of the author, near the height of his pre-bankruptcy celebrity, as some kind of Knave Errant leading native scribblers into a culture war with imperial Europe which, for the first time, America might have a punchers chance of winning.

Kaplan would take up this argument in much greater detail in the second chapter of The Anarchy of Empire and the article upon which it was based, “Imperial Triangles,” published in Modern Fiction Studies in 1997. Kaplan applies her now famous conception of “Manifest Domesticity” to the concluding passage of Twain’s most famous novel, interpreting “one of the best-known moments of American literature” as a “revolt against the colonizing impulse of women’s sphere.” She argues “this flight from domesticity has been viewed in literary history as a hallmark of Mark Twain’s writing,” but goes on to show that Twain epitomizes “the ‘domestic’ in another sense of the word,” as he is increasingly recognized, both during his lifetime and since, as “the quintessential American author.”

Kaplan views Twain’s reputation as a “national treasure derived from international plunder” despite his earned reputation as an anti-imperialist. “The anarchy of empire created an American Mark Twain,” Kaplan says, in part through jingoist marketing campaigns like the one alluded to in her dissertation and by reliably associating him with propagandistic Americana for centuries thereafter. By drawing attention to “the Americanization of Mark Twain” as an important and rich territory for American Studies scholarship, Kaplan opened up potential veins for Twain Studies which are, as yet, largely untapped.

Prior to “Imperial Triangles,” very few Twain scholars had approached Twain as a distinctly 20th-century icon and as a transnational figure. In the years since, a few scholars – notably Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Susan K. Harris, Judith Yaross Lee, and Ann Ryan – have extended Kaplan’s project, but there are still many questions which her work provokes. How was Twain mobilized during the World Wars, both “domestically” and overseas? How did he become integrated into the culture and curriculums of postcolonial nations and transnational rhetorics of globalization? (Seema Sharma and Sheila Lai-Henderson, I know, have begun tackling this question.) What do we make of the lingering fondness for specific representations of Twain in multinational corporate advertising and global media conglomerates?

Unfortunately, Kaplan will not be able to further this critical conversation herself. But I wanted to take the occasion of her passing to draw attention to this specific aspect of her sizable legacy. Her work has posed a challenge to Twain Studies, among other fields, and at CMTS we are interested in encouraging and supporting scholars who rise to meet it.