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The Introspective Art of Mark Twain. Douglas Anderson. Bloomsbury, 2017. Pp. 278. Hardcover. $120.00. ISBN 978-1-5013-2955-5. Paperback. $29.95. ISBN 978-1-5013-2954-8. E-book. $25.99. ISBN 978-1-5013-2957-9.
There is nothing better than a preface that explicitly spells out what the author hopes to accomplish, and Douglas Anderson wastes no time doing this. In his very first sentence he declares “This book begins an examination of Mark Twain’s artistic preoccupations by assuming that he was . . . an unusually perceptive student of his own mind and career, and that he undertook a review of that career . . . near the end of his life” (ix). A page later Anderson is more specific: “The following pages undertake to explore that legacy by tracing its inward excursions . . . . The journey will begin by considering . . . the enigmatic dialogue What is Man?” (x). Anderson promptly brings his preface to a close on the very next page with a final observation: “To begin a book such as this one with What Is Man? risks discouraging many admirers of Twain’s comic art and caustic political satire. But the risk is worth taking if it succeeds in alerting Twain’s readers to a rich and neglected dimension of his achievement” (xi). Even when faced with the risk of discouragement, what’s a reviewer to do when the author of a book practically writes the review for him?
Mark Twain’s readers are all aware of the outer dressing and décor of his fiction, and Twain’s mastery of the literary arts leaves most of them with few doubts about the truths of those “inward excursions” that flow just below those fictional surfaces. Anderson is not the first to explore this realm in Twain’s writings, and he is not the first to apply a close reading of What Is Man? to Twain’s other writings, but he is the first to plumb those depths at length, using What Is Man? as the prism through which three decades of Twain’s most important works can be understood.
Mark Twain himself claimed that the gestation for What Is Man?, first published in 1906, had been underway for “twenty-five or twenty-seven years” (1). Anderson accepts this claim that the composition of that work had begun decades earlier and had extended through the years of Twain’s most productive literary output. His introduction charts the structure and philosophy he discerns from his own close reading of What Is Man?, followed by four chapters in which he explains how this work functions as a master-key that unlocks the deeper meanings lurking under the surface of Twain’s earlier writings. He then uses that key to unlock Mark Twain’s other writings, revealing the “introspective art” that gives this book its title.
Early in his introductory chapter, Anderson notes that What is Man? could just as easily be titled What is Consciousness? and treats Twain’s Socratic dialogue in between the Old Man and the Young Man as a series of thought experiments proposed by the Old Man to the Young Man. He discusses at length the familiar issues of nature versus nurture, and the mechanistic philosophy that views the human mind as a kind of machine. These ideas were first explored by Paul Carus in The Mechanistic Principle and the Non-Mechanical (1913) in which more than forty pages are devoted to What Is Man? including extensive quotes from Twain’s work, but Anderson does not cite Carus. However, Anderson’s explication of What Is Man? is excellent and full of fresh insights. He concludes by announcing that the following chapters will “work backward from the end of Twain’s career to its beginning, when he first formulated and explored the account of mental life to which the Old Man gives sustained expression” (14).
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