At the NEA’s Big Read Blog, David Kipen is doing some interesting musing on how Mark Twain‘s reputation was built, using a piece on The Innocents Abroad by William Dean Howells in the December 1869 issue of Atlantic Monthly as a launchpad. Here Howells keys in on Twain’s sense of humor:
And it is always good-humored humor, too, that he lavishes on his reader, and even in its impudence it is charming; we do not remember where it is indulged at the cost of the weak or helpless side, or where it is insolent, with all its sauciness and irreverence. The standard shams of travel which everybody sees through suffer possibly more than they ought, but not so much as they might; and one readily forgives the harsh treatment of them in consideration of the novel piece of justice done on such a traveller as suffers under the pseudonyme of Grimes. It is impossible also that the quality of humor should not sometimes be strained in the course of so long a narrative; but the wonder is rather in the fact that it is strained so seldom.
In a post published yesterday on the Big Read Blog–it’s dated January 48, 2008, must be some government thing–Kipen fast-forwards a few years to Howells’ piece on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in the May 1876 Atlantic, and Kipen finds some amusement in the critic’s characterization of Twain’s Missouri as the “southwest”:
Still more intriguing is his reference to “the Southwest,” someplace I always thought of as closer to Pike’s Peak than Pike County, Missouri. And then it hit me. To a Brahmin tenderfoot like Howells, 19th-century Missouri was the Southwest, just as Illinois was the Northwest — and wound up with the anachronistically named Northwestern University to prove it.