“The most popular humorist who ever lived” : Mark Twain and the transformation of American culture
This dissertation examines Mark Twain’s literary-critical reputation from the years 1865 to 1882, as he transformed from the regional “wild humorist of the Pacific Slope” to a national and international celebrity who William Dean Howells called “the most popular humorist who ever lived.” This dissertation considers “Mark Twain” not as the name of a literary author, but as a fictional creation who was narrator and implied author of both fictional and non-fiction texts, a performer who played his role on lecture platforms and other public venues, and a celebrity whose fame spread from the American west through America and the world.
The key question of this dissertation is the historical position of the “humorist,” a hierarchical cultural category that included high culture literary figures, such as James Russell Lowell and Bret Harte; literary comedians, such as Artemus Ward and Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby; and clowns and minstrels, who were placed at the bottom of the hierarchy. I argue that Mark Twain muddied the hierarchical distinctions between class-appropriate leisure and burgeoning forms of mass entertainment, between uplifting humor and debased laughter, and between the canonical literature of high culture and the passing whim of the merely popular.
Through the success of The Innocents Abroad (1869) and the promotion of William Dean Howells, Mark Twain was elevated into critical discussions of literary value, and in the 1870s he entered into venues of higher prestige: so-called “quality” magazines such as the Galaxy and the Atlantic Monthly, lecture stages on the lyceum circuit and in England, and the personal realm of friendship with other authors. While Twain was accepted into some literary cultures, other critics attempted to consign him to literary oblivion, or simply ignored him, while Twain himself betrayed keen anxiety about his role as “stripèd humorist” in respectable literary realms. This dissertation thus focuses on written works, critical interpretations, and performative instances in which “Mark Twain,” as both agent and subject, brought debates over “American Humor,” “American Literature,” and “American Culture” to the fore.