Mediumship, "Mental Telegraphy," and Masculinity
In "Clairvoyant," a fragment of a story written probably in 1883 and 1884, Mark Twain tells of John H. Day, a man who, in addition to being able to tell the future, can learn everything about a person's character and intimate thoughts and feelings—each man "as he is," not merely "as he seems to be"—by looking into the ears, under the guise of checking for deafness. That Day's eyes in repose look like "smouldering fires" and when stirred brighten to brilliance echoes the popular belief, still common enough in the late nineteenth century, that mesmerists could project magnetic fluid (or bodily electricity, or some other "vital force") from their eyes into their subjects' eyes or ears and read minds via this medium. Apprehension of a person's reality beneath the bodily surface is sexualized and masculinized by the metaphor of penetration and invasion through the ear. But Day in turn himself serves as a kind of medium for the narrator of the story, who surreptitiously watches the clairvoyant while Day dreams about the people whose secrets he has plumbed. Occasionally Day, asleep, mutters such things as, "People who think they know him would say the thing is incredible." Generally he functions as an expressive image, inviting identification from the narrator: "Smiles would flash across his face; then the signs of sharp mental pain; then furies of passion. This stirring panorama of emotions would continue for hours, sometimes, and move me, excite me, exhaust me like a stage-play."
A "medium" himself, Day links together two physical mediums as channels of representation: the ethereal medium that penetrates the ears, carries to him the private and secret information, and grounds his perception in a material relay; and the medium of the face, the body surface that expresses Day's interior. As such, Day echoes two kinds of popular, mediumistic performances—the spiritualist performances that were in such vogue in the second half of the
nineteenth century, and the unconscious and absorbed "stage-play" actor's automatic and bodily expressions of emotion. He also combines his penetration of others with the passive and unconscious expression that the narrator voyeuristically watches; both Svengali and Trilby, the spirit control and the channel, Day condenses invasion and openness, conscious surveillance and unconscious revelation. For Mark Twain, I will argue, Day is a figure of the artist as authentic representer, a figure specifically of the writer as a medium, receiving his subject matter from "elsewhere" (a process usually bound to a seminal flow) and expressing or unveiling it automatically, almost unconsciously (a femininely passive operation). Just as mediumship in nineteenth-century America was insistently cast and recast in gendered and sexualized terms, so Mark Twain could theorize his own creative processes as active and passive, as "masculine" and "feminine." The move launched this "manly" writer into a difficult territory of gender confusion.
The invocation of clairvoyance and mediumship as analogues for writerly representation rehearsed, but also reconfigured, Mark Twain's concerns about performance. From his recollections of itinerant mesmerists in Hannibal and his journalism on spiritualist performances in San Francisco to the representations in his fiction—the king as mesmerist in Huckleberry Finn , Joan of Arc as a channel for holy voices, the ambiguous treatment of spiritualism in The Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts —mediumship always held for Mark Twain a set of uncertainties. There usually lurked a suggestion of charlatanry or theatricality that promised ultimately to discredit the veracity and fidelity of medium-conveyed representations, partly because public exhibition of mesmerists, telepaths, clairvoyants, animal magnetists, spiritualist mediums, table-rappers, and so on, had become common currency in popular entertainment. I do not want to discount this skeptical dimension of Twain's attention to mediumship. In this chapter, however, I will be more concerned with the possibilities he saw in mediumship for representation. Mediums themselves tended to defend their legitimacy by downplaying the publicly exhibitive dimension of their performances and stressing the nontheatrical; mostly young women, they used as credentials their femininity, their passivity, their unconsciousness, and their predilection for summoning spirits into small, intimate, family-sized groups. Twain pursued similar means of authenticating his writing processes
and his fiction, and overstressing his skepticism obscures his territory of concern—the distinctions and connections between expression and performance, the private and the theatrical, "feminine" transparency and "masculine" publicity.
I will focus attention first, however, on the ways in which Twain's interest in mediumship meshed with his interests in the body as a medium and, more generally, in physical circuits for representation. John H. Day's juxtaposition of mediums epitomizes a connection that preoccupied Twain. Day's "stage-play" primarily involves the unconscious expression of emotion in his face. Automatic and uncensored, these expressions of emotion are reflexive, effects of the nervous system, seemingly direct registrations of Day's dreams, the results of bodily machinery. The medium of his clairvoyance, emitted from his eyes, is apparently physical, or material, too. Franz Mesmer, of course, had posited the existence of a "superfine fluid" as the medium for gravity, electricity, heat, light, magnetism—and also, finally, for empathy, thought transference, clairvoyance, and communication with the dead. As the nineteenth century progressed, electricity, or some physical substance akin to it, took the place of vitalistic fluids as the force used to give a material basis and explanation to a host of still puzzling phenomena, ranging from the nervous system, the body's economy of energy, and virility to artistic creation and spiritualist communication. "Mental physiologists" emerged who placed on a material continuum the reflexive gesture that expressed emotion, the hysteric's symptoms, unconscious processes of creativity, and spiritualist trances. It is to these traditions of the physical and the physiological that we should relate Twain's interest in mediumship. And it is through these traditions that mediumship became for Twain a crucial vehicle for representation, a means of physically registering reality, a way for a referent to express itself.
Physics of Mediumship / Hysterics of Realism
For a writer who was fascinated with the reliability of gesture, bodily signs, and physical circuits, such "scientific" theories—physical or physiological—for operations of the human psyche held a great deal of allure. The implications Twain saw for his own art in physical explanations of mediumship come out most tellingly in his essay
"Mental Telegraphy"—a piece begun in 1878, finished in 1881, and finally published (with an addition) only in 1891. Here, among various instances of thought transference, Mark Twain recounts a case directly pertinent to writing, a case, moreover, that reproduces and elaborates the (sexualized) model for artistic invention and representation implicit in John H. Day's example. One morning in the 1870s, Twain tells us, while he was "lying in bed, idly musing," "suddenly a red-hot new idea came whistling down into my camp, and exploded with such comprehensive effectiveness as to sweep the vicinity clean of rubbishy reflections" (379). The idea—that his Nevada friend Dan De Quille (William Wright) ought to author a book about the 1860s silver rush. Twain quickly outlined the book, but before he got a letter off to De Quille suggesting the project, he got a letter from De Quille proposing just such a book. The two letters were the same "in substance," though differently worded. De Quille, Mark Twain concluded, had "originated that succession of ideas," and "telegraphed" them to Twain's "receiver" (380–81), "fill[ing] my head with them, to the exclusion of every other interest" (383). Twain had then translated the ideas into his own words.
Twain favored telegraphy as the term for thought transference because he believed that "the something which conveys our thoughts through the air from brain to brain is a finer and subtler form of electricity," and therefore analogous to telegraphy (389). In his 1875 correspondence with De Quille about this instance of thought transference, Twain refers to this force as "mesmeric current," a physical fluid capable of establishing "mesmeric sympathies." Relatedly, in notes made in 1878 he mentions "dyllic" and "odic" auras, which apparently refer to the "od" or "odylic" force similarly thought to connect minds and spirits. De Quille described the "subtle fluid or force" that connected him to Twain as "some all-pervading element like electricity, but even more subtle, that circulates through all things." Especially telling for Twain's preferred terminology, however, is his reference in "Mental Telegraphy" to "Mr. Brown, the 'mind-reader'" (384), because it clearly refers to Jacob Randall Brown, who became nationally known in 1874 through well-publicized mind-reading performances, whose abilities were tested at Yale University and recounted in journals of neurology, and who, in a stunt that may have helped generate Twain's electric-telegraphic metaphor, once attached a Western Union wire to his head in order to read the mind of
another man similarly attached to a wire and sitting miles away in a telegraph office. Twain thought Brown's mind-reading might indeed be legitimate. However, he was convinced that this medium of thought was superior to electricity and its wires; hence, mental telegraphy would sometimes outrace a telegram, and one's addressee would respond by wire even before Western Union reached him; the message apparently went "straight from your brain to the man it was meant for, far outstripping the wire's slow electricity" (391). Now, Twain fantasizes, if someone would only invent a "phrenophone ; that is to say, a method whereby the communicating of mind with mind may be brought under command and reduced to certainty and system," just as electricity has been put to use in telegraphy (389).
Part of the reason for the fantasy of the phrenophone was to enable communication and representation whose fidelity was insured by the physical circuit. Embodied in the electricity like medium, De Quille's idea can travel pellucidly to Twain's brain, remaining the same "in substance." But when Twain puts the idea into words, it does not match De Quille's written description. While, Twain asserted, "I know now that mind can communicate with mind without the slow and clumsy vehicle of speech," in the absence of phrenophonic mastery of this physical medium, communication was relegated still to the faulty connection between referent and word, to the modes of translation and resemblance instead of physical transmission. Ultimately, Twain declared, "We must have the thought itself shot into our minds from a distance; then, if we need to put it into words, we can do that tedious work at our leisure"—though, in the conscious labor of words, the circuit of substances and the fidelity of representation go awry.
The distinction Twain makes between immediate, automatic, electrical transmission of thought and the mental labor of wording is fundamentally that between indexical signs and symbols, between reflexive gestures and calculated ones, between physical transmission and its break. Yet, while he has imported the familiar gap between word and referent into his account of mediumship, he has also fashioned a basis for crossing that gap. His materialist account of brains and physical force (rather than minds and spirit) participated in a late-nineteenth-century extension of the principle of conservation of energy (the first law of thermodynamics) and the "correlation of forces"—that not only were light, heat, mechanical energy, magne-
tism, and electricity correlated and convertible one to another, but "vital force," "nerve force," and mental energy in animals and human beings were part of the same economy of energy. By suggesting that the medium for thoughts was a finer form of electricity, Twain connects physical and mental events in a way that profoundly affects representation, opening a route to conceive the expression of thought and emotion as a physical circuit not unlike that of the index. If telegraphy and thought were thus of the same order—that is, if mental force was akin to electrical energy, and electricity was part of the physical world—then this scientific erasure of the distinction between spirit and matter pointed a new way toward understanding literary creation. The familiar problematic, in which artists tried to "realize" or "materialize" ideas—and always failed, to some degree, in giving material form to inner or spiritual significance—could be rethought as a matter of physics, as material transmission. The gap between idea and realization, or mind and body, or spirit and matter—all resonating with the gap between concept and representation—could be bridged on the continuum that joined mental force to substance.
Emerging theories of mental physiology provided Twain with conceptions that further blurred distinctions, not only between thoughts and their expression, but also between processes of thought transference and processes of unconscious creativity (or between interpsychic communications and intrapsychic communications). The disposition of scientists and popularizers of science to use the telegraphic metaphor to describe both telepathy and the human nervous system itself (the brain often acting as the central office, telegraphing electrical messages throughout the body) implies the common explanation. One of the most prominent of the mental physiologists, William Carpenter, made frequent use of the telegraphic metaphor as a way of grounding mental phenomena in the material world, and took spiritualist mediumship as a special object of study. He thought it possible that "Nerve-force as a special form of Physical energy" might be able to "exert itself from a distance, so as to bring the Brain of one person into direct dynamical communication with that of another, without the intermediation either of verbal language or of movements of expression." Despite this legitimation of Twain's type of mental telegraphy as a means of communication superior to words or gestures, Carpenter thought it more likely that mediums'
communications were "nothing else than products of their own automatic mental operations," internal flows of nerve force operating outside consciousness, as reflexive responses to stimuli, whose automatism made them feel like communications from another (303). Carpenter called such automatic operations "unconscious cerebration" to identify them as activity of the cerebrum (the physical brain) rather than the "mind."
Twain similarly linked, as cases of "unconscious plagiarism," both the "telegraphic" communication from De Quille (101–2) and the unconscious processes of memory and writing that made him unknowingly reproduce as a dedication in The Innocents Abroad Oliver Wendell Holmes's dedication to his Songs in Many Keys . That is to say, unconscious plagiarism (the "happy phrase" he borrowed from Holmes) blurred distinctions for Twain between subconscious communications from others and subconscious communications from memory. These phenomena were associated not only because both occurred outside of consciousness; Twain's idea of mental telegraphy as a matter of physics corresponds to Holmes's conception of unconscious plagiarism as a "mechanism of thought," a function of the physical brain. This coupling is important for two reasons: first, because it forwards mental telegraphy as a general model for literary creation, and second, because it subsumes a certain kind of "unconscious" writing within the physical model. Through avenues akin to Holmes's explanations of certain kinds of writing as emissions of the body, I would like to suggest, Twain found a way to certify some of his wording as immediate, like a gesture, like a reflex.
In Mechanism in Thought and Morals (1871), Holmes describes unconscious mentation as a material process. He writes of the "inscription" of memory "in the very substance of the brain tissue" (71), of the coursing of impulses along the nerves ("the telegraphic cords of the system" ), and of the development of an idea when one "is least conscious of it" through the organic alterations inevitably occurring to "an impression made on a living tissue" (57). Unconscious plagiarism, Holmes suggests, is an instance of "unconscious cerebration" or "reflex action of the brain"—terms he borrowed from the mental physiology of Carpenter and Thomas Laycock (33–37). But so, more generally, is the writing of poetry a process "automatic and imperceptible" (44), unwilled and passive, as if the poet were receiving "dictation ab extra " (51). Borrowing a figure central to those psy-
chophysiologists interested in establishing mental events as reflex phenomena—that of the hysterical woman whose mental condition was still thought by many to be an effect of uterine irritation or ovarian malfunction —Holmes characterized poetry as "hysterics of the intelligence," an emission "as automatic, involuntary, as entirely self-evolved by a hidden organic process, as are the changing moods of the laughing and crying woman" (51).
Carpenter similarly thought that the processes of artistic genius and invention were "essentially automatic ," especially when, as in the work of Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Mozart, ideas flowed spontaneously and poems or sonatas seemed to be composing themselves (510–13). Such creation was so much like "the mysterious performances of a clairvoyante or a medium " that he pointedly wondered how parapsychological dictations ab extra "are related to those glorious creations, which have sprung from the legitimate exercise of the imaginative faculty in a Shakspere [sic ] or a Milton" (612). It is through this frame, which joins apparent dictation from outside with an internal reflex of uncontrolled cerebration, that we should grasp Mark Twain's familiar descriptions of his authorial passivity. He would write in 1884 to the Society for Psychical Research that he had often thought "that all my powerful impulses come to me from some-body else.... [I] feel like a mere amanuensis when I sit down to write.... I consider that that other person is supplying the thoughts to me, and that I am merely writing from dictation." But this is only an instance in his longer history of attributing his writing more generally to an unknown, upwelling force, which made it necessary only that he hold the pen while the writing "went by itself." Twain characterized himself repeatedly as an amanuensis, passively taking dictation ab extra , with "no cogitations, no attempts at intervention" (Mark Twain in Eruption , 243). And, he declared, "As long as the book would write itself, I was a faithful and interested amanuensis and my industry did not flag, but the minute that the book tried to shift to my head the labor of contriving its situations, inventing its adventures, and conducting its conversations, I put it away and dropped it out of my mind" (196).
While these pronouncements invite association with contemporary investigations into psychic phenomena and the psychology associated with them, as Susan Gillman has shown, they ought also to be connected to mental physiology. The well-known story of how he
surmounted an impasse when Tom Sawyer shifted its writing to Twain's own contrivances securely relates authorial passivity to the reflex activity of the brain that so occupied Oliver Wendell Holmes and William Carpenter. When Twain reached page four hundred of the manuscript of Tom Sawyer , he claimed, "the story made a sudden and determined halt and refused to proceed another step.... I could not understand why I was not able to go on with it. The reason was very simple—my tank had run dry; it was empty." When this happens, "when the tank runs dry," Twain concludes, "you've only to leave it alone and it will fill up again, in time, while you are asleep—also while you are at work at other things, and are quite unaware that this unconscious and profitable cerebration is going on" (Mark Twain in Eruption , 197). Elsewhere he referred to the "mill" of "unconscious cerebration," "whose helpful machinery never stands idle," and he testified that, whenever his tank had run dry, he could simply wait until "U. C." (his abbreviation of the familiar "unconscious cerebration") had refilled his creative reservoir.
Although Mark Twain's delight in his "U. C." seems focused on sheer production, it is a production grasped as an unconscious making, as an uninterrupted mechanical circuit, rather than the production of signifying products cut off from their signified causes. To an important extent, unconscious cerebration and physiological mechanism promised a guarantee for the realism Twain was pursuing. Although his medium here is that of words rather than expressive bodily gestures, because the writing has the character of reflex, avoiding both the contriving mind and will and the tedious labor of translating ideas into sentences, it attains the immediacy of index and gesture.
At the same time that the abyss between body and words is crossed by the physical bridge of these cerebral processes, I would argue, distinctions grasped in terms of masculinity and femininity are breached. To the extent that Mark Twain thought his ideas came from somebody else, he was penetrated and feminized; he functioned—as he did when, lying idly in bed, he caught De Quille's mental ejaculation—as a passive "receiver" for seminal ideas. To the extent that his writing was an internal dynamic of unconscious reflex, it amounted to "hysterics of the intelligence," and therefore to feminine spasms of bodily indiscipline. Mark Twain relaxes the masculine control and dissimulation that aimed to plug any truthful exposure through the cracks of protective armor. Its effect is the immediate
speaking of what amounts to a masculine-feminine body, a writing equivalent to hysterics, blush, or jabber that carried with its femininity a certification of the truthful and the real.
As a precaution against the threat of full feminization, I would suggest, Mark Twain theorizes a masculine-feminine intrapsychic economy that follows popular scientific accounts of the relation between physical and vital force. Late-nineteenth-century science, that is, posited body and mind as a relatively contained energy system, in which physical activity depleted mental reserves or, as G. J. Barker-Benfield characterizes the "spermatic economy," in which a limited reserve of seminal force could be expended in—or hoarded for—sexual activity, physical labor, or mental labor. Metaphors of the body as a battery, or galvanic cell, proliferated. In Mark Twain's version, apparently, unconscious cerebration amassed a reserve of creative force that sent telegrams to a passive consciousness. In much the same way that it took Twain a period of not-quite-conscious worrying about something to get his own mental telegrams "up in good shape" ("Mental Telegraphy," 377), he testified that it took periods of unconscious cerebration, sometimes lasting for years, to refill his creative tanks. Though giving up the masculine will and controlling awareness, this model celebrated masculinity in the form of seminalmental upwellings of energy from below (suppressing the associations of reflex with "female" hysteria). Twain enacted a kind of autoeroticism, became an actually procreative bachelor machine, his automatic, electrical cerebrations ejaculating telegrams to his passive consciousness. He transforms the interpsychic model, in which he is the feminine receiver for De Quille's mental force, into an intrapsychic model more akin to John H. Day's, in which he is both the source of seminally creative fluid and its passive conduit. This saved him from feminization, and yet annexed reflex action and passivity as guarantees of realism. But we must consider, quite clearly, that this ultimately narcissistic and masturbatory move aimed to efface the problematic connections among passivity, the body, and femininity. As I shall try to show in a moment, however, the gender troubles in analogizing mediumship and authorship far outstripped this solution of autoeroticism.
Twain managed to press the model of physically transmitted representation to limits that revealed its shortcomings as well—most pointedly, I think, in the play Colonel Sellers as a Scientist (1883), a
work that brings us back to the year Twain probably wrote "Clairvoyant," and back again quite explicitly to issues of mediumship and representation. Twain collaborated on the play with William Dean Howells, but the main character was Twain's (from The Gilded Age and Colonel Sellers ), and according to Howells it was Twain's idea to make Sellers a scientific inventor and "a spiritualist, whose specialty in the occult was materialization"—that is, the embodiment of departed spirits. Readers of the play have found the materialization theme simply ludicrous. In the context of the foregoing discussion, however, it will be obvious that Sellers as a Scientist is a reconsideration, albeit in a farcical way, of possibilities of representation, the spiritualist aim of bringing dead spirits back to life serving as a metaphor for art, reproduction, and realism.
Sellers promises an up-to-date electrical version of materialization. "No spiritualism about it," he says; "A purely scientific operation" (223) based on "natural forces," not the supernatural (226). His materialization contraption, a congeries of "poles and batteries" (220), somehow uses "stored electricity" (225) as a means for "absorbing and condensing the enormous waste of vital force with which our atmosphere is filled from the dissolution of the human race" (226). Thus gathered together, this "vital force"—also referred to as "unorganized matter"—gives substance to the spirits of the dead. Embodying an understanding of vital forces unmistakably modeled on thermodynamics, and particularly on the conservation and convertability of forces, Sellers's facetiously presented materializer echoes Twain's serious concerns about economies of energy and representation. Although the materializations Sellers plans may superficially sound like those of other popular spiritualist exhibitors, he claims they will not be like "ordinary mediumistic arms and feet and things that don't amount to anything—no substance in them—you strike a light or fetch in a skeptic, and pff! They disappear" (221); his materializations will be translated to the flesh through electricity and matter. Moreover, Sellers's aim is nothing "so paltry as an exhibition " (215). He will materialize spirits in the mass: "The spiritualists materialize one little pitiful spectre—or part of a spectre—a leg, or an arm! Or a forefinger, or a big toe!" He, on the other hand, will materialize the dead on a grand scale, hundreds of thousands of whole bodies a year, for the purpose of filling out the ranks of police, politicians, and public servants (215). Lafayette Hawkins, Sellers's auditor and admirer, ap-
provingly exclaims that Sellers's plans will be "a much bigger wonder than materializing a mere plaster of Paris leg in a dim light" (215).
The crucial distinction is that Sellers is a scientist rather than a spiritualist, stressing electricity and the substance of "vital force" as his means of materialization. But, if this resembles the transmigration of ideas in Twain's mental telegraphy, then the play nonetheless repudiates this model of artistic creation. Sellers himself discounts his own vaunted process. After a typically Twainian confusion of identities, an astonished Sellers concludes that he has actually materialized someone: Reginald De Bohun, the heir to the earldom of Dover and a man reported to have just died in a fire. Yet Sellers belittles this apparent success by declaring his belief that the man before him is without substance, that he is liable to float away or disappear (221). And when the prospect looms that this "materializee" might marry his daughter, Sellers strenuously objects that the man is a mere "simulacrum," a "spectre," a "miserable fraud of an apparition" (233), not the substantial, warm, living body that a husband must be. But the final blow to the entire undertaking of representation—whether it be through simulacra and facsimile or physical transmission—comes with the revelation that this materialization never took place after all. Sellers, as an artist and reproducer of reality, failed completely.
As echoes and analogues of Sellers's translation of the dead, the play introduces other media that promise the technofantasy of the reproduction of reality, notably a telephone and a phonograph—each of which raises questions about the reliability of physical transmission. As Nicholas Royle has persuasively suggested, telepathy in the nineteenth century was related to a more general "tele-culture" of communication through invisible channels—"in telegraphy, photography, the telephone and gramophone"; and if Alexander Graham Bell and, especially, Thomas A. Watson, the inventors of the telephone, joined their thinking about telephonic communication to spiritualism and occult forces, it should be no surprise that Twain links telephony and Sellers's materialization. But like the electrical medium for reproducing the dead, the electricity of the telephone misfires. It serves merely as an occasion for a long passage of mis-communication between Sellers and the "call-boy" of a hotel. The telephone finally fails to convey any information and elicits from Sellers a curse on "that deaf and dumb machine" (234).
Another medium that mechanically listens and mechanically reproduces what it hears, that translates the voice through a malleable
substance, is the phonograph, in this case "the Sellers Ship's phonograph for the application of stored Profanity to the working of Vessels during storms. Adapted to the use of Foremen in Boiler Manufactories and Large Press-Rooms" (223). When "loaded up" with "sailor profanity" by a hired "expert," this invention is supposed to aid first mates by relieving them of the responsibility of doing all the swearing at the sailors. Used as Sellers means it to be used, then, the phonograph would represent skillful swearing, but mainly for effect rather than for the purpose of realistic reproduction. However, "if you leave it open, and all set," the phonograph will also "eavesdrop, so to speak—that is to say, it will load itself up with any sounds that are made within six feet of it" (241). Akin to the mediumship of John H. Day, who in a sense reproduces eavesdroppings, the phonograph's registration and conveyance of the talk of unsuspecting people is even less satisfactory than Day's face, with its incomplete and puzzling representations. The physical and direct medium of the phonograph plays back fragments of language as collage or as burlesque. For example, a conversation recorded between Mary Sellers and Aunt Sally, a black servant, comes out as juxtaposed snippets of Mary's weeping over her lover and Sally's cursing him, and more generally as a sentimental language of love discomposed by blackface minstrel dialect (224). Later, when Colonel Sellers tries to demonstrate some profanity, he gets only a sentimental ballad by an unknown singer interrupted by cats wailing and "warming up towards a fight " (241). The phonograph simply cannot represent transparently. Its mediation rearranges reality into noise, nonsense, and burlesque.
Huckleberry Finn —which, because it was started a couple of years before "Mental Telegraphy" and finished in 1883, the year of "Clairvoyant" and Sellers as a Scientist , understandably echoes mediumistic concerns—reiterates the message that any medium for communication transmits but also impedes. Consider the fog, which makes Jim's panicked whoops indistinguishable from other raftsmen's and causes sounds to "dodge around" and "swap places," much as Sellers's phonograph does. As Huck concludes, you "couldn't tell nothing about voices in a fog" (100–101). Huck later juxtaposes the fog, in which confusedly disembodied voices sound "like spirits carrying on that way in the air," to clear atmosphere, in which you could easily see a raftsman at a distance chopping wood: "You'd see the axe flash, and come down—you don't hear nothing; you see that axe go up again, and by the time it's above the man's head, then you hear
the k'chunk! —it had took all that time to come over the water" (157). The effect of this observation, though, is to underscore the airy medium as both channel and impediment for distant reality. In Huck's superstitious world, similarly, leaves may try to rustle a mournful message, owls may whoo-whoo about a spirit, dogs and whippoorwills may cry about the dying, but all of these fall short of full communication, just like the wind, which tried "to whisper something to me," but with so much noise that "I couldn't make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me." The failure of communication itself causes terror and grief: "Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that's on its mind and can't make itself understood, and so can't rest easy in its grave and has to go about that way every night grieving" (4).
As if he were embodied fog, or a version of Sellers's profanity phonograph, Huck as a representation mechanism also works as both channel and impediment. When Huck goes on automatic, that is, and trusts to "instinct," as he puts it (279), or relies on "Providence" to put words in his mouth (277) (an important conflation, by the way, of scientific reflex action and spiritual mediumship), what comes out are "lies" that are worked-over versions of his experience. His lies to Judith Loftus, to the Grangerfords, to the duke and the king, to the Phelpses—which contain elements of his experience, such as being orphaned, being treated cruelly, rafting down the river, secretly traveling at night—all come off better than when he consciously has to fabricate stories, say about being an English "valley." As with Mark Twain, in other words, when the mental labor of storytelling is made a conscious task, it goes awry; but the automatism that might promise truth turns out to be bound to a mechanism whose corporeality, and circuitry, and sheer physiological functioning cancel the promise of a simple and direct conduit. Like the fog, Huck as a medium makes his realities dodge around and swap places. Like the profanity phonograph, Huck will register a variety of external stimulations through different channels, and his circuitry relays them back quite revised. Mechanical reproduction guaranteed by physical transmission is replaced by production as a reconstruction.
Even so, Huck has other, mediumistic qualities that help to authenticate his narration. In contrast to Jim, whose mediumistic prophesying through his hairball is transparently a money-making
hoax, and whose tale of being entranced and ridden by witches serves mainly a purpose of extravagant theater, Huck and his storytelling have that aura of general somnolence, absorption, and unselfconsciousness, a kind of feminization and passivity, and an association with the sincerity and intimacy of the domestic circle he fashions with Jim—all of which he reproduces in his intimate narration. These qualities situate him as a kind of amanuensis of reality, at least to the extent that he is removed from the realm of theater, hoax, and public performance. It is to these dimensions of mediumship in Twain's writing that I now turn.
"Addle-Headed, Feminine Men"
The analogy between mediumship and writing, as our current scholarship demonstrates it, was most obviously pertinent for women. As historians of nineteenth-century women's writing point out, many women writers in effect denied having written, in order to avoid the suggestion that they were stepping onto the public stage in an unfeminine and unseemly way. They characterized themselves, instead, as mediums, "instruments" who operated unconsciously, mouthpieces of God, nature, or home—vehicles for larger forces that submerged the individual female identity and that redeemed this writing from any taint of aggression, competition, ambition, or writerly manipulation. Historians of mediumship and spiritualism similarly point out that acting as a medium allowed women to take to the stage as public performers, to act out a variety of roles, to lecture as "trance-speakers," or to publish as "spirit writers" with the understanding that these events were really enacted by absent people, supposedly dead ones. The spectacle of female passivity served as an alibi for the gender crime of public performance: the real perpetrators were supposedly somewhere else. A condition for successfully taking the stage was to abjure both ambition and agency.
Wedded to this dynamic, however, was a more general logic of representation. If one pattern in the Victorian ideological system credited women with expressive authority—with sincerity and truthfulness because what they said was private and domestic—and thereby posed for them the problem of somehow bringing this authority before the public without losing it, another pattern posed for male authors the problem of annexing that authority in their public
writing without becoming too "feminized." These twin difficulties gained an institutional prominence in the 1850s through the 1880s when "feminine" novels so dominated the writing of fiction. Alfred Habegger, in Gender, Fantasy, and Realism in American Literature , has argued that, as male novelists coming of age during these years, William Dean Howells and Henry James "seized a popular women's literary genre" and "entered deeply into the feminine aspirations it articulated." Mark Twain, I will argue, also grappled with this doubleness of embracing a femininity of privacy, transparency, and domesticity while preserving a masculinity (a preservation Habegger accomplishes for James and Howells through his metaphors of seizure and penetration). The prescription for women—that they could enter the "masculine" public sphere chiefly by exaggerating their private and passive "natures"—resonated for men, too, who gained public credibility by amplifying the intimate and private features of their performances. The paradoxes of the female medium, the sincere male author, or the published private writing all participated in the larger Victorian cultural dynamic that closely wedded, constantly confused, but strove to distinguish between inside and outside, domestic secrecy and masculine publicity.
Mark Twain's automatisms of mental telegraphy and amanuensis were embedded in and related to the larger, longer-standing conceptions of feminine mediumship. If automatism could, in its most obvious initial impulse, save representation from the division between sign and referent, or signifier and signified, by collapsing the difference, feminine mediumship promised to save representation from the alienation of expression and the dissimulations of exchange in the masculine marketplace by undoing the strict opposition between public and private. Ultimately, automatism and mediumship came to share features, feminine mediumship gaining (through nineteenth-century scientific explanations of unconscious cerebration) the character of automatism, and automatism, because of its private and unconscious character, gaining the aura of transparency, passivity, and domesticity that belonged to mediumship. They became related partly by joining their ostensible opposites—the theatricality that presupposes a division between expression and inner reality, and the marketplace self-presentation associated with aggressive cheating and male duplicity. They also became related through the similar services they performed, joining inner and outer,
public and private in a way that promised possibilities of expression without theatricality or alienation.
The constellation of values that seemingly repudiated theatricality and marketing by privileging automatism, mediumship, and domesticity—and yet allowed for publication and audiences—appears perhaps most obviously and consciously in Twain's autobiographical dictations. There he announces, first, that he is "speaking from the grave, because I shall be dead when the book issues from the press"—a stipulation for publication which allowed him, he thought, to speak his "whole frank mind." He functions in the present, in a sense, as a medium, a spirit writer, for his own voice from beyond, the voice of that future self who will no longer care enough about what an audience thinks to tailor his remarks; in a typical twinning, Twain himself provides us with both the irreverent truth-teller and his passive amanuensis. Enough distance exists, he suggests, between the performed truth and the theatrical occasion of publication to alleviate any impulse to reshape the truth for its audience. He then connects "speaking from the grave," and its occult and spiritualist overtones, to his other model for the autobiography, the love letter, for as the "frankest and freest and privatest product of the human mind and heart," unburdened by the sense that any stranger would see it, such a letter allowed free and truthful expression. The privately and intimately domestic utterance, the "frank" transparency, and the mediumistic are clustered here under the nontheatrical, joined in their freedom from having to solicit and attend to an audience, though the point of the autobiography is to broadcast (eventually) these unfettered opinions. Presiding over this mediumship and domestic intimacy is Twain's dictation of the autobiography, in which his talk emerges freely, and it is transcribed automatically, so that the links from brain to voice to paper are preserved as continuous. In one remarkable confluence, Twain annexes privacy, intimate sincerity, and automatism, all as a means of certifying to a future public the unalienated and uncensored nature of his writing.
Twain explored over the course of his career various dimensions of this configuration, both "antitheatrical" and devoted to publication. Here I would like to attend especially to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court , which operates explicitly with the oppositions between mediumship and theatricality, domesticity and marketing—and attempts to keep them intact. (The next chapter will discuss
ways in which these oppositions are complicated, and the final chapter, in its discussion especially of Joan of Arc , will show how Twain pressed these distinctions to their confusion.) The Hank Morgan of our critical tradition, of course, is quite lopsided, far from being a femininelike medium; he is instead the sly manipulator, the embodiment of theatricality and market-mindedness (the version of Hank to which I will attend more fully in the next chapter). But it is important to note that he is also the medium who connects the nineteenth century to the sixth, whose narrative is supposed to carry some weight in 1889 and not exist simply as a stunning flourish. When Hank compares his experience of the "transposition of epochs—and bodies" to the spirit traveling (and spirit possession) of the "transmigration of souls" (48), he invokes a kind of connecting medium ostensibly akin to that which might materialize absent bodies. And, significantly, it is only after having been rendered unconscious with a crowbar (51) that Hank can serve as the medium for representing the nineteenth century to the sixth. Even more important, it is only after having been put into a deep sleep that he can serve as the medium for representing his sixth-century story to the modern Mark Twain (and by relay, through the medium of Twain, to us).
While Hank's representation of the sixth century to the nineteenth carries an aura of authenticity, his representation of the nineteenth century to the Arthurians is a poor translation. Hank is a poor medium because in Camelot he is still the prototypically masculine inhabitant of the business marketplace and the factory bureaucracy, and as a result a manipulator and a performer. Everything he produces, therefore, is a show, a theatrical spectacle whose "effects" are carefully calculated and marketed, and therefore fabricated rather than mediumistically conveyed (a condition which, as I shall argue in the next chapter, Twain thought was indeed a vexingly endemic condition of public representation in the late nineteenth century). The representation of the nineteenth century that he produces in Arthur's court, in short, is an effect in form and ruthlessly effective in substance. As if he meant to highlight this underside of the realism that, like Hank, is "barren of sentiment" and of "poetry" (50), Twain draws a sharp contrast between this theatrical Hank and the narrating Hank of the story's frame. The Hank Morgan that Mark Twain meets in the frame has an attractively "candid simplicity," and "he talked along, softly, pleasantly, flowingly," seeming to "drift away imperceptibly out of this world and time, and into some remote
era and old forgotten country" (47). Hank has changed from a manufacturer of theatrical effects into a teller of flowing stories, and from a consciously theatrical manipulator to a man somehow in touch with, and inclined unconsciously to float off into, another era. The author invokes this quality, and reestablishes the distinction between medium and manipulator, precisely to endow Hank's story with authenticity; Hank in the end seems to be a proper medium who transports Twain to another time and place, who "gradually wove such a spell about me that I seemed to move among the spectres and shadows and dust and mould of gray antiquity" (47).
If, in the frame at the start of the novel, Hank puts "Mark Twain" into contact with specters and shadows, in the closing frame an entranced and delirious Yankee, whose "mutterings and ejaculations" carry on with an obliviousness to Twain's presence, thinks he is communicating indeed with the dead. Semiconscious, he can be heard mumbling:
O, Sandy, you are come at last,—how I have longed for you! Sit by me—do not leave me—never leave me again, Sandy, never again. Where is your hand:—give it me, dear, let me hold it—there—now, all is well, all is peace, and I am happy again—we are happy again, isn't it so, Sandy? You are so dim, so vague, you are but a mist, a cloud, but you are here , and that is blessedness sufficient; and I have your hand; don't take it away—it is for only a little while, I shall not require it long.... Was that the child? ... Hello-Central! ... She doesn't answer. Asleep, perhaps? Bring her when she wakes, and let me touch her hands, her face, her hair, and tell her good-bye. (492)
In a nice touch that joins the medium of telephone communication to this mediumistic transmigration across epochs, Hank calls for his daughter, Hello-Central, whom Sandy named after his earlier unconscious muttering, when, in his dreams, he had "wandered thirteen centuries away" in search of his telephone operator girlfriend (453). More important, however, this communion takes place on Hank's deathbed, the ultimate symbol of sincere Victorian feeling, and the vague entities conjured up from the dead (perhaps even materialized) are Hank's family. That this spirit communication re-creates intimacies between husband and wife, father and mother, parent and child, points toward the conditions which so transformed the Yankee.
Much of the change in the Yankee as a communicator, that is, comes with his marriage to Sandy. His new model, intimate communication within the family, which has the same kind of sanctity for Hank that it does for Mark Twain, undergirds Hank's telling of his
story. For he writes the story—"turning my old diary into this narrative form" (or this novel )—during the week in which, besieged in his cave, he also devotes time to "writing letters to my wife." The letters are "almost like talking," a kind of intimate, family communion undefiled by revision, censorship, or theatrical effect, enabling Hank to imagine "it was almost like having us all together again" (473). Mingled as it is with love letters, the novel is plainly meant to resemble the easy talking of the family circle. And the novel further resembles the letters—which Hank cannot, and will never, send, though he does not know it yet—because it, too, like spirit writing, is a writing from the grave, a writing that will see the light only centuries after its composition. Like Twain's autobiography, Hank's story garners an aura of "frankness" through association with mediumship, unconsciousness, somnolence, domesticity, and intimate talk.
This is not to say that Twain uncomplicatedly resolves his problems with representation and simply affirms this mediumship. In the last lines of the novel, Hank has returned to theatricality, busy "getting up his last 'effect'" (493). And at various points in the novel the ease with which mediumship is tinged with hoax or transformed into theater is underscored. Hank attributes charlatanry to mediums, noting that "a crowd was as bad for a magician's miracle in that day as it was for a spiritualist's miracle in mine" (252). He transforms bona fide communication through the medium of the telephone into a magic show and an "effect" when he is "clairvoyantly" able to say what the distant Arthur is doing (282). And he makes "prophecy" sound, too, like something of a hoax: "A prophet doesn't have to have any brains. ... It is the restfulest vocation there is. When the spirit of prophecy comes upon you, you merely cake your intellect and lay it off in a cool place for a rest, and unship your jaw and leave it alone; it will work itself: the rest is Prophecy" (315). The point, however, is that Twain grapples with—and tries in A Connecticut Yankee to retain—an opposition troublesomely defined in terms of gender, demarcated according to masculine and feminine spheres, according to consciously calculated performance and unconscious expression. His inability to keep them sharply distinct testifies to their cultural interrelatedness and sets an agenda he will necessarily return to.
Among the masculine-feminine contrasts of nineteenth-century Anglo-American culture traced in Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan
Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic is the opposition between a masculine writing as seminal outflow through the pen-as-penis and a somnambulistic "trance-writing" typical of many nineteenthcentury women. Obviously enough, such an opposition operated pervasively in defining authorship. Rather than simply dividing men and women, however, these conflicting categories also obviously constituted individual writerly subjectivities—including Mark Twain's. This is not meant in any way to discount the special difficulties women writers faced, for, obviously, male writers had a degree of freedom to adopt both active and passive roles which was denied to women. I do mean to suggest, however, that we can look even to Mark Twain, supposedly one of the more "manly" of the classic American authors, for symptoms of cultural confusions and anxieties about gender and their "separate spheres," anxieties continually heightening over the course of the nineteenth century.
In their historical accounts of gender and authorship, such critics as Terry Lovell, Rachel Bowlby, Elaine Showalter, and Michael Davitt Bell have outlined the difficulties posed for late-nineteenth-century male novelists. With culture and artistry often associated with the feminine, and with novel writing and reading frequently understood as womanly and domestic pastimes, the male novelist, as Bowlby puts it, "might be in something of an ideological bind; neither pure artist nor fully masculine, and unable to alter one side of the pairing without damaging the other" (11). The stratagems for overcoming the difficulty of "unmanliness" were various. Men could, of course, insist on the pen as penis, and similarly characterize creativity as a product of masculine vitalistic force. Or, as Showalter has noted, "One defense against the mother's reign is to appropriate her power by repressing the maternal role in procreation and creation, and replacing it with a fantasy of self-fathering.... Male writers constructed a new myth of creativity in which the work of art was the product of male mating and male inspiration, totally independent of even metaphorically feminine cross-fertilization" (77–78). As I have suggested, Twain's conception of writerly creative force, whether exchanged between himself and De Quille, or circulated within his own bodily economy, suits these models for expelling the femininity with which novel writers and writing were imbued. Certainly his initial attempt at novel writing, in which he and Charles Dudley Warner joined forces to improve upon the sort of novels their wives were reading, followed this
pattern—two men bonding in order to invade female territory and to usurp a womanly vocation.
Clearly enough, too, men struggled to masculinize the novel and to depose the women novelists who dominated the field during the middle third of the century. Both the writing of "boys' books" and the touting of "realism" were part of this tendency. Michael Davitt Bell, for example, argues that Howells used "realism" to transform art into a manly activity by pitting his focus on facts and the representation of plain reality against "feminine" preoccupations with style, form, literariness, and "art." Howells thought that the best writing was "unconscious" writing in which "there is no thought of style" or of calculated "dramatic effect." And he included Twain's writing in this category, as when he called Twain "dramatic and unconscious." A strategy that replaces feminine sincerity with feminine artifice in order to reclaim unconsciousness for masculinity and male realism, it nonetheless registers the problem of "male femininity" as much as it solves it.
Mark Twain's fellow humorist Q. K. Philander Doesticks called female mediums "crack-brained masculine women" and male mediums "addle-headed feminine men"—a transparent enough effort to resecure an endangered difference. He might have said the same about novel writers. When we consider a time when women came before the public by mediumistically impersonating men, and men adopted passivity as they recoiled from the masculine territory of the market and pursued the powers of the unconscious and of "truth" in art, we have to reconsider the gendering of writing, realism, and the possibilities of representation in a way sensitive to the contradictions and tensions of this transitional period—and in a way suspicious of Victorian fantasies about the fixity and stability of gender identity. Mark Twain's ruminations on mediumship and his implicit notions about the gender ambiguity of writing echo anxieties about and shifting definitions of masculinity and femininity. They may help us revise our picture of American realism, of the power of the "feminine" novelistic tradition, and of the "masculine" wing of American literary history.