"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.