The rhetoric of humor: Mark Twain and the art of the tall tale

Wonham, Henry Brunie, Department of English, University of Virginia
Ayers, Edward L., Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia

The "text" of a tall tale functions as a "pretext" for the interpretive confrontation that its performance inspires, and it is this confrontation that lends the form its significance as a folk ritual capable of affirming the values of a community against outsiders. In his early writings, Mark Twain worked to dramatize this ritual by depicting yarnspinning performances in which his characters either gain admission to the tall tale's privileged interpretive community--like the narrator of Roughing It-- or comically betray themselves as cultural outsiders--like Mr. Mark Twain in “The Jumping Frog"--by failing to respond appropriately to a yarnspinner's inventions. From either perspective, that of the aspiring initiate or of the lowly pedant, the yarnspinner's tacit interpretive agreement with cultural insiders functions as a powerful social contract, one that helped to shape Twain's attitude toward the art of narration and the activity of writing itself.

The tall tale's test of initiation, its rhetorical drama of performance and response, provides a loose thematic structure for each of the extended mock autobiographies of Twain's early career, The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, and "Old Times on the Mississippi," but it was not until he began Tom Sawyer, his first novel, that he started to think seriously about his reader's part in the narrative transaction. In that book he carries the process of literary assimilation of the tall tale to a new level of sophistication by describing a contest for narrative authority between the novel's romantically inclined narrator and St. Petersburg's favorite showman and yarnspinner, Tom Sawyer. By subtly juxtaposing Tom's creative project against the narrator's own, Twain destabilizes the novel's "official" language and initiates a problematic renegotiation of its claims to authority--a renegotiation, moreover, in which the reader plays a vital role. Tom's subversion of the novel's several "official" rhetorics, indirectly including the narrator's, allows Twain to challenge the very assumptions upon which his romance of boyhood adventure depends.

Huckleberry Finn further entangles its reader within the tall tale's rhetorical drama by introducing a deadpan narrator whose performance encourages unprecedented interpretive collusion between the novel's reader and implied author. By together reconstructing the ironic significance of Huck's deadpan performance, these two participants in the novel's rhetorical game form an elite partnership that resembles a yarnspinner's unspoken agreement with cultural insiders in his or her audience. The oral yarnspinner traditionally manipulates two faces, one that expresses deadpan sincerity and another that shares an insider's laughter with culturally initiated interpreters, yet here the two faces belong to separate figures in the narrative's rhetorical structure. Huck's naive seriousness functions like a yarnspinner’s deadpan delivery, but Huck himself is excluded from the elite interpretive community that his performance helps to define.

Twain explicitly encourages his reader in Pudd'nhead Wilson to enter into another collusive relationship with the implied author, only this time the impression of an elite status for cultural insiders dissolves with the realization that complicity in the crimes of Dawson's Landing is finally inevitable, that interpretive privilege is just one more cultural illusion. This insight eventually caused Twain to abandon the tall tale as a rhetorical paradigm in the late writings, which pursue an ideal of transcendence rather than of privileged participation in the distinctly human drama of performance and response. In much of his best fiction, however, including especially Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Pudd'nhead Wilson, Twain works consciously to make his reader a negotiator rather than a spectator in the tall tale's interpretive transaction.

Note: Abstract extracted from PDF file via OCR.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Twain, Mark, 1835-1910, Criticism and interpretation, Tall tales, History and criticism, American wit and humor
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