Cover image for Achilles and the tortoise : Mark Twain's fictions
Achilles and the tortoise : Mark Twain's fictions
Griffith, Clark, 1924-
Personal Author:
First paperback edition.
Publication Information:
Tuscaloosa : University of Alabama Press, [1998]

Physical Description:
x, 284 pages ; 23 cm
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PS 1338 .G75 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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nbsp;Covering the entire body of Mark Twain's fiction, Clark Griffith in Achilles and the Tortoise answers two questions: How did Mark Twain write? And why is he funny? Griffith defines and demonstrates Mark Twain's poetics and, in doing so, reveals Twain's ability to create and sustain human laughter.

nbsp;Through a close reading of the fictions-short and long, early and late-Griffith contends that Mark Twain's strength lay not in comedy or in satire or (as the 19th century understood the term) even in the practice of humor. Rather his genius lay in the joke, specifically the "sick joke." For all his finesse and seeming variety, Twain tells the same joke, with its single cast of doomed and damned characters, its single dead-end conclusion, over and over endlessly.
As he attempted to attain the comic resolution and comically transfigured characters he yearned for, Twain forever played, for Griffith, the role of the Achilles of Zeno's Paradox. Like the tortoise that Achilles cannot overtake in Zeno's tale, the richness of comic life forever remained outside Twain's grasp.
The last third of Griffith's study draws parallels between Mark Twain and Herman Melville. Although the two authors never met and seem not to have read each other's works, they labored under the sense of what, in Moby-Dick, Ishmael calls "a vast practical joke . . . at nobody's expense but [one's] own." The laughter occasioned by this cosmic conspiracy shapes the career of Huckleberry Finn fully as much as it does Ishmael's voyage. Out of the laughter are generated the respective obsessions of Captain Ahab and Bartleby, of Pudd'nhead Wilson and Hadleyburg. Reduced at last to a dry mock, the laughter is the prevailing tone of both Billy Budd and The Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts.

Author Notes

Clark Griffith is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Oregon.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

Driving still another nail in the coffin of the old, popular view of Twain as America's genial comic, Griffith delves considerably deeper into the metaphysical than any previous studies of the man William Dean Howells once called the Lincoln of our literature. Seen as through a glass, darkly, each sliver of Twain's work appears to reflect its writer's "vision of a complete moral and social futility." The conviction that Griffith sees in this dark Twain‘and the reason behind the book's title, which alludes to the notion that, no matter how hard he tries, Achilles will never overtake the tortoise‘is that life is but a sick joke in which progress of any kind is nothing more than a cruel illusion. This study casts much of Twain's work in a fresh, new light. Recommended for all large public and upper-division academic libraries.‘Charles Nash, Cottey Coll., Nevada, MO (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Griffith (Univ. of Oregon) offers a series of related essays threaded on the theme of moral and social futility, darkly compelling links between Twain and Melville, as argued in the final essay. Siamese twinning and doubleness are central interpretive concepts and the "sick joke" defines Twain's universe--a mother tells a blind child he will see and then shouts "April Fool." In the fiction, "enhumored" characters show their types and temperaments, making them comic automatons. Antics reverse angst and anger, and even the pilots in Life on the Mississippi are negatively irresponsible toward human life. James Cox pioneered a similar viewpoint in Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor (CH, May'67). Griffith's arguments have an engaging clarity of style, but essays vary in quality. "Fables for Good Old Boys and Girls" is deftly interpreted and useful as a tool, but the treatment of the "Jumping Frog" story does not recognize Edgar Branch's analysis and seems unaware of the instigation of Artemus Ward, although treating the story as a practical joke. Interpretations of Tom Sawyer, A Connecticut Yankee, and Pudd'nhead Wilson, all based on their pessimism, are intriguing, but the discussion of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is less satisfying. Upper-division undergraduates and graduates interested in developing interpretive slants on Twain, and Twain-Melville in the context of the American "confidence" man, may find this book interesting reading while rejecting some of the imaginatively reconstructed passages. D. E. Sloane University of New Haven