Mark Twain and the Art of the Tall Tale explores a predominantly American comic strategy and its role in Mark Twain's fiction. Focusing on the writer's experiments with narrative structure, Wonham describes how Twain manipulated conventional approaches to reading and writing by engaging his audience in a series of rhetorical games - the rules of which he adapted from the conventions of the tall tale in American oral and written traditions.
After surveying the rich history of yarn-spinning in America, Wonham traces Twain's appropriation of the genre through the course of his career, from The Innocents Abroad to Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Pudd'nhead Wilson. He contends that as Twain turned from short sketches to extended travelogues and quasi-fiction, he found in the tall tale a means of dramatizing his disparate comic material. Later, as Twain worked consciously to purge his writing of its anecdotal quality, the oral genre remained central to his imagination - less as a source of comic material than as a paradigmatic encounter between competing points of view, an encounter that resonates throughout the author's major fiction.
Offering an original interpretation of Twain's narrative and rhetorical techniques, this absorbing and readable study will interest Twain enthusiasts and students of nineteenth-century American literature, as well as anyone interested in American humor and oral narrative traditions.
"Wonham's book has struck upon an innovative if not radically new approach to Twain's travelogues and major fiction which...ought to cause a stir in literary-critical circles generally and among Twainians particularly."--Gary Scharnhorst, University of New Mexico
"This is a strong book on Mark Twain--strong in its conception, its scholarship, its execution, and in its clarity. Wonham sees just how central the tall tale is as a structural unit and as a form of narrative energy in Mark Twain's work. He has a comprehensive understanding of Mark Twain's humor, sees its strong commonsense element playing against the self-conscious exaggeration of the tall tale, and is remarkably free of the high-handed judgments that
characterize so much Mark Twain criticism. The result is a central book on Mark Twain as a writer."--James M. Cox, Dartmouth College
"This is a well-written, well-conceived book."--Susan K. Harris, City University of New York
"Wonham has written a book that will be of interest to fans of the tall tale and Twainians in particular."--American Literature
"We finish Wonham's study with a clearer sense of Clemen's aesthetics, how he envisioned narratives and audiences, as well as thoughtful interpretations of individual texts."--Western American Literature
"If Henry B. Wonham's succinct book closes the era of Constance Rourke, it also opens a new period of the analysis of humor with its sophisticated yet commonsensical interpretations and its ability to synthesize and originate concepts at the same time. This is a worthy successor to the work of such pioneers as Walter Blair, Hamlin Hill, Kenneth S. Lynn and David E.E. Sloane. It will be quoted as often as it is consulted."--The Southern Quarterly
"A thorough reassessment of the tall tale as an oral tradition peculiar to the American experience....[Wonham] provides the reader with an innovative understanding of the tall tale and a reinterpretation of the entire Mark Twain canon."--American Studies