Mark Twain's Ethical Realism: The Aesthetics of Race, Class, and Gender

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University of Missouri Press, 1997 - Literary Criticism - 174 pages

Mark Twain's interest in the relationship between ethics and aesthetics provides the basis for this groundbreaking work of scholarship. Beginning with Twain's observation that a writer of realism becomes "like another conscience" for readers, Joe B. Fulton asks, "What is literary realism?" "In what ways is realism ethical?"

Taking a hard look at recent criticism of Mark Twain and American realism, Fulton explores the skepticism associated with terms such as realism that has led scholars to ignore Twain's view of how a writer creates believable fictions. Recent critics have also attacked the claim that realistic writing is ethically oriented and ignored Twain's belief that because realism demands the authentic depiction of individuals living on the "other" side of race, class, or gender boundaries, it honors their subjectivity. Realism introduces a conventional readership to these "others," Fulton argues, and so fuses ethical and aesthetic concerns.

Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin's neglected, early theories of ethics and aesthetics provide a theoretical framework and vocabulary for Fulton's discussion of Twain's ethical realism. Bakhtin's concept of creativity bears a striking resemblance to Twain's belief that the writer who strives for a realistic depiction of characters becomes "another conscience" within the work of art. For Twain, the realism of portraying people "as they do talk" is inextricably associated with becoming that other conscience for his characters and readers. Likewise, within his novels, Twain's doubled and switched characters serve as another conscience for each other.

Mark Twain's Ethical Realism is the only work that looks specifically at how Twain blends ethical and aesthetic concerns in the act of composing his novels. Fulton conducts a spirited discussion regarding these concepts, and his explanation of how they relate to Twain's writing helps to clarify the complexities of his creative genius. This vital work will make a lasting contribution to our understanding of Mark Twain.


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About the author (1997)

Joe B. Fulton is Assistant Professor of English at Dalton College in Georgia.

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