Chowan University Professor John H. Davis gets Metafictional with Mark Twain
MURFREESBORO, NC – Chowan University professor of English Dr. John H. Davis, is published in Critical Insights: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited by Dr. R. Kent Rasmussen. Davis and Rasmussen have a long-standing relationship originating in Davis writing a review of one of Rasmussen’s books. Davis has also written 19 essays for the book titled, The Critical Companion to Mark Twain, edited by Rasmussen.
Since their initial interaction, Davis often runs into Rasmussen at Twain events. Recently, Rasmussen contacted Davis to write an essay for the new book Critical Insights: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Davis wrote the essay, “The Reluctant Author: Huck Finn’s Metafictional Partnership with Mark Twain.” The essay focusses on the notion that someone in the book is in contact with someone outside the book. In essence there are two realities. Huck Finn begins the book with, “You don’t know me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”
Davis’s essay demonstrates the connection between Huck Finn and Mark Twain. Mark Twain essentially serves as the author beyond the author, creating a metafictional partnership between the two-dimensional Huck Finn and the three-dimensional Mark Twain. This concept is depicted in his essay through artwork. First, a drawing of Huck by E. W. Kemble, whom Twain hired for the first edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and second, a photograph of a bust, by sculptor Karl Gerhardt, of Mark Twain. The two pictures faced each other in the first edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The drawing is representative of the two-dimensional, and the bust of the three-dimensional. Rasmussen appreciated this analogy enough to place the photos in the front of Critical Insights: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Adding to this dichotomy is that Mark Twain is simply a pen name for Samuel Clemens. The metafictional partnership works in a number of ways.
As Davis explains, there are elements within the story that point to this partnership as well. Readers will find themselves wondering, “Could someone like Huck Finn really write a book?” There are illustrations of Huck Finn swearing the truth with his hand on a book, presumably a Bible. However, upon further inspection, the book is in fact a dictionary, the Bible to writers. This drawing was inserted within Davis’s essay by Rasmussen. Davis explains, “Rasmussen is a very thoughtful editor.”
Rasmussen calls Davis’s work “a stunning rollercoaster ride through the truly puzzling links between Mark Twain’s and Huck Finn’s interconnected roles as joint authors of Huckleberry Finn.” He continues, “Davis is the kind of relentlessly thorough scholar who not only leaves no stones unturned but in the process squeezes every drop of blood from those same stones. Metafiction is a slippery kind of concept that at times seems to be built on circular arguments and ideas too nebulous to get a firm grip on. Davis drills deeply into the subject, building arguments that may make some readers feel they are in a hall of mirrors. However, careful readings of his essay will prove richly rewarding and leave readers with a fuller appreciation of the complexity of Mark Twain’s masterpiece.”
Davis’s interest in Mark Twain started in high school. He and a friend would sit on the front porch and trade Mark Twain quotes. When he got to know the writings of Mark Twain further, he realized that “Twain was not only funny, but insightful, intelligent, surprising in what he says, does and knows. I think he’s a genius.” Through his writings, Twain predicts the television, telephone and some even argue the internet before any were invented. Sometimes Twain is referred to as the first Science Fiction writer. He wrote the first book about time travel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court. He even wrote a story portraying a mobile telephone.
Davis estimates he has written over 40 essays on a multitude of Twain topics and stories. He has been published in the Mark Twain Annual, Mississippi Quarterly, American Literary Realism, and the Mark Twain Encyclopedia.
In addition to Dr. Davis’s essay, his son Hugh Davis’s essay, “‘It’s Tom Sawyer!’ (No it ain’t… it’s Huck Finn!),” was also included in the book. When asked how long his son had been writing about Twain, Davis responded, “He doesn’t generally.” His typical interests are C. S. Lewis and film adaptations. He presented an essay on the film adaptation of The Prince and the Pauper (another Twain work) at a conference in Elmira, New York (where Twain is buried), and Rasmussen heard the essay and asked Hugh Davis to contribute. Hugh Davis has published three Twain essays.
Dr. Davis’s passion about Mark Twain’s work is evident in his presentation of any related Twain topic. He is insightful and knowledgeable. Every question asked of him has not only an answer, but an enthusiastic response. Chowan University is honored to have a scholar of such caliber as part of its faculty.