How and why should Mark Twain scholars use literary theory? Although the American academy is no longer under the mandate to “theorize” everything, theory is still with us, and American literature scholars still have to decide where they stand in relationship to it. Twain studies, especially, seem resistant to theorizing, if for no other reason than Twain's persistent inconsistencies, which thwart systematic analysis. As a consequence, many Twain scholars ignore theory, working instead within the confines of traditional historical, biographical, and literary studies. In the process they produce excellent critical studies and engaging histories. Yet I often wonder what they might discover should they allow theory more space in their projects. Looking back over my own engagements with theory has strengthened my sense that used judiciously, literary theory can be a powerful tool, forcing us to think through phenomena we might otherwise ignore and teaching us how to articulate insights for which more traditional methodologies do not provide vocabulary—such as Twain's inconsistencies. In the following essay I offer my own history, not in order to trot out my vita, but in the hopes that my experience will invite a conversation over the relevance and uses of theory for Mark Twain studies.

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