Mark Twain Forum Reviews: Mark Twain’s Geographical Imagination, Edited By Joseph Alvarez

Editor’s Note: CMTS is proud to partner with the Mark Twain Forum, which has long been a leading venue for reviews of new publications in Mark Twain Studies. Visit their extensive archive. Follow the link at the bottom of the page to read the complete review. A portion of Amazon purchases made via links from Mark Twain Forum Book Reviews is donated to the Mark Twain Project. 

Mark Twain’s Geographical Imagination. Joseph A. Alvarez, ed. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009. Hardcover, 167 pages. $58.95. ISBN: 978-4438-0585-8.

This collection of essays edited by Mark Twain scholar Joseph A. Alvarez was inspired by a 2005 South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA) conference session. The session was organized by Morehouse College professor Eileen Meredith, who coined the title of the session that this book uses. Then of Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina, Alvarez was not involved in that session, but he nevertheless took up a suggestion from Cambridge Scholars Publishing (no relationship to Cambridge University Press) to shape a book around the subject of Mark Twain’s writings on geography. In June 2006, he posted a call to the Mark Twain Forum listserv for papers on Mark Twain’s individual travel writings. The result was this collection of ten essays, including two originally presented by Jeffrey Melton and Charles Martin at the SAMLA conference. When the book was published in late 2009, it received sparse publicity and no reviews and then quickly fell out of print. However, in a stroke of good luck for those who failed to find a copy previously, the book is now once again listed on amazon.com and a request to the publisher for a review copy was promptly answered.

The book’s cover features a popular cartoon of Mark Twain standing atop a laughing globe that appeared on 22 December 1900 in the New York Commercial Advertiser. It was signed by a cartoonist with the initials LWM whose identity remains unknown in spite of several queries over the years on the Mark Twain Forum to solicit assistance in providing his or her name.

Alvarez begins the volume with his introduction titled “Mining Ore from Physical and Imaginative Travels.” Therein he observes that Mark Twain’s geographical imagination took him back almost 2000 years to the Garden of Eden–when he wrote the Adam and Eve diaries–and carried him into time travel, heaven, and various fantasy spaces.

Contributors to the volume include several names familiar to members of the Mark Twain Forum. Among them is John Bird, author of the book’s first essay, “Metaphors of North and South, East and West in Mark Twain’s ‘The Private History of a Campaign that Failed'” (pp. 7-16). Calling attention to the tendency of many readers to overlook the fact that much of Mark Twain’s story is fiction, Bird sees that Civil War story to be “about confusion over directions, and even more deeply, about confusion over war in general and war writing in particular” (7). He goes on to show how Mark Twain used the story as a sort of corrective to northern views of published accounts of the war–an implicit criticism, perhaps, of the Century magazine series of wartime memoirs in which the piece first appeared.

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Mark Twain Forum Reviews – Flood: A Novel by Melissa Scholes Young

Editor’s Note: CMTS is proud to partner with the Mark Twain Forum, which has long been a leading venue for reviews of new publications in Mark Twain Studies. Visit their extensive archive. Follow the link at the bottom of the page to read the complete review. A portion of Amazon purchases made via links from Mark Twain Forum Book Reviews is donated to the Mark Twain Project. 

Flood: A Novel. Melissa Scholes Young. Center Street/Hachette Book Group, 2017. Pp. 321. Hardcover $26.00. ISBN 978-1-4789-7078 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-4789-7076-7 (ebook).

There is a homeplace in nearly every American novel. Sometimes it’s the focus of the story; other times it’s in the background. But every protagonist has fled their homeplace, or fled and returned–or else never left at all. Those who flee take some of their homeplace with them. Homeplaces haunt, choke, nourish, comfort, and extinguish the spirit, often all at once. They are populated with family we did not choose, including some we’d never choose. They swarm with friends we didn’t choose either; we just grew up with them as they revealed their flaws a little at a time, and we adjusted and forgave along the way. Even the dead and the absent are alive in the homeplace, insisting on remembrance.

Homeplaces have gravitational pulls that are barely escaped, and which never fully subside. If your life founders on a rocky foreign shore, the homeplace is where you return to heal. They offer strength and loyalty and faith and acceptance–or convincing illusions of these all-American virtues. If our homeplaces are flawed, so are we, and we can hardly face life without one, whether we left one, never left, or have returned to one. Homeplaces are mythic, and yet we all have one.

Hannibal, Missouri is the homeplace of Laura Brooks, the Huck-like heroine of Melissa Young’s debut novel, Flood, and Laura’s life as a nurse in Florida has unexpectedly faltered ten years after she fled Hannibal during a great flood on July 4th, 1993. Home was confining and suffocating, and populated with the sort of family and friends who tear you down and hold you back. The town is preoccupied with Tom and Becky and has yet to come to grips with Huck and Jim. There are haves and have-nots. The haves make money off the swarms of tourists and never get flooded, but if you are a have-not you get flooded and you spend what money you have at the local Walmart “where half your social life happens in the parking lot” (147). But the have-nots do have style–even their babies have mullets (265).

Floods define the place, and so does the lottery if you are a have-not. After driving twenty-two hours non-stop to get home, Laura learns that the Mississippi River is rising toward another major flood, and finds her mother dozing in her recliner in front of the TV waiting for an update on the flood stages and her Lotto numbers. “When you can see the Mississippi out your windows, flood stages are your religion. And when you can’t imagine how to dig yourself out of your hole, you put your faith in the Powerball” Laura muses (2-3). Young knows her people and captures them with the right words, and she also knows her homeplace bugs. When Laura opens a “dirty window to let in some fresh air” she notices that a “parade of dead flies rests belly-up on the sill, their legs reaching toward freedom” (7-8). Emily Dickinson knew the metaphoric value of one live fly, and Young knows the value of a bunch of dead ones with their eyes on the prize. She knows her Mark Twain too. No sooner is Laura home that she is thinking of leaving again: “Anywhere but here. Sometimes being stuck is worse than staying put. What we need is a signal, a mark twain, to show us that the water is deep enough for us to get out” (82). And she knows that “the only thing harder in Hannibal’s hierarchy than being poor and white was being respectable and black” (112).

So, what could possibly keep her home? Friends and family? She and her mother have a dysfunctional relationship. Her best friend Rose is going through a divorce from her husband Josh (aka “The Bastard”) who has money for booze but not for the antibiotics needed by his son Bobby. He marks the heel of his boots with crossed nails to keep away the Devil. It doesn’t work. To make ends meet, Rose, who is not the model of stability, embezzles from her employer, and must borrow the last of Laura’s savings to avoid jail and losing her son. Laura’s father puts in a brief appearance to steal something from her mother. His stomach is a fish-belly white. Laura’s Aunt Betty is dependable and “when in doubt, she feeds people” (231). Every Laura should have an Aunt Betty. Laura’s brother Trey is a drug-addict who dreams of a better life. Finally, there’s Laura’s old boyfriend, Sammy, the reason she left in the first place because he was the only reason she had for staying, but he disappointed her. Yet the very sight of him, his touch, his smell, just the thought of him, sends Laura into spasms of yearning and confusion. Twainians will by now have recognized some allusions to Mark Twain and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Josh, Sammy, Laura, an absent thieving father, crossed nails in boots, fish-belly white, and an aunt who plays a much-needed maternal role.

 Continue reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review at Mark Twain Forum…

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Mark Twain Forum Reviews: The Introspective Art of Mark Twain by Douglas Anderson

Editor’s Note: CMTS is proud to partner with the Mark Twain Forum, which has long been a leading venue for reviews of new publications in Mark Twain Studies. Visit their extensive archive. Follow the link at the bottom of the page to read the complete review. A portion of Amazon purchases made via links from Mark Twain Forum Book Reviews is donated to the Mark Twain Project. 

The Introspective Art of Mark Twain. Douglas Anderson. Bloomsbury, 2017. Pp. 278. Hardcover. $120.00. ISBN 978-1-5013-2955-5. Paperback. $29.95. ISBN 978-1-5013-2954-8. E-book. $25.99. ISBN 978-1-5013-2957-9.

There is nothing better than a preface that explicitly spells out what the author hopes to accomplish, and Douglas Anderson wastes no time doing this. In his very first sentence he declares “This book begins an examination of Mark Twain’s artistic preoccupations by assuming that he was . . . an unusually perceptive student of his own mind and career, and that he undertook a review of that career . . . near the end of his life” (ix). A page later Anderson is more specific: “The following pages undertake to explore that legacy by tracing its inward excursions . . . . The journey will begin by considering . . . the enigmatic dialogue What is Man?” (x). Anderson promptly brings his preface to a close on the very next page with a final observation: “To begin a book such as this one with What Is Man? risks discouraging many admirers of Twain’s comic art and caustic political satire. But the risk is worth taking if it succeeds in alerting Twain’s readers to a rich and neglected dimension of his achievement” (xi). Even when faced with the risk of discouragement, what’s a reviewer to do when the author of a book practically writes the review for him?

Mark Twain’s readers are all aware of the outer dressing and décor of his fiction, and Twain’s mastery of the literary arts leaves most of them with few doubts about the truths of those “inward excursions” that flow just below those fictional surfaces. Anderson is not the first to explore this realm in Twain’s writings, and he is not the first to apply a close reading of What Is Man? to Twain’s other writings, but he is the first to plumb those depths at length, using What Is Man? as the prism through which three decades of Twain’s most important works can be understood.

Mark Twain himself claimed that the gestation for What Is Man?, first published in 1906, had been underway for “twenty-five or twenty-seven years” (1). Anderson accepts this claim that the composition of that work had begun decades earlier and had extended through the years of Twain’s most productive literary output. His introduction charts the structure and philosophy he discerns from his own close reading of What Is Man?, followed by four chapters in which he explains how this work functions as a master-key that unlocks the deeper meanings lurking under the surface of Twain’s earlier writings. He then uses that key to unlock Mark Twain’s other writings, revealing the “introspective art” that gives this book its title.

Early in his introductory chapter, Anderson notes that What is Man? could just as easily be titled What is Consciousness? and treats Twain’s Socratic dialogue in between the Old Man and the Young Man as a series of thought experiments proposed by the Old Man to the Young Man. He discusses at length the familiar issues of nature versus nurture, and the mechanistic philosophy that views the human mind as a kind of machine. These ideas were first explored by Paul Carus in The Mechanistic Principle and the Non-Mechanical (1913) in which more than forty pages are devoted to What Is Man? including extensive quotes from Twain’s work, but Anderson does not cite Carus. However, Anderson’s explication of What Is Man? is excellent and full of fresh insights. He concludes by announcing that the following chapters will “work backward from the end of Twain’s career to its beginning, when he first formulated and explored the account of mental life to which the Old Man gives sustained expression” (14).

 Continue reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review at Mark Twain Forum…

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This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

The Mark Twain Forum Review Editor is Barbara Schmidt.

Mark Twain Forum Reviews: The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine by Mark Twain & Philip Stead

Editor’s Note: CMTS is proud to partner with the Mark Twain Forum, which has long been a leading venue for reviews of new publications in Mark Twain Studies. Visit their extensive archive. Follow the link at the bottom of the page to read the complete review. A portion of Amazon purchases made via links from Mark Twain Forum Book Reviews is donated to the Mark Twain Project. 

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine. By Mark Twain and Philip Stead. Illustrations by Erin Stead. Doubleday Books for Young Readers, 2017. Pp. 152. Hardcover. $24.99. ISBN 978-0-553-52322-5 (trade); ISBN 978-0-553-52323-2 (library binding); ISBN 978-0-553-52324-9 (ebook).

Readers of this review may not be familiar with story-telling quantum mechanics for the simple reason that this reviewer is its only theorist and perhaps its sole subscriber. This theory of the subatomic underpinnings of story-telling is no different from the physics involved in broader quantum mechanics: Several different versions of a story can begin at the same place at the very same time, travel various distances by various routes, and yet all end up in the very same place at the very same time, and all of these seemingly contradictory versions can peacefully and simultaneously coexist. However, if particles from one version of a story collide with particles from another version, energy is released that can be observed.

An example of story-telling quantum mechanics in action is the oft-repeated account of how Mark Twain structured his bedtime stories for his daughters in their Hartford home. It is said that Twain would base his stories on the bric-a-brac that stood upon the mantel, beginning a new story each night with the painting of the “cat in the ruff” and ending it with a girl named Emmeline. Every story began and ended at those points but took a different path, with no repeated events allowed. Twain himself reported that if any particle from one story collided with a single particle from a previous story, it provoked violent explosions of energy from his observant audience of two or three. (This was hard work, and some Twainians cannot help but suspect it was no coincidence that he killed off poor Emmeline when he got the chance in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.)

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine puts this theory to the test. The story is inspired by sixteen pages of explicit notes left unfinished by Mark Twain in 1879, and discovered in 2011 in the Mark Twain Papers by well-known Mark Twain scholar John Bird, who noticed a bracketed note by Twain at one point in the narrative that records Susy’s response to the tale. Bird suddenly recognized that he was reading what are very likely the only notes Twain ever preserved for any of the countless bedtime stories he told his daughters. After the University of California Press declined to publish the unfinished story, Bird, with Mark Twain Project (MTP) editor Bob Hirst’s cooperation, brought the notes to the attention of the Mark Twain House and Museum. Tina Wexler of IMC Partners, on behalf of the Mark Twain House, showed them to Frances Gilbert of Random House, who arranged to have the story reconceived and completed by the Caldecott Medal-winning husband and wife team of Philip (text) and Erin (illustrator) Stead. Doubleday Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Random House Children’s Books) has announced a first printing of 250,000 copies, and sales of the book will benefit the Mark Twain House & Museum, the MTP, and the University of California Press.

Unlike Twain’s bedtime stories in Hartford, his story about a kidnapped prince was first told in Paris when Clara was five and Susy was seven, and was based on a picture in a magazine, not the bric-a-brac on the mantel back home. Twain’s notes sketch out in telling detail the experiences of a boy named Johnny, whose dying mother leaves him some seeds she was given by an old woman she believed was probably a fairy. After she dies, Johnny follows her careful instructions, planting and watering the seeds, and eating the flower that blossoms forth, which gives him the magical ability to communicate with all kinds of animals (anticipating Dr. Doolittle by four decades). He first meets a kangaroo (which provoked Susy’s comment that Twain recorded which in turn led to John Bird’s recognition of what the story represented), and soon all of the animals of the forest join forces to build him a new home. One day Johnny finds a royal handbill offering a reward to anyone who can rescue the king’s son who has been kidnapped by giants. Johnny, with his animal friends, heads to the king’s castle and strikes a bargain after demonstrating to the skeptical king that he–a small insignificant boy–could indeed converse with the menagerie now under his command. He soon sets off with his animal friends to rescue the prince, tracking him to a cave guarded by two dragons who never sleep, and there, without warning, Twain’s notes abruptly end.

 Continue reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review at Mark Twain Forum…

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Mark Twain Forum Reviews: The Triumphs & Torments of Mark Twain by Billie Valentine-Fonorow

Editor’s Note: CMTS is proud to partner with the Mark Twain Forum, which has long been a leading venue for reviews of new publications in Mark Twain Studies. Visit their extensive archive. Follow the link at the bottom of the page to read the complete review. A portion of Amazon purchases made via links from Mark Twain Forum Book Reviews is donated to the Mark Twain Project. 

“Was It Heaven Or Hell?”: The Triumphs and Torments of Mark Twain. By Billie Valentine-Fonorow. Tucson, AZ: Fonorow and Associates, Inc., 1995. Distributed by Intelisoft Media, Inc., Lisle, IL. Pp. 199. Paper, 5-3/4″ x 8-3/4″. $16.95. ISBN 0-964-45570-6.

Who was Billie Valentine-Fonorow and why did she, at age 70, write a perceptive biography of Mark Twain that addressed the underappreciated aspect of the impact of women on Samuel Clemens’s life and writing?

The author sent Triumphs and Torments to the Forum in 1996, but the original reviewer never delivered, and the author died in 2008 apparently without ever having posted to the Forum herself. Some unusual coincidences have recently happened to make me think that Valentine-Fonorow’s ghost has been prodding me to realize that I had another copy of book (which has become rare) in storage for many years and that I had better complete what is herewith the most hideously overdue review that has appeared on the Forum.

The first edition of “Was It Heaven Or Hell?”: The Triumphs and Torments of Mark Twain was published in 1995, but the copyright page states “1990, 1994.” To properly review the book, we must stand in the time the author wrote it, which was probably before the appearance of reference works such as The Mark Twain Encyclopedia (1993), Mark Twain A to Z (1995), and before the Internet had (m)any authoritative sites. Judged from this perspective, Valentine-Fonorow’s biography is a substantial accomplishment that cannot supplant today’s biographies, but that provides a complementary point of view (of women) that was needed then and probably still needed.

The preface of Triumphs and Torments states that it is not intended to be a chronological account of Mark Twain’s life, but rather an examination of “the elysian highs and stygian lows” that provoked him to write the story, “Was It Heaven? Or Hell?” first published in Harper’s Monthly in 1902. Valentine-Fonorow’s biography is, in fact, a mostly chronological biography that has very little to do with that story which is not mentioned again until page 166, and then never discussed. This gives the impression that the book was mistitled and that Valentine-Fonorow did not articulate well a larger objective for her biography.

Triumphs and Torments is a concise overview of the major events of the life of Samuel Clemens. Valentine-Fonorow understands well the timeless appeal of Mark Twain, which she ascribes in part to his humour and his ability to look forward, noting that Mark Twain intentionally left many writings to be released only many years after his death. While Mark Twain’s best-known works are set in the period of his boyhood, Valentine-Fonorow observes astutely that “he never viewed the past sentimentally. When he looked to past eras in his works it was to portray the barbarism of those earlier times and to show that only outward appearances change over the years. . . His works remain new because . . . essentially, people haven’t changed” (11).

Valentine-Fonorow sees beyond many of the common misconceptions about Mark Twain. She explains that despite any impression that Mark Twain himself may have conveyed, Samuel Clemens was an industrious writer and a voracious reader, had a scientific mind, and loved technological innovation. Valentine-Fonorow is careful to explain the satiric intention of many of Mark Twain’s works to show that he was the opposite of a racist, and that he was forward-looking concerning the equality of humans. “Humanitarianism was the force behind Mark Twain’s works,” Valentine-Fonorow writes positively. “However, if his craftsmanship and humor had not been great they may have fallen on deaf ears” (55). Although Mark Twain is the best satiric successor of Jonathan Swift, Valentine-Fonorow reports that Clemens disliked Swift for his attitude toward women (61).

 Continue reading Taylor Roberts’s review at Mark Twain Forum…

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This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

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