A Mark Twain Studies Primer

My name is Mac Morrison, I am an undergraduate student at Tulane University. I’ve loved Mark Twain’s books since I was a very small child, and I’d like to gain a deeper understanding of the man and his work. In most academic fields there seem to be a short list of works by modern scholars that are considered canonical within the field,  and I was just wondering if you might be able to recommend some titles that fit that description that might be a good introduction to Mark Twain studies for someone who doesn’t have a clue where to start. If such titles exist. Honestly I was pleasantly surprised to find that a center for Mark Twain studies exists at all. In any case, I hope this email finds you well, whoever you are.
Best regards from a huge Mark Twain fan,
MacArthur Morrison

Mac asks an excellent question and is kind enough to let me respond to it in an open forum, where it may be read by others who share his curiosity.

The “primer” which follows focuses on secondary sources – works by biographers, historians, and other scholars – rather than primary sources – those written by Twain and his contemporaries. For the latter, I would recommend the Mark Twain Project – which has produced dozens of excellent editions of Twain’s published and private writings, many available online – as well as the Oxford Mark Twain, a 29-volume collection of Twain’s published works with excellent paratextual materials.

I am also excluding reference works and periodicals, notably Alan Gribben’s Mark Twain’s Library, Kent Rasmussen’s Mark Twain A to Z, David Fear’s Mark Twain Day By Day, the Mark Twain Journaland the Mark Twain Annualall of which are invaluable resources for Twain scholars and are likely available at your university library. You may also want to check our our digital resources and resources for teachers pages.

I would invite other Twain scholars to comment upon the following list, or even submit their own. Canons are sticky wickets. There are hundreds of volumes of Twain scholarship. It’s hard to know where to begin. Part of the CMTS mission is to provide support for young Twaniacs like Mac. But, of course, any attempt to organize that enormous body of critical works reflects the peculiar preferences of the author.

So, with those caveats, I offer you my dozen “desert island” works of Twain scholarship:

Mark Twain: A Life (2005) by Ron Powers

There are many Twain biographies and as many controversies surrounding them, starting with the authorized Mark Twain: A Biography (1912) by Albert Bigelow Paine. Justin Kaplan’s Mr. Clemens & Mark Twain (1966) won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. Next month the corpus will get even bigger, with the publication of the first volume of Gary Scharnhorst’s The Life of Mark Twain. All have their strengths and weaknesses. But, if I had to choose just one, I would opt for Powers’s, which offers a great combination of accuracy and approachability.


Mark Twain’s America (1932) by Bernard DeVoto

DeVoto offered one of the first academic assessments of Twain’s career and it is difficult to imagine what Twain Studies would look like without his work.


Mark Twain: Social Philosopher (1962) by Louis Budd

The Mark Twain Circle of America’s award for scholarship is named for Budd, with good reason. Budd captures the range of Twain’s political and social commentary, rescuing from it an intricacy and a coherence which few other scholars have managed to express.

The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn (1998) by Jocelyn Chadwick

Twain’s positions on race are too often reduced to one book and even one word in said book, but the relationship between Jim and Huck deserves its central place in Twain Studies, which also cannot elude the controversy produced by this novel in the intervening centuries. Many have written on this subject, and written well. Chadwick offers a undiluted survey, as well as her own fresh perspective.


Mark Twain in the Company of Women (1994) by Laura Skandera-Trombley

While critical debates about gender in Twain’s life and work haven’t the longevity or the publicity of those concerning race, they have become central to Twain Studies in recent decades, thanks in large part to Susan K. Harris’s The Courtship of Olivia Langdon & Mark Twain (1997), Linda Morris’s Gender Play in Mark Twain (2007), and this work by Trombley, who won the Louis J. Budd Award this past year.


Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture (1997) by Shelley Fisher Fishkin

Fishkin has made several substantial contributions to Twain scholarship, including editing the Oxford edition mentioned above, but I would speculate that her unconventional mix of professional and personal narrative in Lighting Out provides as holistic a view of Twain Studies as can by found in a single work.


Mark Twain: God’s Fool (1973) by Hamlin Hill

Hill, along with John S. Tuckey, combatted the mythologizing of Mark Twain during the Cold War era by drawing attention to the author’s satiric, irreligious, and anti-imperialist late phase.


Printer’s Devil: Mark Twain & The American Publishing Revolution (2006) by Bruce Michelson

Twain’s capacity for reflecting and capitalizing on the peculiar circumstances of the Gilded Age is a theme in many of these works. Michelson captures Twain’s mastery of emerging mass media. Judith Y. Lee’s Twain’s Brand (2012) is also excellent in this respect.


Cosmopolitan Twain (2008) Edited by Ann Ryan & Joseph B. McCullough

Twain developed deep connections to numerous places in the U.S. and abroad. This collection explores the impact of many of those locales on Twain’s ethos. I am, naturally, partial to the essay on Elmira by my predecessor, Michael Kiskis.


Mark Twain and Metaphor (2011) by John Bird

This is a challenging book. Bird employs an unconventional blend of critical methodologies to make a nuanced and rigorous argument that engages many branches of Twain Studies scholarship.


Of Huck and Alice (1983) by Neil Schmitz

Remember what I said about personal preferences? There are definitely more popular studies of Twain’s humor – for instance James M. Cox’s Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor (1966) – but Schmitz’s interweaving of Twain’s Mississippi writings with Gertrude Stein, Herman Melville, and Krazy Kat left an indelible impression on me.

Mark Twain and Human Nature (2007) by Tom Quirk

Quirk traces the development of Twain’s attitude towards mankind over the course of his entire career. The linear narrative which interweaves biographical detail and private writings with insightful readings of all the major works, as well as Quirk’s humble and humorous narrative voice, makes this another strong candidate to start your journey in Twain Studies.