MARK TWAIN FORUM BOOK REVIEWS: “Mark Twain’s Civil War” edited by Benjamin Griffin

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 Civil War: “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed”. Edited by Benjamin Griffin. Heyday and The Bancroft Library, 2019. Pp. 177. CAD $32.99. Hardcover $25.00. ISBN 9781597144780.

In the early months of 1861, the lives of most Americans abruptly changed. The change imposed on Sam Clemens was as disruptive as any: The Civil War closed down traffic on the Mississippi River, ending his career as a steamboat pilot. He briefly joined a rag-tag company of the state guard in his home state of Missouri, whose mission it was to protect Missouri from an impending Union “invasion.” But by July young Sam clicked “opt out” on the American Civil War and headed west with his brother Orion, the freshly appointed Secretary for the Nevada Territory. Mark Twain biographers have explained Sam Clemens’s attitudes toward the war and his motivations for opting out in various ways, and virtually every biographer begins with an examination of Twain’s own account in “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed.” Of course, the problem with Twain’s account is that it blends historical facts with dramatic fictions, and omits key events along the way. Most of the confusion about Twain’s account has centered on the question of whether he actually joined the Confederate Army and whether he really killed a stranger. He did neither.

Mark Twain’s Civil War years have been discussed in many books, among them Joe Fulton’s The Reconstruction of Mark Twain: How a Confederate Bushwhacker Became the Lincoln of Our Literature (2010), Jerome Loving’s Confederate Bushwhacker: Mark Twain in the Shadow of the Civil War (2013), and Steve Courtney and Peter Messent’s The Civil War Letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell (2006). Ben Griffin’s book is not even the first book with the title Mark Twain’s Civil War; two books have been published with this same title. The first was a 2007 compilation of Twain’s Civil War writings by David Rachel that curiously classified Twain’s own account as “nonfiction.” The second, published in 2012, was a sometimes racy modern novel by William R. Macnaughton, best-known for his Mark Twain’s Last Years as a Writer (1979), that chronicled Sam Clemens’s close brush with the Civil War before he headed west with his views on race in flux. All but the first of these books have been reviewed in the Mark Twain Forum.

Griffin’s new book certainly does not classify Twain’s account as nonfiction, and the only racy moment perhaps occurs when Sam Clemens beats a hasty retreat walking backwards from an angry woman wielding a hickory stick in order to protect a painful boil on his behind from getting thwacked. This incident, by the way, can be confidently classified in the nonfiction column; Twain left it out when he published “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed” at the behest of editor Robert Underwood Johnson in The Century Magazine in December 1885 as part of a series of memoirs the magazine was then publishing, “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.”

That was only one of several significant omissions in Twain’s account, which brings us to the valuable service Griffin has performed in editing Twain’s narrative. He sorts out the facts and the fictions in Twain’s account, a problem common to much of Twain’s biography, especially his autobiographical writings. Griffin begins with a 76 page “Introduction” that provides the background on how Twain came to write his heavily fictionalized memoir, and documents its early reception. This is followed with a comparison of Twain’s account with various sources, including a recently discovered lengthy letter Twain wrote from New Orleans on January 27, 1861, comments Twain made in a speech at Hartford in 1877, and a response to Twain’s account from Twain’s fellow steamboat pilot and state guardsman, Absalom Grimes (1834-1911), that appeared in a newspaper in 1886.

Griffin doesn’t just edit and comment; his documentation is fastidious, and he conveniently provides complete texts of his key sources. Here we have Twain’s text as it was first published in 1885 (79-110), explanatory notes (113-128), Twain’s 1877 speech (129-133), Grimes’s 1886 account (135-152), a textual apparatus (153-157), and references (159-175). The paginations are given here to emphasize the abundance of material presented, all of which deserves close reading.

As often happened during Twain’s lifetime, his writings and celebrity attracted ridiculous testimonials and rumor-mongering from attention-seekers and those with an ax to grind. This tribe of false claimants is as large and varied as the aphorisms falsely attributed to Twain. Sure enough, soon after Twain’s account appeared in 1885, two such men stepped forward with outlandish stories. The first was a western newspaperman, John I. Ginn, who published a narrative in which he garbled a few facts with a fanciful tale that was picked up by other papers (63-66). The second was from a fellow who had known Clemens in Nevada, Thomas Fitch, who in 1910 published what Griffin calls an “apocryphal tale” featuring a resignation letter that has been relied upon by several Twain biographers over the years, “not all of whom note its uncertain status,” most recently, Gary Scharnhorst (67-68). Griffin carefully separates the facts and fictions in both of these responses to Twain’s story.

Adding to the confusion created by the false accounts are Twain’s own comments on the Civil War that may seem contradictory to modern readers. At times he praised those who fought for the south and engaged in “lost cause” rhetoric, but he also praised Abraham Lincoln. He edited and published Grant’s memoirs, and his publishing company published the memoirs of several other Union generals. Griffin unravels the complexity of Twain’s views, suggesting that “Clemens’s attitude toward the war was less informed by his brief military experience than by the long era that followed” (72).

The real fun begins when Griffin compares what Twain wrote about his experiences with Absalom Grimes’s 1886 response……

…finish reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review at the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2020 Mark Twain Forum

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 BOOK REVIEWS: "Mark Twain's America, Then & Now" by Laura DeMarco

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 America, Then and Now. By Laura DeMarco. Pavilion Books, 2019. Pp. 144. Hardcover $22.50. ISBN-13: 978-1-911641-07-0.

Can anyone honestly say they have stood for a moment at a historic site and not imagined the past coming alive? This blending of time and place, past with the present, may be a uniquely human strength, or perhaps a childish weakness. But it is human, and few of us could stand below the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and not hear the echo of Martin Luther King’s immortal aspiration, or walk in the pastoral greenery of Gettysburg and not think the quietude ironic, or stand in any Nazi death camp and not be stricken with anger and grief. 

Shakespeare said the past is prologue; Faulkner said the past is not only not dead–that it’s not even past; and, Mark Twain wrote in one of his letters that the one thing we must remember about the past is that we can’t restore it. But none of this wisdom ever discouraged a Twainian, and when a Twainian finds himself in a place where Twain once breathed the air, time and place begin to blur and the present recedes as the tidal past rolls in. 

Twainians are not alone: This has long been true for all readers who find themselves at literary shrines, as evidenced by the dozens of books about such shrines that have found eager buyers for more than a century, beginning with several during Twain’s lifetime, including Charles F. Briggs’s Homes of American Authors (1853), J. L. and Joseph Gilder’s Authors at Home (1888), and Theodore Wolfe’s Literary Shrines: Some Haunts of Famous American Authors (1895), Literary Homes and Haunts (1899), and Literary Rambles at Home and Abroad (1901). Twain’s homes were included in the Gilder and Wolfe volumes, and the Langdon family library included a copy of the Briggs book that may have caught Twain’s eye. 

The literature about literary shrines grew during the twentieth century, and a glance through the bibliographies and indices of more recent books like Ehrlich and Carruth’s The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States (1982), John Eastman’s Who Lived Where (1983), Geri and Eben Bass’s U. S. Guide to Literary Landmarks (1984), Irvin Haas’s Historic Homes of American Authors (1991), and Francesca Premoli-Droulers’s Writers’ Houses (1995), gives a hint of the extensive literature on the subject.

Twain is included in virtually every such guide, with the focus nearly always on his grand Hartford home or his humble boyhood home in Hannibal. The other places where he lived are sometimes mentioned, but the places where significant events in his life took place are usually ignored or overlooked. Hilary Irish Lowe’s candid assessment of Twain’s major homes, Mark Twain’s Homes and Literary Tourism (2012), was a welcome and much-needed addition to this literature, focusing on Florida and Hannibal, Missouri, Hartford, and Quarry Farm. Steve Courtney’s “The Loveliest Home That Ever Was”: The Story of the Mark Twain House in Hartford (2011) is a model for such guides focusing on a single location. 

The newest addition to this shelf is Laura DeMarco with Mark Twain’s America, Then and Now, a delightful travelogue of Twain’s American meanderings. Sixty-eight places are pictorially documented, then and now, with nearly 200 old and new images, drawings, and photographs, many in color. As the title of this book makes clear, this tour of Twain’s haunts and homes is American, and no attempt is made to capture every single spot of ground where Twain spent his time. There are a few minor omissions–the home of the Gilders were Twain stayed after his wife’s death, the home of Laurence Hutton where he spent time with some fellow authors, or the homes of friends like Henry Rogers or William Dean Howells where his visits were usually brief. Some Twainians might wish that the Hooker home where Twain and Livy stayed in Hartford while their mansion was being built (and where their son Langdon died) could have been included; it still stands, subdivided into apartments, just a short stroll down the street from the Hartford Memorial. Also not included, but still standing, is Orion’s home in Carson City, Nevada (it’s now a law office). Orion’s last home in Keokuk, where Jane Clemens lived out her last years, also still stands. Other places that were not included have changed completely, like the grassy street corner in Keokuk where the Ivins House survived until the 1950s when it was razed to make room for nearby public housing; Twain gave his first public speech to a group of printers there. Also omitted is the block where the magnificent Lick House hotel stood in San Francisco before it was levelled in the 1906 earthquake, where Twain sometimes stayed, and once hosted a dinner. But the Occidental Hotel, where he also stayed, is included. It too was destroyed in the San Francisco Earthquake, but not before its bar was credited with being the place where the martini was created…

…finish reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review at the Mark Twain Forum.

Also check out Laura DeMarco’s post on Twain’s flirtations with Cleveland.

Mark Twain Forum Reviews: Mark Twain Among The Indians & Other Indigenous Peoples by Kerry Driscoll

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. 

Professor Driscoll has given a number of lectures on the topic of Mark Twain’s response to indigenous populations.  Her lectures can be streamed and downloaded as part of our Trouble Begins Archives.  These lectures include:

  • Kerry Driscoll, “Mark Twain and the Native Other” (July 11, 2018 – The Park Church)
  • Kerry Driscoll, “Mark Twain, The Maori, and The Mystery of Livy’s Jade Pendant” (October 1, 2014 – Quarry Farm Barn)
  • Kerry Driscoll, “Mark Twain and the American Indian” (May 7, 1986)

Mark Twain among the Indians and Other Indigenous Peoples. By Kerry Driscoll. University of California Press, 2018. Pp. 448. Hardcover $95.00. ISBN 9780520279421 (hardcover). ISBN 9780520970663 (ebook).

An irksome puzzle has persisted through more than a century of Mark Twain scholarship. It has usually been avoided altogether, or at best it has been briefly touched upon by a handful of scholars. In her ground-breaking new study, Kerry Driscoll spells it out clearly: “While Twain’s view on blacks . . . [demonstrate] unequivocal growth away from the racism of his origins in the antebellum South, his representations of Indians do not follow a similarly redemptive arc. They are instead vexingly erratic and paradoxical, commingling antipathy and sympathy, fascination and visceral repugnance” (4). Driscoll credits scholars who have dealt briefly with Twain’s attitude toward America’s indigenous people–Ned Blackhawk, Louis J. Budd, Joseph Coulombe, Leslie Fiedler, Philip Foner, Max Geismer, Harold J. Kolb, and Jeffrey Steinbrink–and points out that they tend to fall into two camps that either idealize or vilify Native Americans. Both camps distort Twain’s own views by over-simplifying the issue. The truth is more complicated, and a book length study to explore these complications is long overdue.

Driscoll’s book is that much needed and long overdue study, and well worth the wait! “Mark Twain did not care for Indians. This book is an attempt to understand why” says Driscoll (3). Driscoll describes her approach as “chronological and geographical” (7) and she documents when and where Twain met Indians, when and where he read about them, when and where he heard about them, and when and where he wrote or spoke about them. She lays out her evidence like a prosecutor, challenges her own evidence, and in doing so avoids the overgeneralizations that have plagued previous brief studies that have touched on this topic. At one point the CIA looms large in her narrative, but more about that later. She also refutes the conventional notion that Twain’s animosity toward Indians was fiercest when he was out west and that it steadily modulated during his Hartford years. His views modulated at times, but his antagonism often erupted in later years, and at best settled into an antipathy toward Indians.

Driscoll makes clear that she does not intend to “defend or defame” Twain, and reminds us that “his intellectual journey–sprawling, untidy, incomplete–matters more than where he ultimately arrived” (13). It is an amazing journey, and if Driscoll’s account of it at times seems sprawling, untidy, or incomplete, it is only a reflection of Mark Twain himself, whose genius as a storyteller and brilliancy in capturing the voice of America is justly celebrated, but whose failure to grasp the humanity of Native Americans is a flaw that cannot be ignored.

The journey begins in Sam Clemens’s early years when he likely heard his mother Jane Clemens recite the story of her own grandmother’s survival of the “Montgomery Massacre” in Kentucky in 1781, in which her father and four other family members were killed, along with some neighbors in nearby cabins, and some of her playmates captured. Although some accounts of that first attack are contradictory, it is clear that after Jane Clemens’s grandmother married, she and her husband survived three more Indian attacks on the Kentucky frontier and she displayed clear symptoms of PTSD. Jane Clemens exerted enormous influence on young Sam, and Jane did not like Indians. Despite his family heritage, sixteen year old Sam romanticized Indians on par with James Fenimore Cooper when he wrote an account of Hannibal that he published in 1852, calling them “children of the forest” who once gave “the wild war-whoop” where Hannibal now stood, but were now “scattered abroad . . . far from the homes of their childhood and the graves of their fathers” (14). Likewise, Sam’s brother Orion expressed sympathy for the displaced Indians of the region just a few years later when he penned an essay about Keokuk for the town’s first directory which he printed while Sam was in his employ.

But the brothers’ attitude toward Indians did not remain in sync. During their years in Nevada, Orion continued to express sympathy for the local Indians, while Sam’s view evolved in the opposite direction. With the exception of a single letter, he viewed the local Indians as violent, ignorant, lazy, untrustworthy, and filthy “savages”–describing them with contempt, amusement, and sometimes pity (72-73). Orion would retain his sympathy for Indians for the rest of his life, but not even the charitable views of Sam’s friend William Wright (Dan De Quille) could soften Sam’s bias. Twain could even distinguish cultural differences between the local tribes while sustaining his prejudices toward all of them. As Driscoll observes at one point, Sam Clemens “sees, in other words, but does not comprehend” (74).

.continue reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review on The Mark Twain Forum

Copyright © 2018 Mark Twain Forum

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 Ballad of Huck & Miguel by Tim DeRoche

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 Ballad of Huck & Miguel. By Tim DeRoche. Illustrated by Daniel Gonzalez. Redtail Press, 2018. Pp. 270. Hardcover. $26.95. ISBN 978-0-9992776-7-6.

Hardly a season passes without another Twain’t springing up from the fertile soil tilled so long ago by Mark Twain. His influence seems everlasting, and his writings, biography, and cultural iconography continue to inspire bountiful crops of works based upon his writings–borrowing characters, titles, or plots–or stories featuring Twain himself as a character. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn alone has inspired attempts to write sequels (beginning with Twain’s own efforts), modern day adaptations, pastiches, stage and musical and movie versions, and even comic books, graphic novels, and one robotic version. These Twain’ts (they ain’t Twain; hence they are Twain’ts) have sometimes taken successful innovative directions, like Jon Clinch’s masterful Finn (2007), that provided a startling dark counterpoint to the original novel, illuminating the character of Pap Finn and shedding light on Huck’s maternity, or Tim Champlin’s recent time-traveling romps for young readers that insert modern characters into reimagined adventures of Huck, Tom, and Becky. Some Twain’ts succeed and some fail, and the vast majority fall somewhere in between, so the arrival of a successful Twain’t is cause for notice.

The partnership of Tim DeRoche (text) and Daniel Gonzales (illustrations) is just such a success. In their deckle-edged, sturdily bound, beautifully designed ballad, their Huck is what Twain’s Huck was–an abused child looking for a safe haven, who struggles and eventually finds humanity and freedom. Like Twain’s Huck, he finds these things through a series of episodic adventures while escaping a hostile world in the company of another outcast of society–an undocumented immigrant named Miguel. Their adventures take place on the Los Angeles River, a concrete-lined urban version of Twain’s Mississippi River that is just as treacherous as Twain’s wild untamed land and waterscape. No attempt is made to imitate Twain’s original work chapter by chapter, or character by character, or even theme by theme, or trope by trope–after all, it takes place more than 150 years after Twain’s adventure in a sky-scrapery West Coast environment, but the reader will certainly notice that the more things change the more they stay the same.

The story is told by Huck, whose language and childish innocence are a modern reflection of Twain’s Huck. Just as in Twain’s original, the characters don’t all talk alike, nor do they try. Huck uses perfectly descriptive words like rubbleshackle, flabbergassed, seriosity, immediously, meamble, adjusticated, proxicality, satisfactual, and earsplicing, and Miguel, who is this modern-day Huck’s paternal mentor in much the same way Jim mentored and protected Twain’s Huck, often speaks Spanish. Huck’s Pap, as would be expected, speaks like a vulgarian, and other characters speak in still other ways, befitting their roles.

Besides the language and viewpoint, the story itself is structured like Twain’s original, and is not merely episodic, but cinematic, a reminder that Twain’s original novel is a modern novel in every way–not because it is ironic and part of the shift toward realism in its day, but in language, viewpoint, and structure. Likewise, just as E. W. Kemble’s sketchy rough-hewn illustrations are integral to Twain’s original, the forty-five sharp linoleum block prints (linocuts) by Daniel Gonzales are integral to DeRoche’s tale. Skyscrapers loom overhead or in the background dwarfing Huck and Miguel, light and dark are in constant contrast and remind the reader that dangers lurk in the shadows, and the characters they meet seem to lunge from the page at the reader exactly as they lunge at Huck and Miguel.

…continue reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2018 Mark Twain Forum

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: Twain at Sea, edited by Eric Paul Roorda

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. 

Twain at Sea: The Maritime Writings of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Edited by Eric Paul Roorda. University Press of New England, 2018. Pp. 263. Hardcover $65.00. ISBN 9781512602722. Paperback $19.95. ISBN 9781512601510. Ebook. ISBN 9781512602739.

Mark Twain was a man of the waters. His nom de plume signifies two fathoms–safe water when navigating out of the shallows–dangerous water under other circumstances. He spent his boyhood just a few blocks from a steamboat landing, dreamed of becoming a steamboat pilot (or else a pirate) and realized that dream for a time. He lost childhood friends to drownings and lost a beloved brother in a steamboat accident. His first piece of writing to be published in a nationally recognized publication was about a disaster at sea, his first best-selling book was the result of a four months voyage with stops on several continents, and his literary masterpiece takes place on the dangerous waters and shores of the Mississippi River. When his second daughter died (in water) and he was suffering from late stage congestive heart failure (edema), he lit out for the island of Bermuda for his last months of life, and when Paine was bringing him home to die he begged for a fatal dose of morphine to end his life while at sea.

Mark Twain may have been the most widely travelled man of his times. He travelled by foot, train, automobile, stagecoach, horse, wagon, donkey, donkey cart, steamboat, ocean steamer, sailboat, yacht, and motorboat. He paddled his own canoe at Lake Saranac and even rode a bicycle–very briefly. He spent more time on land than on water, but he travelled more miles on water. He crossed deserts and climbed in the Alps, and traversed several oceans, and he once flirted with the notion of writing a novel while staying on board a ship the entire time, going back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. He never visited the north or south poles, but seems to have visited just about everywhere else in between. It is a challenge to think of any author or explorer who saw as much of the world in the nineteenth century as Mark Twain. From his childhood to his final days, water was a presence in Twain’s life and a metaphor in his writings. Metaphorically he could be explicit: In an 1887 letter to Howells he echoed an 1885 entry in his notebook when he compared his writings to water, admitting that great literature was fine wine, and that what he wrote was merely water, “but everybody likes water.”

Twain’s travel writings have attracted a steady stream of readers and scholars since the beginning. The Innocents Abroad (1869) was quickly imitated by Twain’s Hartford neighbor, Charles Dudley Warner, and a host of others. Others retraced his steps during his lifetime, including his official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, and wrote travel narratives of their own, a tradition that has continued to the present. While most readers think of The Innocents Abroad, A Tramp Abroad, and Following the Equator as Twain’s trio of “travel books,” travel is a critical element in many of his other writings: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (time travel), Roughing It, and many shorter works.

Writings about Twain’s time in foreign lands (England, Europe, Australia, Bermuda, India, the Middle East) are too numerous to enumerate here, as are the book-length treatments of his major travel books. More general accounts of his travels and travel writings form an entire genre. A representative sampling of the latter are Charles Neider’s Travels of Mark Twain (1961), Arthur L. Scott’s Mark Twain at Large (1969), Robert Cooper’s Around the World With Mark Twain (2000), Jeffrey Melton’s Mark Twain, Travel Books, and Tourism (2002), Peter Kaminsky’s Chicago of Europe and Other Tales of Foreign Lands (2009), Gribben and Melton’s Mark Twain on the Move (2009), and Roy Morris’s American Vandal: Mark Twain Abroad (2015).

Into this crowded genre comes Eric Roorda’s Twain at Sea, an anthology of Mark Twain’s maritime writings. The title evokes oceanic writings, but Roorda begins with Twain’s accounts of his experiences on “brown” (fresh) water before moving to “blue” (salt) water writings. The excerpts are arranged more or less chronologically, moving from the Mississippi River to Hawaii and the Pacific, then on to New York and the Quaker City excursion, followed by letters from his trans-Atlantic trips and side-trips of the 1870s and 1880s. Finally comes his round the world tour, which is then followed by shorter extracts from throughout his life at sea. The familiar and expected travel writings are all included, but even a well-read Twainian will find pleasant surprises and some unfamiliar pieces. Roorda casts a wide net that yields a harvest of letters, maxims, autobiographical writings, and forgotten short extracts. His introduction, notes, and afterward are both well-informed and informative, and his map of most of the routes followed and the appendix listing the ships (not steamboats) upon which Twain sailed are excellent, but the book suffers for lack of an index. Roorda’s assessment of Twain’s relationship with the sea reflects both his familiarity with Twain’s writings and his own maritime expertise, which transforms what otherwise could have been just one more anthology of Twain’s writings into a valuable contribution to Twain studies.

…continue reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2018 Mark Twain Forum

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 Huckleberry Cookbook by Stephanie & Alex Hester

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 Huckleberry Cookbook. By Alex & Stephanie Hester. TwoDot, 2017. Second Edition. Pp. 158. Hardcover $19.95. ISBN 978-1-4930-2836-8. Ebook. ISBN 978-1-4930-2837-5.

Huck Finn’s name signifies an insignificant (huckleberry) Irish child (Finn). The stereotypical Irishman of the nineteenth century was a drunkard and thief, and Irish immigrants frequently were met by signs in shop windows reading “No Irish Need Apply.” Although Irish women could get jobs as housekeepers, Irish males were more often hired as day laborers and rarely hired as butlers or allowed to work in a home; African-American males were more often hired as house-servants than Irish-American males. If African-Americans occupied the bottom rung of the social ladder during and after slavery, Irish-Americans, who flooded into the country in the 1840s to escape the cruelties of British rule and forced starvation (not famine), were only one rung up the ladder – which bred resentment and racism. Huck was the son of Pap Finn, the town drunk, an Irishman who need not apply, nor should his son.

None of this is mentioned in this wonderful cookbook. In fact there is no mention of Mark Twain at all even though every page glorifies huckleberries. The introduction credits Henry David Thoreau as the first American writer to seriously study the huckleberry, tracing them back to 1615 when explorer Samuel de Champlain noted that Native Americans harvested them. Next comes Captain William Clark (of Lewis & Clark fame) who describes them in 1806. They were used for food, for dyes, and as medicine. They were mixed with meats, and also mashed and dried and made into cakes. Early settlers took their lead from Native Americans and likewise made good use of them. During the Great Depression “huckleberry camps” attracted eager pickers, especially in the northwest, and by 1937 the huckleberry industry had developed enough to require regulation.

Not all huckleberries are the same; there are three dozen species of huckleberries in North America, and they have been mistaken for blueberries, and called by other names: hurtleberries, bilberries, dewberries, and whortleberries. Grizzly bears love them, and no wonder: the aroma of huckleberries can permeate a plastic bag (NB: double bag them when freezing them for storage). In some regions huckleberry bushes grow barely two feet high, but in other climates they grow over five feet tall. They tend to grow best on sloping ground, but thrive at both lower elevations and at 6,500 feet. Most huckleberries are smaller than blueberries, and unlike blueberries they tend to grow further apart on the bush rather than in clumps like blueberries. Anyone who has tasted fresh huckleberries and fresh blueberries knows that huckleberries will win any flavor contest hands down. Huckleberries have a balanced (not too sweet, not too sour) lingering taste and a complex texture that makes blueberries seem dull in comparison. There is nothing insignificant about huckleberries.

…continue reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2018 Mark Twain Forum

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: Rafts & Other Rivercraft in Huckleberry Finn by Peter G. Beidler

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. 

Rafts & Other Rivercraft in Huckleberry Finn. By Peter G. Beidler. University of Missouri Press, 2018. Pp. 179. Hardcover $40.00. ISBN 978-0-8262-2138-4.

“It’s lovely to live on a raft” says Huck just a few paragraphs into chapter 19 of Mark Twain’s masterpiece. But what kind of raft is it lovely to live on, and does it even matter what kind of raft Huck lived on? Of course, everyone who has read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn knows that the raft that transported Huck and Jim into literary immortality was a tiny affair consisting of a few short logs tied together with barely enough room to hold the two of them. Proof of this can be found on the covers of many modern paperback editions of the book. But looking at more covers it becomes obvious that their tiny raft was made of logs with a plank deck on top, and a wigwam. Of course, anyone who has studied the one dozen illustrations in the first edition of the book (found in chapters 12, 15, 16, 20, 21, 24, 29, and 40) knows that their raft was in fact made of planks and had a wigwam and a long steering oar, but nowhere in the book does an illustration depict the entire raft, so even a careful study of E. W. Kemble’s drawings does not tell the whole story. Finally, anyone who has read the text carefully, knows that Huck gives a fuller description of their raft, declaring that it measured twelve feet by fifteen or sixteen feet, and that it was made of pine planks that had broken off of a much larger lumber raft, and that it sat a good six or seven inches out of the water, and had one long oar. They also know that Jim had to fashion a second steering oar to control their not-so-tiny raft, make a raised platform of dirt upon which to build a fire, and build a wigwam large enough to accommodate that fire. They also know that the raft later had room for the Duke and the King. These astute readers think they know more than those readers who misplaced their trust in those modern paperback covers, but even astute readers don’t know the half of it.

In Rafts & Other Rivercraft in Huckleberry Finn, Peter Beidler knows the other half of it and a good deal more, and attacks a topic most Twainians might think could be vanquished in one short journal article. Beidler comes at this topic from every flank, armed to the teeth with meticulous research and 60 informative illustrations, and wins the battle in less than 200 pages. Beidler leaves no plank unturned, so to speak, and investigates things like whether the pine planks were seasoned or green (fresh) and how much they weighed per cubic foot, how and where lumber rafts were constructed (Wisconsin) and how they were steered (with sweeps), what Twain knew or did not know about lumber rafts and other rivercraft, and a myriad of other historical facts wisely separated from river lore, and convincingly concludes that Huck and Jim’s raft was a “crib”–a twelve by sixteen foot section of a lumber raft (which usually consisted of six such cribs held together by “yokes” dropped on top of “grub stakes”)–made entirely of fresh pine planks. Early on (page 35), he calculates that if six or seven inches of those planks were above the waterline, then another eighteen inches of planks were below the waterline giving the raft its buoyancy, and that this 12x16x2 foot raft was made of 384 cubic feet of green pine that weighed thirty-six pounds per cubic foot, bringing the weight of their raft to 13,824 pounds–nearly seven tons!–not counting the pad of dirt for the building of fires, the wigwam, Huck, Jim, various supplies, and two rapscallion guests for a portion of the journey.

Just about now, even the most astute reader must be rethinking everything they thought they knew about that flimsy little raft and its precious human cargo. And what the heck is a grub stake and how do you yoke one–or two–or, damn it, how many grub stakes do you have to yoke anyhow? And what exactly does a yoke look like? And what made their raft a crib? And how does Beidler know that lumber rafts were made of green wood? And, while we’re at it, just what the heck is a lumber raft, and what “pints” does Beidler see about a lumber raft that make it any better’n any other raft? And now that readers know the dimensions and origins of the raft, why should they care to know more? The astute reader might even begin to wonder why it is significant that Huck uses a canoe, the slave traders a skiff, and the Duke and the King arrive in style on a yawl posing as the English brothers of Peter Wilks.

The good news is that Beidler provides clear explanations augmented by contemporary drawings and photographs as well as modern diagrams that answer these questions. By the end of this book, every reader will know if there is any difference between a flat, a flatboat, a woodboat, a wood-flat, or a broadhorn (spoiler alert: nope). The reader will also know what a sweep is, and what to do with one (well, you don’t sweep with it), and how to use it with a headblock (no football or wrestling is involved either). The reader will know the difference between a rapids-piece, a skiff, a yawl, a scow, and a string. He’ll know a Mississippi raft from a Wisconsin raft, and how you make one out of several of the others. He’ll be able to distinguish a drift canoe from driftwood, and a witch from a thwart. He’ll know how to reconfigure a lumber raft to run a rapids, and what can go wrong, and how such a mishap yielded the raft that is central to Huck and Jim’s story. Huck and Jim knew these things, so it behooves the reader to know them too. As Beidler says “We might wish that Huck had explained some of his nautical terms more fully, but we can scarcely fault Twain for not anticipating that readers a century and more after he wrote his book would not be aware of the meanings of some of his terms. Surely it is our job as readers and as researchers to figure out what Huck means when he talks . . . . [T]o assume that we can always accurately guess from the context what Huck means . . . is to miss the boat” (117-118).

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

You may also be interested in Peter Beidler’s discussion of Huck and Jim’s raft from earlier this month!

Copyright © 2018 Mark Twain Forum

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 – 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…

Copyright © 2017 Mark Twain Forum

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 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…

Copyright © 2017 Mark Twain Forum

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…

Copyright © 2017 Mark Twain Forum

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

The Mark Twain Forum Review Editor is Barbara Schmidt.