Mark Twain Forum Reviews: Mark Twain’s Literary Resources: A Reconstruction of His Library and Reading (Volume 1) by Alan Gribben

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Mark Twain’s Literary Resources: A Reconstruction of His Library and Reading. Volume 1. By Alan Gribben. NewSouth, 2019. Pp. 350. $60.00. ISBN 978-1-58838-343-3 (cloth). ISBN 978-1-60306-453-8 (ebook).

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin Mac Donnell

Anyone familiar with Twain studies of the last four decades knows that the most eagerly anticipated work in the field is the revised and enlarged edition of Alan Gribben’s Mark Twain’s Library: A Reconstruction (1980). The first edition itself was eagerly anticipated: Six years before it appeared, Hamlin Hill’s famous must-read essay “Who Killed Mark Twain?” appeared in American Literary Realism, where Hill predicted that “source and influence hunters will have a field-day tracking through its encyclopedic catalog of volumes the humorist owned and annotated.” Published in an edition of 500 copies, nearly all were sold to libraries and the book quickly went out of print, driving the price for used copies as high as $450, putting it out of the reach of most Twainians. This was especially unfortunate because the immense utility of the work–the result of its ingenious conception and meticulous execution–had advanced the direction and scope of Twain studies more than any other work published since. It may be counted as one of the handful of essential reference works on Twain, along with Paine’s (albeit flawed) biography of Twain, the Mark Twain Project editions of Twain’s Letters and Autobiography, and R. Kent Rasmussen’s Mark Twain A to Z.

The first of the three volumes of the new edition has now been published; the second and third volumes will appear later this year and in 2020, and will be reviewed separately as they are published. Those second and third volumes will contain the catalogue of the books Twain actually owned or read, describing their editions, annotations, and ownership markings, and their influence on Twain’s writings. This first volume sets the stage for the two volumes to follow, and must be read first in order to fully understand Twain’s library, how he used it, and how best to apply that knowledge to any study of his creative process.

This first volume gathers together twenty-five of Alan Gribben’s essays about the formation, influence, and dispersal of Mark Twain’s library, along with a new introduction by Gribben, a foreword by R. Kent Rasmussen, and an expanded Critical Bibliography that nicely captures the crowded shelf of studies based upon Twain’s readings. The critical bibliography begins with Paine’s 1912 biography which foolishly projected Twain’s “reading interests during his final four years onto other periods of his life . . .” (269). The critical bibliography even includes a 1924 master’s thesis that was the earliest guide to Twain’s reading.

Gribben’s essays, published over the last forty-seven years tell one fascinating tale after another. He describes Twain’s “Library of Literary Hogwash” which consisted of books so bad that they were relished by Twain as “exquisitely bad.” He describes Twain’s uncanny ability to read sense into Robert Browning’s dense poetry, the evocative story behind Susy Clemens’s set of Shakespeare, Tom Sawyer’s (and America’s) falling under the spell of romantic adventure stories, the literary knowledge on display in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain’s favorite books, Twain’s earliest literary exposures, the popular myth of Twain as an unlettered author and how Twain himself promoted that public illusion, Twain’s familiarity with the Arthurian legends, Twain’s debt to “boy’s books” when composing his own greatest works, the ways certain books influenced particular writings by Twain, and how Twain’s reading habits and tastes evolved over time. Written during five decades, these accounts interconnect, and they are all page-turners, especially when Gribben describes his adventures in tracking down Twain’s widely dispersed library. He tracks down nearly 100 books from Twain’s library that had been given to Katy Leary. Another book from Twain’s library shows up through interlibrary loan. Forgeries are discovered in public and private collections. The maddening story of how Twain’s library was scattered in all directions is balanced by the gratifying story of how much of it has been recovered and preserved.

In addition to enlarging the inventory of surviving books and identifying the specific editions of the books listed in the various sales of books from Twain’s library, Gribben has also identified much new evidence of Twain’s readings in Twain’s own writings. In his writings Twain often mentions authors or books by name, but he more often alludes to people or events, both fictional and nonfictional, that reflect his own reading. Of course, Gribben is not the only person who has identified such sources, and he includes the findings of many others’ work, all reflected in his extensive Critical Bibliography or in the individual catalogue entries.

Twain’s reading habits had already expanded beyond the horizons of Hannibal when, as a teenager in 1852, he read an issue of the Philadelphia Courier that gave him the idea of writing an essay about Hannibal that he published in that paper a short time later. He would remain a daily reader of newspapers for the rest of his life. Thanks to the newspaper exchange system, he read papers from all over the country every day, seeking fodder to fill the pages of the newspapers where he was employed early in his career, and later as a newspaper owner and editor. As a young man he read obscure short-lived comic journals, and all his life he read the major magazines of his day. He was photographed with piles of magazines and newspapers, sometimes reading a magazine or paper whose name and date can be identified.

Twain was a life-long patron of libraries, taking advantage of two printers’ association libraries (one held 4,000 volumes) while employed as a type-setter in New York City in 1853. He was awarded a sterling silver key in return for officiating at a library opening in England, and he befriended Andrew Carnegie, who established more public libraries in the United States than any other library benefactor in US history. Twain himself gave books from his own library to libraries several times in his life, most notably establishing a public library in Redding, Connecticut, with a large donation of books from his own shelves.

Mark Twain was as much a reader as a writer, a bibliophile and connoisseur who appreciated fine printing and elegant bindings, and also an avid reader who literally consumed books, sometimes tearing or cutting them to pieces. Twain’s copy of Francis Galton’s Finger Prints (1892) does not survive, but he clipped out the illustration of fingerprints from the title-page of his copy and sent it to his publisher when brainstorming an idea for the title-page design for Pudd’nhead Wilson. On the other hand, the books he gave his wife and daughters were often sumptuously bound with heavily gilt full leather bindings with silk end papers, like the edition of Browning he gave his daughter Susy, or a set of Sir Walter Scott he gave his wife. A copy of Bayard Taylor’s Home Ballads (1882) that Olivia Clemens gave her mother on behalf of Jean and Clara (Susy was then old enough to select her own gift for her grandmother) was elaborately bound in leather with striking bird’s-eye maple panels inset on the front and back covers. Although Twain sometimes destroyed books in the service of his art, beautiful examples of the book arts adorned the shelves of the Clemens family library and were prized.

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