Mark Twain Forum Reviews: “The Illustrated Mark Twain and The Buffalo Express”

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The Illustrated Mark Twain and the Buffalo Express: 10 Stories and over a Century of Sketches. Edited by Thomas J. Reigstad. Foreword by Laura Skandera Trombley. North Country (Rowman & Littlefield), 2024. Pp. 112. Hardcover $26.95 ISBN 978149307603 (hardcover). ISBN 9781493076048 (ebook).

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While Mark Twain’s books were usually illustrated, hundreds of his journalistic writings were never illustrated in their original newspaper appearances, although a young Sam Clemens illustrated two of his Hannibal pieces himself in September 1852. So, it is welcome news that the ten stories chosen for this slender volume, which exhibit all of the characteristics of Twain’s early newspaper journalism, have the added bonus that they are accompanied by 51 illustrations that enhance Twain’s humor. But to fully appreciate and understand this latest book from Thomas Reigstad some context is in order.

It has been supposed that when Mark Twain sold his stake in the Buffalo Express in 1871 and moved to Hartford, it marked a milestone in his literary career, as he left journalism behind and entered the realm of literature. The truth is that he never really abandoned the journalistic roots that he first planted in Hannibal when he went to work at his brother’s newspaper, roots that he continued to cultivate as he moved around the country, most notably in Nevada and California, before arriving in Buffalo. The lessons he learned as a journalist, imitating the techniques of southwestern humor and borrowing from the bag of goofy tricks favored by Phunny Phellows like Artemus Ward, would serve him all his life, and can be detected in his writings from decades later by astute readers.

But readers of Mark Twain do not need to be astute to notice that nearly all of Twain’s books were heavily illustrated, often featuring Twain himself, a reflection of his writings, of course, in which he often featured himself as a character. In fact, the illustrations accompanying his words were usually carefully supervised and approved by Twain himself. This was true of Twain’s first bestselling book, The Innocents Abroad (1869), which was published at the very moment when he set foot in the offices of the Buffalo Express. Illustrations would become such an integral part of Twain’s literary art that when his writings are reprinted today without them, the reader may rightfully feel short-changed.

During the more than one hundred years since Twain’s death, his works have inspired many distinguished artists, with the result that some, like Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, have become iconic, with Rockwell’s fence-painting scene even appearing on a US postage stamp, ceramic statues, and elsewhere. Others, like Worth Brehm’s depictions of Tom (1910) and Huck (1923), have influenced how those boys have been portrayed in movies ever since, even surpassing the visual influence of their original portrayals by True Williams (1876) and E. W. Kemble (1885).

This volume recognizes and reflects this context. Four of the pieces included carry illustrations that appeared with Twain’s blessing when they were first published in the Buffalo Express, during his time as co-owner and co-editor. The illustrator, John Harrison Mills, produced crude comical woodblock cuts (not fine engravings) for “A Day at Niagara,” “English Festivities,” “Journalism in Tennessee,” and “The ‘Wild Man.’ ‘Interviewed.'” Twain himself cut the woodblock for his well-known map of the “The Fortifications of Paris” that accompanied his pieces mocking
contemporary sensational newspaper coverage of the Franco-Prussian War. Also included are facsimiles of the amusing headlines Twain designed to give his biting satire even more of a bite.

The pieces in this selection that were collected just a few years later in Twain’s second volume of short stories, Sketches, New and Old (1875), were illustrated by artist True Williams, best-known for his drawings for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), and seventeen of those are reproduced here……..

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

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