Editor’s Note: The following remarks come from Ben Click, the editor of The Mark Twain Annual. In his “Editor’s Re: Marks,” for the 2021 issue of the annual, he offers encouraging words about the state of Twain scholarship, words of hope as we enter 2022.”
Editor’s Re: Marks
This issue of the Annual begins with a brief, spirited exchange between two icons of Twain scholarship, Jim Caron and Bruce Michelson, with Mr. Caron responding to Mr. Michelson’s critique of the Autobiography from our last issue (“Reckoning with the Autobiography”). Mr. Caron reckons (and sympathizes) with the difficulty that scholars face when they “dissect Mark Twain and/or speak about Sam Clemens,” and he poses this question: “How can a consciousness appear as doppelgänger?” Mr. Michelson responds (I’ll not summarize their exchange—that would undermine the joy of reading it).
Following their lively exchange, Ghaylen Najjar, in our opening article, also addresses the troublesome Twain/Clemens dyad as part of his arresting (and at times speculative) argument that examines Mark Twain in the context of transnational studies scholarship—scholarship that seemingly ignores the anti-Arab sentiments in Twain’s writing. Najjar writes, “the careless overuse of this Clemens/Twain duality is the real cause of the confusion,” suggesting that the persona Twain “bears all ‘the blatant chauvinism and narrow-mindedness’ while Sam Clemens is exonerated as the satirist who is intellectually and morally superior to his narrative persona.” For Najjar, “Twain must be in full control of his material.” But of course, as Twain scholarship has repeatedly shown, control of his literary and personal material was something neither the man nor his persona could ever fully achieve.
Interestingly, the theme of control, in various ways, loosely connects all the articles in this volume. Stephen Pasqualina explores Twain controlling “methods of colonial visual culture to formulate his critiques of imperialism.” Avery Blankenship, using the reprint detection methods of the Viral Texts Project, examines Twain’s inability to control the reprinting of his writing and use of his name in his early career (something he would eventually surmount). Mark Baggett shows Twain working within the context of various (legal) reform movements to develop a “seemingly limitless knowledge of ‘lawyer-ways’ as well as ‘lawyer-talk,’” knowledge he employed to burlesque legalese, which contributed to his legal control over his published works as evinced in the 1909 copyright bill. Larry Howe reveals how Twain’s inheritance narratives rely on the various discourses of hereditary claims to produce cautionary tales—tales warning readers that they may have little control over what their wishes actually bring. Lisa McGunigal analyzes the ways that Twain embraced and humorously appropriated bad poetry, particularly obituary poetry, so that readers might have a means by which to control their own reading of it. Nate Williams uncovers the actual manuscript provenance date of Twain’s skeleton novelette (1898 instead of 1878), tracing the efforts of those who tried to control that date for financial reasons, and showing the influence of Orion over that of Jules Verne. Finally, Edward Shannon examines Twain’s deliberate control of Huck’s sexuality in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, allowing his narrator to be “a voice of moral authority and innocence without the whiff of a threat of sexuality or social mobility of the kind his comrade Tom somehow deserves.”
Each of our critical essays confirms Twain’s work as rich, diverse, and complex. That rich complexity pushes the scholarship, not allowing it to be a complacent rehashing of his writing, but rather scholarship imbued with hope toward a fuller understanding of the work. The Mark Twain Circle of America aids in this push to advance Twain scholarship in new directions. The Circle’s 2022 MLA call for proposals is a case in point. Titled “Not Your Granddaddy’s Mark Twain,” the call sought “timely, innovative proposals from interdisciplinary approaches including Queer, Non-human, Trauma, Medical History, Colonial, or Critical Race Studies.” As a result, the 2022 MLA Twain panel, “Mark Twain: Emerging and Diverging Approaches,” will offer three stimulating papers: Joseph Darda’s “A Connecticut Yankee on King Arthur’s Diamond: Mark Twain, Baseball, and the Making of a White Reunion”; Avery Blankenship’s “Twain in Circulation: The Reprinting of Mark Twain in Nineteenth-Century Newspapers” (part of her talk is presented here); and Hsuan Hsu’s “Twain’s Olfactory Gags.” In addition, the Circle has created, in conjunction with the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College, their first graduate student workshop to be held immediately following the 4–7 August 2022, Conference on Mark Twain Studies. During the workshop, up to five students will focus on revising seminar papers into publishable articles. Finally, the Circle seeks submissions for its new “Emerging Scholar” award. The award recipient will be announced at the Quadrennial Conference, itself yet another cause for hope in 2022. During the conference, scholars will once again convene on the Elmira College campus in person to share their thoughts on Twain (the Quadrennial was postponed in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic). And, finally, the 2022 Annual will be our second special issue. That issue, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Roughing It, will present new approaches on Mark Twain and the West. Clearly, there is much to celebrate in the field of Twains studies.
The events of 2020 have produced a gnawing feeling of having little control over our lives and our world. But halfway through 2021, things began to feel at least a little different—a little more under control. We now have tools to fight the pandemic. Concerted efforts toward racial and social justice have emerged. The election results have held. And those responsible for an almost surreal insurrection have been rounded up to face prosecution. Certainly, Twain would have had something to say or write about these conditions, capturing our general feeling of lousiness. Thus, it seems fitting to invoke something that Hal Holbrook, a great loss to the Twain community, said when describing his experience of reading Twain when he was “feeling lousy about whatever.” In picking up some writing by Twain and just starting to read, he says, “by the top of the next page, I was starting to feel better.” So, here’s to getting to the “top of the page” in 2022.
BEN CLICK is professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, director of the Writing and Speaking Center, director of the Twain Lecture Series on American Humor Culture, and the editor of The Mark Twain Annual. With Larry Howe and Jim Caron, he published Refocusing Chaplin: A Screen Icon in Critical Contexts. He has published and presented numerous lectures and scholarly papers on Mark Twain and published articles and book chapters on the teaching of writing and writing assessment. His current research explores the rhetorical effects of silence in the works of Mark Twain.
To find more information about the efforts of the Mark Twain Circle of America mentioned above, visit www.marktwaincircle.org/.