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.

A Disturbing Passion? : Mark Twain & The Angelfish

While I appreciate a sensational headline as much as anyone, and there are new bombshells arriving with disturbing daily frequency, when a friend sent me one that recently appeared in The Paris Review, “Mark Twain’s Disturbing Passion for Collecting Young Girls,” it felt, with a nod to another great American humorist, Yogi Berra, “like déjà vu all over again.” Samuel Clemens’s late-in-life friendships with prepubescent girls, ten to sixteen, is a well-mined area of Twain scholarship that continues to resurface. My reading of the article was as a subtext to allegations regarding the Roy Moore’s apparent attraction to and pursuit of young girls. My sense is that the gentle reader might walk away thinking that the erstwhile Republican senate candidate from Alabama was just engaging in a kind of well-established American male tradition of predatory behavior of which Mark Twain was a participant.

I beg to differ. Not about the well-established male predilection of predatory behavior towards women, young and old—hey we even have it on tape! I’m in full agreement there. I’m just unconvinced that this sick and heinous club of assholes includes Mark Twain.

One of the great Twain scholars and a good friend, Hamlin Hill, discussed Clemens’ relationship with prepubescent teenagers in his Mark Twain: God’s Fool , published in 1973. Hill’s view was that Clemens’ final years were tragic ones punctuated by the deaths of family members and closest friends. A world-wide celebrity, Clemens was a lonely and ill man in his late sixties, trapped by fame, exploited as a commodity, an angry widower and estranged from his two surviving daughters. Hill claimed that in the last month of his life, April 1910, while vacationing in Bermuda, a dying Clemens might have done something to offend his hosts, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Allen, by possibly making “improper comments or even actions” toward their fifteen-year-old daughter, Helen. Hill admits there is “scanty evidence,” and in the subsequent memoirs written by the “angel-fish,” Clemens’ nickname for them, they remembered him as an elderly, grandfatherly figure who seemed to prefer living in a dream-like fugue state, and they recalled their parents’ injunction that they should be on their best behavior whenever in his company. I acknowledge their stories, and I also understand that for women of their time and place the likelihood that they would have narrated anything less than glowing attributions is likely nil.

In a dictation made for his Autobiography, recently published in full for the first time, Clemens listed the names of his ten angel-fish: Dorothy Butes, Frances Nunnally, Dorothy Quick, Margaret Blackmer, Hellen Martin, Jean Spurr, Loraine Allen, Helen Allen, and Dorothy Sturgis. Clemens was interested in them, encouraged them in their writerly hopes and had their photographs hung on a wall next to his billiard table. He never had any inclination to keep his friendships with them a secret. There’s no doubt that Clemens was fond of them and that once they matured he was quick to say good-bye. John Cooley, in his Mark Twain’s Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens-Angelfish Correspondence, 1905-1910 (2009), collected every extant communication between Clemens and the girls and concluded that while Clemens idealized their childhood and innocence, he could find no evidence of impropriety.

In the work that I’ve done about Clemens over the years, while I’ve discovered a great deal about him that is often at odds with the sexless, secular saint image that has been promoted ever since his death, I’ve never uncovered anything that supported Hill’s assertion. What I did find is that parents were thrilled that their daughters would be spending time with America’s best-known author and would push them to make chaperoned visits even when it was clear that they were bored to death and wanted to be with friends their own age. It also appeared to me that Clemens was trying to recreate a family circle that had disappeared years ago, first with the maturation of his daughters and then with the deaths of his oldest daughter Susy and wife Olivia. Susy was his acknowledged favorite and harbored aspirations of becoming a writer like her father. His encouragement of others may have been a way of keeping her memory alive. In short, he was an old man who wanted to try and remind himself of happier times all the while cognizant that this was just a futile grasping at ghosts.

Clemens certainly fell well short of saint status, in my view, and he possessed several characteristics that rendered him fallible and thus more human; to others standing more firmly on the saint side even a mention of them would appear unseemly. Here are a few mentions: after taking the temperance pledge to satisfy his mother Jane, he wrote her from Virginia City promising that he would “never gamble, in any shape or manner, and never drink anything stronger than claret or lager beer, which conduct is regarded as miraculously temperate in this country.” Both claims were “stretchers” of the most outrageous sort, particularly in view of the Virginia City Bulletin’s note at the beginning of that same month detailing how “Mark Twain had stolen [an arrested man’s] gin bottle and boots.” Perhaps it is just as well he didn’t try to reassure his mother of his chastity because a week after writing her, the Virginia City Bulletin ran an item that Clemens had been spotted: “coming from Chinatown ‘with a feather in your cap’”—referring to his visit to the red-light district.

A few years later, two weeks before paying a visit to his future wife, Olivia Langdon, in her hometown of Elmira, New York, he wrote to his good friend Frank Fuller asking him to “forward one dozen Odorless Rubber Cundrums—I don’t mind them being odorless—I can supply the odor myself.” (Every time I read this letter I can’t help shuddering and making gagging sounds.) Whether the condoms were a hopeful investment with Olivia in mind or some other woman remains a mystery. Indeed, he had such a lousy reputation that he would be described to his prospective father-in-law by a “friend” who knew him in California as “a humbug—shallow & superficial—a man who has talent, no doubt, but will make a trivial & possibly a worse use of it—a man whose life promised little & has accomplished less—a humbug, Sir, a humbug.” Twain himself would admit, up to that point at least, he was “drunk oftener than was necessary & that I was wild & Godless, idle, lecherous & a discontented & unsettled rover & they could not recommend any girl of high character & social position to marry me.”

We, the American public, are currently enrolled in a public, educational moment that is revealing what some of us always knew, namely a sordid lineage of masculine deviancy that has Roy Moore as its latest poster boy. As I understand it from reading various newspaper accounts, Moore was in his mid-thirties while pursuing girls as young as fourteen. Moore’s behavior was so well-known that he was banned from the local shopping mall for trolling. According to the women who have come forward, he physically attacked some of them and contrary to his denial about knowing any of them, it appears clear that he did and left his signature behind as proof. Samuel Clemens as far as I can tell does not share this narrative. There are a raft of many, many others who do. It is my ardent hope that they will all be exposed and repudiated for their poisonous, illegal and predatory behavior. But as Moore’s election looms on the horizon it is helpful to keep in mind what Clemens had to say about politicians: “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”


Laura Skandera Trombley is a Professor of English at University of Southern California, as well as former President of Pitzer College and the Huntington Library. She is also author of two books on Sam Clemens’s relationships with women – Mark Twain in the Company of Women (1994) and Mark Twain’s Other Woman (2010) – as well as numerous other Twain-related publications. In 2017 she received the Louis J. Budd Award from the Mark Twain Circle of America.  

The Inaugural Trouble Begins Lectures (1985)

The voice in the above clip is that of John S. Tuckey, who, as Joe Csicsila puts it, “changed everything in Mark Twain studies back in 1963” with his book Mark Twain & Little Satan. 

In 1985, as America celebrated the sesquicentennial of Samuel Clemens’s birth, Tuckey was part of the star-studded inaugural season of The Trouble Begins lecture series, now entering its 33rd year. The series began with a lecture by Hamlin Hill, author of Mark Twain: God’s Fool (1973) and Mark Twain & Elisha Bliss (1964). It also included Henry Nash Smith, one of the founders of the discipline of American Studies, and author of Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol & Myth (1950), a text which is still required reading for American Literature and American Studies graduate students. Smith passed away less than a year after he visited Elmira. He and Tuckey became the namesakes for the two CMTS-sponsored lifetime achievement awards given at the Quadrennial International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies (next week!).

Darryl Baskin, in his first year as Director of CMTS, organized the first series. Recognizing that it was a unique undertaking with distinguished speakers, he arranged for recordings, a practice which has continued through the decades. Thanks to current CMTS Director Joe Lemak and Archivist Nathaniel Ball the recordings of the first season have been digitized and are now available in our Trouble Begins Archive. Below you will find the full program.