MARK TWAIN FORUM BOOK REVIEWS: “Mark Twain at The Gallows: Crime and Justice in His Western Writing” by Jarrod D. Roark

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.

A large collection of Mark Twain Studies lectures are available in our Trouble Begins Archive. Jarrod D. Roark presented the following paper at the Elmira 2017: The Eighth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies:

Mark Twain at the Gallows: Crime and Justice in His Western Writing, 1861-1873. By Jarrod D. Roark. McFarland & Co., 2019. Pp. 218. Softcover $45.00. ISBN 978-1-4766-7973-0 (softcover). ISBN 978-1-4766-3805-9 (ebook).

For everyone except for the criminal on the gallows being fitted for his or her noose, witnessing a hanging can be instructive, reformative, cathartic, or entertaining, if not disturbing. In fact, for the close observer it can be all of these things. It can even be some of these things for the hangee, although of much shorter duration. Why, even the more squeamish among us can derive these same benefits just by reading about a hanging. From a glance at the title of Jarrod Roark’s book, a potential reader might be roped into thinking that everything in it takes place at the gallows, but let’s cut the author some slack. The subtitle gives it all away: “Crime and Punishment in His Western Writing, 1861-1873”.

Rope is not a trope in Twain’s writings, but crime and punishment are a major recurring theme. It would be a challenge to name a book by Twain that does not somewhere feature a criminal, a crime, a victim, a detective, a trial, an injustice, or some wrong to be righted–or some combination of these elements. Twain’s later treatments of crime and its consequences have been repeatedly studied, but one question has gone largely unanswered: How, when, and where did Twain’s life-long interest in crime and punishment originate and how did it evolve into his better-known broader concern for social justice? Roark finds the origins in Twain’s western years, and documents how his writings evolved. The answer, or a clue to the answer, was hiding in plain sight–roughly half of Twain’s more than 100 stories and news items in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise between 1862 and 1864 were reports on crimes or violence, and that percentage held steady for the nearly 500 local items he wrote for the Call in San Francisco (14).

Then as now, crime sells, or, as is said in our own visual age, “if it bleeds, it leads.”  Twain learned this lesson soon after arriving in Nevada, but no book focusing on Twain’s earliest crime writings has appeared until now, although most who have written about his western years have touched upon the subject, and Roark cites them: Ivan Benson, Lawrence Berkove, Walter Blair, Edgar Branch, James Caron, Joseph Coulumbe. Those are just the Bs and the Cs; and Roark’s list goes on to include the work of Joe Fulton and Roy Morris. Not cited by Roark is the only extended study of Mark Twain’s writings on crime and punishment, Daniel M. McKeithan’s Court Trials in Mark Twain (1958), whose focus is on six of Twain’s later books. Also not cited by Roark is Earl F. Briden’s entry on “Law” in The Mark Twain Encyclopedia (1993), an excellent overview of Mark Twain’s conflicted attitudes toward the law that only briefly touches on Twain’s western experiences. However, these two omissions are collateral explorations of Twain’s writings on crime and punishment, neither of them centered on the origins of Twain’s interest.

Most of Twain’s earliest writings on crime and justice, as well as many of his later writings, also involve gender–women as both victims and victimizers–and Roark draws upon the familiar works on this topic by Susan K. Harris, Linda A. Morris, Ann M. Ryan, and Laura Skandera Trombley, among others. As Roark points out, his study is intended as “an additive, rather than a corrective, to scholarship about Twain’s gender anxieties and his writing from the West and about it” (183).

Roark wastes no time making clear his aim: to describe Twain’s response “to cultural anxieties about crime, punishment, and gender in the West between 1862 and 1873” (2). He does this through Twain’s newspaper writings, letters, journals, and fiction that deal with the “desperadoes, lynch mobs, failed and drunk husbands, prostitutes and johns, judges, and even the gallows” (1). Along the way, according to Roark, “we see a Trinitarian literary persona emerge: Twain as Murderer, Twain the Judge, and Twain the Hangman. The three work in concert to offer extra-legal, indeed, extra-literary responses to crime and punishment . . .” (3).

The west was a violent place, and when Sam Clemens stepped off the stagecoach in Carson City in August 1861, he found himself in the middle of it. In Roughing It he described a gunfight he claimed he witnessed the day of his arrival, and was soon losing friends and acquaintances to violence. He once interrupted a letter he was writing to his mother and sister to say he was going to investigate the source of five gunshots he’d just heard outside in the street, and discovered that two policemen that he knew had been murdered (39). Writing sensationally about this violence sold more papers than did humor, and Roark portrays a young Sam Clemens “whose inkwell brimmed with blood” (4), and places his blood-drenched approach in the context of popular writings of the day that sensationalized violence, including those of George Lippard and Ned Buntline, and others with whose writings Sam Clemens was familiar. Curiously, despite numerous references to Twain’s readings, Roark does not cite Alan Gribben’s extensive scholarship in this area, which would have led to other sources (like the
Causes Celebres volumes Twain owned and read) which would have further strengthened his strong arguments.

Roark begins by borrowing Joseph Coulumbe’s description of Clemens as an “outlaw with a pen” whose reports on crime reflected an outlaw ethic that advanced a moral stance…..

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

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 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.

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

Copyright © 2019 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.