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.

Mark Twain Forum Reviews: SeaWolf Press Mark Twain 100th Anniversary Collection by Mark Twain

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 100th Anniversary Collection. By Mark Twain. Orinda, Calif.: SeaWolf Press, 2018. 10 titles to date. Paper, 6″ x 9″. $6.95 to $15.95 per vol.

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by R. Kent Rasmussen

Recent decades have seen the publication of many facsimile reprints of Mark Twain books–both individual titles and large sets. The most ambitious of these reprints has been Oxford University Press’s 29-volume facsimile set of American first editions that were originally published during Mark Twain’s lifetime. First issued in uniform hardback volumes in 1996, the Oxford set was edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, who invited more than 60 noted authors and scholars contribute new introductions, afterwords, and other editorial notes to the books. Each volume contains photo-facsimile pages of its title’s first-edition text along with as many as 50 to 100 pages of completely new material that make the books a uniquely valuable resource. (For more on the Oxford Mark Twain, see my Forum review at <http://www.twainweb.net/reviews/omt1-rev.html>.

In 2010, Oxford reissued its Mark Twain set in a paperback edition. Around that same time, a company called the Bradford Exchange began issuing expensive, full-facsimile replicas of first editions on a subscription basis. It began with 15 titles, later adding 6 more with so little fanfare one might not even know they existed, were it not for their occasional appearance on eBay. By “full-facsimile,” I mean reprints that match original editions both inside and out in almost every detail, including physical size. The Oxford facsimiles differ in being issued in uniform-size volumes and in duplicating only the books’ textual pages, whose sizes were adjusted to fit the edition’s standard dimensions.

Other publishers had sold full-facsimile editions of selected Mark Twain titles before Bradford, but that company’s books carried facsimile reproduction to an even higher level by duplicating every physical aspect of each book–dimensions; paper; bindings; cover designs; embossing; and gilding. Indeed, the company carried duplication so far that its books don’t contain a single date or word identifying them as reprints–a fact that may tempt ignorant or unscrupulous dealers to try passing them off as genuine first editions.

Now, yet another ambitious reprint edition is coming out, and it is something quite different than earlier reprints. Last year, SeaWolf Press, a small company based in Orinda, California, began issuing Mark Twain reprints in what it calls the “Mark Twain 100th Anniversary Collection” (a curiously delayed allusion to the 2010 anniversary of the author’s 1910 death). SeaWolf plans to reprint about 45 titles, including several not in any previous uniform edition, such as Mark Twain’s (Burlesque) AutobiographyA True StoryPunch, Brothers, Punch!; and a number of post-1910 Harper first editions. The company has already published reprints of books by other 19th century authors, including Jules Verne and Robert Lewis Stevenson, as well as 50 Jack London titles–the last scarcely a surprise, incidentally, considering the Bay Area company’s name.

Sturdily bound paperback volumes sold primarily through Amazon.com, the SeaWolf books are manufactured by Amazon’s print-on-demand service, using acid-free and moderately heavy matte paper that has a nice feel. Like Oxford’s paper-bound edition, the SeaWolf volumes are uniform in size but somewhat larger. Each 6″ x 9″ volume is about a half-inch taller and an eighth-inch narrower than its Oxford counterpart and is also substantially thicker, despite having fewer pages. SeaWolf books also differ from the Oxford books in several other ways.

SeaWolf books resemble facsimile reprints in physical appearance but are not facsimiles. Each book has completely reset type and new page layouts designed to fit the set’s uniform dimensions. Resetting type to reprint books is not unusual, of course. What makes these books different is that their pages are designed to mimic those of the first editions. They use the same or very similar typefaces and contain all the original illustrations. SeaWolf’s success in emulating first editions is especially impressive in volumes such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which has numerous pages with text wrapped closely around irregularly shaped illustrations. I should also add that my cursory examination of the texts found no typesetting errors.

….continue reading R. Kent Rasmussen’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.

Mark Twain Forum Reviews: Splittin’ The Raft by Scott Kaiser

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. 

Splittin’ the Raft. By Scott Kaiser. CreateSpace, 2017. Pp. 110. Paperback. $11.99. ISBN 978-1-981954162.

The genre of plays is one of the least-explored offshoots of Twain’s legacy, perhaps with good reason. He did have one unqualified success in the format, “Colonel Sellers,” based on characters from The Gilded Age (1873), co-authored with Charles Dudley Warner. It had a run of over ten years and earned Twain more in royalties than Tom Sawyer or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, enticing Twain to make at least two more attempts to repeat its success. The first, Ah Sin (1877), co-written with Bret Harte, had a run lasting a month, and Is He Dead? (1898), titled after the repeated joke line in The Innocents Abroad (Twain likely “borrowed” the line from Artemus Ward), was unpublished until 2003. There are also snippets of other plays in Mark Twain’s Satires and Burlesques (University of California Press, 1967), suggesting that, whether for lucre or “littery” reasons, Twain had as much difficulty relinquishing a self-perception of a writer adept at all literary forms as he did giving up any presumptions regarding his investing prowess.

There have been many sound film versions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, dating from a 1931 version starring Jackie Coogan, largely devoid of any hints of Twain’s crafted clash between a “sound heart and a deformed conscience.” More notable is the 1985 musical, Big River, with songs and music by Roger Miller, a surprisingly entertaining, insightful and serious treatment of Twain’s work. In a more literary vein, Jon Clinch’s Finn (2007), shows what an imaginative writer is capable of when he tackles some of the same themes of racism and violence, with a completely different focus, in this case, Pap Finn. As Twain scholar R. Kent Rasmussen noted in his Mark Twain Forum review of Finn in 2007, “Huckleberry Finn is the sacred scroll of the Mark Twain world, and true believers do not take kindly to seeing their scriptures tampered with.” Scott Kaiser, in his play, Splittin’ the Raft, dares to tamper with scripture in what he describes as an “entertaining whirligig of a play,” which “melds Mark Twain’s humor, Frederick Douglass’ brilliant language, traditional spirituals and provocative ideas about race relations in America . . .”

This distilled two-act version of the Huck Finn saga features scenes from Huck’s tribulations under Widow Douglas, Pap’s abuse and Huck’s escape, meeting Jim on Jackson’s Island, the rattlesnake incident, the Huck-in-drag meeting with Mr. Loftus, an introduction to the King and Duke, the “All right then, I’ll go to Hell” declaration, meeting Jim and Tom Sawyer at Phelps’s farm and the convoluted “freeing” of Jim. Even in this truncated version, this is a lot to tackle in a 110-page play which takes about two hours to perform. WorldCat database entries indicate at least one film production of the play was made in 2005 running 116 minutes.

Omitted are many of the book’s episodes such as the Shepherdson-Grangerford feud, the mob confrontation with Colonel Sherburn and the attempted swindle of the Wilks family. The unique twist in Kaiser’s play is the appearance of historical spokesperson, Frederick Douglass, an African American abolitionist and a personal friend of Mark Twain who “tries to set the record straight” about Mark Twain’s masterpiece. Kaiser attempts to do this by scripting portions of Douglass’s own published works into the play as asides and short lectures to the audience. The book features no bibliography but Douglass scholars will likely recognize these passages such as this one from an 1852 speech on the subject of religion and slavery:

I have to inform you that the religion of the southern states, at this time, is not only indifferent to the wrongs of slavery, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. Many of its most eloquent Divines have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity (17).

Douglass’s frequent interjections are certainly relevant and informative with respect to slavery and racism, but this technique, which at first glance seems ingenious–a grafting together of two famous writers–quickly becomes ponderous in the reading of the script. If a reader stitched all of the Frederick Douglass asides together, one would have a brief lecture on the history of American slavery. However, what appears to be most lacking is a dramatic depiction of slavery that allows the audience to extract its own emotionally-laden conclusions that are more likely to endure.

…continue reading Martin Zehr’s review on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2018 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: The Huckleberry Cookbook by Stephanie & Alex Hester

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. 

The Huckleberry Cookbook. By Alex & Stephanie Hester. TwoDot, 2017. Second Edition. Pp. 158. Hardcover $19.95. ISBN 978-1-4930-2836-8. Ebook. ISBN 978-1-4930-2837-5.

Huck Finn’s name signifies an insignificant (huckleberry) Irish child (Finn). The stereotypical Irishman of the nineteenth century was a drunkard and thief, and Irish immigrants frequently were met by signs in shop windows reading “No Irish Need Apply.” Although Irish women could get jobs as housekeepers, Irish males were more often hired as day laborers and rarely hired as butlers or allowed to work in a home; African-American males were more often hired as house-servants than Irish-American males. If African-Americans occupied the bottom rung of the social ladder during and after slavery, Irish-Americans, who flooded into the country in the 1840s to escape the cruelties of British rule and forced starvation (not famine), were only one rung up the ladder – which bred resentment and racism. Huck was the son of Pap Finn, the town drunk, an Irishman who need not apply, nor should his son.

None of this is mentioned in this wonderful cookbook. In fact there is no mention of Mark Twain at all even though every page glorifies huckleberries. The introduction credits Henry David Thoreau as the first American writer to seriously study the huckleberry, tracing them back to 1615 when explorer Samuel de Champlain noted that Native Americans harvested them. Next comes Captain William Clark (of Lewis & Clark fame) who describes them in 1806. They were used for food, for dyes, and as medicine. They were mixed with meats, and also mashed and dried and made into cakes. Early settlers took their lead from Native Americans and likewise made good use of them. During the Great Depression “huckleberry camps” attracted eager pickers, especially in the northwest, and by 1937 the huckleberry industry had developed enough to require regulation.

Not all huckleberries are the same; there are three dozen species of huckleberries in North America, and they have been mistaken for blueberries, and called by other names: hurtleberries, bilberries, dewberries, and whortleberries. Grizzly bears love them, and no wonder: the aroma of huckleberries can permeate a plastic bag (NB: double bag them when freezing them for storage). In some regions huckleberry bushes grow barely two feet high, but in other climates they grow over five feet tall. They tend to grow best on sloping ground, but thrive at both lower elevations and at 6,500 feet. Most huckleberries are smaller than blueberries, and unlike blueberries they tend to grow further apart on the bush rather than in clumps like blueberries. Anyone who has tasted fresh huckleberries and fresh blueberries knows that huckleberries will win any flavor contest hands down. Huckleberries have a balanced (not too sweet, not too sour) lingering taste and a complex texture that makes blueberries seem dull in comparison. There is nothing insignificant about huckleberries.

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

Copyright © 2018 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: The Life of Mark Twain: The Early Years by Gary Scharnhorst

The Life of Mark Twain: The Early Years, 1835-1871. By Gary Scharnhorst. University of Missouri Press, 2018. Pp. 686. Hardcover. ISBN 978-0-8262-2144-5. $36.95.

The Life of Mark Twain: The Early Years, 1835-1871 is the first volume in a planned 3-volume edition from Gary Scharnhorst, university professor, editor, and noted Mark Twain scholar. It is a well-written and well-documented attempt to untangle the facts from the myths and legends that surround the early life of Samuel Clemens. Much of the information that has been published about Clemens’s early life originated with Clemens himself who embellished, embroidered, and misremembered facts in his own writings and autobiography. His hand-picked biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, who lived nearby him during his last years and assumed the role of a surrogate son, exercised a rigid determination to please the Clemens family and protect their reputation. Paine’s 1912 biography has been rightly criticized for being less than objective.

Scharnhorst supports his arguments for a new multi-volume biography of Clemens with unflinching disdain for Paine. He refers to Paine as “a young sycophant without a pedigree” (xviii), a man who had a “lack of professional training” (xxiii), and a “hagiographer” (439). Scharnhorst judges Paine using twenty-first century standards. It is a common attitude displayed by many of today’s scholars who overlook nineteenth century realities. Such treatment of Paine was recently discussed by Mary Eden in her excellent article in the Mark Twain Journal (Spring 2018).

Scharnhorst states his goal is to provide a multi-volume biography of Clemens from his personal and “single point of view on an expansive canvas” (xxvi). While some scholars such as Greg Camfield have suggested that specialized, tightly focused, single-volume biographies are the best way to capture the complexity of Clemens’s life, Scharnhorst disagrees and feels such coverage only leads to “wildly different conclusions.” He compares the wide array of current biographies written by a multitude of scholars to constructing a “grotesque Cadillac from spare parts from different models” (xxvi). However, Scharnhorst makes clear in his preface that readers should expect “no bombshells” or “dark secrets” in this first volume. He is correct–the material should be familiar ground to many scholars.

Scharnhorst’s preface also makes clear that his point of view is contrary to those of many scholars today–such as Shelley Fisher Fishkin who feels that Clemens and his works are still relevant and that he is “more a creature of our time than of his” (xxvii). Scharnhorst disdains the Mark Twain impersonators in white linen suits and fright wigs who mimic “a middle-aged bankrupt” and he has no love to share for “coffee-table compilations of his maxims” (xxviii). Scharnhorst’s approach prompted one early reader of an advance reading copy of the book to comment, “As I read parts of his book I could not shake the feeling that GS doesn’t like Twain”…

…continue reading Barbara Schmidt’s review at Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2018 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 Geographical Imagination, Edited By Joseph Alvarez

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 Geographical Imagination. Joseph A. Alvarez, ed. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009. Hardcover, 167 pages. $58.95. ISBN: 978-4438-0585-8.

This collection of essays edited by Mark Twain scholar Joseph A. Alvarez was inspired by a 2005 South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA) conference session. The session was organized by Morehouse College professor Eileen Meredith, who coined the title of the session that this book uses. Then of Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina, Alvarez was not involved in that session, but he nevertheless took up a suggestion from Cambridge Scholars Publishing (no relationship to Cambridge University Press) to shape a book around the subject of Mark Twain’s writings on geography. In June 2006, he posted a call to the Mark Twain Forum listserv for papers on Mark Twain’s individual travel writings. The result was this collection of ten essays, including two originally presented by Jeffrey Melton and Charles Martin at the SAMLA conference. When the book was published in late 2009, it received sparse publicity and no reviews and then quickly fell out of print. However, in a stroke of good luck for those who failed to find a copy previously, the book is now once again listed on amazon.com and a request to the publisher for a review copy was promptly answered.

The book’s cover features a popular cartoon of Mark Twain standing atop a laughing globe that appeared on 22 December 1900 in the New York Commercial Advertiser. It was signed by a cartoonist with the initials LWM whose identity remains unknown in spite of several queries over the years on the Mark Twain Forum to solicit assistance in providing his or her name.

Alvarez begins the volume with his introduction titled “Mining Ore from Physical and Imaginative Travels.” Therein he observes that Mark Twain’s geographical imagination took him back almost 2000 years to the Garden of Eden–when he wrote the Adam and Eve diaries–and carried him into time travel, heaven, and various fantasy spaces.

Contributors to the volume include several names familiar to members of the Mark Twain Forum. Among them is John Bird, author of the book’s first essay, “Metaphors of North and South, East and West in Mark Twain’s ‘The Private History of a Campaign that Failed'” (pp. 7-16). Calling attention to the tendency of many readers to overlook the fact that much of Mark Twain’s story is fiction, Bird sees that Civil War story to be “about confusion over directions, and even more deeply, about confusion over war in general and war writing in particular” (7). He goes on to show how Mark Twain used the story as a sort of corrective to northern views of published accounts of the war–an implicit criticism, perhaps, of the Century magazine series of wartime memoirs in which the piece first appeared.

 Continue reading Barbara Schmidt’s review at Mark Twain Forum…

Copyright © 2017 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 – Flood: A Novel by Melissa Scholes Young

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. 

Flood: A Novel. Melissa Scholes Young. Center Street/Hachette Book Group, 2017. Pp. 321. Hardcover $26.00. ISBN 978-1-4789-7078 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-4789-7076-7 (ebook).

There is a homeplace in nearly every American novel. Sometimes it’s the focus of the story; other times it’s in the background. But every protagonist has fled their homeplace, or fled and returned–or else never left at all. Those who flee take some of their homeplace with them. Homeplaces haunt, choke, nourish, comfort, and extinguish the spirit, often all at once. They are populated with family we did not choose, including some we’d never choose. They swarm with friends we didn’t choose either; we just grew up with them as they revealed their flaws a little at a time, and we adjusted and forgave along the way. Even the dead and the absent are alive in the homeplace, insisting on remembrance.

Homeplaces have gravitational pulls that are barely escaped, and which never fully subside. If your life founders on a rocky foreign shore, the homeplace is where you return to heal. They offer strength and loyalty and faith and acceptance–or convincing illusions of these all-American virtues. If our homeplaces are flawed, so are we, and we can hardly face life without one, whether we left one, never left, or have returned to one. Homeplaces are mythic, and yet we all have one.

Hannibal, Missouri is the homeplace of Laura Brooks, the Huck-like heroine of Melissa Young’s debut novel, Flood, and Laura’s life as a nurse in Florida has unexpectedly faltered ten years after she fled Hannibal during a great flood on July 4th, 1993. Home was confining and suffocating, and populated with the sort of family and friends who tear you down and hold you back. The town is preoccupied with Tom and Becky and has yet to come to grips with Huck and Jim. There are haves and have-nots. The haves make money off the swarms of tourists and never get flooded, but if you are a have-not you get flooded and you spend what money you have at the local Walmart “where half your social life happens in the parking lot” (147). But the have-nots do have style–even their babies have mullets (265).

Floods define the place, and so does the lottery if you are a have-not. After driving twenty-two hours non-stop to get home, Laura learns that the Mississippi River is rising toward another major flood, and finds her mother dozing in her recliner in front of the TV waiting for an update on the flood stages and her Lotto numbers. “When you can see the Mississippi out your windows, flood stages are your religion. And when you can’t imagine how to dig yourself out of your hole, you put your faith in the Powerball” Laura muses (2-3). Young knows her people and captures them with the right words, and she also knows her homeplace bugs. When Laura opens a “dirty window to let in some fresh air” she notices that a “parade of dead flies rests belly-up on the sill, their legs reaching toward freedom” (7-8). Emily Dickinson knew the metaphoric value of one live fly, and Young knows the value of a bunch of dead ones with their eyes on the prize. She knows her Mark Twain too. No sooner is Laura home that she is thinking of leaving again: “Anywhere but here. Sometimes being stuck is worse than staying put. What we need is a signal, a mark twain, to show us that the water is deep enough for us to get out” (82). And she knows that “the only thing harder in Hannibal’s hierarchy than being poor and white was being respectable and black” (112).

So, what could possibly keep her home? Friends and family? She and her mother have a dysfunctional relationship. Her best friend Rose is going through a divorce from her husband Josh (aka “The Bastard”) who has money for booze but not for the antibiotics needed by his son Bobby. He marks the heel of his boots with crossed nails to keep away the Devil. It doesn’t work. To make ends meet, Rose, who is not the model of stability, embezzles from her employer, and must borrow the last of Laura’s savings to avoid jail and losing her son. Laura’s father puts in a brief appearance to steal something from her mother. His stomach is a fish-belly white. Laura’s Aunt Betty is dependable and “when in doubt, she feeds people” (231). Every Laura should have an Aunt Betty. Laura’s brother Trey is a drug-addict who dreams of a better life. Finally, there’s Laura’s old boyfriend, Sammy, the reason she left in the first place because he was the only reason she had for staying, but he disappointed her. Yet the very sight of him, his touch, his smell, just the thought of him, sends Laura into spasms of yearning and confusion. Twainians will by now have recognized some allusions to Mark Twain and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Josh, Sammy, Laura, an absent thieving father, crossed nails in boots, fish-belly white, and an aunt who plays a much-needed maternal role.

 Continue reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review at Mark Twain Forum…

Copyright © 2017 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: The Introspective Art of Mark Twain by Douglas Anderson

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. 

The Introspective Art of Mark Twain. Douglas Anderson. Bloomsbury, 2017. Pp. 278. Hardcover. $120.00. ISBN 978-1-5013-2955-5. Paperback. $29.95. ISBN 978-1-5013-2954-8. E-book. $25.99. ISBN 978-1-5013-2957-9.

There is nothing better than a preface that explicitly spells out what the author hopes to accomplish, and Douglas Anderson wastes no time doing this. In his very first sentence he declares “This book begins an examination of Mark Twain’s artistic preoccupations by assuming that he was . . . an unusually perceptive student of his own mind and career, and that he undertook a review of that career . . . near the end of his life” (ix). A page later Anderson is more specific: “The following pages undertake to explore that legacy by tracing its inward excursions . . . . The journey will begin by considering . . . the enigmatic dialogue What is Man?” (x). Anderson promptly brings his preface to a close on the very next page with a final observation: “To begin a book such as this one with What Is Man? risks discouraging many admirers of Twain’s comic art and caustic political satire. But the risk is worth taking if it succeeds in alerting Twain’s readers to a rich and neglected dimension of his achievement” (xi). Even when faced with the risk of discouragement, what’s a reviewer to do when the author of a book practically writes the review for him?

Mark Twain’s readers are all aware of the outer dressing and décor of his fiction, and Twain’s mastery of the literary arts leaves most of them with few doubts about the truths of those “inward excursions” that flow just below those fictional surfaces. Anderson is not the first to explore this realm in Twain’s writings, and he is not the first to apply a close reading of What Is Man? to Twain’s other writings, but he is the first to plumb those depths at length, using What Is Man? as the prism through which three decades of Twain’s most important works can be understood.

Mark Twain himself claimed that the gestation for What Is Man?, first published in 1906, had been underway for “twenty-five or twenty-seven years” (1). Anderson accepts this claim that the composition of that work had begun decades earlier and had extended through the years of Twain’s most productive literary output. His introduction charts the structure and philosophy he discerns from his own close reading of What Is Man?, followed by four chapters in which he explains how this work functions as a master-key that unlocks the deeper meanings lurking under the surface of Twain’s earlier writings. He then uses that key to unlock Mark Twain’s other writings, revealing the “introspective art” that gives this book its title.

Early in his introductory chapter, Anderson notes that What is Man? could just as easily be titled What is Consciousness? and treats Twain’s Socratic dialogue in between the Old Man and the Young Man as a series of thought experiments proposed by the Old Man to the Young Man. He discusses at length the familiar issues of nature versus nurture, and the mechanistic philosophy that views the human mind as a kind of machine. These ideas were first explored by Paul Carus in The Mechanistic Principle and the Non-Mechanical (1913) in which more than forty pages are devoted to What Is Man? including extensive quotes from Twain’s work, but Anderson does not cite Carus. However, Anderson’s explication of What Is Man? is excellent and full of fresh insights. He concludes by announcing that the following chapters will “work backward from the end of Twain’s career to its beginning, when he first formulated and explored the account of mental life to which the Old Man gives sustained expression” (14).

 Continue reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review at Mark Twain Forum…

Copyright © 2017 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: The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine by Mark Twain & Philip Stead

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. 

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine. By Mark Twain and Philip Stead. Illustrations by Erin Stead. Doubleday Books for Young Readers, 2017. Pp. 152. Hardcover. $24.99. ISBN 978-0-553-52322-5 (trade); ISBN 978-0-553-52323-2 (library binding); ISBN 978-0-553-52324-9 (ebook).

Readers of this review may not be familiar with story-telling quantum mechanics for the simple reason that this reviewer is its only theorist and perhaps its sole subscriber. This theory of the subatomic underpinnings of story-telling is no different from the physics involved in broader quantum mechanics: Several different versions of a story can begin at the same place at the very same time, travel various distances by various routes, and yet all end up in the very same place at the very same time, and all of these seemingly contradictory versions can peacefully and simultaneously coexist. However, if particles from one version of a story collide with particles from another version, energy is released that can be observed.

An example of story-telling quantum mechanics in action is the oft-repeated account of how Mark Twain structured his bedtime stories for his daughters in their Hartford home. It is said that Twain would base his stories on the bric-a-brac that stood upon the mantel, beginning a new story each night with the painting of the “cat in the ruff” and ending it with a girl named Emmeline. Every story began and ended at those points but took a different path, with no repeated events allowed. Twain himself reported that if any particle from one story collided with a single particle from a previous story, it provoked violent explosions of energy from his observant audience of two or three. (This was hard work, and some Twainians cannot help but suspect it was no coincidence that he killed off poor Emmeline when he got the chance in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.)

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine puts this theory to the test. The story is inspired by sixteen pages of explicit notes left unfinished by Mark Twain in 1879, and discovered in 2011 in the Mark Twain Papers by well-known Mark Twain scholar John Bird, who noticed a bracketed note by Twain at one point in the narrative that records Susy’s response to the tale. Bird suddenly recognized that he was reading what are very likely the only notes Twain ever preserved for any of the countless bedtime stories he told his daughters. After the University of California Press declined to publish the unfinished story, Bird, with Mark Twain Project (MTP) editor Bob Hirst’s cooperation, brought the notes to the attention of the Mark Twain House and Museum. Tina Wexler of IMC Partners, on behalf of the Mark Twain House, showed them to Frances Gilbert of Random House, who arranged to have the story reconceived and completed by the Caldecott Medal-winning husband and wife team of Philip (text) and Erin (illustrator) Stead. Doubleday Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Random House Children’s Books) has announced a first printing of 250,000 copies, and sales of the book will benefit the Mark Twain House & Museum, the MTP, and the University of California Press.

Unlike Twain’s bedtime stories in Hartford, his story about a kidnapped prince was first told in Paris when Clara was five and Susy was seven, and was based on a picture in a magazine, not the bric-a-brac on the mantel back home. Twain’s notes sketch out in telling detail the experiences of a boy named Johnny, whose dying mother leaves him some seeds she was given by an old woman she believed was probably a fairy. After she dies, Johnny follows her careful instructions, planting and watering the seeds, and eating the flower that blossoms forth, which gives him the magical ability to communicate with all kinds of animals (anticipating Dr. Doolittle by four decades). He first meets a kangaroo (which provoked Susy’s comment that Twain recorded which in turn led to John Bird’s recognition of what the story represented), and soon all of the animals of the forest join forces to build him a new home. One day Johnny finds a royal handbill offering a reward to anyone who can rescue the king’s son who has been kidnapped by giants. Johnny, with his animal friends, heads to the king’s castle and strikes a bargain after demonstrating to the skeptical king that he–a small insignificant boy–could indeed converse with the menagerie now under his command. He soon sets off with his animal friends to rescue the prince, tracking him to a cave guarded by two dragons who never sleep, and there, without warning, Twain’s notes abruptly end.

 Continue reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review at Mark Twain Forum…

Copyright © 2017 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: The Triumphs & Torments of Mark Twain by Billie Valentine-Fonorow

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. 

“Was It Heaven Or Hell?”: The Triumphs and Torments of Mark Twain. By Billie Valentine-Fonorow. Tucson, AZ: Fonorow and Associates, Inc., 1995. Distributed by Intelisoft Media, Inc., Lisle, IL. Pp. 199. Paper, 5-3/4″ x 8-3/4″. $16.95. ISBN 0-964-45570-6.

Who was Billie Valentine-Fonorow and why did she, at age 70, write a perceptive biography of Mark Twain that addressed the underappreciated aspect of the impact of women on Samuel Clemens’s life and writing?

The author sent Triumphs and Torments to the Forum in 1996, but the original reviewer never delivered, and the author died in 2008 apparently without ever having posted to the Forum herself. Some unusual coincidences have recently happened to make me think that Valentine-Fonorow’s ghost has been prodding me to realize that I had another copy of book (which has become rare) in storage for many years and that I had better complete what is herewith the most hideously overdue review that has appeared on the Forum.

The first edition of “Was It Heaven Or Hell?”: The Triumphs and Torments of Mark Twain was published in 1995, but the copyright page states “1990, 1994.” To properly review the book, we must stand in the time the author wrote it, which was probably before the appearance of reference works such as The Mark Twain Encyclopedia (1993), Mark Twain A to Z (1995), and before the Internet had (m)any authoritative sites. Judged from this perspective, Valentine-Fonorow’s biography is a substantial accomplishment that cannot supplant today’s biographies, but that provides a complementary point of view (of women) that was needed then and probably still needed.

The preface of Triumphs and Torments states that it is not intended to be a chronological account of Mark Twain’s life, but rather an examination of “the elysian highs and stygian lows” that provoked him to write the story, “Was It Heaven? Or Hell?” first published in Harper’s Monthly in 1902. Valentine-Fonorow’s biography is, in fact, a mostly chronological biography that has very little to do with that story which is not mentioned again until page 166, and then never discussed. This gives the impression that the book was mistitled and that Valentine-Fonorow did not articulate well a larger objective for her biography.

Triumphs and Torments is a concise overview of the major events of the life of Samuel Clemens. Valentine-Fonorow understands well the timeless appeal of Mark Twain, which she ascribes in part to his humour and his ability to look forward, noting that Mark Twain intentionally left many writings to be released only many years after his death. While Mark Twain’s best-known works are set in the period of his boyhood, Valentine-Fonorow observes astutely that “he never viewed the past sentimentally. When he looked to past eras in his works it was to portray the barbarism of those earlier times and to show that only outward appearances change over the years. . . His works remain new because . . . essentially, people haven’t changed” (11).

Valentine-Fonorow sees beyond many of the common misconceptions about Mark Twain. She explains that despite any impression that Mark Twain himself may have conveyed, Samuel Clemens was an industrious writer and a voracious reader, had a scientific mind, and loved technological innovation. Valentine-Fonorow is careful to explain the satiric intention of many of Mark Twain’s works to show that he was the opposite of a racist, and that he was forward-looking concerning the equality of humans. “Humanitarianism was the force behind Mark Twain’s works,” Valentine-Fonorow writes positively. “However, if his craftsmanship and humor had not been great they may have fallen on deaf ears” (55). Although Mark Twain is the best satiric successor of Jonathan Swift, Valentine-Fonorow reports that Clemens disliked Swift for his attitude toward women (61).

 Continue reading Taylor Roberts’s review at Mark Twain Forum…

Copyright © 2017 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.