Amazon sales commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project,
University of California, Berkeley, CA.
The following review appeared 26 April 2006 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2006 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
The Blackwell Companions to literature and culture aim to provide undergraduate and graduate students with new perspectives and insights as developed by leading scholars around the world. A quick scan of the thirty-eight previous Blackwell Companions listed in the front pages of the current Mark Twain edition indicates that Twain is the first American author to have a Blackwell volume devoted exclusively to his life and writings. A Companion to Mark Twain contains thirty-five essays from thirty-six contributors. (Mark Dawidziak and R. Kent Rasmussen have joined efforts to provide one essay titled "Mark Twain on the Screen.") The essays, approximately ten to twelve pages in length, range from biographical studies to literary criticisms and theoretical commentary. The biographical contributions are highly accurate and the critical and theoretical components are thought-provoking. Each essay provides the reader with an extensive bibliography for references and further reading.
A Companion to Mark Twain offers six broad subject areas with four to eight essays on each subject. The six main topic areas are "The Cultural Context," with subtopics related to concepts of nationality, human nature, race, gender, modernity, politics, and imperialism. "Mark Twain and Others" includes subtopics related to the Sagebrush bohemians, southern humorists, Charles Dickens, George Washington Cable, and William Dean Howells. "Mark Twain: Publishing and Performing," discusses theories of orality, the profession of writing, magazine publishing, stage performance, and depictions of Twain and his works on movie screens and television. "Mark Twain and Travel" contains four essays related to the Mississippi River, the American West, Continental Europe, and travel writing in general. "Mark Twain's Fiction" devotes essays to Twain's short fiction, the longer works of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Prince and the Pauper (as juvenile literature), Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, and Twain's writings in his later life. "Mark Twain's Humor" contains essays devoted to visual humor, humor after the Civil War (which is a close examination of an often overlooked book titled Mark Twain's Library of Humor and its contributors), amiable humor, and wit. A final seventh section titled "A Retrospective" written by Alan Gribben is an all-encompassing essay on "The State of Mark Twain Studies" which provides the historical overview of past Twain research and criticism as well as prospects for the future. It is sufficient to state that Twain's major works receive discussion throughout the seven separate subject areas. It is beyond the scope of this book review to provide an in-depth analysis of all thirty-five essays, but the following noteworthy examples--one from each section--provide a sampling of the contributions.
In an essay by Susan K. Harris for "The Cultural Context" section titled "Twain and America's Christian Mission Abroad" Harris builds upon the foundation of research by Jim Zwick related to Mark Twain's anti-imperialism stances. Harris argues that the United States's entry into a global economy via imperialist expansion profoundly affected Twain's understanding of the underlying agenda of American Christianity and the missionary movement. Harris concludes, "Rather than continuing the nineteenth-century conversation that first mapped 'Christian' onto 'American,' and then divided Christians into the good and the bad, the early twentieth-century conversation mapped 'American Christian' onto 'imperialist,' feeding Twain's cynicism about the 'damned human race' " (p. 50-51).
In the "Mark Twain and Others" section, Lawrence I. Berkove examines "Nevada Influences on Mark Twain" and discusses the art of the hoax as practiced by "Sagebrush authors." According to Berkove, "Having learned from the best, Twain eventually bettered his instructors. Every substantial work of fiction that he wrote for the rest of his life has hoaxes at its core--some of them extremely subtle and sophisticated and very serious. This was the principal Nevada legacy to his writing. It was one of two distinguishing constituents of his style" (p. 164). Berkove stresses the importance of recognizing a thematic structure disguised by hoax and irony which is at the heart of all Twain's major works.
"Mark Twain: Publishing and Performing" features an essay by Thomas D. Zlatic titled "'I don't know A from B': Mark Twain and Orality" Zlatic provides an easy-to-understand definition of orality which stresses that the term refers to "habits of the mind" that are developed from speech communication. Over the course of his lifetime, Twain was familiar with the rural oral tradition, reading aloud for entertainment, the development of national print technologies and mass marketing, and electronic communications of the telephone and telegraph. Zlatic examines a number of Twain's works with a focus on the theory of oral dynamics. According to Zlatic, "Two stories that deal with cultures in which the peasants live in worlds close to primary orality provide Twain's contradictory reflections on the oral mind. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, illiteracy is a primary impediment to human progress; in Joan of Arc it is a prerequisite for moral victory" (p. 216). Zlatic also discusses the appeal that his dictated oral autobiography held for Twain.
In an essay titled "Twain and the Mississippi" which is included in the "Mark Twain and Travel" section, Andrew Dix provides a theory of a Mississippi River death wish. Dix states, "While the topic of the Mississippi is indeed recurrent in Twain, it is thus by no means always comforting or familiar. Dix argues that Twain's Mississippi is evocative of American contradictions and traumas in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Dix associates the Mississippi River with a death instinct and examines Twain's texts which associate the river with death. Dix states, "consider how the protagonists in Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer, Detective, and Huckleberry Finn are all drawn in states of melancholy to the Mississippi because of the possibilities it offers of self-erasure (p. 302).
Hilton Obenzinger's contribution to "Mark Twain's Fiction" is an essay titled "Going to Tom's Hell in Huckleberry Finn." Obenzinger focuses on the "evasion" section of Twain's masterpiece and suggests that the character of Tom Sawyer in Huckleberry Finn" is an incarnation of 'the bad-boy deity,' a type of character who fascinated Twain throughout his career" (p. 402). Obenzinger traces Twain's fascination with this sort of character to the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas which depicts a mischievous young Jesus. Twain read the apocryphal gospel in 1867 and thereafter incorporated the bad boy character based on young Jesus into his writings. Obenzinger also draws a direct connection between the Jesus of the Infancy Gospel and Twain's character of No. 44 in The Mysterious Stranger manuscripts. According to Obenzinger, "The fact that this extraordinary, amoral character appears both early and later in Twain's career highlights the importance of the bad-boy diety: it provides a kind of frame or bracket for an insistent fascination with an excessive type of male character throughout much of his work, including Hank in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court along with the character of Tom in Huckleberry Finn" (p. 410).
One of the true highlights of this book is Louis J. Budd's essay on "Mark Twain's Visual Humor" which documents three of Twain's uses of visual humor. These are his own comic and cartoon drawings which appeared in some of his works and magazine articles; his mastery of the "deadpan" in his public performances; and finally, what Budd calls "a sleeper"--Twain's in-bed photographs and portraits. Budd notes "For 30 years I have been tracking appearances of the in-bed pose and could compete for longest-footnote-of-the-year" (p. 483). Budd examines the rational as well as psychic humor "embedded" in the in-bed photograph--taken at a time in history when only royalty received visitors while in bed. Budd also stresses the need for Twain studies to have a finding list of Twain's photographs, portraits and cartoons--a plea that all scholars can gladly endorse and support.
Alan Gribben's wrap-up "Retrospective" essay on "The State of Mark Twain Studies" draws on almost every conceivable major resource or study devoted to Mark Twain since his death. A library that contains every title and article Gribben references would be a well-stocked Mark Twain research facility. From the earliest studies, to reference books, to literary journals, Elmira conferences and internet discussion groups--Gribben manages to put all of them into perspective. "All in all, then, the future for Mark Twain studies seems to justify a highly optimistic forecast as a potentially golden age of textual, historical, and critical commentary. Scholarly critics who conduct research in the second century after Samuel L. Clemens's demise can build upon enormous advantages" (p. 552). Gribben's only note of caution regards the tendency of some critics who push to expurgate Twain's works of their racial epithets and crude cultural characterizations in exchange for political correctness.
In any scholarly volume such as Blackwell's A Companion to Mark Twain, a measure of its usefulness depends on the adequacy and accuracy of its indexing. One minor quibble with this edition is with the indexing. Reference notes, some of which contain critical references and additional facts, are not indexed. Thus, such names as Ralph Ashcroft and Isabel Lyon (both on p. 51) and Samuel Moffett and Pamela Moffett (both on p. 336) which appear in reference notes do not appear in the index. The oversight in indexing reference notes can also be applied to titles of some of Twain's own works such as "The Death Disk" (p. 272) and "As Concerns Interpreting the Deity" (p. 483). Both works are discussed in reference notes but do not appear in the index.
The omission from the index of proper names, titles, and even political parties spills over into the bodies of the essays themselves. Some examples: James S. Leonard's essay "Mark Twain and Politics" mentions Anti-Doughnut, Freemasons, Whigs, Know-Nothings, and Mugwumps--none of which are indexed. Shelley Fisher Fishkin's "Mark Twain and the Stage" mentions Twain playing a leading role on stage in James R. Planche's _Loan of a Lover_ (p. 262). Neither Planche nor his play are in the index. Probably the most noticeable arbitrary indexing or lack thereof can be found in R. Kent Rasmussen and Mark Dawidziak's "Mark Twain on the Screen." In this essay, a number of actors, actresses and titles are discussed. A few examples of those who made it into the index include Bing Crosby, Errol Flynn, Jason Robards, Jackie Coogan, Will Rogers and Boris Karloff. Those overlooked (and sometimes in the same sentence as those who were included) are Jack and Mary Pickford, Ken Burns, Walt Disney, and Eddie Albert. Also failing to find its way into the index is Twain's anti-vivisection story "A Dog's Tale" and its movie version titled Science (both mentioned on p. 280). By the time the indexer or indexers reach Alan Gribben's masterpiece finale, they have given up and offer the reader this explanation--"Note: Alan Gribben's final essay in this volume consists of a bibliographical review, and the many names of authors, essays, books it contains are not indexed individually here. The chapter should be consulted in its own right as a listing of Twain criticism over the years" (p. 555).
In spite of the space-saving economical index, lack of photos (readers could have benefited by seeing at least one of the "in-bed" photos discussed by Budd) and other visual enhancements, this volume is a solid contribution to Twain scholarship and a credit to its editors and essayists.
In summation, it is interesting to note a common theme surfacing in so many of the essays--the difficulty in capturing and defining the true Mark Twain and his works. From Lawrence Berkove: "He transcends all local identities and labels, for he made of himself something unique and rare" (p. 168-169). From Peter Messent: "One of Twain's great strengths as a writer is his constant resistance to easy categorization, his ability to stretch our literary definition to their limits...While his work certainly shares a number of key realist attributes, it also escapes the boundaries of the genre at almost every turn" (p. 204). From R. Kent Rasmussen and Mark Dawidziak: "While the cornucopia of Clemens cinema is not short of quantity, it is sadly lacking in quality...not a single one in the bunch is generally considered a masterpiece" (p. 277). From Holger Kersten: "His depiction of Europe and his attitude toward it cannot be easily summarized and categorized" (p. 334). From Henry Wonham: "Twain's short fiction is unprecedented and incomparable. He refused to play by the accepted rules..."(p. 358). From Bruce Michelson: "Mark Twain's wit will continue to evade our capacity to name its delights and complications...an outbreak of wit in a Mark Twain narrative can burn like an acid that no laboratory crucible can contain..." (p. 521, 528). From Alan Gribben: "while the nuances and entirety of Mark Twain's life and mind are unlikely ever to be completely inventoried (which is one sign of his genius), this in itself guarantees that Twain studies will be endless" (p. 554).
A complete list of the contributors and their professional affiliations is available at the publisher's website at:
It is unlikely a dozen or so additional "companions"
with several hundred scholarly contributors would unlock a fraction of the
riddles of Twain's genius. However, this current volume offers much food for
thought and will serve to enhance future studies and research.