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The following review appeared 25 April 2008 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2008 Mark Twain Forum
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Over the years, I've read numerous texts analyzing Mark Twain and his writing. I've also added various biographical and reference works to my personal library so that I may connect the dots, as it were, between the man and his writings. One such resource is A Tom Sawyer Companion by John D. Evans which ties Clemens's boyhood in Hannibal to specifics scenes and characters in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Another is R. Kent Rasmussen's Mark Twain A to Z, an encyclopedic reference on Twain, his life, and his works. I value each of these texts and authors because both assist the novice and the experienced scholar to connect the man to his texts and to understand and analyze both. Kent Rasmussen has done it again; he has given us another invaluable tool to add to our personal libraries: Bloom's How to Write about Mark Twain.
What first interested me in writing the review for Rasmussen's book is the fact that I regularly teach an advanced composition class at San Diego State University that focuses on writing about children's literature. During the fifteen years of teaching this course, I've discovered that many, if not most, students really do not understand how to write about literature. Most students are accustomed to writing personal narrative or creative pieces and have difficulty "critically thinking" about literature and writing literary analysis. Also, to my surprise, I found out years ago that most students really do not know what critical thinking is. They imagine it is thinking "deep thoughts" or looking at something in depth, but the actual process eludes most of them. In essence, how to think critically about Mark Twain is what Rasmussen offers in this book: he guides the reader to think critically about Mark Twain and his major works and then to write well-constructed and astute essays about them.
Bloom's How to Write about Mark Twain is one of a series of books edited by Harold Bloom that offers guidelines "to inspire students to write fine essays on great writers and their works" (v). Bloom's series focuses on those major writers who are "must-knows" for all students of literature. In his introduction to this text, Bloom identifies Mark Twain as one of these writers, one of America's most influential writers, and goes so far to say, "Huck Finn takes the path that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza cut in their wanderings through a declining Spain, and Twain can be thought of as the American Cervantes" (viii). Consequently, Rasmussen's entry in this Bloom series offers the guidelines needed to write about our "authentic American" writer.
To accomplish its goal, How to Write about Mark Twain is organized structurally like a composition class. Rasmussen presents what I call a building-blocks approach to writing the critical essay in general and to writing the critical essay specifically about Mark Twain and many of his texts. When I teach advanced composition, I start with this back-to-basics approach, emphasizing the process of writing the essay and what components to include within such an essay. The first chapter in Rasmussen's book provides detailed instructions on how to accomplish this task. As I began reading, I found Rasmussen's approach mirroring my own approach to writing about literature and using many of the same writing strategies, exercises and steps of the critical thinking and writing process. He goes into great detail on such necessary steps to writing a good essay as outlining, body paragraphs, introductions and conclusions and using and documenting sources.
The remaining chapters provide a model for analyzing and writing about Twain and any of his texts. The second chapter offers an overview of the issues and approaches to take in writing about Mark Twain himself. In this and subsequent chapters, Rasmussen addresses topics to consider when writing about Twain and each chapter's particular text. While every chapter does not address all the same topics, each does address the most relevant subjects to consider, including "Reading to Write," "Topics and Strategies" (each including sample topics): "Theme," "Character," "History and Context," "Philosophy and Ideas," "Form and Genre," and "Language, Symbols, and Imagery." In each of the subsections, Rasmussen adds suggestions for particular writing topics. For example, in the chapter on Pudd'nhead Wilson, he presents an approach to writing about the "'One drop' theory of race" and whether Twain is advocating this theory that says "any person with a trace of African ancestry is a negro" (211). Rasmussen subsequently supplies not only potential ways to address this topic, but also potential reference sources that might prove useful. In this example, he offers Shelley Fisher Fishkin's text Was Huck Black? as a starting point. Rasmussen concludes each chapter with a section on how to write Compare and Contrast Essays and suggests possible topics of comparison. Finally, he closes each chapter with an up-to-date bibliography specific to the chapter focus.
As both a teacher and writer, I especially appreciate that Rasmussen offers both typical and innovative approaches to understanding Mark Twain and his texts. In essence, How to Write about Mark Twain can be viewed as strong case for the continued study of this great American writer, even after more than a century of literary criticism. One question that has plagued Twain and his writing since the publication of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Who is Twain's audience? In his chapter on Tom Sawyer Rasmussen hits on a crucial divide among literary scholars of Mark Twain. Is this text (or Huck's) just children's literature? Or as W. D. Howells described it, is "it the best boys' novel ever written"? (84). If it is the best "boys' novel," according to Rasmussen, the identity of the audience creates a dilemma that Twain subsequently faced with this book and his other boys' books that followed. As Rasmussen explains, the author himself questions in his introduction the "primary purpose . . . to entertain children; however, he also expresses his desire for adults to look at childhood from their perspective" (84). Along with addressing this problem of audience, Rasmussen also clarifies that Tom Sawyer and Twain's other children's texts are worthy of literary analysis on the same level as "adult" literature because, unlike the children's literature of his time, Twain offers more complex stories with more complex yet authentic characters. By looking at the philosophy and ideas behind Tom Sawyer or any other text, along with the form and genre, the student/writer can find "much greater depth than may at first appear" (83).
Besides addressing Twain's best-known boys' books (Tom and Huck's adventures) and those that are deemed representative of Mark Twain's works, Rasmussen also examines the texts that receive most criticism for not being typical Twain texts, for example The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. To this end, Rasmussen offers some simple guidelines on how to read a text so that readers and writers can gain the most, no matter how atypical the text may be. Besides these four novels, Rasmussen also discusses additional texts which fit into the typical and atypical Twain categories: Pudd'nhead Wilson, the "Jumping Frog" story, "The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg," "The War Prayer," Roughing It, and Life on the Mississippi.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Rasmussen's How to Write
about Mark Twain is the formula it offers. In "handbook" fashion,
the author repeatedly, but not redundantly, discusses the relevant topics
necessary to understand the writings of Mark Twain. This is a valuable tool
for teachers and student writers because it acts as both a writing handbook
and a resource for composition. However, this classification of Rasmussen's
book presents the same question of audience that many of Twain's texts do.
For whom is How to Write about Mark Twain intended? Is it designed
for students? If so, is it addressed to high school or college students? Is
it designed for teachers? If so, is it addressed to high school or college
teachers? The answer to these questions of audience can be answered in the
same way Twain answers his own question of audience in his first "boys'
book." Bloom's How to Write about Mark Twain is intended for all
of these audiences: the novice and the scholar; the student and the teacher.
Through his myriad topics and suggestions, Kent Rasmussen gives us all fresh
ways to approach our authentic American author, Mark Twain.