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The following review appeared 16 January 2008 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Mark Twain's Civil War is a fine, readable collection of writings on the Civil War by and about Mark Twain. Surprisingly, David Rachels begins his collection by telling the story of the U. S. Congressional debate regarding new postage stamps in 1940. Odd as it seems, this is a particularly apt anecdote with which to begin, because it was at this time that a number of mistaken and amusing impressions about Twain's war experiences were aired to the general public. The kicker came when Congressman Joseph Shannon opined that Twain's war service proved that he was "not of the same kidney as real Missourians" (p. 2).
This minor controversy emerged from a debate over the best place to issue the first day stamps bearing the image of Mark Twain: should it be in Hannibal, or Hartford? (Such weighty matters, then as now, are evidently important enough to require the time of tax-paid legislators and to take up valuable space in the Congressional Record, which surely would have delighted, or irritated, the man under discussion.) But a remarkable aspect of this opening episode of the volume is to highlight how Mark Twain's participation (or non-participation) in the War of Secession immediately broaches matters of pride, masculinity, national memory, and the tricky lines separating fiction from fact all at the same time.
Thus does Rachel's interesting introduction focus on two important themes that emerge in his analysis of Mark Twain's war record and the various writings in which they are expressed. First is his consideration of the obvious confusions that turn up from account to account, and indeed overall the sense of confusion that constitutes a major theme in most of these different tales. Rachels does a worthwhile job of showing how confusing service in Missouri really was during these heated times. Nowadays, it is becoming more common for critics to refrain from calling Twain a "Confederate," even though he occasionally used that moniker for himself. Indeed, when I undertook my own lengthy study of the scholarly work on Twain's Civil War writings, I was struck over and over by the sheer number of (often famous) critics who stated unapologetically that Twain was, in fact, a Confederate soldier. However, as several scholars have recently shown (most notably Terrell Dempsey in his excellent historical account, Searching for Jim), Twain was never a Confederate. Rachels does admit as much ("he was technically never a member of the Confederate Army" [p. 7]), but he simultaneously shows how confusing the situation must have been. I would even venture to say that his comments succeed in complicating this issue somewhat, and in emphasizing these difficult distinctions, so that I come away from the introduction slightly less certain of my own understanding about Twain's situation. Despite his important qualifications, Rachels grounds Twain's wartime movements within the sphere of the Confederacy, and some of Rachel's comments are worth questioning, such as when he claims that Twain "fought in support of slavery," or that it was clear to him that he had "answered the call of the Confederacy" (pp. 12, 6). The header of the section on Roughing It begins, "After quitting the confederate cause, Sam Clemens traveled west ..." (p. 21).
We might quibble with these matters, I suspect, but it is also necessary to state, at the very least, that opinions do vary on these matters. In fact Rachels shows admirably that such confusions were relevant to Twain's personal experience of enlisting, and that they are solidly written into several of the accounts, notably his very first public speech on the war, delivered in 1877, when he states that the competing loyalties sent ambiguous signals: "Well, you see, this mixed us. We couldn't really tell which side we were on" (p. 5). This comment is slightly amended in the most famous narrative he produced, the "Private History of a Campaign that Failed" (1885), where Twain says, "This mixed us considerably, and we could not make out just what service we were embarked in" (7). These young recruits were obviously mixed up as to their proper loyalties, and besides Missouri, this must have been a common emotion faced by enlisted soldiers throughout the border states--and quite possibly, affecting many other southerners as well.
The second important idea that Rachels develops is when he utilizes Tim O'Brien's distinction between what he calls "happening truth" and "story truth," a paradigm O'Brien first put forth in his Vietnam novel, The Things They Carried. Rachels broaches the important question of the "truthfulness" of Twain's accounts of his war was experience. Fifty years ago, John Gerber produced a paper, "Mark Twain's Private Campaign," that outlined the various manifestations of this tale; Gerber counted eight, including Absalom Grimes's account in his book published over 65 years after the war's inception. Among other things, the many years between the publication of various accounts, and the fact that several people produced these differing versions, allow readers today to be rather uncertain about what actually occurred. Most famously, did Twain witness, and perhaps even have a hand in, the death of a soldier, as narrated near the end of the "Private History"? Probably not, is the consistent response of the biographers and historians. However, Rachels's implementation of O'Brien's model allows us to envision a somewhat different response to that tricky question. Yes, in terms of happening truth, it probably did not really happen. But the story truth contained in the "Private History" is much more enduring because of that single death. Whether or not readers of Rachels's book would agree, at least his invocation of story truth brings a fresh perspective to this chestnut of Twain biography.
Indeed, the value of the "story truth" in these tales takes on new life, when they are read with O'Brien's paradigm in mind. It is worthwhile to have finally in one volume the many versions of Twain's war record presented here. The book comprises two main sections, besides the introductory essay. The first section, called "Nonfiction," includes Twain's first known remarks about his war experience in 1877; the "Private History" of 1885; Twain's remarks made in 1887 at a veteran's banquet in Baltimore; his 1901 speech in New York (notable for its praise of Abraham Lincoln); and some interesting excerpts from the autobiographical dictations of January, 1907. There are one or two other pieces that might have been included here, such as Twain's plea for the Lincoln memorial in 1907, which would have been a nice complement to the 1901 speech. This section also contains the account by Absalom Grimes, composed in 1926, and the sections of Albert Paine's biography that cover the war period. It also takes in a few non-fictional excerpts from Roughing It and Life on the Mississippi, though a few of the very fine sections of Life on the Mississippi that deal with war issues are not included here.
The second large section is titled "Fiction," a strong collection of the stories in which Twain dramatizes events during the war years: "An Exchange of Prisoners" (1863), "Lucretia Smith's Soldier" (1864), "The Facts in the Case of the Great Beef Contract" (1870), "A True Story" (1874), and "A Curious Experience" (1881). These tales still entertain, such as the ending of "Lucretia Smith's Soldier," which reveals that the soldier Lucretia was pining for was not her lover at all. An excerpt from The Gilded Age rounds out the section, and the book ends with the "Battle Hymn of the Republic (Brought Down to Date)," a parody of the most famous song of the war years that remained unpublished during Twain's lifetime.
The book is handsome, well produced, and well illustrated. One might question the inclusion of a piece such as the "Private History," or for that matter even certain speeches, into a section called "Nonfiction." Indeed, we might even quibble with the desirability of separating the writings out as either fictional or nonfictional, given the content of the introduction and the emphasis on the blurring of lines between these two categories. More positively, many of the selections, such as the "Private History," "A True Story," "The Facts in the Case of the Great Beef Contract," and the excerpts from the novels, all present the original illustrations, an additional boon. Although it does not include very much scholarly apparatus (no index and little historical support for unknown names, places, events, and so on), the volume is a nice addition to the Twain bookshelf, and perfect for reading in an easy chair, with its roomy pages and comfortable font and style. More should be written about Mark Twain and the Civil War--the central event in American history--and this volume is a timely contribution to that enterprise.
Harold K. Bush, Jr.
Saint Louis University