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The following review appeared 30 March 2015 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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The obvious way to get to know Mark Twain is to pick up one of his books and start reading. But should it be one of his novels or one of his short stories? Perhaps one of his burlesque sketches, or maybe his poetry? How about an essay? But should it be on literature or politics? Can his lectures or his speeches be neglected, or his many interviews and letters? It will not be long before all of his autobiography will be in print, and then readers might know him better. A careful study of the biographical details of his life and those of his friends will surely yield some insights. Or could knowing Mark Twain come by merely by gazing at the hundreds of photographs taken during his lifetime, or reading all of the quotes and aphorisms attributed to him?
Knowing Mark Twain can take many pathways, and the entire body of scholarly research on him boils down to explorations of those pathways and the blazing of new trails. One of the newer trails that might lead to knowing Mark Twain is knowing his audience. Mark Twain himself was keenly aware of his audiences and knew how to "fetch" them from the stage or from the page, as well as keep them at a distance, making sure they only knew as much as he cared for them to know. Every biographer of Mark Twain, beginning with Albert Bigelow Paine, has commented on Mark Twain's audiences, and Hamlin Hill may have been one of the first scholars to actually focus on his audience when he published "Mark Twain: Audience and Artistry" in American Quarterly in 1963. Louis J. Budd may have been the first scholar to recognize that Mark Twain had more than one audience, and his two books, Our Mark Twain, the Making of His Public Personality (1983) and Mark Twain: the Contemporary Reviews (1994) were among the first book length texts to focus on his audiences--at least the book reviewers in the audience--but William Dean Howells My Mark Twain (1910) included an appendix of book reviews of his writings and also recorded other reactions to Mark Twain's writings and personality. More recently, Kent Rasmussen's Dear Mark Twain: Letters From His Readers (2013) documented what 200 of Mark Twain's readers wanted to say to the man himself.
What would we want to know about Mark Twain's audience and where would we look? It would seem reasonable to want to know some demographics--the audiences's ages, their sex, their races, their geographic distribution, their nationalities, their religions, their socioeconomic backgrounds, and what they had to say about Mark Twain. Where would we look? The archive of roughly 12,000 letters written to Mark Twain at the Mark Twain Project (MTP) contains more than 1,000 letters from readers, and that seems an obvious place to start. The few hundred salesman prospectuses for his various works that survive in many public and private collections certainly record at least another few thousand people who actually paid their hard-earned money for a copy of one his books to read themselves or give as a gift. Many of those buyers can easily be traced through online genealogical websites and some relevant details of their lives teased out from census records, newspaper archives, and other public documents. Many people who read his books, attended his lectures, or who were otherwise Mark Twain's audiences left behind memoirs, wrote letters to newspapers, and published comments in magazines, many of which are accessable through GoogleBooks. Newspaper archives are full of reviews of Mark Twain's books, lectures, speeches, as wells as gossip.
In Mark Twain's Audience, Robert McParland acknowledges previous scholarship and carefully defines who comprised Mark Twain's audience during his lifetime and after, both in the United States and abroad, and explores some of the source material mentioned above. He examines Mark Twain's early readers, looks at the marketing of his books by subscription, pays attention to his lecture audiences, looks at his reception among youthful readers, studies how his works were received in cultural institutions like schools, libraries, and churches, and takes a sampling of gender, race, and ethnicity among some readers before concluding with a look at Mark Twain's global audience and his evolving posthumous reception.
McParland offers thoughtful discussions about Mark Twain audiences beginning with his introductory chapter, and his comments on particular works comparing the reactions of contemporary and modern readers are insightful even if not always original (130). His examination of African-American readers is especially good, but brief (126-32), and he makes many other observations worth noting that suggest further study. He makes a good case that Mark Twain's western readers enjoyed nostalgia (143), and demonstrates that there was no criticism of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in black newspapers (125). He also provides an interesting example of how one reader's view of Mark Twain changed over time (113), and his statistics on the differences in how boys and girls viewed Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn is informative (77-101). He cites a letter from a Quaker who read Roughing It (84) and points out that illiteracy among Catholics may have hurt sales of Webster & Company's Life of the Pope, a book Mark Twain was certain would be bought by every Catholic.
But in the penultimate paragraph of his 228 page text, just before the endnotes and bibliography and index, McParland admits that Mark Twain "remains a somewhat elusive figure" and expresses the hope that his study "has provided a resource that other researchers may build upon" (201). Almost admitting defeat, he goes on to say that "one searches the geography for signposts of the audience and yes, there are trees but few paths have been carved out in the wilderness" and he expresses hopes for "future research on his readers." It would have been helpful if McParland had admitted these limitations at the beginning of his book instead of toward the end after the reader has begun to draw the same conclusions.
While the conception of this book is excellent, the execution
falls short of that conception. If, by the last page of his text, McParland
notices few paths have been carved out, it's only because he failed to carve
them when he had the chance. The most obvious example is his heavy reliance
on the letters published in Dear Mark Twain. By this reviewer's count,
he quotes from a total of at least 93 letters to Mark Twain, and 83 of those
quoted letters--several quoted in their entirety--come from the roughly 200
letters published in Dear Mark Twain. He correctly attributes 76 of
those letters to Dear Mark Twain, and cites three other letters from
MTP that are not in Dear Mark Twain, and includes seven letters from
other sources, but this seems an absurdly heavy reliance on Rasmussen's work.
He says he tracked down descendants of those letter-writers himself, but this
reviewer could not find a clear example of that. However, that kind of difficult
leg-work is everywhere evident and foot-noted in Dear Mark Twain for
the simple reason that not all of those letters to Mark Twain are in the public
domain, something that should give pause to anyone copying those letters without
permission or without doing some leg-work of their own.
If McParland relies too heavily on the 200 letters in Dear Mark Twain, what about the more than 800 other letters from readers at MTP? That would seem like a path begging to be "carved out in the wilderness." McParland cites only three of them. Although McParland praises the MTP and describes their research and their holdings, there is no evidence in this book that he ever did more than browse their website. If the "object of this study is to begin to investigate the responses of these readers to Twain's writings" (4) what better source could there be than those other 800 letters? This is a baffling oversight.
Other evidence upon which his conclusions draw seem likewise scant. Relying only on two prospectuses readily available at Steve Railton's excellent website (Mark Twain in His Times), McParland, tracks down some biographical details on some of the listed subscribers, but no other prospectuses seem to have been consulted (49). This seems all the more surprising given that a few pages earlier the statement is made that "it is difficult to find the actual individuals who bought Mark Twain's books" (44). OCLC (WorldCat) lists prospectuses for all of Mark Twain's subscription books, and anyone who has ever handled a Mark Twain first edition or reprint knows that his readers frequently inscribed their names and towns in their copies of his books. Many of these thousands of people whose names are scribbled in Mark Twain's books or listed in the prospectuses of his books can be found at ancestry.com or genealogybank.com.
It seems that McParland prefers much smaller samplings, and relies on data from a previous study in Missouri, some readers in a small town in Michigan, and a reading club in Brooklyn (132). We are told the titles of some of the works read by people in those places, and that they laughed, but not much more (139-141). We are also told of a young man who read an essay about "the Characters of Mark Twain" for a school program and that he came from a wealthy family, and we are then treated to the details of the wedding attire of the woman he later married (142), but what does that tell us about Mark Twain or his audience? This is hardly the scope one would expect in a book-length study of Mark Twain's audiences. Likewise, McParland cites some memoirs, diaries, journals, oral histories, and newspapers, and although these provide revealing information, they comprise only a fraction of the mass of materials that are readily available in online newspaper and book databases.
There are the usual typographical errors and factual glitches that creep into many books on Mark Twain, and a few deserve notice. The Innocents Abroad is cited as his first book; it was not (25). Mark Twain is said to have used a ballpoint pen (166); although patented in 1888 and a crude prototype was able to mark leather goods, ballpoint pens were not manufactured until decades after Mark Twain's death. The African-American staffs of the Clemens and Crane households are conflated (132), and this reviewer has never before heard the claim that George Washington Cable was a mulatto (70).
McParland's own conclusion about his work is accurate: he has
"provided a resource that other researchers may build upon" (201).
He defines who Mark Twain's readers are and suggests most if not all of the
places where these readers are to be found. But he doesn't seem to have looked
very hard for them himself, with the result that future researchers have a
lot of building left to do. In the meantime, readers of this book may not
know Mark Twain or his readers much better than they did before they read