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The following review appeared 26 December 2006 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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In Printer's Devil: Mark Twain and the American Publishing Revolution Bruce Michelson moves beyond an examination of Samuel Clemens as a primal force in humor as well as beyond the work of humor more generally. Michelson's earlier works were Mark Twain on the Loose: A Comic Writer and the American Self (1995) and Literary Wit (2000). In Printer's Devil he focuses on Clemens's experience within the maelstrom of nineteenth century publishing, and especially the impact of technological innovation on both the process and product of book production. Early in his consideration of Clemens's immersion in nineteenth century print culture, Michelson offers a broad summary statement:
The innovations that reconstructed American publishing after 1840, changes that only increased in scope and fury during the end of the nineteenth century, altered nearly everything that a "book" was and could be--not only its physical construction, demographic reach, and economic value but also its potential as a cultural artifact and even its epistemology. Every decade of Clemens's life from 1850 through 1900 brought radical disruptions in that reality, and in every one of those decades he re-created himself as an author to respond to that new world (19).
For too long we have looked at Clemens's alter ego Mark Twain almost exclusively as a construction of and reaction to literary stresses, personal bouts of creativity, and professional anxiety. We have focused on the individual traits of the writer and the persona and presented and analyzed those traits tied to the printed word or (in some cases) the broader cultural and historical moment. Clemens's position in and reaction to print history and specifically print technologies, however, are more complex than we have so far understood (or even thought to admit). Michelson's bracing look at Clemens and Mark Twain and the way each was shaped by vertiginous changes in the publishing industry offers new insight into Samuel Clemens and the symbiotic relationship between the printer's devil who became one of America's more influential authors and the technology that entranced, bewitched, and ultimately ruined and then resurrected him.
Technological innovation radically transformed the publishing industry through the nineteenth century. Michelson focuses on five major innovations that appeared between 1840 and the Civil War. The first of these is the development of stereotype and electrotype. Electrotype was important because it allowed safe shipping of plates to distant presses. Book publishing became more dispersed and books were more readily available nationally. The technology also had genuine implications for the wide circulation of copies of art works. Michelson states, "Beyond the production of high-quality relics of set type and engravings, electroplating processes played havoc with the Western decorative arts and rituals of status display by multiplying and deepening the confusion on the streets about authenticity and intrinsic value" (38). Michelson also discusses the illustrations in several of Clemens's books and explains how readily available illustrations and art reproduction jumbled distinctions of social class and the concomitant evolution of taste for the authentic. For example, consider the art on display in Clemens's travel books or the various samples of art work on display in the Grangerford home in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Several innovations affected the speed of production and the cost of materials. Powered type-revolving and automated bed-and-platen presses allowed for exponential increases in the speed and, therefore, the quantity of books printed. Mechanized manufacturing lowered paper costs. Added to the increase in efficiency was a marked improvement in distribution with the expansion of the railroad and telegraph networks. This extension of the distribution network for literary products and basic kinds of social and cultural information made it possible for larger publishing companies to extend their reach into the west. Instantaneous communication of information often made small town newspapers obsolete. Many, like Orion Clemens's various newspapers, were driven out of business because of the ready availability of regional and national publications.
Technical advances in electroplating and cost-reductions in printing illustrations led to a surge in multi-media production. Books offered readers both textual and visual representations. This innovation held special importance for Clemens because it affected his definition of himself as a literary worker and made the work of book creation much more complex and compelling as a creative act. In Michelson's words:
As a massive dissemination of printed images in periodicals and books transformed the American experience of reading, the new imperative for visual experience transformed Mark Twain's thinking about the books that he intended to write, the subjects he wrote about, his rhetorical style, and the tastes and values of the audience he was writing to. . . When _The Innocents Abroad_ established Mark Twain as an author of picture-laden books, he began to play a central role in designing books that followed, hiring his illustrators, vetting their pictures, doing images himself--and collaborating, now and then, in the piracy of other people's work (44).
Michelson provides an extensive discussion of Clemens's engagement in the American publishing industry, ranging from his early years as a printer's devil and apprentice; to his successful years as an author in the stable of the American Publishing Company and as a publisher himself with his creation of the Charles L. Webster & Company; to his final years when he was forced to relinquish control of his texts to the marketing and production whims of Harper and Brothers. Throughout, Michelson frames his discussion within a clear statement of purpose to review:
. . . how the life of Sam Clemens, and the career and public identity of Mark Twain, took shape under the pressure of this revolution . . . to observe how these technological transformations manifest themselves in Mark Twain's texts--not only in their embellishment but also in how they are written and structured as prose--and how this print revolution is engaged as a subject in these texts. . .[and to consider] the metaphoric presence of the Mark Twain legacy, and its special importance now, in the midst of another media revolution (19-20).
These purposes form the spine of the argument that flows through five chapters and an afterword. In each of the chapters, Michelson spotlights several of Clemens's major works and demonstrates how the technology of publishing tied directly to Clemens's thinking about the creation of literary art, both as a literary process and as a product shaped by the available technology. This symbiotic link becomes especially clear as Michelson examines Innocents Abroad, A Tramp Abroad, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. There are also substantial discussions of the Mysterious Stranger manuscripts, Extracts from Adam's Diary, Eve's Diary, and "King Leopold's Soliloquy."
Michelson provides a variety of careful, focused examinations of the relation of illustration to text and the increasingly sophisticated weaving of illustrations into the text. He also discusses Clemens's relationship with various illustrators, especially E. W. Kemble, and of the changing aesthetic and pre-modern sensibilities that drove the illustrations of Clemens's later works, including Adam's and Eve's diaries. The advent of the Kodak box camera becomes vital and offers genuine challenges to the relationship between prose and picture when the photos of abuse in King Leopold's Congo drag readers' attention away from Clemens's literary soliloquy to confront readers with the reality of torture. Michelson's discussion of the conflict between written and visual representation is especially good here, as is his comment on the sophisticated manipulation of some of the photographic evidence.
Perhaps most compelling is Michelson's chapter on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The chapter forces us to confront the implications of Huck's supposed authorship and to ask not only who is telling the story (Huck? Mark Twain? Sam Clemens?) but also how readers can best juggle the mix of time frames and the understandings or definitions of authorship that plague the novel. Michelson begins his discussion: "Huck's comments about that previous book and about the reliability of the man who wrote it complicate the problem of who is speaking now, and where and when, and what passes for 'truth' in Tom Sawyer, or in this new novel, or memoir, or what it is that begins here" (119). The issues of authority and voice are paramount and demonstrate the volatile nature of the narrative line. The issues here revolve not only around Huck's voice but around the act of authorship and, ultimately, the combination of text and illustration, all of which leads readers to experience the collaborative nature of the novel. The mix of time and place and voice and image upsets easy interpretation and makes the novel new and subversive: "In several dimensions, this novel is both an artifact of a new information age and a meditation on what it meant to be an author amid the expansion of American publishing from the time of Huck's boyhood on to the summer of 1883, when Mark Twain apparently recovered his interest in the sequel, took up the manuscript again, and completed it" (134). Ultimately, the novel aims at two audiences, which deeply complicates the notion of a singular tale: "Mark Twain is writing for a vast market; Huck himself, as a boy making a book, can harbor no such intentions or dreams. This means that as readers we have two books for the price of one, a naive personal history written or spoken by a boy in his teens, fresh from a perilous experience on the Mississippi River and telling it all essentially for his neighbors, and a performance by the most celebrated humorist of the Gilded Age, crafted as a mass-market corporate enterprise" (138).
In the end, this dual project offers a complicated picture of the relationship between literacy of a peculiar and local sort to the expansion of a broader cultural awareness, flawed as it is because of the lack of control over the intersection of individual bits of knowledge and the general dissemination of those bits by a publishing industry concerned only with getting pages and images out to the masses. This is exemplified by Huck's imperfect but certain knowledge of history and the duke and the king's ability to use a shallow understanding of the world to manipulate a small town audience. Michelson makes clear that the world of Huck Finn has been and continues to be influenced by the broad distribution of culture, a culture that is a shallow mix of image and fact. In short, Huckleberry Finn is about the spread of a shallow literacy. And in the end, Huck's narrative, as a creative act, can be imagined as a complex act of refusal and subversion. According to Michelson:
Mark Twain's impersonation of Huck is an act of subversion as well. Working together, what do they subvert? The etiquette and the ostensible reliability of the omniscient narrative voice, to be sure, but also the constrictive civilities of an industrialized American literary culture, orthodoxies of structure, form, plot, dictated by a publishing and marketing system that was acquiring the pathologies of an industry. They resist the disappearance of the author into the accumulation of his own printed words, the compounding perils of modern literary success (163).
This is a very different conversation than the one we are most used to hearing about the difficulties and transgressions of the novel. It is refreshing. And it helps us see the role of the novel as a shaper of a broad aesthetic discussion covering the warp and woof of nineteenth century American literacy. And twenty-first century literacy as well.
Roughly three-quarters of the way through his book, Michelson offers this summary:
Mark Twain's outbreaks of micromanagement, his reveries of long-range success, and his harassment of managers, hired artists, engineers, and anyone else who had professional dealings with him can be assembled into one long tale of personal unhappiness, with enough character flaws in evidence to suit a Eugene O'Neill. But that same body of evidence can be read differently, and with stronger relevance to the present. Mark Twain knew publishing: he knew printing; he knew what it took to be a first-magnitude American author. With energy and prodigious experience, he tried to dominate and was overwhelmed--and what figured most in bringing him down, I think, was not some mythological Wheel of Fortune or tragic flaw, but an onward rush of innovation so strong and treacherous that a man who had known movable type and presses and writing since childhood could not keep up with it all or stay out of its way (184).
Samuel Clemens is a representative figure, but not merely in
the way that we have come to be taught. True, he is involved in and helps
to shape the social and moral and political discussions of his time and of
ours. But here we have a Clemens who is deep in the center of a revolution
that pulls readers out of the nineteenth century toward a more complex understanding
of the role that print technology--and now the role of information dissemination
in the whole--plays in how we see the world either as individuals or as a
social group. Clemens's books and his artistic understanding evolve and are
made more complex and more resonant because of his own understanding of the
technology of print and its effects on readers moving into the modern era.
In all, Clemens's role as artist is much more complex than one that is defined
only by a writer's work in prose, and the breadth and depth of his creative
involvement can be appreciated best as we come to see his strides and his
successes and failures in multi-media publication.