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The following review appeared 16 March 2015 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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The cover artwork of Mark Twain's Mississippi River immediately attracts the eye: John Stobart's "Hannibal, A View from Mark Twain's Boyhood Home in 1841," a riverfront scene that inspired young Samuel Clemens and still captures imaginations today.
Just inside the book, on the copyright page, what catches the attention of a Mark Twain Forum reader is the fact that R. Kent Rasmussen is listed, in small typeface, as the Photo Editor. Also in the fine print is the URL for Voyageur Press. A visit to the website reveals it is a publisher focusing on works devoted to an "appreciation and preservation of American heritage...[including] regional topics." Schilling's book is an ideal fit.
The Contents section of this book lists an Introduction, followed by six chapters, then a Bibliography and an Index, and concluding with the customary "About the Author" blurb.
The book's first chapter, "The Early History of the River and the Dawn of Steamboating," gives an overview of the explorations by de Soto, Marquette, Joliet, La Salle, and possibly by an earlier Alonso Alvarez de Pineda. It touches upon the fact that Henry Schoolcraft, "led by an Anishinabe guide named Ozawindib," identified Lake Itasca as the Mississippi's headwaters, that source later confirmed by Jacob V. Brower (p. 16). The book also notes the common perception of "the river's human history almost solely in terms of its relationship with European settlers" while enumerating the Native American tribes the "white European settlers encountered and eventually displaced--the Sioux and the Illini...the Chickasaw...the Quapaw, Natchez, Choctaw, and Tunica--many of whom ran afoul of de Soto, who was credited with the river's 'discovery'" (p. 21). The mind-bending Army Corps of Engineers map, on p. 19, of "the twisting braid of channels [that] perfectly illustrates Twain's description of the river's behavior," is not to be missed. In addition to rare maps, also throughout the book are color reproductions of lithographs by Henry Lewis and oil paintings by artists such as George F. Fuller, William Henry Powell, and George Caleb Bingham.
Chapter 2 focuses on "Mark Twain's Early Life and Times" and features an array of antique, colored postcards depicting Hannibal, from the collection of R. Kent Rasmussen. The reviewer particularly appreciated the photographs captured by the camera lens of Rasmussen himself. The images lend a personal touch to the book and demonstrate to the reader that some aspects of those old times on the Mississippi can still be encountered today. An insider "bonus" from Rasmussen will be found on p. 45: two cave-tour images taken during the 2011 "Mark Twain's Hannibal: The Clemens Conference." Those in Twaindom will spot some familiar faces in that tour group.
Chapter 3, "Mark Twain's Steamboating Years," is illustrated with reproductions of numerous color lithographs and paintings, including works from Currier & Ives, illustrations from Life on the Mississippi, and more postcards from the Rasmussen collection. Also featured is an 1859 lithograph by A. Janicke & Co. (p. 77), described as a "Bird's eye view of Saint Louis, Missouri," depicting several steamboats, including the Edward J. Gay, which Samuel Clemens piloted in 1859. One wishes the significance of the Edward J. Gay had been noted in the narrative. As it stands, it appears to be the book's only visual representation of a steamer associated with Clemens's piloting career.
Chapter 4 addresses Mark Twain's tour of the Mississippi in 1882 and his writing of Life on the Mississippi. This section is illustrated with reproductions of historical paintings, illustrations from Life on the Mississippi, and even a sample of Rasmussen's artistic talent for color tinting rare black-and-white photographs (p. 104).
Chapter 5 discusses the Mississippi as depicted in Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Pudd'nhead Wilson. According to Schilling:
In these three books, the Mississippi River is as essential as any character: it serves as a playground for children, a highway to freedom for one man, and the road to a living hell for others. ... All three use the river to drive their narrative, but the waterway in question is profoundly different in the novels as compared to the (mostly) nonfiction narrative [of Life on the Mississippi] (p. 127).
This chapter also features illustrations from first editions, photographs of rare postcards, stamps, movie stills, and a rare book-cover of an early edition of Tom Sawyer from the Rasmussen collection.
Chapter 6, "Twain's Legacy and the River Since His Time," brings back the Army Corps of Engineers, along with the Mississippi River Commission, the National Park Service, and photos of bridges, gates, levees, locks, dams. The "Twain's Legacy" component of the chapter? Among other heartening statements is this one, per the Mark Twain Project's Benjamin Griffin, that "the Autobiography of Mark Twain is [the] most popular book the University of California Press, with a history of more than a hundred years, has ever published" (p. 165).
Among the book's shortcomings is the evidence of inadequate copyediting throughout and the resulting stylistic inconsistencies. Also, the lack of footnotes or endnotes makes it often impossible for the reader to sort-out where the author's own voice stops and where those of his paraphrased sources start.
A more diligent proofreading effort would have caught a number of errors. William Dean Howells is termed "the doyenne of East Coast literary journals" (p. 11). The gender-bending error may have been Schilling's attempt at paraphrasing the familiar appellation of Howells as the "Dean of American Letters." Even when excerpts have presumably been pasted-in directly from electronic versions of Mark Twain's writings, errors have crept in. For instance, Mark Twain's "vague riband of trees," in The Gilded Age, is quoted as "vague ribald of trees" (p. 37).
A significant factual error is that Schilling perpetuates a previous, debatable scholarship claim that for a time in 1857, Clemens "had hopes of opening up a cocaine trade," even though the adjoining direct-quotation from Clemens plainly and correctly states he simply "had a longing to open up a trade in coca with all the world" (p. 65). Schilling then describes Mark Twain's entrepreneurial plans: "From [New Orleans], he would board a ship that would take him to South America and become the king of the cocaine trade in the United States."
Schilling's source is likely two works by Ron Powers that are listed in the Bibliography. Powers wrote, "The idea of Samuel Clemens turning Keokuk, Iowa, into the mid-19th-century cocaine capital of America has its irresistible nutty appeal, but it was not to be" (Powers, Mark Twain: A Life, p. 72). Powers also asserted, "The 'product' that had Sam so intrigued, of course, was cocaine; once again he seemed astrally connected to the predilections of the century to come" (Powers, Dangerous Water, p. 241).
The editors of the Mark Twain Project, in Mark Twain's Letters, Volume 1, p. 68, n.7, provide the most thorough explanation, and they point to the book Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon, Made under Direction of the Navy Department (1853-54), in two volumes, by William Lewis Herndon and Lardner Gibbon, as being Clemens's source of inspiration. In a 1910 essay, "The Turning Point of My Life," Clemens recalled that the book "told an astonishing tale about coca, a vegetable product of miraculous powers; asserting that it was so nourishing and so strength-giving that the native of the mountains of the Madeira region would tramp up-hill and down all day on a pinch of powdered coca and require no other sustenance." As a result, Clemens "was fired with a longing to ascend the Amazon. Also with a longing to open up a trade in coca with all the world" (MTL-1, p. 68). Clemens's early fascination with the possibilities of coca is not unlike his later fascination with, and investment in, the food supplement Plasmon.
German chemist Albert Niemann did not isolate and purify coca's stimulating ingredient, and dub it "cocaine," until 1860; and any derivative medicinal products did not begin to reach the market until the early to mid-1860s. Prior to that, a product termed "cocaine" during the decade of the 1850s was one marketed by Joseph Burnett: a hair-growth product made from cocoa-nut oil. To imply Mark Twain's 1850s coca fancy was related to a refined drug trade is both incorrect and historically impossible. Unfortunately, what began as a whimsical and entertaining description by Ron Powers has continued to find its way into Mark Twain biography as historical fact.
Relatively little is said about Peter Schilling, Jr., on the back jacket-flap or in his biographical paragraph. This appears to be his first venture into Mark Twain biography. With more diligent editorial oversight, his book could have been much better. Overall, Schilling's text is aimed toward the casual reader, and that individual will likely be fully satisfied. Those readers with more extensive knowledge of Mark Twain biography, however, will wish he had taken the opportunity to provide more insights that could have easily been included. For example, John Marshall Clemens's legal study, law practice, or service as a justice of the peace of Hannibal is never mentioned. The general reader is thus left with the impression that Mark Twain's father was simply a failed dry-goods merchant, unless they should happen to pay close attention to Rasmussen's photo of the Justice of the Peace office on p. 38.
Mark Twain's Mississippi River is still effective as a portrait of the river's history: It made this reviewer miss living near the Miss'. I lived for about two years in Hannibal, near the Mark Twain Boyhood Home on Hill Street, and several blocks farther up that hill. I used to love lying in bed in the dark, with the windows open, on warm nights in late summer/early fall, and hearing, over the sound of the crickets in the yard, the distant thrum of the barges moving upriver.
Young Sam Clemens, lying in bed at night, with the windows open, in the home depicted by artist Stobart on lower Hill Street, would have heard the 1840s equivalent, but from a much closer vantage point. The fact that Schilling is a resident of Minneapolis may well signify that he, too, has been drawn by the Mississippi's beguiling call. The river always works its magic.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: M. L. Christmas, M.S.M., is a freelance
writer/editor. This is her thirteenth book review for the Mark Twain Forum.
Her very first review for the Forum, of R. Kent Rasmussen's Mark Twain's
Book for Bad Boys and Girls, was posted 20 years ago this year.