The following review appeared 23 March 2015 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Imagine my surprise when, while wasting time in a local Barnes & Noble outlet, I spotted a familiar face staring at me from a magazine rack, beckoning me, I assume, to risk a look. The portrait on the cover was familiar, an illustration by Michael Deas which previously adorned the cover of the July 14, 2008 issue of Time magazine. Michael Deas is a nationally-known illustrator who works out of his New Orleans studio and whose work includes six Time magazine covers and twenty-one stamps for the U.S. Postal Service, the latter including iconic portraits of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. The contents underscored my conclusion that this special issue, which includes two pieces previously published by Time magazine in 2008, is nonetheless a new and worthwhile addition to any Mark Twain-related library.
This special issue appears to be intended as a broad, general overview of Mark Twain, his life, his work, and his continuing influence and, while its attraction for the beginning serious student of Twain cannot be doubted, there is not a condescending note in its pages. Anyone who reads, studies or teaches Twain, at any level, would be well-advised to keep a copy handy for reference and entertainment purposes.
Twenty-two sections comprise this issue, beginning with an introduction written by Roy Blount Jr. which is a modified version of his essay that appeared in the 2008 Time issue. Blount provides a broad contextual history and a cogent, convincing invitation to anyone who asks, "What does he [Twain] have to do with the issues of our day?" Blount's introduction is accompanied by a timeline in which the major milestones of Twain's life are juxtaposed with significant contemporaneous events in U.S. and world history.
None of the discussions in each section are explored in any great depth, but any newcomer in the world of Twain studies, and even a few veterans, will be entertained by the wide variety of subjects that mimic the vast confines of this extraordinary life. Some of the topics are predictable and vital, e.g., discussions of Twain and race; his Hannibal upbringing; and selections from his store of one-liners. Two sections are devoted to Sam's first travels outside of Hannibal, beginning in 1853, and his subsequent adventures as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi. Sections with familiar topics also include Twain's apprenticeship in the American West and his initial successes as a writer and platform speaker. Others topics will be less familiar to the general reader, including discussions of the writers and humorists like Artemus Ward who influenced Twain; his home and family life in Hartford; and the years of self-imposed exile beginning in 1891.
Sections with a more contemporary focus include reviews, by Richard Lacayo, of the two volumes of Twain's Autobiography published by the University of California Press in conjunction with the Mark Twain Project since 2010. Lacayo, a writer and critic for Time, provides a well-informed overview of the contents of each volume and the history and method of Twain's unique approach to setting down his reminiscences and random observations. The concluding section, titled "Disciples and Fellow Travelers," is one of the more interesting pieces, tracing Twain's enduring influence to other prominent writers and entertainers. Profiles of Dorothy Parker, Kurt Vonnegut, Will Rogers, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Chris Rock, and Stephen Colbert, among others, leave no doubt regarding the vitality and persistence of Twain's influence, a cogent response to the question posed by Roy Blount Jr. in his introduction.
The number (113) and quality of the photographs and illustrations is such that they would justify the purchase of this modest volume absent any text. Many of the photos will be familiar to Twain scholars, including the first and last-known photo-portraits of Twain made during his lifetime, but viewing them in the pages of a single volume is an uncommon opportunity, adding an appealing contextual dimension not conveyed by unaccompanied text. The beautiful color photographs of the interior of the Clemens family Hartford house, for example, convey opulence as well as any chapters from The Gilded Age. Two photographic omissions are, however, worthy of mention. There are no photos of Sam Clemens's boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri, nor are there any photos of Quarry Farm, the resplendent home overlooking the Chemung Valley in Elmira, New York, where Twain and his family vacationed for many summers and the bulk of the writing for many of his major works, including Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was accomplished. The geographic depiction of Twain's travels in his five best-known travelogues, reprinted from the 2008 issue of Time, is useful for scholars and readers alike. Steamboat illustrations and photos, including one of the John J. Roe, on which Clemens served as a pilot, and a large-format photo of a stagecoach on the street in 1866 Virginia City, are bound to impress the general reader and reinforce the scholar's familiarity with the experiential underpinnings of Twain's work. No major attribution errors are noted by this reviewer in the captions, and a complete listing of the photo credits is provided on the last page.
In a wide-ranging volume like this, there are bound to be a few hiccups, but these are few and trivial, e.g., a typo (?) in a reference to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which Twain "described the novel in 1895, 19 (sic) years after it was published " In one photo caption, Twain is described as "in the last decade of his life, when his temperament turned bitter...(84)," a conclusion which has been cogently brought into question by the research of Michael Shelden in his 2010 book, Mark Twain: Man in White, The Grand Adventure of His Final Years. The Time caption, of course, is not an error, but a disputable and commonly-held opinion, a quibble in the context of this well-produced volume.
Time has done a more than creditable job in its choice of topics, research and production, with much of the credit due to the assistance of the usual suspects, the directors and staff of the Mark Twain Project in Berkeley, the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, and the Mark Twain House in Hartford. Kelly Knauer is listed as the "Editor/Writer" for this special issue and Tresa McBee is credited as its "Researcher." There are two "Special Thanks" sections in the credits, one including twenty-seven names of individuals employed by Time Home Entertainment, and the second, with specific mention of people familiar to Mark Twain scholars: Bob Hirst, Sharon Goetz, Vic Fischer, Mallory Howard, Steve Courtney and Henry Sweets.
Introductory volumes on the life and work of Mark Twain are hardly scarce commodities, and being distinctive in this particular universe is nothing less than an unlikely prospect, but Time, Inc. has succeeded in producing a Twain primer that leaves no doubt regarding his legacy and relevance. Like the 2001 Ken Burns film production of the Mark Twain documentary released on PBS in 2002, this Time special issue will appeal to a wide audience. The best recommendation I can make for this volume is for the Twainiac who reads these reviews and has friends who are mystified by the obsession with a dead "humorist." If such friends can browse the Time special issue and remain unimpressed with the life and work of its subject, my advice is to let them buy their own beer.
These special issues are usually available at most magazine
racks and book stores. Both the Mark Twain House in Hartford and the Boyhood
Home in Hannibal plan to make them available for purchase via their website.