The following review appeared 24 September 1999 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Larry Howe <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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Twain biographers and critics have often noted that he left more unpublished than published writing. A good deal of both has been carefully examined and reprinted, as we might expect for a writer of Twain's reputation. Considering all the attention that his work has attracted, it's rather surprising that a considerable portion of his published writing has remained largely unavailable to modern readers until now. In Mark Twain at the Buffalo Express, Joseph B. McCullough and Janice McIntire-Strasburg have collected a fascinating array of articles and sketches that Twain wrote during his year-and-a-half tenure as editor and co-owner of the Buffalo Express from August 1869 to January 1871. The volume yields much to interest both scholars and general readers.
To be sure, several notable scholars--Louis Budd, Jeffrey Steinbrink, Bruce McElderry, Martin Fried, and Bruce Michelson, for example--have examined and commented on Twain's Buffalo years. But this new collection suggests that much more remains for discussion. The editors have derived their text "from a microfilm of the original printing of the Buffalo Express, since printed copies of the newspaper no longer exist" (xi), except in the case of sketches published simultaneously in the magazine, Galaxy, judging the latter a more reliable copy-text. They describe their editing practices as conservative and will make available a complete list of emendations for anyone who contacts them. The editors have arranged the material chronologically in all instances except Twain's "Salutatory," which appeared four days after the first attributed piece. The pieces are divided into five groups according to biographical circumstances, but the relevance of these groupings is difficult to detect in the pieces themselves. The volume includes notes that identify references to people and places not generally known, and supply relevant information from Mark Twain's letters. A modest index consists mostly of names of people mentioned in the texts of Twain's articles and sketches or in the notes.
The most notable feature of the editors' apparatus is the introduction, which provides an interesting account of how Buffalo became the place where Twain would settle into business and become a family man upon marrying Olivia Langdon. Twain had pursued an interest in several other newspapers before buying into the Express, his first choice having been the Cleveland Herald. When his negotiations with the Herald stalled, he made offers to purchase a share of the Hartford Courant, and later the Springfield (MA) Republican. During this same period, he declined an invitation from David Ross Locke (Petroleum V. Nasby) to join him at the Toledo Blade. In the end, it was Jervis Langdon, his future father-in-law, who found him the post with the Express and loaned Twain half of the $25,000 buy-in price for his share in the newspaper. Langdon's generosity would later include the purchase of a very comfortable three-story house as a gift to his daughter and her new husband.
In addition to placing Twain's output as editor of the Express in the context of his new family life, the introduction relates this journalistic venture to his other publishing activities. For example, the sketches that also appeared in the Galaxy afforded him a higher literary profile. And in very Twainian fashion, he wasn't at the Express much more than ten weeks before setting out on a twelve-week lecture tour that took him through five states. The introduction also offers some even-handed interpretation of general trends in the pieces that follow as well as at least one reference to unpublished pieces, not included, that complement some of the sketches.
As informative as this introduction is, the most valuable materials in this volume are the sketches and articles. Not all are new discoveries; some Twain published himself in Sketches New and Old (1875) and in other compilations. Still, their appearance here is instructive; sketches like "The Capitoline Venus" or "An Awful--Terrible Medieval Romance" take on a different cast when we view them among the daily output of a professional journalist. Notably, the sketches and articles, taken as a whole, give evidence both of where he had come from and where he was going. His affinity for tall tales, hoaxes, and barbed squibs honed during his days as a California and Nevada journalist persisted even after he had resettled in the genteel East.
Certainly much of his fascination with the West continued in a series of letters that he wrote jointly with D. R. Ford, a traveling scientist. In fact, the correspondence is nearly all Twain's because Ford generated far fewer letters than originally promised. Twain had anticipated writing perhaps two to every one of the scientist's letters, but the editor's share of the correspondence grew, expanding his reminiscences of the far West, in order to fill the vacuum left by his traveling correspondent's failure to comply with the contract. The original plan was an extension of what he had achieved in the Alta California letters written during his voyage aboard the Quaker City. And the development of those letters into the travel narrative Innocents Abroad became the model for turning the Express letters into Roughing It.
The Express columns also provide evidence of his admiration of his father-in-law and patron, Jervis Langdon. No doubt, Twain's gratitude influenced the flattering columns he wrote about Langdon's financial interests. And surely, having a son-in-law in the newspaper business offered distinct public relations benefits for an industrialist like Langdon. These benefits were forthcoming almost immediately. Within four days of joining the Express, Twain wrote a column, with ostensible impartiality, in which he endorsed the good-heartedness of coal barons, among whom he named Langdon, and exonerated them from blame in the recent escalation of coal prices.
In at least one case, though, Twain's willingness to write on behalf of Langdon's interests may give us pause. For example, the unsigned critical piece from 9 March 1870 on the coal miners' union shows very little sympathy for the very real dangers that coal miners faced, and their exploitation by mine owners. Given that Twain knew something about mining, having spent some of his western years prospecting for precious metals, one might imagine that he would have been critical of the working conditions that coal miners endured. And in light of the independence that marked his own mining enterprises, and his expectation of gaining the full profit for any ore he extracted, we might also expect that the labor struggle would have piqued his sympathy. Granted, the Molly Maguires were a controversial group of activists to whom were attributed some very brutal events, but Twain's fondness for the mine owners here sounds a very different chord from his account in Life on the Mississippi of how the Pilots' Association outmaneuvered the steamboat owners' attempts to curtail pilots' wages. When we consider that his wife was heir to a coal mine owner, his critique of the coal miners' union smacks of special pleading. Perhaps just as significantly, though, we can read in this moment of insensitivity to the plight of labor at least one side of the mixed logic of A Connecticut Yankee and Mysterious Stranger, No. 44, as well as Clemens' own ambiguous relation to the labor of the printer's trade and his disastrous investment--both capital and emotional--in the Paige typesetter.
Conversely, we see in another unsigned piece entitled "Only A Nigger," from 26 August 1869, two weeks after taking his post, his emerging concern for the social injustice of Southern race relations. Although the title and sophistication of this piece is likely to inspire as much misinterpretation as has the use of the same charged term in Huckleberry Finn, the performance is a specimen of the kind of critical irony that distinguishes his best work.
What stands out most strongly in this collection, though, is not the range of subject matter in his journalism, but rather his repeated focus on the craft of writing. That is, his topic in many of these articles and sketches is very often writing itself. Readers will probably be familiar with the frequently re-printed "Journalism in Tennessee." But the degree to which the fascination generating that burlesque pervades nearly every piece is striking.
For example, he returns repeatedly to a hot piece of gossip of the day--Harriet Beecher Stowe's revelation of Lord Byron's incestuous affair with his sister. On the one hand, this salacious item is a tidbit that exploits popular interest, much like celebrity gossip of today. But on the other hand, Twain's treatment of it highlights the rhetorical considerations by examining the authority of the claim, the appropriateness of its dissemination, and the problem that arises when a literary artist is exposed for questionable, if not outright objectionable, personal behavior. In numerous instances, Twain takes as his topic the act of writing, either that of journalists or of readers who correspond with the Express because of what they've read there. Perhaps most often, he addresses his own literary acts. In a number of cases, he lampoons his inability to write on a subject with any authority, as in "How I Edited an Agricultural Paper."
In another signal instance, he takes a form of reading as his topic when he describes the scenery of a Boston production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, acknowledging that he is far from adept in theatrical criticism. Nor does he want to be because professional judgment eliminates esthetic pleasure:
I suppose if I were a doctor I would see consumption where ignorant people only saw and admired a blush on a handsome face; and I might see a death warrant in what another man took for a beautiful complexion; and I suppose that in cases where the ignorant were charmed with what seemed a romantic languour [sic], I would say, "Blue mass is what she wants--the young woman's liver is out of order." I do not wish to be a theatrical critic, or a doctor. For when I see such a thing as this "Midsummer Night's Dream," I wish to "gush;" and when I see female beauty I wish to "gush" again and continue to "gush." (96)This modest disqualification of his critical sensibilities foreshadows the account he delivered six years later in "Old Times on the Mississippi" explaining how he lost his romantic attachment to the river by having mastered reading of it as a pilot:
No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheek mean to a doctor but a "break" that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn't he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade? (Life on the Mississippi [Oxford Mark Twain, 120-21])His misgivings about the distortion of a professional's perspective notwithstanding, in many of the Express sketches and increasingly throughout his career, he demonstrates how much he is consumed with a literary professional's concern with language and its influence over all other aspects of social and personal life.
Indeed, the degree to which the act and effects of writing dominate his attention at this Buffalo stage of his career suggests the evolution of his identity from journalist to what he would call "littery man." In a letter to Orion early in March 1871, just as he was about to terminate his journalistic career, he expressed his frustration with newspaper writing as a creative outlet: "Haven't I risked cheapening myself sufficiently by a year's periodical dancing before the public?" (xliii). The rush of daily deadlines, to which he was less and less inclined to respond, and the pressure of filling column inches became more and more onerous. He longed for the prestige and the opportunity that serious authorship seemed to hold out.
Still, the Buffalo years were clearly very important in this professional transition. The Express sketches show that the more alert Twain became to the power and problems of linguistic representation, the more profoundly he became a man of letters, skilled in the use of language and yet astute to both the dangerous distortions and inadequacies of language.