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Bob Comeau <email@example.com>
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
I like this book!
I mean, I really do! It's got so much going for it. It's concise, thoughtfully laid out, intelligently planned, and it's in paperback and reasonably cheap, so no librarian should be able to refuse, even in these budget-conscious times, when you request its purchase at your college, university or municipal library. This book belongs in college and university libraries, so students can read it and so professors can read it and then put it on reserve and require students to read at least parts of it. Though its coverage of its subject is broad enough to preclude its entire use in any course but one focusing exclusively on Mark Twain (and I would certainly make it a required text in Mark Twain 101), the essays included represent enough of a variety of individual subject areas and viewpoints to make it useful reading for any student beginning to research a paper on any aspect of Mark Twain's career in any kind of American Literature, American Studies, Major American Authors, etc., course.
Notice that I said "beginning to research," for this is where The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain serves its greatest purpose. Just about anyone who has ever had the privilege of including a work or two by Twain in a college English course has been faced with the same query: "I like Mark Twain but I can't think of anything to write about. What should I write about?" The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain seems to exist to help answer this very question. Its essays create a context for student research, and aid in pointing undergraduate students in profitable directions.
Forrest Robinson's stated objective is to "provide responsible coverage of the subjects currently of most interest to students of Mark Twain" (xiv), and in this he has succeeded handsomely. The volume begins with a remarkable and fascinating essay by Louis J. Budd on the general interest and societal appraisal and myth-making surrounding Mark Twain, with a brief but seemingly inclusive catalog of the ways in which the Mark Twain image is both used and abused in American popular culture. Other highlights would have to include, but not be limited to, Myra Jehlen's discussion of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the notion of "classic" American literature, something which is still a reasonably controversial subject, at least according to Jane Smiley in the January 1996 Harper's magazine. The always astute and provocative Shelley Fisher Fishkin contributes "Mark Twain and Women," suggesting that the earlier views on Twain and women are outmoded and too simplistic, and need to be re-thought, finally wondering what kind of work could be done on the effect Twain may have had on the women authors who followed him into the twentieth century.
There are, of course, contributions to the debate on Twain and race, and David Lionel Smith and Eric Lott weigh in quite substantially, providing essays which are an excellent complement to Davis, Leonard and Tenney's collection, Satire Or Evasion?: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn (Duke University Press, 1992), a book that many students have used in beginning excellent research. Smith's essay begins where his essay in the Satire Or Evasion? anthology left off by asking exactly what it means to be a black critic of Mark Twain, and how this is perceived by the reading public, before he proceeds to survey the field in a fairly comprehensive introduction. I can see how students interested in this area would be well advised to consult The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain in addition to Satire Or Evasion?.
The contributors to The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain provided original essays specifically for this project, and those of us who love to teach Mark Twain, and our students, are the richer for it. I feel that this book is of most value to students, though I do not mean to diminish its usefulness to any of the community of Mark Twain fans and scholars. Robinson says, "Throughout it has been our goal to be lively and thought provoking, not merely comprehensive or somehow standard" (xiv). "Lively and thought provoking" he has certainly accomplished, though I think he errs modestly when disavowing the word "standard." People may one day apply this word when discussing this book as a model for its type.
The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain is one of a huge series of Companions published by the Cambridge University Press that are devoted to authors and composers. Of the ones I am familiar with, I would say that the series is generally good, with the volume devoted to Walt Whitman being another highlight.
Contents of The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain
List of Contributors
Mark Twain as an American Icon
LOUIS J. BUDD
The Innocent At Large: Mark Twain's Travel Writing
FORREST G. ROBINSON
Mark Twain and Women
SHELLEY FISHER FISHKIN
Mark Twain's Civil War: Humor's Reconstructive Writing
Banned in Concord: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and
Classic American Literature
Black Critics and Mark Twain
DAVID LIONEL SMITH
Mr. Clemens and Jim Crow: Twain, Race and Blackface
Speech Acts and Social Action: Mark Twain and the Politics of
How the Boss Played the Game: Twain's Critique of Imperialism
in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
JOHN CARLOS ROWE
Mark Twain's Travels in the Racial Occult: Following the
Equator and the Dream Tales
Mark Twain's Theology: The Gods of a Brevet Presbyterian