de Koster, Katie (ed.). Readings on The
Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
(Literary Companion to American Literature.)
San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999.
Pp. 173. Bibliography, index.
Paper, 5-1/4 x 8-1/2. $17.45. ISBN 1-56510-844-2.
Cloth. ISBN 1-56510-845-0.
Commissions from Amazon.com purchases are donated to the Mark Twain Project
The following review appeared 4 October 1999 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 1999 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Glen Johnson <JohnsonG@cua.edu>
The Catholic University of America
Here are two of three Mark Twain volumes in Greenhaven Press's "Literary Companion" series. (The volume on Huckleberry Finn is being reviewed separately [by Joseph L. Coulombe, appeared 5 October 1999].) The companions are basically collections of previously-published critical essays. Greenhaven Press has an angle, however: "Designed for young adults, this unique anthology series provides an engaging and comprehensive introduction to literary analysis and criticism." "Young adults" presumably refers to the publishing business's category covering pre-college teenagers. "The essays included . . . are chosen for their accessibility to a young adult audience and are expertly edited in consideration of both the reading and comprehension levels of this audience." That sounds like a recipe for dumbing-down, but in fact the only significant textual alterations are for length. Editing for vocabulary is limited to occasional interpolated definitions of "sobriquet," "Wanderjahr," "Gilded Age," and the like. (Those interested in the state of ethics in our cultural present might note that the editors feel a need to provide young adults with a definition of "conscience.")
Considerable care has gone into the contents and presentation of the volumes, a genuine effort to meet some admirable goals: "to spark readers' interest in leading American and world authors, to help them broaden their understanding of literature, and to encourage them to formulate their own analyses of the literary works." The apparatus of each volume includes a sensible brief introduction (the one for Tom Sawyer takes off from the question "whether Livy and Howells gave Twain good advice in urging him to market the novel as a book for children"), a chronology, primary and secondary bibliography, and (especially welcome) a topical index. Most significant is a substantial biography, factually accurate and straightforwardly presented. The biography in the Mark Twain volume is thirty pages; the one for Tom Sawyer has the same text but omits about ten pages dealing with Clemens's later years. The biography is divided by topical headings ("A Darker Side of Hannibal" [slavery], "Newspaper College," "Making His Fortune," "Halley's Comet").
The critical essays also have added topical headings, along with summary headnotes. An attractive innovation places within selections boxed excerpts from other sources. Some of these interpolations expand on the critical materials: Brander Matthews's tribute to Twain's use of American English is accented by a quotation from G. M. Trevelyan holding that "Mark Twain did more than any other man to make plain people in England understand plain people in America." Others provide contrast, as when the story of Clemens's near-duel with a journalistic rival in Nevada in 1864, presented as fact by Warren Hinckle and Fredric Hobbs, is simultaneously dismissed by John Lauber as a "tall tale, . . . and completely false."
The critical essays date from 1896 (Joseph Twitchell) to 1997 (Peter Messent). The familiar names are here from traditional Twain criticism: Brooks, De Voto, Eliot, Smith, Cox, Hill. Recent academic criticism, particularly what Frederick Crews dubs the "New Americanist" school, gets much less attention: short excerpts from Forrest Robinson's In Bad Faith and Susan Gillman's Dark Twins are about all. Even the section on "Huckleberry Finn and Censorship" mostly evades the present: it prints fourteen paragraph-length statements, of which only two (by Myra Jehlen and William Styron) are less than twenty years old. We can imagine various explanations for the traditionalist tilt. Newer publications are more expensive to reprint. Contemporary academic writing is theoretical and jargony. Perhaps Greenhaven's editors hoped to steer clear of the culture wars in contemporary education. Perhaps they found that the traditional criticism makes more sense.
For whatever reason, the race-gender matrix that has loomed so large in recent criticism is mostly absent here. The Mark Twain volume contains twenty-four essays; race is mentioned in the prefatory summaries of two, Langston Hughes's 1959 introduction to Pudd'nhead Wilson and Lance Morrow's 1995 essay on censorship of Huckleberry Finn. Probably the most notable omission among the critics is Shelley Fisher Fishkin, though Was Huck Black? is cited by Morrow. As for gender, of the thirty-nine essays in the two collections, only Susan Gillman's, on doubling, deals with the issue. Class, on the other hand--to which new Americanist critics pay lip service at best--gets a reasonable emphasis thanks to essays by Upton Sinclair, Maxwell Geismar, and Charles L. Sanford.
Coherence of focus seems to have been the editor's goal, rather than diversity of approach. This is most clear in the Tom Sawyer collection, where almost all the selections deal with the constellation of themes involving boyhood, childhood, innocence, and idyll. The general Mark Twain volume is strongly biographical, with an emphasis on the various forms of self-division that have been found in Twain. The Brooks-De Voto squabble is replayed (failed artist or triumphant vernacular innovator?), along with the Mark Twain/Mr. Clemens contrast (frontier ruffian vs. Hartford gentleman) and the apparent shift from young humorist to bitter aged pessimist. This makes for repetition, but it also allows the editors to set next to each other contrasting perspectives on the same theme. That approach works particularly well with Tom Sawyer, where we are offered a series of divergent takes on whether Twain's created world is charmed and idyllic or death-haunted and satirical.
I have left until last what might seem the most problematic aspect of Greenhaven's approach: the high degree of excerpting. In the Mark Twain volume, twenty-four essays occupy less than 150 pages; the average excerpt for Tom Sawyer is only marginally longer. Having read the volumes, however, I don't find length a problem. There are fewer examples and less extended analysis than full-length critical essays usually provide; but Greenhaven's redactions provide a clear enough sense of the originals. It may be embarrassing to discover that the point of most academic essays (and books) can be adequately conveyed in 4-8 pages. But there you are.
These are admirable collections for their announced audience. Secondary school classes, or individual students, will find critical understanding and stimulation here. There's use for the rest of us as well, in quick but sensible reviews of traditional issues and interpretations, particularly in the Tom Sawyer volume.