The following review appeared 8 September 1997 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 1997 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Alan Gribben <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Auburn University at Montgomery
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Literary studies of major American authors have reached such a state of specialization that hardly anyone can predict what ingenious topic might be explored next, or foresee the rewarding results of this keenly focused research. When Philip W. Leon brings an intense spotlight to bear upon Mark Twain's relationship with the United States Military Academy, only the most knowledgeable scholars would recall that Twain occasionally lectured at the institution, and even they are unlikely to realize that within a fifteen-year span beginning in 1876 he mingled with the cadets at least ten times, watching their drills and parades, sitting in their classrooms, regaling them with his jokes and tales.
Twain's free performances obtained for him a close view of an elite corps in which fewer than half the entering cadets completed their studies and graduated. Within the ranks of the instructors and administrators he encountered men who had seen extensive action in the Civil War and in the campaigns against the Plains Indians. "All I know about military matters I got from the gentlemen at West Point, and to them belongs the credit," Mark Twain acknowledged in 1881. Out of these repeated visits came a cordial and reciprocal correspondence; Mark Twain and West Point collects and publishes dozens of letters that Twain exchanged with cadets and officers whom he came to know at the academy. Moreover, Leon helpfully reprints the lectures and readings with which Twain entertained the assembled cadets, and also reproduces the risque text of the sixty-copy private edition of 1601 that Lieutenant Charles Erskine Wood daringly published on the West Point printing press in 1882.
More revealingly, Leon reviews and analyzes the various uses Twain made of West Point as literary material in a wide range of his writings. For example, Judge Thatcher vows to send Tom Sawyer to West Point in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), and Hank Morgan establishes his own version of this celebrated military academy in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). In chapter 38 of the latter work, Twain introduces the anachronism of knights mounted on bicycles to rescue Hank Morgan and King Arthur; Leon reminds readers that the United States army was undertaking serious experiments with bicycles for infantrymen at the time Twain was writing his novel. A contemporary photograph of army troops bicycling near Fort Missoula, Montana (p. 93) makes Twain's imagined scene of wheeling knighthood seem less far-fetched. Even the grisly ending of A Connecticut Yankee probably owed a debt to battlefield spectacles recounted by Twain's friend Major General Nelson A. Miles and other veteran officers whom Twain encountered at the academy. The narrative of Twain's "Which Was the Dream?" (1967), written in 1897, disturbingly connects West Point with troubling domestic memories.
Not all aspects of West Point life earned Mark Twain's admiration. During a national controversy in 1900 and 1901 over the severity of several hazing cases at the school (one of which had allegedly caused the death of a cadet), Twain publicly denounced the upperclassmen involved as "bullies and cowards." Leon's book concludes with a look at Mark Twain's anti-imperialist views and his reluctant position on the American policy in the Philippines that put him at odds with academy graduates serving in the field.
Mark Twain and West Point documents a sanctioned series of carefree escapes that Mark Twain engineered from his genteel Hartford household in order to frolic with the "boys" at an all-male academy. Libraries collecting significant secondary sources about Twain and his era assuredly should acquire Leon's informative and suggestive study.