Copyright © 2001 Mark Twain Forum
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University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Since its inclusion in Albert Bigelow Paine's Europe and Elsewhere in 1923, Mark Twain powerful, controversial, and vitriolic essay, "The United States of Lyncherdom," written on 21 August, 1901, but unpublished during Twain's lifetime, has drawn attention. Numerous scholars relied on Paine's text in subsequent collections, and the essay has increasingly been cited as critical in understanding Twain's mature views on race and on the subject of lynching. Unfortunately--and yet again, we discover--Paine took great liberties with Twain's text, publishing a corrupted edition that seriously distorted what Twain actually wrote.
It is, therefore, great news to Twain scholars that an authoritative critical edition of Twain's essay is now available. L. Terry Oggel's, "Speaking Out About Race:'The United States of Lyncherdom' Clemens Really Wrote," in Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies 25, ed. Jack Salzman (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000): 115-158, not only gives us the essay that Twain really wrote, but in a ranging Introduction provides an important historical and biographical context for the essay, its printing history and critical reception, a full textual analysis of the work, and a full analysis of Paine's alterations which illustrates the impact of Paine's distortions. As an Appendix, Oggel also includes for additional context a brief essay that Twain wrote entitled "Novel Entertainment," reprinted from "Letter from Mark Twain," Chicago Republican, May 31, 1868, which detailed Twain's reactions to a hanging which he witnessed while in Nevada. And finally, as an Afterword, Oggel includes an engaging essay by Louis Budd, "Mark Twain and the Sense of Racism," first presented in a slightly revised form as a paper at the American Literature Association in Baltimore, Maryland, in May, 1999.
The most important contribution, of course, is Oggel's copiously annotated text, which he prepared with the assistance of Robert Hirst, General Editor of the Mark Twain Project, and Victor Fischer, editor at the Mark Twain Project. Oggel painstakingly details the three prepublication states used to arrive at an authoritative edition. In doing so, he also compares the text with the Paine version, revealing what changes Paine made in Clemens's final text, "in order at last to assess the importance of the changes with full knowledge of their nature and extent."
Oggel outlines several changes of minor consequence introduced by Paine, such as changing Clemens's consistent capitalization of "State," which Paine de-emphasizes by using lower case and a reference to "States and nations" which Paine simply deletes. Other changes, however, are more important as, for example, when Paine's version uses the word "renegades" for the final word in the sentence that Clemens had written as "these hundred lynchers...are not real Missourians, they are bastards." Oggel then proceeds to analyze the several alterations that are of major consequence. He describes these in three categories: "Approximately, in the order that they occur in the essay, they are (1) three deletions of phrases, including the term 'Bro. J.J.', a facetious reference to Dr. Judson Smith, corresponding secretary of the American Board of foreign Missions, as well as references to many other public figures prominent in Clemens's thinking of this period; (2) two long deletions of two paragraphs each, one amounting to 174 words and the other to 158 words; and (3) most serious of all, at a crucial spot in Clemens's argument, a complicated alteration incorporating both the deletion of forty-two words, including a reference to 'the recent Keller' case in a Jersey court, and the addition of five new words (Paine's, not Clemens's) that reassign the subject of the sentence from white lynchers who are 'assassins' and should be hanged, to the Negro assailant, who becomes, therefore, the only one who should be hanged. Finally, the damage wrought by Paine's various changes, shortening the version for Europe and Elsewhere by 393 words, or nearly 13 percent from what Clemens finally authored, and intentionally distorting his intentions in certain instances, cannot be overstated.
It seems clear to me that Oggel's critical edition should supplant all previous
published versions of "The United States of Lyncherdom." It certainly deserves
a wider readership than publication in Prospects can anticipate. I, for one,
will confidently use Oggel's edition in my forthcoming collection, Mark Twain
on Race and Ethnicity. Debate will continue regarding why Twain chose finally
not to publish his essay during his life or why he never proceeded with the
elaborate plans that he outlined to write a major treatise on lynching, to be
called "History of Lynching in America," or "Rise and Progress of Lynching."
But Oggel's important edition, along with his careful scholarship and introductory
material, is a welcome addition that deserves attention.