The following review appeared 19 April 1997 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1997.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Barbara Schmidt <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Tarleton State University
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Occasionally a book comes along that fills a long-standing void in Mark Twain studies and paves a smoother way for additional Twain research. Jim McWilliams' Mark Twain in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1874-1891 is such a book.
McWilliams began researching the microfilm of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper in 1987 with the intention that what he found would be destined for a Mark Twain Journal article. McWilliams' research is all the more impressive when viewed in light of the fact that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has no comprehensive index of stories. Thus, McWilliams' research involved examining every page of every paper that was published over an eighteen-year period.
Eighteen years of newspaper reports produced over 300 articles related to Missouri's favorite son, Mark Twain. In the interest of scholarship and a desire to produce a comprehensive picture of the way Mark Twain was portrayed in one of the leading papers of the Midwest, McWilliams declined to eliminate even the slightest references to Twain--the Journal project died and his collection has now been released in book form with full text of most of the articles.
McWilliams begins his volume with a brief history of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Each article that has been retrieved from microfilm is referenced by date, day of the week, and page number. McWilliams also provides well documented reference notes to many of the news items, giving background information related to the story and informing the reader when the story was inaccurate, completely false, or couldn't be verified. In addition, McWilliams provides the original source of the story when the Post-Dispatch reprinted it from another newspaper or journal.
Mark Twain in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1874-1891 is a varied potpourri of items written by Twain; interviews of Twain; speeches by Twain; anecdotes about Twain; and extracts from letters not since reprinted. Numerous gossip column items designed to amuse and entertain the newspaper reader--and sometimes designed to launch an insult at Twain--are also presented.
The collection begins with a 9 January 1874 article that quotes from a letter written by Charles W. Stoddard describing his activities in England with Twain, and ends on 6 December 1891 with a Twain essay sent from Bayreuth, Germany. Between 1874 and 1891 are noteworthy articles such as those relating to Twain's John Calvin bust, written by an anonymous correspondent; interviews with Horace Bixby, Twain's mentor during his river pilot days; Twain's 1881 letter to President Garfield, written in support of Frederick Douglass for a public office; a backstage interview with Twain during his lecture tour with George Washington Cable; an interview with Twain reminiscing about his days in Washington when he was secretary to Senator Stewart; an anecdote on the Hartford house plumbing; Twain's letter written in response to a pension fund mix-up; a humorous and salty letter written in response to new postal regulations; an account of a George Washington Cable April Fool's joke; an article on the obscene Huck Finn engraving; Twain's eulogy to a watch; and Twain's account of how he removed his own tattoo via the wart removal method. The Post-Dispatch also provided continuing coverage of Twain's efforts on behalf of an international copyright agreement. Some of the longer articles and essays that appeared in the Post-Dispatch will be familiar to Twain scholars from having appeared in Twain's Sketches, New and Old, A Tramp Abroad, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Scattered throughout the news reports are priceless Twain quotes relating to the Bible, mosquito netting, and newspapers: "I shall never start a newspaper so long as I can buy three for less than it costs to have my boots blackened" (209).
On a deeper level, however, Mark Twain in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1874-1891 provides an overview of the critical treatment a native son received at the hands of the St. Louis press. At times it is a disturbing picture, comparable to twentieth-century supermarket tabloid journalism. A preoccupation with Twain's financial affairs, his Hartford mansion, and his book sales runs rampant through the gossip columns of the Post-Dispatch. The newspaper kept its readers informed of such trivialities as Twain's case of the mumps; the Quarry Farm water troughs; the number of cigars Twain smoked a day; and his feud with George Washington Cable.
A surprising number of slurs and insults written by the Post-Dispatch staff were hurled at Twain through gossip columns with titles such as "Spice Box," "Post Pencilings," and "Men of Mark." Whether the "Men of Mark" column was so named because of the number of times Mark Twain's name appeared in it is a question McWilliams has left unanswered. Following Twain's embarrassing Whittier banquet appearance, the Post-Dispatch wrote, "Had Mark Twain lived at that early day he would have made the apostles appear ridiculous at the last supper" (80). In 1887 another anonymous columnist wrote, "Mark Twain talks of endowing a home for pumped-out humorists, and there are those who believe that Twain ought to be given a front room in it" (212). A more comprehensive and in-depth analysis of Twain's critical treatment at the hands of the Post-Dispatch is a topic McWilliams plans to address in a future essay.
McWilliams ends his research in 1891--the year Twain and his family departed for an extended stay in Europe. McWilliams explains, "He did not literally die until 1910, but it is not an exaggeration to say that creatively he had died in 1891" (4). Some Twain scholars may disagree.
Mark Twain in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1874-1891 should prove itself a useful tool in Twain research and it is hoped that it will inspire similar research to retrieve additional writings long-since forgotten.