The following review appeared 29 August 1995 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1995. This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Grayson County College
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
With the appearance of G.K. Hall's editions of Tom Tenney's Mark
Twain: A Reference Guide
(1977) and Alan Gribben's Mark Twain's Library: A Reconstruction
(1980), a new dimension opened in Twain scholarship, and for many years
were the indispensable starting points for researchers looking for both
secondary sources on the life and works of Mark Twain. The publication of
The Mark Twain Encyclopedia
(Garland, 1993) added a third volume crucial for both specialists and
basic information about Twain. Now, Kent Rasmussen's Mark Twain A to
is clearly as important as these contributions, and is clearly a volume no
or public library can be without. It is certainly a resource all Twainians
find as invaluable as the three earlier reference books.
What may first surprise many is the name of the author, Kent Rasmussen not being a known light in Mark Twain circles. Previous to his Twain work, Rasmussen earned his Ph.D specializing in African history at UCLA, where he then spent six years as associate editor of the Marcus Garvey papers. He edited the 1930 novel Black Empire by African-American author George Schuyler, and co-edited the Dictionary of African Historical Biography, Zimbabwe (1977). He wrote Mzilikazi of the Ndebele, the biography Migrant Kingdom: Mzilikazi's Ndebele in South Africa (1978), and the 1979 Historical Dictionary of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. Currently, he is an editor of reference works at Salem Press in Pasadena, California.
Rasmussen's interest in Twain began in earnest in 1990 when he began reading Twain while studying Mormon history. He read Roughing It in search of the quote where Twain referred to The Book of Mormon as "chloroform in print." Interested in the humorous collections of The Left Handed Dictionary and The Unafraid Dictionary, he began compiling a book of Twain quotes in a computer database library, planning to write a Twainian answer to Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary. (This project may yet appear courtesy of Facts On File.) In 1991, he sought out trade publishers for the project, but Facts On File was then looking for someone to do a Twain A to Z in the model of their Shakespeare A to Z edition. Uneasy about not being a Twain scholar, Rasmussen took on the opportunity, envisioning a comprehensive collection eschewing reviews of secondary sources, keeping to the hard facts the nuts and bolts rather than interpretative theory. As stated in the introduction, the emphasis of A to Z is on Who, What, and Where, not How or Why, although Rasmussen does not shy away from offering new perspectives on important figures and literary works. However, his work primarily succeeds in reflecting his desire to show the difference between what Twain said as opposed to what others can say about him.
The appearance of The Mark Twain Encyclopedia gave Rasmussen some second thoughts until he noticed clear distinctions between his work and the Encyclopedia, a compilation of a variety of scholars that bears a detailed comparison with A to Z. The Encyclopedia, Rasmussen observed, is more theoretical than his project, addressed more to those "in the know." His purpose was to reach the general reader, not being concerned with broad issues and interpretive criticism but rather providing information in a way not to put off specialists. He attempted not to be influenced by the Encyclopedia, and felt that this decision liberated him from having to cover everything. He could concentrate on hard facts, dates, and detailed descriptions of Mark Twain's works.
For example, his discussion of Huckleberry Finn is 40,000 words long, and his entries on A Connecticut Yankee, Tom Sawyer, and Twain's other lengthy works are equally exhaustive. His analysis of many works provides details not readily available elsewhere, as in his treatment of Following the Equator and More Tramps Abroad, which collates the differing chapters of the American and British editions. By using computer searches, Rasmussen assembled references to characters such as Hank Morgan directly from the text, providing a useful summary of characters' actions, and these actions are given chapter and verse citations for quick reference. Another distinction between the Encyclopedia and A to Z is that Rasmussen gives word counts for Twain's books and stories, complete birth and death dates and places, and detailed biographies not restricted by length limits (such as those that were imposed on Encyclopedia contributors). Some biographies, such as on Thomas Edison, are more detailed in A to Z, and, for short stories and essays, Rasmussen frequently identifies the publications in which readers can currently find these pieces. He includes synopses of Twain films and musicals, listings of actors who have played Twain characters, histories of Mississippi riverboats, detailed accounts of Twain's travels and his relationships with places and people, and the most detailed chronology to date. Some articles, such as "Autobiography," provide information either not readily available or not otherwise assembled in one place. And all of this information is enlivened by the numerous contemporary photographs, film stills, illustrations by Dan Beard and others, as well as photographs taken after Twain's death of his friends and haunts.
Still, the greatest strength of A to Z is its extensive analysis of literary works and fictional characters, some succinct, some appropriately detailed to provide parallels to Twain's sources or other writings. One source Rasmussen consulted while writing his synopses was Robert Gale's two-volume Plots and Characters in the Works of Mark Twain (1973), which he found difficult to use. The information was lumped together, and Rasmussen could find no sense of relationships between actual books and Gale's synopses. Rasmussen chose an easy-to-use structure that will benefit both the general reader and the well-trained scholar by first providing a general precis and historical overview of the work, then a chapter-by-chapter breakdown with minimal interpretation. This format makes it easy to find specific references, such as locating just where "Jim Blaine's Story of the Old Ram" is in Roughing It. Further, each item is thoroughly cross-referenced with entries on numerous short items and entries on characters that add information for those seeking more focused discussion. Rasmussen wanted to create a "very clear statement of what is in Mark Twain's books," and no other source comes close to achieving this goal.
Beyond compiling facts and data, Rasmussen often contributes new points of view and fresh insights. One example of his original contributions is his commentary on the Civil War, describing the impact of the war on Twain and his associates. Another interesting item is Rasmussen's noting Twain's own use of offenses Twain objected to when used by James Fenimore Cooper.
Noticeable weaknesses in A to Z are the brief commentaries on posthumous publications, although his discussions of The Great Dark and the various incarnations of The Mysterious Stranger are particularly helpful. He is also uneven in his treatment of the authors who influenced Twain, omitting names such as Thomas Carlyle. Some information is repeated in related articles, as in the two entries on the book and character of Huckleberry Finn. Rasmussen occasionally accepts critical theory as fact. For example, he re-states William L. Andrews' claim that Henry Clay Dean was the inspiration for the "War Prayer," although other possibilities notably Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" have been proposed for this honor. In his discussion of Huckleberry Finn as character, he seems to accept Shelley Fisher Fishkin's "Sociable Jimmy" theory as fact, although he is more circumspect in citing the theory in his entry on "Sociable Jimmy."
Readers interested in short bibliographies on specific subjects will need to consult The Mark Twain Encyclopedia, which also contains topics not covered by Rasmussen, such as "animals," "auctions," "The Bible," "Calvinism," "Bibliographies," or the odd "Orality" essay. On the other hand, A to Z contains topics not in the Encyclopedia, such as "Burglary," "Caves," and "Ferguson," as well as the many short items that would not have been appropriate to the Encyclopedia 's format.
Mark Twain A to Z thus neither replaces nor supersedes The Mark Twain Encyclopedia, but is rather a volume that should be consulted as well, in some instances first for basic information and textual analysis. In these cases, the Encyclopedia would then open doors into critical views, interpretation, and summations of current schools of thought on Twain. Rasmussen is far more accurate regarding times, places, and other details, as he had opportunity to double-check Encyclopedia items, and he frequently provides dates when the other work simply claims "not available." Collections carrying one volume necessarily need the other for both verification and additional information. Together, these two works demonstrate the world of Mark Twain is too complex for any one source, and that the subject is far from exhausted even with these mutually-indispensable contributions. For example, neither volume has an entry on Mark Twain's relationship with Walt Whitman. As Rasmussen himself notes, he could have included much more if not for the space limitations of book publishing.
Rasmussen sought and gained support from the Twain community during the evolution of his book, and acknowledges, in particular, Mark Twain Journal editor Tom Tenney, who very strongly supported the volume, read the manuscript, made many corrections and suggestions, and wrote the foreword. Rasmussen also credits Kevin Bochynski ("We must have made 1000 messages between us") for both helping compile data and sharing his computer savvy.
But it is obvious that the computer was Rasmussen's primary collaborator, A to Z demonstrating the importance of computer technology in modern scholarship for more than dry data bites. For example, using the computer to examine the primary texts, Rasmussen found unusual trends and topics, but many (some 330 entries) had to be deleted for space. Admittedly, many of these items would not directly benefit researchers, but could be fun for a future concordance with such topics as "stake, burning at," "tarring and feathering," balloon trips," and "surfing." We can hope that ultimately Rasmussen's entire computer base, complete with deleted entries, will become available on-line.
As it stands, Mark Twain A to Z is the most important Twain publication event of the year, and, at its reasonable price, should quickly become a standard source in both public and private libraries. Rasmussen's work on Twain has also resulted in his forthcoming Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys and Girls (Contemporary Books), and it is clear Twain scholarship now has a new authority from whom we can expect further important efforts.