The following review appeared 27 February 1996 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1996. This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Charles L. Crow <email@example.com>
Bowling Green State University
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
The fourth volume of this superb series of Mark Twain's Letters
is the thickest thus far, reflecting the growing social and professional
of Samuel Clemens's life in his middle thirties.
The two-year period represented by this volume has a painful dramatic unity, beginning and ending with Clemens on the lecture circuit, writing to Olivia Langdon (first as his fiancee, then as his wife). The early letters are filled with anticipation of the marriage of Sam and Livy; other letters take us through the fairy-tale surprise of Jervis Langdon's gift to the couple of a handsomely-equipped home in Buffalo, and a partial ownership in the Buffalo Express. The reader who knows the outline of Clemens's life will experience these happy letters with dread, however, and perhaps a guilty sense of voyeurism, knowing of events about to befall the young family.
The tragedy unfolds in Clemens's letters: his father-in-law, Jervis Langdon who represented the father Clemens had long desired dies of stomach cancer, after exhausting weeks of bedside vigil by Sam and Livy. A friend of Livy comes to visit, falls ill of typhoid, and dies in the Clemens home. Livy collapses from the strain of these events, nearly loses her first child, and finally gives birth to a sickly son. The Clemenses flee Buffalo, their early happiness there having become an agony after "eight months' sickness & death" (347). Sam is driven by his consequent lowered productivity back onto the lecture circuit, after earlier promises to Livy to remain at home. And, of course, more misfortune will pursue the couple in the year following the close of this volume, with the death of their young son Langdon.
This two-year period, in fact, provides a kind of overture to the decades to come, which will repeat, on a larger scale, the pattern of domestic happiness followed by illness, flight, bereavement, and guilt. Late in his life, Clemens again would exhibit the complicated relationship to his craft he first shows here, finding it both a torment (in his need to maintain his comic mask during personal misfortune), and a therapeutic escape.
In the short run, however, these letters document the resiliency of Sam and Livy, and the beginning of patterns of life that would hold through most of the 70s and 80s. In place of the abandoned Buffalo home, a house in the Hartford suburb of Nook Farm is rented, and plans begin for the home in which (as it would turn out) their daughters would be raised. Quarry Farm, the home of Susan and Theodore Crane above Elmira, becomes a place of refuge, as it would be for the remainder of Clemens's years in the United States. In spite of delays, fatigue, and interruption, the composition of Roughing It is pressed on to conclusion. Reminiscences of Hannibal in a letter to Will Bowen point the way toward the most potent material of his career.
During these two years Clemens was refining his related crafts as writer and lecturer, and his Mark Twain persona. This volume will not resolve the much-debated question of Livy's role in shaping Mark Twain, but it does provide much information about his working habits, and about the network of family, friends, and professional allies who were in support of him.
Thus the two lecture tours represented here show Clemens still struggling to earn his later mastery. Letters to Livy, his agent James Redpath, and others attest not only to physical hardship uncomfortable hotels and fatiguing trains but his difficulty with writing the lectures themselves. Though famous even then as one of the best of America's platform performers, Clemens endured indifferent audiences and bad reviews, and rewrote while on the road, chipping and carving his lectures toward success. Similarly, while Roughing It grinds toward conclusion, behind schedule, we find Clemens urgently writing to Orion and to western friends for material. Other projects as would be the case throughout his career are abandoned; Clemens persuades his publisher, Elisha Bliss, Jr., to fund an agent who is sent to South Africa to research a never- written book on diamond mining.
The most complicated professional relationship Clemens had at this time was with his publisher Bliss, as is amply documented here. To understand the nuances, the reader should consult Jeffrey Steinbrink's Getting to Be Mark Twain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); but much of the fencing, mixed affection and exasperation on both sides, and something of Bliss's skilled management of Clemens, is apparent in the letters. A remarkable event of this relationship is Bliss's hiring of Orion as an assistant in the American Book Company as a favor to Sam and as a way for Bliss to enforce his claim to Sam's loyalty. The volume also provides considerable insight into the endlessly fascinating relationship of Sam and Orion, that living parody of his younger brother's most quixotic character traits.
This volume, then, offers rich material for the serious scholar of Mark Twain as well as much of interest to the general Mark Twain fan. There are over 300 letters, about half published here for the first time. Production is of the high quality we expect of a Mark Twain Papers volume. The editors provide the necessary explanatory notes for each letter, without submerging the letters under their weight. The serious apparatus is in the "Textual Commentaries" in the back of the book, which provides full information on the provenance of each letter, condition of the manuscript (if it exists), textual variants, and publishing history; and we see here the immense effort of scholarship behind this volume (roughly equivalent, I suspect, to building a cathedral). The reader may also browse in five useful appendices: "Genealogies of the Clemens and Langdon Families," "Enclosures with the Letters," "Advertising Circular [for his 1871-72 lectures]," "Book Contracts," "Photographs and Manuscript Facsimiles." In this last section, I was amused by the reproduction of a letter Sam wrote on nine irregularly torn tiny scraps of paper to his mother, with whom he always shared a waggish sense of humor.
I do have one reservation about the apparatus, however. The editors index only the letters themselves persons addressed, and references in the text not the scholarship used in the notes. Works of scholarship are placed in a bibliography titled "References." This practice produces a clean, single-purpose index, but renders impossible any attempt to judge the extent to which the editors have drawn on particular scholars, or even to locate where that use might be. Nor is the "References" section complete. Jeffrey Steinbrink, for instance, the scholar (mentioned above) who has most recently written about this phase of Clemens's life, is not included at all in the "References," though the editors do cite him in their notes on page 199.
This quibble, however, will not prevent the volume from being indispensable. Fifty-five dollars is more than pocket change for most of us, but, considering the editorial hours involved, the price is a bargain. All libraries should buy it, and many Mark Twain scholars will want to own their own copies.
The series of publications from the Mark Twain Papers, now directed by Robert Hirst, has been a jewel of American scholarship for nearly thirty years. Its continuance, and the publication of its texts at reasonable prices, depends on grants and private donations. The present volume acknowledges support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and also of gifts to the Mark Twain Papers from dozens of individuals. In an era of declining funds from federal agencies, such support by friends of Mark Twain scholarship, such as members of the Forum, is essential.