The following review appeared 14 April 1999 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 1999 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Harold K. Bush, Jr. <email@example.com>
Saint Louis University
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Tom Quirk's recent volume, published as part of the ongoing series by Twayne covering the short fiction of many American authors, is a thoroughly informed introductory work that will be of use to both students and scholars. For both groups, Quirk provides extensive information and at least some analysis regarding the fifty or so most important or influential shorter works by Twain. Readers will find strong plot description of these works, often placed helpfully within the biographical, cultural, and historical contexts that so frequently aid in the explanation of Twain's literary production. The footnotes are helpful and will lead anyone to the main critical texts if more thorough background is desired. The book contains a useful though brief chronology of Twain's life, a good select bibliography, and an excellent index.
Scholars will likely find the volume of most use when preparing for class, lecture, or otherwise when in need of a quick summary of the contents or features of classic Twain stories. In one sense, the book has no major "surprises," as Quirk himself notes in the introduction by stating that his volume is "meant to be suggestive and comprehensive, not exhaustive; the purpose of this series is to supplement, rather than displace" (17). On these levels, Quirk fully succeeds. Still, the narrative does frequently "surprise" even learned Twainians with interesting interpretive twists or contextual information that attest to the author's wide learning in this field of study.
The book comprises three sections. The most substantial section is "Part One: The Short Fiction." Here, Quirk narrates the story of Twain as writer of short fiction; he provides in roughly chronological order the historical background, contents, and in many cases quite strong literary interpretations of the major pieces, often supplemented by way of comparison with other, mainly minor pieces. In addition, over half of the book comprises excerpts from Twain's writings on the writerly task ("Part Two: The Writer") as well as a good selection of some older but mainly quite recent critical work concerned with Twain as writer of short fiction ("Part Three: The Critics"; a complete listing of the excerpts printed in Parts Two and Three is appended to this review). Both of these sections begin with short introductions that summarize the content of the pieces selected. In short, the book provides in one handy volume a quick and reliable crib of both the shorter literary productions of Twain and some of the seminal critical responses to them, from both the author and an interesting (though somewhat idiosyncratic) group of influential critics.
Some mention should be made of the book's title and, by extension, of its supposed contents. Since Twain did in fact compose so many different kinds of works that might fit into a rubric concerned ostensibly with the fictitious, the choosing of the works to be covered might turn out to be somewhat of a bone of contention among Twainians. Nevertheless, Quirk's selections appear, for the most part, to include those works that students would find most often assigned, both in undergraduate and graduate courses. As well, the choices would probably not be much attacked by the vast middle ground of Twain scholarship today--although some may consider certain selections to be generically of some other breed than that announced by the book's title. Twain, however, wrote in a plethora of modes; and rightfully, Quirk has tried to cover here the sheer variety, including generic modes that go beyond the traditional limits of what we might call the "short story." Thus he discusses speeches (e.g. the Whittier Birthday Speech), newspaper hoaxes ("Cannibalism in the Cars"), folk tales, tall tales, fairy tales, and so forth.
One interesting feature of Quirk's commentary is his habit of making some rather unusual comparisons between Twain pieces and works by other, later authors. His discussion of satire, for instance, which centers on such droll works as "The Christmas Fireside" or "Advice for Good Little Boys," connects this style to modern satires ranging from Miss Lonelyhearts and Wise Blood to the film Animal House and the comedy of Richard Pryor (shades of the recent Twain Award!). The story "The Great Beef Contract," according to Quirk an early instance of modern, gothic humor (43), is related to Faulkner and Kafka, as well as numerous Jack Lemmon films.
Another strength is Quirk's solid treatment of a handful of stories that seem to constitute for Quirk the highest reaches of Twain's power as a writer of short fiction. For instance, in his nuanced and interesting discussions of such works as "A True Story," "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut," "The Private History of a Campaign that Failed," and "The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg," we learn much about the specific genesis and artistic accomplishment of these great stories. The treatment of "Hadleyburg" is impressive and detailed, providing both a rich context and some of the critical debates about this confusing story, and is the lengthiest discussion in the book. Perhaps the strongest analysis of all is the very interesting and sophisticated treatment of "A True Story," which for Quirk marks the moment of Twain's emergence as literary great rather than a mere run- of-the-mill newspaperman. Quirk's reading of "A True Story" demonstrates the greatness of a story that until very recently had been generally overlooked by Twain scholars.
This is a readable, accessible, and accurate account of Twain as writer of short fiction. It certainly provides a fresh and up-to-date account to which we can direct inquiring students, and as such should be ordered by every college library in the land. Moreover, the book will remind scholars of the rich backgrounds of the stories covered, and will frequently offer ingenious interpretations, provide little-known historical or cultural connections, or otherwise suggest promising directions that even the most veteran Twainians have overlooked.
Appendix: Contents of Sections Two and Three
Complete reprints of the following works by Mark Twain: "Report to the Buffalo Female Academy"; "Reply to the Editor of 'The Art of Authorship'"; "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences"; "How To Tell a Story"; and "William Dean Howells."
Excerpts from the following books: William Dean Howells, My Mark Twain (New York, 1910); Louis J. Budd, Mark Twain: The Ecstasy of Humor (Elmira, NY, 1995); Don Florence, Persona and Humor in Mark Twain's Early Writings (Columbia, 1995); Walter Blair, Essays on American Humor: Blair through the Ages (Madison, 1993); Gregg Camfield, Sentimental Twain: Samuel Clemens in the Maze of Moral Philosophy (Philadelphia, 1994); and Susan K. Harris, Mark Twain's Escape from Time: A Study of Patterns and Images (Columbia, 1982).