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The following review appeared 1 May 2019 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Anyone familiar with Twain studies of the last four decades knows that the most eagerly anticipated work in the field is the revised and enlarged edition of Alan Gribben's Mark Twain's Library: A Reconstruction (1980). The first edition itself was eagerly anticipated: Six years before it appeared, Hamlin Hill's famous must-read essay "Who Killed Mark Twain?" appeared in American Literary Realism, where Hill predicted that "source and influence hunters will have a field-day tracking through its encyclopedic catalog of volumes the humorist owned and annotated." Published in an edition of 500 copies, nearly all were sold to libraries and the book quickly went out of print, driving the price for used copies as high as $450, putting it out of the reach of most Twainians. This was especially unfortunate because the immense utility of the work--the result of its ingenious conception and meticulous execution--had advanced the direction and scope of Twain studies more than any other work published since. It may be counted as one of the handful of essential reference works on Twain, along with Paine's (albeit flawed) biography of Twain, the Mark Twain Project editions of Twain's Letters and Autobiography, and R. Kent Rasmussen's Mark Twain A to Z.
The first of the three volumes of the new edition has now been published; the second and third volumes will appear later this year and in 2020, and will be reviewed separately as they are published. Those second and third volumes will contain the catalogue of the books Twain actually owned or read, describing their editions, annotations, and ownership markings, and their influence on Twain's writings. This first volume sets the stage for the two volumes to follow, and must be read first in order to fully understand Twain's library, how he used it, and how best to apply that knowledge to any study of his creative process.
This first volume gathers together twenty-five of Alan Gribben's essays about the formation, influence, and dispersal of Mark Twain's library, along with a new introduction by Gribben, a foreword by R. Kent Rasmussen, and an expanded Critical Bibliography that nicely captures the crowded shelf of studies based upon Twain's readings. The critical bibliography begins with Paine's 1912 biography which foolishly projected Twain's "reading interests during his final four years onto other periods of his life . . ." (269). The critical bibliography even includes a 1924 master's thesis that was the earliest guide to Twain's reading.
Gribben's essays, published over the last forty-seven years tell one fascinating tale after another. He describes Twain's "Library of Literary Hogwash" which consisted of books so bad that they were relished by Twain as "exquisitely bad." He describes Twain's uncanny ability to read sense into Robert Browning's dense poetry, the evocative story behind Susy Clemens's set of Shakespeare, Tom Sawyer's (and America's) falling under the spell of romantic adventure stories, the literary knowledge on display in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain's favorite books, Twain's earliest literary exposures, the popular myth of Twain as an unlettered author and how Twain himself promoted that public illusion, Twain's familiarity with the Arthurian legends, Twain's debt to "boy's books" when composing his own greatest works, the ways certain books influenced particular writings by Twain, and how Twain's reading habits and tastes evolved over time. Written during five decades, these accounts interconnect, and they are all page-turners, especially when Gribben describes his adventures in tracking down Twain's widely dispersed library. He tracks down nearly 100 books from Twain's library that had been given to Katy Leary. Another book from Twain's library shows up through interlibrary loan. Forgeries are discovered in public and private collections. The maddening story of how Twain's library was scattered in all directions is balanced by the gratifying story of how much of it has been recovered and preserved.
In addition to enlarging the inventory of surviving books and identifying the specific editions of the books listed in the various sales of books from Twain's library, Gribben has also identified much new evidence of Twain's readings in Twain's own writings. In his writings Twain often mentions authors or books by name, but he more often alludes to people or events, both fictional and nonfictional, that reflect his own reading. Of course, Gribben is not the only person who has identified such sources, and he includes the findings of many others' work, all reflected in his extensive Critical Bibliography or in the individual catalogue entries.
Twain's reading habits had already expanded beyond the horizons of Hannibal when, as a teenager in 1852, he read an issue of the Philadelphia Courier that gave him the idea of writing an essay about Hannibal that he published in that paper a short time later. He would remain a daily reader of newspapers for the rest of his life. Thanks to the newspaper exchange system, he read papers from all over the country every day, seeking fodder to fill the pages of the newspapers where he was employed early in his career, and later as a newspaper owner and editor. As a young man he read obscure short-lived comic journals, and all his life he read the major magazines of his day. He was photographed with piles of magazines and newspapers, sometimes reading a magazine or paper whose name and date can be identified.
Twain was a life-long patron of libraries, taking advantage of two printers' association libraries (one held 4,000 volumes) while employed as a type-setter in New York City in 1853. He was awarded a sterling silver key in return for officiating at a library opening in England, and he befriended Andrew Carnegie, who established more public libraries in the United States than any other library benefactor in US history. Twain himself gave books from his own library to libraries several times in his life, most notably establishing a public library in Redding, Connecticut, with a large donation of books from his own shelves.
Mark Twain was as much a reader as a writer, a bibliophile and connoisseur who appreciated fine printing and elegant bindings, and also an avid reader who literally consumed books, sometimes tearing or cutting them to pieces. Twain's copy of Francis Galton's Finger Prints (1892) does not survive, but he clipped out the illustration of fingerprints from the title-page of his copy and sent it to his publisher when brainstorming an idea for the title-page design for Pudd'nhead Wilson. On the other hand, the books he gave his wife and daughters were often sumptuously bound with heavily gilt full leather bindings with silk end papers, like the edition of Browning he gave his daughter Susy, or a set of Sir Walter Scott he gave his wife. A copy of Bayard Taylor's Home Ballads (1882) that Olivia Clemens gave her mother on behalf of Jean and Clara (Susy was then old enough to select her own gift for her grandmother) was elaborately bound in leather with striking bird's-eye maple panels inset on the front and back covers. Although Twain sometimes destroyed books in the service of his art, beautiful examples of the book arts adorned the shelves of the Clemens family library and were prized.
Despite his vast and varied life-long reading habits, he cultivated a public persona of not being particularly well-read, once writing an editor of The Critic that soliciting his opinion of what people should read would be worthless to readers of The Critic because he read mostly history and biography, and that the sum total of the fiction and poetry that he'd read would barely fill three octavo volumes. Paine and Howells both played roles in perpetuating the myth that Twain did not appreciate belles-lettres. In truth, Twain's personal library consisted of at least 3,000 volumes, of which slightly more than one-third survive. His access to the Langdon family library in Elmira, where he spent several months every year during the twenty most productive years of his writing career, broadened the scope of his available reading materials.
It is sometimes forgotten that in Twain's day there was no television, radio, movie theaters, internet, or other distractions competing as sources of news or entertainment. Live entertainment--lectures, music, stage performances, circuses, panoramas, carnivals, fairs, church socials, sewing circles, reading clubs, and the like--filled many hours, but reading in the home accounted for many more hours of the day, and there was a centuries old tradition of reading aloud in church, school, and at home. That tradition was honored in the Clemens household. Twain read much more than most Americans and owned a library several times larger than those found in the majority of nineteenth century households.
Fortunately for Twainians, he also annotated his books more heavily than most readers of his time, as demonstrated by the surviving third of his library, as well as the many books in the Langdon family library that he did not hesitate to mark up as he pleased. He was well-versed in the Greek and Roman classics, the Bible, and classic works of literature from several cultures, and his library also reflected a broad range of readings in religion, politics, history, contemporary novels and poetry, travel, biography, natural history, and medicine, as well as more narrow interests like surnames, phrenology, astronomy, English sign-posts, and collections of criminal trials. Twain's annotations often reflect a deep interest in these subjects with cross-references to his other reading. Twain's stories and characters may have come from his personal experiences, but the themes and structures of his writings can be directly traced to his reading. Twain's annotations are revelatory and make for entertaining reading. If Twain's public writings are free of starch and full of truth, his book annotations are free of restraint and bursting with naked candor, especially when he made notations he knew his wife and children--and future owners of these books--might read.
It would be pretty to think that every book Twain ever read survived in his library up to the time of his death, but the dispersal of his library began with Twain himself during his lifetime. When he traveled for extended periods his library was routinely put into storage (in 1878-1879, 1891-1900, and 1903-1904) and not all of his books found their way back to his shelves. He sent two "bushels" of books to help a library near his Riverdale home in 1903, and he donated "four or five hundred old books" to the Redding town library in June 1908. His daughter Clara donated at least 1,750 more volumes to that library in Redding, Connecticut, a short drive down the road from his last home, Stormfield--there is some evidence the number might have been as many as 3,500 volumes. Some of those books were retained by the vice-president of that library, Twain's friend and illustrator, Dan Beard. It appears some of those books were sold almost immediately at a town "fair" to benefit the library. Other books were left with Albert Bigelow Paine.
When Twain died, his bereaved long-time housekeeper, Katy Leary, was allowed to keep ninety books from his library; those volumes would later be rescued from a porch where they had been left in grocery bags to be hauled away. Clara and Ossip Gabrilowitsch lived for a time at Stormfield after Twain's death, and before they moved, Clara gave away household items to her neighbors, like pots and pans and bric-a-brac, and she may have given away some books as well. In 1911 an auction was held in New York with 556 lots of books and household items from Mark Twain's estate, scattering 483 of his books far and wide, some never to be seen again. In the 1930s and 1940s Clara sometimes gave away books from her father's library, first in Detroit and later in Los Angeles, and through a local bookseller she sold sixty books to Estelle Doheny, a wealthy collector whose collection was widely scattered when sold at auction in 1988 and 1989.
In 1951 Clara emptied most of her remaining shelves, and more than 300 lots of books from Twain's library were sold at a public auction held in a carnival-like atmosphere on the grounds of her Hollywood home--complete with a hot dog stand. One buyer stored his purchases in barrels which were discovered in 1997, sent to auction, and are now at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford. In 1952, the librarian at the Mark Twain Library in Redding held a sale that rid the small town library of books that were not being checked out and taking up much-needed shelf space. Unfortunately, that sale included an undetermined number of books from Twain's original donation from his library, many of which have yet to resurface.
Despite more than a century of dispersal and destruction, many of Twain's books have been preserved. The bulk of his surviving books are to be found at The Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford (300 vols.), The Mark Twain Papers at University of California at Berkeley (170 vols.), The Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College (ninety vols., plus 1,500 vols. from the Langdon family library of which nearly 700 date from Twain's time in Elmira--some with Twain's annotations), the Mark Twain Library in Redding, Connecticut (240 vols.), and the personal collection of Kevin Mac Donnell (300 vols., plus forty-four Langdon family library books from Twain's time in Elmira--some with Twain's annotations). These counts are approximate and all are "volume counts" that include multi-volume sets which often include multiple annotated volumes. Compared to other author's libraries, Twainians have less to complain about than they might first imagine.
Literature on authors' libraries is relatively sparse, but those seeking context, might consult Collecting, Curating, and Researching Writers' Libraries (2014), a collection of essays and interviews edited by Richard Oram and Joseph Nicholson which includes a long list of authors' libraries with data on how much of each library survives, and where. Twain's library fares quite well when compared to the libraries of Kate Chopin, Stephen Crane, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Dean Howells, Henry James, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. Catalogues of many of those libraries have appeared over the decades, but none compare to the comprehensive investigation that Gribben has devoted to Twain.
Gribben's astonishing accomplishment is one of the handful in Twain studies that will stand as a foundational reference work for generations. Of course, new volumes from Twain's library will continue to appear, and in another fifty years--if luck holds and enough long-lost volumes from Twain's library continue to come to light--there may be a need for an addendum, but the solid foundation laid by Gribben will endure. In the meantime Twainians should count themselves lucky and get to work immediately, exploring the new avenues of enquiry suggested by Gribben's tireless labor, while those who study the writings of Dickens, Hawthorne, James, Melville, Poe, Whitman and other literary giants look on helplessly from the sidelines and lament that no Gribben has yet appeared among them.