Amazon sales commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project,
University of California, Berkeley, CA.
The following review appeared 5 November 2014 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2014 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
This is not the first time Little, Brown and Company has published a book with the title Mark Twain's America. In 1932 they were the proud publishers of Mark Twain's America by Bernard DeVoto, an able refutation of Van Wyck Brook's Freudian 1920 thesis, The Ordeal of Mark Twain. The opposing viewpoints set forth in those two books became the foundation of all Twain scholarship for the next forty years, and being the publisher of the better of those two books was a source of pride.
The dust jacket features an image of two steamboats with a portrait of Mark Twain superimposed above them. But the steamboats are a puzzle. This coffee-table book includes images of at least forty-five steamboats, but not a single one of the twelve that were piloted by Mark Twain, even though images of nine of those vessels do exist. This failure to connect the dots between Mark Twain and his America is a recurrent problem throughout the entire book.
There is some good writing at the beginning of the current book. The brief preface by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington and the foreword by distinguished essayist and editor Lewis H. Lapham are a fine beginning. But neither of their contributions foreshadows what is to come and several recent online reviews read more like airy enthusiasm rather than critical analyses of the content.
Another piece of good writing at the beginning of this book is the copyright notice, and it deserves to be quoted in full:
All rights reserved. In accordance with the U. S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author's intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for your support of the author's rights.
That's good writing. It's concise and to the point. It does not mince words and even has a hint of a threat before offering a premature thanks at the end. Copyright infringement is always unethical, and when it takes place for commercial gain it is a criminal act. Copyright notices are rarely quoted in book reviews, but this one is a foreshadowing of things to come.
After the thoughtful foreword by Lapham, the text and illustrations are a disappointment. The narrative itself is superficial and heavily weighted with extended quotations, often unsourced. The illustrations, although attractive, with many in color, are familiar to most Mark Twain scholars. Milton Meltzer's Mark Twain Himself (1960) and Dennis Welland's The Life and Times of Mark Twain (1991) are heavily illustrated biographies of Mark Twain and do a much better job of conveying his place in history and in his culture. As first impressions go, the first impression this book presents is that of another pleasant, if superficial, coffee-table book--a nice thing to give as a gift, but not to be taken too seriously.
However, a close analysis of the text indicates trouble and a lot of it. The first three of the four serious problems with this book can best be summarized as the three Ds--dates, data, and dots. The reader can hardly progress through more than a few pages without stumbling over a misdated image or event, misleading statement, some absurd error of fact, or some puzzling failure to connect the dots between some person or event and Mark Twain himself. The book has the feel of something hastily cut and pasted together, a derivative cobbling together of facts and images.
First, let's look at some dates. A photograph of Mark Twain and his childhood sweetheart, Laura Hawkins, taken in November 1908 at Mark Twain's last home in Redding, Connecticut (46), is dated 1902 and the nearby text would lead the reader to believe the photo was taken in Hannibal, Missouri. A photograph of Mark Twain in his famous sealskin coat and ushanka (108) with the fur turned out is dated "1880s." That coat was purchased from Bergtold Brothers in Buffalo in September 1871. An illustration from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) is misdated 1891 (161), a well-known July 1903 photograph of Mark Twain with John T. Lewis is lazily dated "ca. 1900" (165), and a photograph of Mark Twain at Stormfield is dated 1910 (180) when it was in fact taken in November 1908. This is only a short list of dating errors.
A few misdated images and events might indicate hasty or sloppy work, but bad data--getting the facts wrong points to a lack of familiarity with Mark Twain biography. The misleading statements and errors begin as early as page 3 and continue unabated throughout the book. Only a few examples will suffice. Twain's first published work of fiction, "The Dandy Frightening the Squatter," is presented as Twain's "first national essay" (27). We are never told of his first national essay (a sketch describing the town of Hannibal). The authors tell us that Twain became a steamboat Captain (38), apparently unaware of the distinction between a captain and a pilot, a distinction that was not a small one, as Twain himself made clear in his writings. We are told about his "first published compilation of comic sketches" identified as an 1874 edition of Mark Twain's Sketches (96), never mind that it was actually preceded by the 1867 The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches, Mark Twain's first book, as well as five pirated editions. Reginald T. Sperry illustrated the cover of the 1874 edition, but the authors attribute it to True Williams (96).
Other ill-informed illustrator identifications include Dan Beard who is credited with designing the cover of Life on the Mississippi (41), but that was the work of John T. Harley. Harley, along with Edmund H. Garrett and A. B. Shute illustrated that book. The appearance of Twain's jumping frog story famously launched him to fame when it appeared in the New York Saturday Press, but it's called the New York Sunday Press (76) in this book. On pages 109-10 the errors crash together in a mind-bending pile-up: a photo of Twain and his family on the porch (or ombra) at the Hartford house is described as being taken in a gazebo, the Katharine Seymour Day House (aka Chamberlain-Day House) that sits next door to Harriet Beecher Stowe's home is identified as Twain's Hartford home, and Twain's wife Livy is credited with building him the study at Quarry Farm where he wrote his greatest works when in fact it was built for him by her sister Susan Crane. The authors then confuse Twain's Buffalo home with Quarry Farm and follow this with a statement that indicates a lack of awareness that Quarry Farm, Twain's summer residence, is in Elmira. The authors tells us Twain sold his Elmira home at a loss, again confusing his Buffalo home with the Elmira residence. That concludes the two-page pile-up.
According to the authors, Mark Twain's Library of Humor is an "important source of his funniest writings" (128) even though this anthology included only extracts reprinted from his previous works along with dozens of other comic works by other authors. The authors commit an especially amateurish faux pas when a photo of Olivia Clemens is identified as "Olivia Twain" (157). The authors accept the 1916 edition of The Mysterious Stranger as Twain's work (172), although most scholars have known for decades the true sad sordid story of who actually wrote large portions of the 1916 edition, even going so far as to invent characters Mark Twain never included in his notes.
If wrong dates and false data were not bad enough, a reader might expect a book about Mark Twain's America would connect some dots between Mark Twain and his America. At one point (174) the authors credit Dan Beard again for illustrations by another illustrator (Lucius Hitchcock) but they also include images by Art Young (141) and Frederick Opper (90) without mentioning their connections to Mark Twain. At pages 124-25 the authors present several of Dan Beard's illustrations from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and discuss the work at length without ever making mention that Beard used famous people and political figures of the day (like Queen Elizabeth for the portrait of a pig) as his models for many of his illustrations for that book. The list of unconnected dots is too long to include in its entirety, but includes mentions of Bayard Taylor (21-2), Rudyard Kipling (231), and William Henry Vanderbilt (91) but no discussion of their connections with Twain. There is even a cartoon of Twain (103) that is misread as an example of "ridicule" but this cartoon appeared in The American Publisher, the house journal of Mark Twain's own publisher, and was a promotional ploy that was printed with Twain's blessing.
Two possible bright spots in this book might have been the Mark Twain chronology at the front of the book (6-15) and the United States chronology at the back (182-232). Together these two chronologies comprise 59 pages of the 236 pages of text in this book, not counting the index. They are at least one-fourth of the book, and nicely frame the text.
However, the majority of entries in these chronologies are not actually the work of Katz or the Library of Congress. Most of the Mark Twain chronology is lifted verbatim without permission or acknowledgement from R. Kent Rasmussen's well-known reference work, Mark Twain A to Z (1995), and some of the entries in the United States chronology are likewise lifted from Rasmussen's work.
Rasmussen's A to Z chronology comprises hundreds of blocks of text printed in six columns covering the 75 years of Twain's life. The first four columns cover Twain's own life, and the other two columns cover literary and historical events. The Mark Twain chronology in Mark Twain's America contains at least 367 sentences or phrases lifted from 193 of the 280 blocks of text found in the first four columns of Rasmussen's work, and an additional 45 sentences or phrases lifted from 35 blocks of text from the other two columns, and used in the United States chronology, bringing the total number of passages lifted from Rasmussen's work to more than 400. One example can suffice. Here's the authors' text for 1894 from page 12:
Here are Rasmussen's entries from that same year (Rasmussen, 1995, p. xx):
Rasmussen is not the only victim. Some entries in the United States chronology are also lifted from a book by David K. Williams, Before Our Very Eyes (2008). Williams provides a chronology in his book covering the history of slavery from 1619-1865, and he includes events from just thirteen years between 1835 and 1865, the period that overlaps with the Katz and Library of Congress chronology. From those thirteen years five sentences or phrases have been lifted verbatim from four of those years. The year 1838 will suffice as an example. Here is the Katz and Library of Congress text from page 184:
Here is the text at page 79 from Before Our Very Eyes:
Mark Twain's America includes both an "Acknowledgements" and a "Selected Bibliography" (233-34) but neither acknowledges Rasmussen or Williams as sources. They do list the two recent Autobiography volumes (2010, 2013) from the University of California Press, as well as works by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Justin Kaplan, Milton Meltzer, Ron Powers, Gary Scharnhorst, and Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography (2001) by Geoffrey Ward, Dayton Duncan, and Ken Burns. Other Mark Twain scholars who have published a book on Twain might be tempted to question whether Rasmussen and Williams are the only victims of piracy.
The unauthorized use of verbatim selections from Rasmussen's 430,000 word work probably represents less than 4% of Rasmussen's total text. However, all but a handful of the roughly 300 entries in the Katz and Library of Congress Mark Twain chronology are copied from Rasmussen's work. The chronology in Rasmussen's Mark Twain A to Z is one of its most useful and valuable features and Rasmussen's chronology is also the most useful and valuable text in Mark Twain's America.
It is deeply unsettling to see the Library of Congress falsely claiming co-authorship of copyrighted material. Mark Twain fought pirates all his life, but never viewed the Library of Congress or any of its former employees as possible culprits. One can't help but wonder if Mark Twain, were he alive today, would extend his well-known quips about Congress and Congressmen to include their library and its librarians.
Little, Brown and Company must also shoulder some blame for not having this book adequately vetted. It is painfully obvious that the authors did not know enough about Mark Twain to produce a factually accurate book, and routine vetting by qualified readers with a modicum of Mark Twain expertise would very likely have caught most errors and disconnected dots, and led to the prepublication exposure of the piracies.
Who among those teachers who are members of this Forum would give this text a grade higher than an F if it had been turned in by a student?
That's the grade this volume gets from this reviewer.
20 November 2014
By Kevin Mac Donnell
Since the appearance of my review of this book on November 5, 2014 on the Mark Twain Forum, several developments make it appropriate to bring members of the Forum up to date.
At the time my review appeared, I calculated that only about 125 of the book's 244 pages (excluding the preface, foreword, acknowledgments, picture credits, bibliography, index, illustrations, and extended quotes) were actual original text. Now that I've taken some careful measurements, the number of pages of original text stands at about 98. Quotes (mostly from Mark Twain works) constitute about 30 percent of the book's main text alone.
When I wrote my review, my list of errors and significant omissions stood at 75, but by the time I responded on November 17 to Wiener and Katz's letter to the Forum, that number had grown to just over 100, thanks to the help of other readers. It now stands at 118 and is still growing. Some of the book's erroneous statements (such as the remark that Henry Clemens was older than Sam) are contradicted in other passages, giving the book as a whole the appearance of having been written by a committee that never met to compare notes. Its readers should not be told such nonsense as the grandchild Mark Twain never saw was born three days before he died, that Susan B. Anthony was a candidate for U.S. president, or that the United States annexed Hawaii in 1848.
My original review mentioned that Mark Twain's America copied passages from two unacknowledged sources--a fact that Katz and Wiener have now publicly admitted. I can now report that their book copies from at least three more unacknowledged sources. Moreover, borrowings from one of these sources may rival or even exceed the more than 400 lines taken from Rasmussen's Mark Twain A to Z.
The author and editor of Mark Twain's America said the two unacknowledged sources I identified in my review were "mistakenly omitted" but they did not say anything about the other sources now known. They also said they "seek to be as accurate as possible in [their] work" and would "rectify errors or omissions in forthcoming editions of the book." If they are sincere in those sentiments, why not rectify part of the problem immediately by posting a complete list of their sources? The e-book and future editions should be halted until these issues can be addressed.
It was anticipated that a complete corrigenda* would be posted in this Forum. That must now wait. Identifying and correcting errors is the responsibility of authors, not reviewers, just as it is the responsibility of the authors to reveal their sources.
Now is the time to do both. It is the right thing to do.
* January 2016 - Complete corrigenda now available.