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The following review appeared 6 May 2010 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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During his career Mark Twain amused, provoked, puzzled, enraged, and inspired his fellow writers, and one hundred years after his death it is clear his influence on writers worldwide has not abated. The Mark Twain Anthology edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin reflects Twain's influence that transcends the span of his career and the borders of his country. Fishkin begins with Petroleum V. Nasby (aka David Ross Locke) in 1869 and Mark Twain himself in 1870, and concludes sixty-one essays later with Roy Blount, Jr. (2008) and Korean American novelist Min Jin Lee (2009).
Along the way it will come as no surprise to find essays by
Rudyard Kipling, William Dean Howells, T. S. Eliot, H. L. Mencken, George
Orwell, Theodore Dreiser, and Kurt Vonnegut (who was born in 1922, not 1992;
the only typo we found in more than 500 pp.!). But it may come as a surprise
to many to see thoughtful essays and commentaries from Lafcadio Hearn, G.
K. Chesterton, Helen Keller, Norman Mailer, Erica Jong, Ursula K. Le Guin,
Dick Gregory, and President Barack Obama (one of four Presidents who quotes
Twain in these pages). Only the most astute Twainian will already be familiar
with the essays or comments from Therese Bentzon, Lu Xun, Jorge Luis Borges,
Richard Pryor, Friedrich Nietzsche, or cartoonist Chuck Jones (beep! beep!).
Surely it will come as a surprise that Henry Gauthier-Villars, the notorious
bisexual French journalist, has the distinct honor of being the author of
the first book about Mark Twain, privately printed in 1884. However, Henry
never carried his Twain studies any further, but instead later married the
lesbian French writer Colette who kept him busy in menage a trois with
their mutual mistress. C'est la vie. These commentaries on Twain span
140 years and only 60% of them come from the United States; the rest are from
France, Cuba, Spain, England, Italy, Russia, China, Japan, Germany, and South
America. They have been translated from speeches, books, and even a Yiddish
newspaper published in Vilna.
Fishkin's anthology isn't just entertaining and fun to read, but is both informative and well-informed. Besides her general introduction to the collection, each essay is introduced with a thumbnail biography, background information, and usually some illuminating Twainian context for each writer. Fishkin's editing upholds the high standards of the Library of America series whose other Twain works have included such ably edited volumes as Guy Cardwell's Mississippi Writings (1982), Guy Cardwell's The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It (1984), Louis J. Budd's Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays (1992, 2 vols.), Susan K. Harris's Historical Romances (1994), Hamlin Hill's The Gilded Age and Later Novels (2002), and Roy Blount, Jr.'s A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, Other Travels (2010). Fishkin's sources listed at the end of the book are a touchstone to further readings, and an index to the works by Twain cited in these essays expands this work beyond the scope of a convenient collection of good reading into a useful book to have on the reference shelf.
Not every writer who ever scribbled something about Twain has been included; two notable exclusions are Hugh Reginald Haweis, an English prelate whose 1883 essay displays an astute understanding of Twain's humor, and poet/playwright Edgar Lee Masters, whose 1938 book-length treatment endorses Van Wyck Brooks's dour thesis. Two understandable exclusions are Albert Bigelow Paine and Archibald Henderson, who both had a lot of interesting things to say about Twain, and both were authors. But their writings on Twain are well-known, widely-quoted already, and readily accessible. For those writers whose comments on Twain are brief or whose longer comments could not be included in full, Fishkin includes a section at the beginning, 'Twain Matters: A Sampler' with a representative sampling of quotes and extracts.
Perhaps surprisingly, it is difficult to trace many themes in these selections because most of the writings reflect a writer's personal reaction to Twain's authorial voice (a few talk about themselves more than they do about Twain), but also because Twain's writings cover such a broad array of subjects--politics, war, race, childhood, religion, travel, imperialism--and the writers of these essays are reacting to different topics and elements within his works. But a few threads can be traced a short distance. Several essays try to explain Twain's humor (Chesterton dissects the "mad logic" of Twain's humor, for example) while others revel in his slang and linguistic inventiveness. Not every commentator says what you might expect from them: Nietzsche enthusiastically endorses The Adventures of Tom Sawyer while it is Robert Penn Warren who declares "God is Dead." And not everyone offers unrestricted praise; E. L. Doctorow, who cut his teeth as a book editor before becoming a novelist, applies a blue pencil to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer but then explains why the book works anyway. Unsurprisingly, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn attract the most attention, but honorable mentions must go to writings that might surprise some: The Innocents Abroad, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Roughing It, and Life on the Mississippi. Works like The Prince and the Pauper, The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, The War Prayer, and What Is Man? are the subject of only a few comments.
Whatever a particular writer's approach to Twain, when Twain's
contemporaries like William Dean Howells, Hamlin Garland, Henry Gauthier-Villars,
or George Bernard Shaw discuss Twain's writings in the context of his own
times, it is hard to put the book down. Helen Keller, although blind and deaf,
paints an enchanting impression of what it was like to spend a day with Twain
and be read one of his stories by the author himself. When African-American
writers like Booker T. Washington, LeRoi Jones, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes,
Dick Gregory, Toni Morrison, or Ralph Ellison are speaking about Twain, and
especially Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it can be as gripping as
any page-turner you can find. David Bradley's introduction to "How to
Tell a Story" is itself a masterpiece of story-telling. Toni Morrison's
insights into the terrors of childhood and the tragic relationships between
Jim, Tom, and Huck are astonishing.
Nine of these essays will be familiar to those who have read the introductions and afterwords to the Oxford edition of Mark Twain's works (1996), also edited by Fishkin, but having them in this handy single volume is a boon. Most of the rest have been gathered from far-flung sources not easily found online or off, and several had to be translated for their inclusion in this anthology. Two are previously unpublished. Others who comment on Twain in these pages include Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, Eugene O'Neill, Thomas Edison, Gertrude Stein, W. Somerset Maugham, E. M. Forster, Charles Darwin, Joseph Conrad, Louisa May Alcott, Will Rogers, John Gardner, Hal Holbrook, Thomas Hardy, W. H. Auden, Gore Vidal, and Ron Powers. Ursula K. LeGuin concludes her essay with "What luck for a country to have a Mark Twain in its heart." What luck for Twainians to have this book on the shelf.