The following review appeared 8 April 2000 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2000 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any mediumwithout permission.
Jason G. Horn, Chair <J_HORN@falcon.gdn.peachnet.edu>
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Why would anyone want to read such a hefty collection--over 600 pages--of the contemporary reviews of Mark Twain's writings that Louis J. Budd has edited and collected? Surely no one still believes that the critical reception by an author's contemporaries, who themselves are wrapped in a blanket of social and cultural prejudices, can provide any genuine insight into a writer's work. Maybe not, but avoiding the grasp of "postmodern absoluteness," Louis J. Budd reveals that more can be gained from a review of the past than just a recollection of dominant ideologies. For the critical history he recalls in Mark Twain: The Contemporary Reviews, if read on its own terms, as Budd makes possible, provide "surprises that can stimulate an interaction of present and past readings, perhaps even a rethinking of some current articles of faith" (2).
The eleventh volume in the American Critical Archives series, which includes similar studies on the contemporary reception of authors such as Emerson, Whitman, and Wharton, Budd's contribution documents the immediate critical response to Twain's major works as it surfaced in newspapers and magazines. While he could not include all the published reviews in the space of this archive, Budd, as a seasoned Twain scholar, includes those most representative of "expressed consensual attitudes" and those most perceptively attuned to Twain's mind and humor. And for the sake of the volume's users, who may wish to pursue further research, he includes a "Checklist of Additional Reviews" at the end of each chapter.
The archive contains a total of forty three chapters, each devoted to writings published in book form, beginning with The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches (1867) and concluding with What is Man? and Other Essays (1917). Most of the reviews are for Twain's major works, with The Innocents Abroad topping the list with fifty one. Budd includes only a few reviews for some of the lesser known collections, such as Merry Tales (1892) and Editorial Wild Oats (1904) and just one each for the Vest Pocket Series edition of A True Story, and the Recent Carnival of Crime (1877) and Punch, Brothers, Punch! and Other Sketches (1878). Budd's most curious selection might be Mark Twain's Patent Self-Pasting Scrap Book (1877), which while not a book proper still received several reviews, some tongue in cheek, from notable magazines.
And this leads me back to my opening question: of what worth are the reviews in this archive? As Budd suggests in his introduction, the reviews situate readers in a "culture war" between magazine and newspaper editors, with the former claiming the literary high ground for their reviewers. And when readers consider this struggle in relation to the interests of reviewers and their publications and the interests of author's and their publishers, as Budd points out, "the reviews become humanized into the opinions of fallible individuals" who judge in the "heat of the interplay with contemporaries" and with the authors themselves (7). For instance, a review in the 1896 New York Tribune, a newspaper friendly to Twain's career, could praise Twain for his truthful treatment of history in Joan of Arc while the Manchester Guardian, not so associated with the author, found his story of the Maid merely imitative, annoying, and tiresome (403).
Then again, those who prefer to personally respond to the reviews, can figure their own opinions into the insights of others, learning from the possibly superior perspective of "some dead critic," as Budd puts it, and perhaps enjoying the "rapport of finding [their] responses anticipated long ago" (7). Could we not learn something, for example, from the New Republic reviewer that refused to cast The Mysterious Stranger as a reflection of the author's own despair but rather as a supreme satire on humanity's attempt to create a God absurd enough to sanction its own cruelties (637).
And finally, as Budd suggests, the contemporary reviews of Twain's most significant works serve to document the "starting point" for the accumulative readings that would ensure their "status as classic" (7). Surely Hamlin Garland added his part to the canonical stature of A Connecticut Yankee when in his 1890 review for the Boston Evening Transcript, he called its Twain a modern Don Quixote, an author striking blows for humanity in his "profound criticism of present thought and present social conditions" (305).
As the hundreds of reviews in this archive show, Mark Twain was certainly a "review worthy author," and Louis Budd's careful selection of reviews and the contextual influences that nurtured them make for more than just a worthwhile book. Countering the "disdain for reviewing as now either marginal or hyped," Budd actively engages the past and the "lively and educative" function of reviewers and their reviews. Within this clarifying act, Mark Twain's work shines ever brighter.