The following review appeared 10 June 1997 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1997.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Grayson County College
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A commonplace: each volume of the University of California editions of Mark Twain's works are always eagerly awaited by librarians, scholars, and general readers alike. While another installment of letters may not raise as much fanfare as more publicly sensational events, for the true Twainian these standard-setting primary sources are a greater joy than any secondary interpretations offered by our own Twain community. This remains true despite the fact most letters collected in this edition are already well known, notably the letters to Olivia Clemens and Mary Mason Fairbanks. Most of these letters are breezy, business- and domestic-oriented memos that rarely reveal new or deep insights into Mark Twain's writing, with the notable exception of 1873 letters discussing the composition and publication of The Gilded Age. The letters written in the transitional year 1872 are only infrequently interesting in their own right, but will serve instead as grist for researchers focused on biography.
Still, this essential addition to the works of Mark Twain is expertly presented with the usual wealth of explanatory notes that provide historical, textual, biographical, and cultural contexts. Again, for many, the scholarly notes, appendices, and black-and-white photographs will prove more useful than the letters themselves, a page-by-page encyclopedia of "The World of Mark Twain" as important as the material they edify. Of particular service are the texts of contemporary reviews and newspaper reports on Twain's activities, which help clarify the milieu in which the thirtysomething, energetic Sam Clemens moved. Also helpful are the extracts from letters written in later years by and to Twain referring to events from 1872-73 which both help explain Twain's reflections on his early career and provide textual material that will not be published in their own volumes for many years to come. Letters by Olivia Clemens in the fall of 1873 also help fill gaps in the periods for which we have no extant Mark Twain correspondence.
Certainly, most of this material only a Twain scholar would love. The casual reader will find few nuggets of wit or deep discussions on pivotal issues, although the 1873 travel letters contain many well written descriptive passages. This is not a cover-to-cover read. As intended, this is a book for students and researchers who will make their own connections between the texts and future interpretations of Twain's life and works. For such readers, the following overview and highlights of the period covered may help indicate what subjects might be the most interesting areas for scholarly pursuit.
The year 1872 opens with Twain on the move, already a popular figure on the lecture circuit. Hoping to get off the platform, he decries railroad travel but enjoys the amenities of hotel service. He expresses warm feelings for Bret Harte (who is also important in the July-August 1872 and March 1873 letters), and he even compliments a French novel. Moving out from the shadow of Artemus Ward, Twain expresses mixed feelings about religious tugs in his life, critiques poetry, and stops in my hometown (Harrisburg, Pa.) to, perhaps, assure warm feelings in reviewers yet unborn.
In February, Twain impresses Horace Greeley on his sixty-first birthday, meets another fraudulent spiritualist, and is soundly and uncharacteristically panned for his lectures in Pennsylvania and New York. Letters to Clemens' mother reveal the teasing nature of their relationship. After the death of her father, Mary Mason Fairbanks tells Sam: "Despite all your eccentricities, you have never broken faith with me." In March, Twain feuds with publisher Elisha Bliss over Roughing It, from which he has been drawing material for his northern lectures. Within days, Roughing It is a certified success, and Susy Clemens makes her first appearance in "the Nativity in Elmira."
Spring 1872 is filled with domestic details for the Clemens family, Mark Twain writing about household arrangements and young Langdon's teething problems. But between letters dwelling on publishing and considering using a new pen name, tranquility is interrupted with the death of Langdon, several days after Susy's baptism. This section of the volume includes helpful notes by Susan Crane, Livy's sister, regarding the atmosphere in the Clemens-Langdon-Crane family. She observes that no one at the time attributed Langdon's death to the carriage-ride in which Twain supposedly neglected to cover the baby's legs in the cold. Instead, the family's grief is mixed with relief that the unhealthy child has been released to death, Twain making comments foreshadowing his allegedly "bitter" late-life comments on the relief of death. (In a recent study on the courtship of Mark Twain and Olivia Langdon, Susan Harris also calls attention to a letter that the then-bachelor Mark Twain sent to Livy, saying he had always envied dead men before meeting her. This is another example of how Twain's early musings were indicators of his latter thought.)
The summer of 1872 finds Mark Twain worrying about the health of Susy, desiring to help Bret Harte publish with Elisha Bliss, and working on prefaces to new editions for Innocents Abroad. He worries about his reputation as a humorist, praises his English publisher while temporarily losing faith in Bliss, and comments on a prowler and seemingly every aspect of home life. To "My dear bro" Orion, he announces plans to market his new self-pasting scrapbook.
In August, Twain sails for England, writes love letters to Livy, and plans to write a book about England. In September, operating from his London base, appropriately named "The Langdon Hotel," Twain has enjoyable meetings with the London literary establishment. He makes occasional speeches, claims to avoid lecturing when possible, meets Ambrose Bierce, and humorously complains about John Hotton's pirated editions of his work. He also comments on women's suffrage and writes to Livy saying how much he needs her company, albeit not for conversation: "I don't think you've ever understood my penchant for silence." He quips, "I am in the family way with all these undigested dinners. Shall I name it after you?"
Between dinners and speeches in the English autumn, Twain happily writes Mary Fairbanks that he is being treated like "a prodigal son returned home." He complains again about railroad travel and the ardors of lecturing. He sails home in November, witnessing a sea-rescue during a hurricane, a subject that leads to much correspondence in subsequent months.
Home again, near Hartford, Twain's train is nearly derailed. (Has anyone yet written a piece about Twain and trains?) He writes a public appeal to benefit Captain Ned Wakeman, and tells his mother he is constantly interrupted from writing his English book by Susy's illnesses. He angrily comments on the controversy surrounding the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and the Beecher clan's responses to it, writes again on the horrors of sea and rail travel, and pokes fun at New York City politics.
In the new year, Twain abandons his "John Bull" project in favor of The Gilded Aged with Charles Dudley Warner, supports Whitelaw Reed's takeover of the New York Herald Tribune, and again writes on the Sandwich Islands. The Clemenses begin plans to build their Hartford home, and Twain is drawn into writing newspaper articles.
February is filled with more business in New York, Jersey City, and Hartford, as Twain comments on the seriousness of humor, the foibles of reviewers, and delivers a benefit lecture. (Has anyone done a study of Twain's philanthropic contributions? Letters in this section would also be helpful in providing insight on Twain's assistance to other writers.) Twain puts off collecting a volume of sketches in favor of working on The Gilded Age, as he plans to be in England when the book is published to assure simultaneous copyrights. In March, he jokes with Josh Billings, advocates strong promotion to sell books, withdraws a presumptuous editorial, comments on juries, and strongly endorses the Jubilee Singers.
April 1873 is a lively month for letters, with Twain mailing pages from his lecture notes to autograph seekers. He writes on the need for lifeboats, the overcrowding of monuments, and shares insights into the composition of The Gilded Age with "Mother Fairbanks." In a letter published in the New York Daily Graphic, in Whitmanesque lists, he ironically jokes about the slow news in the U.S. as he plans for his next trip to Europe. (In a letter by Charles D. Warner, we get a glimpse into Warner's wit--if The Gilded Age "is a satire of our times, it is not our fault, it is the fault of our times.") In fine form, Twain promotes his new novel, writes Livy about the final drafts of The Gilded Age, and tells her he is translating "The Jumping Frog" into French.
Twain agrees to try subscription sales for The Gilded Age and sets sail again for England in May. Twain turns on Whitelaw Reed (a broken love affair?), hires a shorthand stenographer, and finds the prodigal is now a literary lion in Britain. The summer months are filled with social calls and sightseeing. He writes the New York Herald letters about the historic visit of the Shah of Persia (to whom he teaches poker), and meets Herbert Spencer, Robert Browning, Anthony Trollope, and other British leading lights. He puts in twelve hours' work on an Independence Day speech he is not allowed to deliver in London, and discovers dictation does not work for him, while keeping a close eye on the simultaneous publication of The Gilded Age in the states and the UK. Sam and Livy both enjoy Stratford-On-Avon and Scotland, relish the history they learn, and opt not to venture into France.
As publication dates are delayed, the Clemenses' plans alter and they decide to remain in England until October. Unexpectedly, Twain loses money in the September New York bank crash, lectures on the Sandwich Islands to avoid borrowing cash, and accompanies a pregnant Livy for a brief trip home before returning to England to complete his lecture series.
The Gilded Age appears to mixed-to-bad reviews--many reprinted in this volume--and even Howells declines to write about it. Lonesome for his family and depressed, Twain loses interest in English politics, fears future poverty, but brightens when he writes a humorous toast to women.
The year 1873 closes with Twain weary of lecturing on the Sandwich Islands. Future Twainians can thank his friend Charles Warren Stoddard for keeping a scrapbook of Twain's activities during these months. Mark Twain writes Livy of his unusual joy in lecturing from Roughing It in London and Scotland, for which he is repeatedly praised for his "sustained irony." (Generous samplings from passages and reviews are reprinted in the notes.) He contrives a humorous scheme to use wax figures of royalty to promote his appearances, and writes more love letters. Bad weather finally ends the long lines to see him perform. After a short respite, Twain takes to the stage again, invites Alfred, Lord Tennyson to come see him, visits Stonehenge, and spends Christmas in Salisbury Castle. Mark Twain ends 1873 in the same arena in which he began 1872--on the road--which is how Mark Twain's Letters, volume 6, will inevitably begin. Should one read this volume before any other, one would conclude Mark Twain was a lecturer first, a sometime author second.
While some complain about the slow pace of University of California publications (then again, many a current graduate student will be fully tenured with benefits before we see the 1997 volumes of the Mark Twain Journal), once again it is worth saying these collections (and the Journal too) will have long shelf lives. As fellow Mark Twain Forum member Kevin Bochynski justly notes, in both cases any publishing delay "is because of the meticulous attention to detail for which both strive, and also limited resources and financial constraints." Rather than making complaints, sending timely donations would be of greater service.
The only real improvement will be access to the texts electronically. Reading this volume, I wondered what an integrated version of all letters and Notebooks and Journals would be like on a CD-ROM, with Twain's most private and semi-private thoughts brought together in a chronological flow. Perhaps this is a project for the next millennium, when the texts and notes compiled and researched by this formidable generation of scholars will be the river from which all Twain study flows. In the meantime, we need to be grateful to the Berkeley crew and support their efforts in every way possible. One way is to urge your school librarian to add this volume to your library's shelves, and also to fill in volumes they missed the first time around.