The following review appeared 1 July 1999 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 1999 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
R. Kent Rasmussen
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Quite likely the greatest bargain that collectors of Mark Twain will ever encounter, the Oxford Mark Twain (OMT) comprises 29 well-made facsimile reproductions of American first editions at prices that have ranged as low as seven dollars per volume through mail-order dealers. The set is a one-step shortcut to building a major Mark Twain book collection. Its 14,176 pages will fill a standard three-foot bookshelf, with a few inches spilling over. Bound in a uniform size with sturdy boards, these are books one can read and handle without worrying about damaging, while enjoying their several thousand original illustrations.
Despite its size, the OMT does not constitute the "complete works" of Mark Twain, and what it is and is not will be the focus of this review. However, I must emphasize that whatever criticisms I make of it, the set offers such great riches that nothing can diminish the extraordinary value that it is. In addition to providing sturdy, readable copies of the often wonderful first editions, the set offers the equivalent of several volumes of wholly new material in the form of expert commentaries by modern authors and scholars. Editor Shelley Fisher Fishkin assembled an impressive list of writers to undertake this work. For example, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison wrote an introduction to Huckleberry Finn, to which Vic Doyno contributed a scholarly afterword. (For details on individual volumes, visit the Oxford University Press web site at www.oup-usa.org.)
What is meant by "facsimile" edition is simply this: the core of each OMT volume consists of pages photographically reproduced from the first editions. The printed matter on each page looks almost exactly like that on the original book's pages. However, the pages as a whole do not match the appearance of the originals because their sizes differ. Every OMT page measures 6-1/2" x 8-3/4"--a size unlike that of any of the original books. All OMT books also differ from the original counterparts in being printed on identical matte-surfaced, cream-colored paper--a good quality, acid-free material.
The OMT books do not carry facsimile reproduction beyond their printed pages. Their bindings are uniform, making no attempt to replicate cover designs of the originals. However, black and white photographs of first edition covers are printed inside each OMT volume (except What Is Man?, whose first edition had a blank cover). Though useful, these cover photographs are not uniformly satisfactory. This is due partly to the fact that some of the original cover designs do not reproduce well photographically and partly to the poor condition of many of the books whose covers were copied. (With a few exceptions, all the books used for OMT facsimiles come from the Mark Twain House in Hartford.) Moreover, although pages in OMT books are larger than the covers of most of the first editions, they reduce the cover photos to a uniform size and do not indicate the original covers' dimensions.
The cover photographs would also be more useful if they included the original books' spines--some of which are more elaborately decorated and interesting than the front covers. Judging from the cover photos printed in the OMT books, a conscious effort seems to have been made to avoid using books in fine condition. For example, the book from which the cover photo of The Stolen White Elephant volume was taken appears to have no spine, and its cover has an unsightly stain. It's a shame that better-looking books were not used for these photographs. What's the point of protecting nearly perfect copies of books--which few people will ever see--while their threadbare cousins are trotted out to be photographed and duplicated by the thousands?
Almost every aspect of Mark Twain bibliography has some screwy complication and the OMT is no exception. The set comprises 29 volumes, but these do not correspond exactly to 29 first-edition books. The set actually contains more than 29 original book titles; exactly how many more is partly a matter of semantics. Twenty-four OMT volumes are reproductions of single-volume books, such as Huckleberry Finn and The Innocents Abroad. The remaining five volumes are composites of various types. For example, one of them combines the complete texts of Extracts from Adam's Diary and Eve's Diary. Another three composite volumes are more complicated. That containing Following the Equator, for example, also includes King Leopold's Soliloquy and "To the Person Sitting in Darkness." The first two items were originally published as books, but the third title was a 16-page tract; should it be counted as a "book"?
Additional confusion arises in categorizing the contents of the volume titled The Stolen White Elephant and Other Detective Stories. It contains all of the original collection called Stolen White Elephant, Etc. (1882), plus all of another complete book, A Double-Barrelled Detective Story (1902), and "Tom Sawyer, Detective" (1896). The Tom Sawyer novella differs from Tom Sawyer Abroad (which has its own OMT volume) in having never been published as a book by itself. The facsimile pages of it that are reproduced in the OMT volume are taken from its first publication in book form, as part of Tom Sawyer Abroad, Tom Sawyer, Detective, and Other Stories, Etc., Etc. (1896).
The volume titled Chapters from My Autobiography has a legitimate claim to being called a "first edition" in its own right. The pages it reproduces in facsimile have never been published before in book form; they are copied directly from articles published in the North American Review in 1906-07. (Michael Kiskis's 1990 edition of Mark Twain's Own Autobiography reprints the same texts, but in freshly set type.)
Nothing in the OMT books themselves or in the set's promotional material makes any definitive or extravagant claims about what the set includes. In an editorial note printing at the beginning of each volume, Fishkin modestly states that the set "consists of twenty-nine volumes of facsimiles of the first American editions of Mark Twain's works. . . ." Unless one interprets this statement to mean that the set comprises all American first editions of Mark Twain's books, it is demonstrably correct: all OMT volumes are made from American first edition books (except Chapters from My Autobiography, which is copied from magazines).
Why, however, are only American first editions are used? After all, several of Mark Twain's books--including Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer--were first published outside the United States. Furthermore, several foreign editions had no corresponding American editions.
A second qualification on the scope of the OMT is stated in Fishkin's foreword: the set "reproduces the first American editions of Mark Twain's books published during his lifetime" (p. xiv in every volume). This limitation was presumably added both to limit the size of the set and to give it a focus, namely, books over which Mark Twain himself exercised some control. It thus appears that an underlying rationale behind the OMT was to reproduce the books Mark Twain himself published. Restricting the OMT to editions published during Mark Twain's lifetime is a more significant limitation than some people might suspect. More of Mark Twain's published writings appeared in book form after he died than before.
It should be noted, incidentally, that one OMT volume was originally published about three months after Mark Twain died: Mark Twain's Speeches, which his literary executor, Albert Bigelow Paine, published in July 1910. Technically, this volume falls outside the OMT's chronological parameters, but Fishkin points out that since Mark Twain himself may have participated in the book's preparation, a special case can be made for including it. [Editorial clarification: The 1910 edition of Mark Twain's Speeches was compiled by Harper and Brothers bookkeeper Frederick A. Nast. This edition was revised in 1923 by Albert Bigelow Paine with substantial differences from the 1910 edition. The Oxford Mark Twain features the 1910 edition.]
A more troublesome matter is what has been left out of the set. As Fishkin correctly points out in a footnote to her foreword (p. xxviii in all volumes), Mark Twain "constantly recycled and repackaged previously published works in his collections of short pieces," causing considerable duplication in his published collections.
Several American first editions published during Mark Twain's time are not part of the OMT: Mark Twain's Number One (1874), A True Story and the Recent Carnival of Crime (1877), Punch, Brothers, Punch! (1878), My Debut as a Literary Person (1903), and Editorial Wild Oats (1905). Most--but not all--of the contents of these books are in other OMT volumes, so the set suffers little by their absence. However, it is important to be aware that the texts of many individual stories and essays varied among editions. So far I have commented only on material published in books during Mark Twain's lifetime. An immense amount of material that he published in newspapers and magazines was not reprinted in books until long after he died, and that process is still going on--as evidenced by recent publication of a collection of his Buffalo Express writings.
A rough inventory of all books containing different published Mark Twain writings would include all the titles used for the OMT, plus collections of letters, notebooks, journalism, and posthumously collected writings. Even leaving out pamphlet-sized items, the list runs to around ninety books, with little duplication among them. In other words, the 29 OMT volumes account for roughly only a third of all Mark Twain books published. Moreover, there remains a considerable amount of Mark Twain material that still hasn't been published in book form. For example, the Mark Twain Project projects a total of 22 volumes of letters (including five volumes already published) and another half-dozen volumes or so of short works, many of which haven't been published in books before. Throw in the still-to-be published notebooks, autobiographical manuscripts, and other odds and ends, and the OMT volumes look to represent about a quarter of the total.
Less understandable than the omission of minor collections is the omission of several other book titles--all minor works, but each with its own points of interest. For example, Mark Twain's (Burlesque) Autobiography and First Romance (1871) would have been a welcome addition to the set, even though the texts of its two pieces appear in other OMT volumes (the first, as "Burlesque Biography," in The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories, and the latter, as "Medieval Romance," in Sketches New and Old). A chief value of facsimile reprint editions is the inclusion of illustrations that are generally omitted in other editions. The burlesque autobiography volume was distinguished by its unusual illustrations, which are rarely seen together. That little book might easily have been combined with another volume.
Two other omissions are also to be regretted: A Dog's Tale (1904) and A Horse's Tale (1906). The former appears in The $30,000 Bequest volume, but without W. T. Smedley's illustrations. The latter does not appear anywhere in the OMT. (It was reprinted in the collection titled The Mysterious Stranger in 1922.) Both stories may be sentimental drivel, but they merit a place among Mark Twain's works because they were important to him. The little books in which the stories were originally published could easily have been combined into a single volume--as the diaries of Adam and Eve were. In fact, they could have been combined with a third small Harper's book from the same period--The Jumping Frog, whose 1903 edition had delightful new illustrations by Fred Strothman. (Dover published a facsimile of that book in 1971.) I would also like to have seen Mark Twain's essay "English As She Is Taught" (published as a 30-page booklet in 1900) somewhere in the OMT.
Incidentally, despite the omission of several story and essay collections, there is some redundancy in the set. For example, many short pieces in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County are also in Sketches, New and Old, and Double-Barrelled Detective Story is in both The Stolen White Elephant and The $30,000 Bequest.
Any criticisms leveled at the Oxford Mark Twain are ultimately meaningless. It's not perfect, but so what? Measured against its bargain price, its shortcomings are trivial and do not lessen the value of the high-quality facsimile pages the set puts in our hands. Anyone with a serious interest in Mark Twain should own the set. Even if you already have a complete set of first editions and Mark Twain Project editions, you should own it.