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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Hal Bush <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 14 Apr 1999 14:42:16 -0600
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Quirk, Tom.  _Mark Twain:  A Study of the Short Fiction_.  (Twayne's
Studies in Short Fiction, 6.)  New York:  Twayne Publishers, 1997.  Pp. xiv
+ 232.  Bibliography, index.  Cloth, 5-3/4" x 8-3/4".  $29.00.  ISBN

This book and many others are available at discounted prices from the
TwainWeb Bookstore, and purchases from this site generate commissions that
benefit the Mark Twain Project.  Please visit

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:

        Harold K. Bush, Jr.
        Saint Louis University

Copyright (c) 1999 Mark Twain Forum.  This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

Tom Quirk's recent volume, published as part of the ongoing series by
Twayne covering the short fiction of many American authors, is a thoroughly
informed introductory work that will be of use to both students and
scholars.  For both groups, Quirk provides extensive information and at
least some analysis regarding the fifty or so most important or influential
shorter works by Twain.  Readers will find strong plot description of these
works, often placed helpfully within the biographical, cultural, and
historical contexts that so frequently aid in the explanation of Twain's
literary production.  The footnotes are helpful and will lead anyone to the
main critical texts if more thorough background is desired.   The book
contains a useful though brief chronology of Twain's life, a good select
bibliography, and an excellent index.

Scholars will likely find the volume of most use when preparing for class,
lecture, or otherwise when in need of a quick summary of the contents or
features of classic Twain stories.  In one sense, the book has no major
"surprises," as Quirk himself notes in the introduction by stating that his
volume is "meant to be suggestive and comprehensive, not exhaustive;  the
purpose of this series is to supplement, rather than displace" (17).  On
these levels, Quirk fully succeeds.  Still, the narrative does frequently
"surprise" even learned Twainians with interesting interpretive twists or
contextual information that attest to the author's wide learning in this
field of study.

The book is made up of three distinct sections.  The most substantial
section is Part One:  The Short Fiction.  Here, Quirk narrates the story of
Twain as writer of short fiction;  he provides in roughly chronological
order the historical background, contents, and in many case quite strong
literary interpretations of the major pieces, often supplemented by way of
comparison with other, mainly minor pieces.  In addition, over half of the
book comprises excerpts from Twain's writings on the writerly task (Part
Two:  The Writer) as well as a good selection of some older but mainly
quite recent critical work concerned with Twain as writer of short fiction
(Part Three:  The Critics;  a complete listing of the excerpts printed in
Parts Two and Three is appended to the end of this review).  Both of these
sections begin with short introductions that summarize the content of the
pieces selected.  In short, the book provides in one handy volume a quick
and reliable crib of both the shorter literary productions of Twain and
some of the seminal critical responses to them, from both the author and an
interesting (though somewhat idiosyncratic) group of influential critics.

Some mention should be made of the book's title and, by extension, of its
supposed contents.  Since Twain did in fact compose so many different kinds
of works that might fit into a rubric concerned ostensibly with the
fictitious, the choosing of the works to be covered might turn out to be
somewhat of a bone of contention among Twainians.  Nevertheless, Quirk's
selections appear, for the most part, to include those works that students
would find most often assigned, both in undergraduate and graduate courses.
 As well, the choices would probably not be much attacked by the vast
middle ground of Twain scholarship today--although some may consider
certain selections to be generically of some other breed than that
announced by the book's title.  Twain, however, wrote in a plethora of
modes;  and rightfully, Quirk has tried to cover here the sheer variety,
including generic modes that go beyond the traditional limits of what we
might call the "short story."  Thus he discusses speeches (e.g. the
Whittier Birthday Speech), newspaper hoaxes ("Cannibalism in the Cars"),
folk tales, tall tales, fairy tales, and so forth.

One interesting feature of Quirk's commentary is his habit of making some
rather unusual comparisons between Twain pieces and works by other, later
authors.  His discussion of satire, for instance, which centers on such
droll works as "The Christmas Fireside" or "Advice for Good Little Boys,"
connects this style to modern satires ranging from _Miss Lonelyhearts_ and
_Wise Blood_ to the film _Animal House_ and the comedy of Richard Pryor
(shades of the recent Twain Award!).  The story "The Great Beef Contract,"
according to Quirk an early instance of modern, gothic humor (43), is
related to Faulkner and Kafka, as well as numerous Jack Lemmon films.

Another strength is Quirk's solid treatment of a handful of stories that
seem to constitute for Quirk the highest reaches of Twain's power as a
writer of short fiction.  For instance, in his nuanced and interesting
discussions of such works as "A True Story," "The Facts Concerning the
Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut," "The Private History of a
Campaign that Failed," and "The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg," we learn
much about the specific genesis and artistic accomplishmnet of these great
stories.  The treatment of "Hadleyburg" is impressive and detailed,
providing both a rich context and some of the critical debates about this
confusing story, and is the lengthiest discussion in the book.  Perhaps the
strongest analysis of all is the very interesting and sophisticated
treatment of "A True Story," which for Quirk marks the moment of Twain's
emergence as literary great rather than a mere run-of-the-mill
newspaperman.  Quirk's reading of "A True Story" demonstrates the greatness
of a story that until very recently had been generally overlooked by Twain

This is a readable, accessible, and accurate account of Twain as writer of
short fiction.  It certainly provides a fresh and up-to-date account to
which we can direct inquiring students, and as such should be ordered by
every college library in the land.  Moreover, the book will remind scholars
of the rich backgrounds of the stories covered, and will frequently make
ingenious interpretations, provide little-known historical or cultural
connections, or otherwise suggest promising directions that even the most
veteran Twainians have overlooked.

Appendix:  Contents of Sections Two and Three:

Section Two:
Complete reprints of the following works by Mark Twain:
"Report to the Buffalo Female Academy";  "Reply to the Editor of 'The Art
of Authorship'";  "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences";  "How To Tell a
Story";  and "William Dean Howells."

Section Three:
Excerpts from the following books:
William Dean Howells, _My Mark Twain_ (New York, 1910);  Louis J. Budd,
_Mark Twain:  The Ecstasy of Humor_ (Elmira, New York, 1995);  Don
Florence, _Persona and Humor in Mark Twain's Early Writings_ (Columbia,
1995);  Walter Blair, _Essays on American Humor:  Blair through the Ages_
(Madison, 1993);  Gregg Camfield, _Sentimental Twain:  Samuel Clemens in
the Maze of Moral Philosophy_ (Philadelphia, 1994);  and Susan K. Harris,
_Mark Twain's Escape from Time:  A Study of Patterns and Images_ (Columbia,


Dr. Harold K. Bush
Assistant Professor
Dept. of English
Saint Louis University
221 N. Grand Blvd.
Saint Louis, MO  63103

314-977-3631;   fax  314-977-1514