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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 17 May 2009 18:06:17 -0500
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin
Mac Donnell.



_Who is Mark Twain?_. By Mark Twain. Robert H. Hirst, ed. Harperstudio,
2009. 208 pp. Cloth. $19.99. ISBN 978-0-06-173500-4.

Many books reviewed on the Mark Twain Forum are available at discounted
prices from the Twain Web Bookstore. Purchases from this site generate
commissions that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Kevin Mac Donnell

Copyright (c) 2009 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published
or redistributed in any medium without permission.

A photograph taken about 1875 shows Mark Twain sitting in his "study"
at Quarry Farm, with wads of discarded paper tossed near the fireplace.
In another photograph of Twain taken in the same place about the same
time a shallow wicker basket under the table appears to be filled to
the brim with trashed scribblings. Other photographs of Twain show him
in close proximity to waste-baskets containing his false starts,
rejected themes, and discarded first drafts. It's no use enlarging
these photographs to read Twainian trash; God knows I've tried.

But all is not lost. Mark Twain saved more of his unpublished writings
than any other American author, most of them now part of the vast
archive of his papers preserved at the Mark Twain Project in the
Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley. There the
manuscripts of all but two of the two dozen pieces included in _Who Is
Mark Twain?_ now reside. A number of these pieces have been printed in
magazine form, used in scholarly studies, or included in a small
privately printed text published by the Mark Twain Project in 2001.
Here they are now in their first trade book publication, carefully
edited, and gracefully and informatively introduced by Robert H. Hirst,
the general editor of the Mark Twain Project.

Dating from 1868 to 1908, these pieces span nearly all of Twain's
professional career and take the form of fables, burlesques, letters to
editors, literary criticism, short stories, autobiographical snippets,
and political screeds that reflect the varied scope of Twain's familiar
published writings. They embrace most of the same themes as his
previously published works, which should not be surprising since more
than a few of them were written during the same periods when Twain was
composing his most enduring works. At the same time that they evoke
Twain's broader themes, several contain familiar turns of phrase and
familiar "quotes" found elsewhere in Twain's works. Just as Twain mined
his interviews and notebooks for things he could use in his writings,
he also mined his unpublished writings for anything he could use in
a published piece.

By their very nature, some of these short pieces may have served as
abortive first drafts for portions of Twain's longer writings. Two are
texts Twain removed from the manuscript of _A Tramp Abroad_ ("The Music
Box" and "The Grand Prix") and one was removed from _The Innocents
Abroad_ ("The Devil's Gate") and again rejected when Twain wanted to
include it in _Life on the Mississippi_. Three others ("Professor
Mahaffy on Equality," "An Incident," and "The American Press") were
written about the same time Twain was working on _A Connecticut Yankee
in King Arthur's Court_ and reflect some themes in common with that
longer work. One story, "Telegraph Dog," was written in 1907; it tells
the story of a loyal dog that dies at the end of the story, a maudlin
tale that echoes both _A Dog's Tale_ (1903) and A Horse's Tale_ (1907).
Finally, some pieces seem to borrow themes from previously published
works. In "Conversations with Satan" written just a few years after
_Puddn'head Wilson_ was published, Twain is under the impression that
Satan goes easy on Indians and so borrows the plot device he'd used in
that novel and drops hints to Satan that he is really an Indian,
switched in the cradle at birth.

Several of these pieces contain Twain's notes to himself where he
obviously intended to expand on the text at some later date (but never
did), and six of them abruptly end as if Twain was suddenly
interrupted, never to recapture the inspiration that had carried him to
that point. Some make abrupt shifts in direction, only to run out of
steam before ever getting back on track. Most are finished and ready
for print, but were withheld from publication for reasons sometimes
obvious to the reader and at other times for reasons known only to
Twain. Twain was in the habit of getting things off his chest by
writing letters that he never sent, and some of these short pieces may
have served a similar function. None of them is a masterpiece, some are
even failures, but all of them shed light on Twain's creative process.

Being a trade publication rather than another volume in the excellent
series of scholarly texts published by the Mark Twain Project, these
pieces are not burdened with the heavy textual apparatus that serious
Twain scholars expect and admire. Instead, they are introduced by Hirst
with as much commentary and background as is appropriate to a trade
book. In his twenty pages of introduction Hirst highlights the
backgrounds of most of the pieces, provides the context of Twain's
writing habits, explains why so many of Twain's writings remained
unpublished until now, defines the selection criteria for this group of
pieces, supplies reasonable titles to the ten pieces that were never
titled by Twain himself, and ends with the known or probable
composition dates for every piece.

Hirst crammed as much information into his introductory pages as any
reasonable trade publisher would tolerate, but a few footnotes along
the way would have enhanced the reader's appreciation of Twain--the
stated aim of this volume. A short biography of Frank Fuller would have
improved the second piece (Forum members can find a very good biography
of Fuller in _Mark Twain's Letters, Vol. 1_, p. 5-6). Likewise, brief
biographies of Matthew Arnold and Rev. Henry Van Dyke would have been
helpful for a better understanding of the pieces Twain wrote in reply
to those authors, and clear citations to their writings that provoked
Twain's response would have been illuminating. In "A Group of
Servants," a footnote would have been welcome identifying "the
Executive" (quite likely Twain's wife Livy) who patiently and
hilariously struggles to "reconstruct" a servant nicknamed "Wuthering
Heights." A trade book of this kind should not be cluttered with
footnotes, but a few helpful references here and there would not have
been intrusive or distracting to the casual reader.

That minute quibble aside, the pleasures of reading these pieces are
manifold. As one leafs through the book, some familiar Twain quotes
leap off the page. In the second piece, "Frank Fuller and My First New
York Lecture" we find Twain crediting his famous quote about lightning
and the lightning-bug to Josh Billings (p. 24), but this time claiming
that the difference is between "vivacity and wit" instead of the
"almost-right word & the right word." "On Postage Rates on Authors'
Manuscripts" begins with Twain's famous lines, "Reader, suppose you
were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat
myself" (p. 95). Several other lines in these pieces echo familiar
quotes, but I predict that some others not yet familiar will become
quoted bits of Twainian wit in the future. "Murder is forbidden both in
form and in fact; free speech is granted in form but forbidden in fact"
is a memorable line (p. 55) from "The Privilege of the Grave" one of
the stronger essays in this collection, an expansion of Twain's
well-known statement that only the dead can truly speak the truth. This
essay was written in September, 1905 when Twain was revising two works
that he did not feel he could publish at the time: "The War Prayer"
(published posthumously in _Europe and Elsewhere_, 1923) and _What Is
Man?_ (privately printed, anonymously, in 1906).

Another memorable line pops up early in "A Group of Servants" (p. 61)
when Twain describes the impossibility of ever learning to spell the
names of his Hungarian and Polish servants, whose names look to him
like "the alphabet out on a drunk." This piece may not have made it
into print earlier because it is clearly autobiographical and very
likely describes Twain's wife's efforts to reform one of their
servants. Describing his dentist in "Happy Memories of the Dental
Chair" Twain says "he had the calm, possessed, surgical look of a man
who could endure pain in another person" (p. 80). That quote will
surely be anthologized. Twain displays his wicked wit when he digs at
missionaries in "The Missionary in World-Politics," proclaiming "I do
not know why we respect missionaries. Perhaps it is because they have
not intruded here from Turkey or China or Polynesia to break our hearts
by sapping away our children's faith and winning them to the worship of
alien gods" (p. 103-4). Ouch!

When Twain is not being wickedly funny, he can be brief and nearly
poetic. In an extended passage in "The Grand Prix" he describes the
movement of a massive crowd and says "It was as if the world was
emigrating" (p. 132). But in that same piece he shifts back to his
wicked wit mode when he describes a Frenchman's custom of keeping
mistresses and concludes "This occasions a good deal of what we call
crime and the French call sociability" (p. 142). Twain takes a swipe at
partisan politics (p. 58) writing that once a man joins a particular
party he will stay in it even after he no longer believes in it because
of friendships and fear; therefore he does not have free speech.
However, he gives a stirring defense of American newspapers in "The
American Press" when he boasts "it is our irreverent press which has
laughed away, one by one, what remained of our inherited minor shams
and delusions and serfages after the Revolution, and made us the only
really free people that has yet existed in the earth..." (p. 205). A
few lines away on the same page Twain could be describing himself when
he says "a discriminating irreverence is the creator and protector of
human liberty."

Besides quotable quotes, there are longer sections of text that will
attract attention from Twain scholars or stick in the minds of Twain's
readers. The quote about crowds in "The Grand Prix" is from a long
passage (p. 136-43) in which Twain perfectly captures the ebb and flow
of the ocean of people in attendance. In his reply to Rev. Henry Van
Dyke, Twain makes a clear statement on determinism (p. 88), using
language very close to his annotations in his copy of a book by William
Lecky and the ideas he expressed in _What Is Man?_. He even ends that
piece with an explicit reference to _What Is Man?_ when he says he
thought about giving a copy of that book to Van Dyke but had second
thoughts because Van Dyke would not understand it.

Another extended passage that is striking for its candor is Twain's
description of his experience with using chloroform as a painkiller (p.
82-3) as one of his "Happy Memories of the Dental Chair." Things go
better for Twain in the dental chair than they did for Tom Sawyer's
cat. Perhaps the most striking passage in the book is Twain's sensuous
description of a "shapely" bare-ankled young woman stepping from a
carriage into the mud at "The Grand Prix" (p. 133-4). The passage is
not erotic--Twain's writing never is--but it's clear Twain was paying
close attention and "enjoying all this scenery" as he says. One other
passage deserves note. In "Interviewing the Interviewer" (p. 159)
Twain, himself a former journalist, enumerates the elements of tabloid
journalism: sensationalism, vilification of the innocent, libels, and
the glorification of "moneyed scum."

While not among the longer or more striking passages among these
pieces, Twain's comments on religion are numerous. Two of the pieces
are directed to men of the cloth ("Dr. Van Dyke as a Man and as a
Fisherman" and "I Rise to a Question of Privilege") and a third
("Professor Mahaffy on Equality") is a letter to the editor replying to
Prof. Mahaffy's confusion of secular and religious equality. "The
Quarrel in the Strong-Box" is a fable written about seven years after
the reply to Professor Mahaffy and echoes Twain's secular views of the
equality of mankind. When Twain converses with Satan, the dark spirit
is dressed as an Anglican bishop (p. 32). When Twain describes how he
has tried to appreciate the writings of Jane Austen (whose characters
he dismissed as "silly" unsympathetic "snobs" and "sneaks") he compares
himself to a bartender trying to appreciate the charms of Presbyterians
(p. 47), and Presbyterians take another gentle jab when Twain says (p.
87) that although Van Dyke is a 35-year-old Presbyterian clergyman and
Princeton faculty member, he still likes him "notwithstanding." In "The
Missionary in World-Politics" European missionaries in China take a
beating. In "The Devil's Gate" some miners, stung by a religious
newspaper's criticism of their town's name, hold a meeting and
innocently rename their hamlet 'Jehovah's Gap.' We know how Twain, not
a bit innocent, would have voted at that meeting.

Two pieces not mentioned above are among the best in this volume, and
are must-reads. "The Undertaker's Tale" is a cheeky riff from 1877 on
life as a zero-sum game. The narrator is raised by the Cadaver family
who fall on hard times and nearly lose their home when business falls
off. "I cannot bury people if they will not die" bemoans the family
patriarch. But soon the village is hit by a spate of accidents and
pestilence and business is once again brisk and all ends well. The
misfortune of others is their good fortune. This theme is picked up
again in _The War Prayer_, but by 1905 Twain's take on war as a
zero-sum game, where one side's misfortune is the other side's victory,
is a bitter reflection of an older wiser Twain who doesn't even try to
be funny. A closer reading of this pair of stories would yield at least
one term paper somewhere.

The other story that deserves special attention is "The Snow
Shovellers" and was written the year after _Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn_ was published, in the months before the Chicago Haymarket Riots,
when labor union organizers were fighting for an eight-hour work day.
It relates a conversation between two black snow-shovellers early one
morning on a wealthy suburban street in the pristine aftermath of a
heavy snow-storm. Not a shovel-full of snow ever gets shovelled. With
no other souls stirring, the two men instead lean on their shovels
discussing (in dialect) their disgust with anarchists and socialists
("Anerkis'" and "Socialis'"), and reaffirm their own Calvinist work
ethic ("ef I didn't work for my livin' I'd feel dat low down dat I
couldn't look nobody in de face--dem's my senterments"). They begin
their talk with mutual declarations that they would not work for pay by
the job, but only by the hour. At last, their chat is abruptly and
angrily ended by one of their rich employers who threatens to fire them
if they don't get to work. It's possible Twain heard black men
discussing this topic, but it's far more likely that these sentiments
were spoken by his white friends and neighbors, and that Twain could
not effectively satirize his friends' hypocrisy unless he put their
words into the mouths of stereotypical lazy black laborers, whose
voices, his readers would be more likely to accept. The setting, the
words spoken, and everything about this short piece drip with irony
(the year after Twain published the greatest ironic American novel) and
there is more here worth exploring than could be covered in a term

These stories don't have a thematic unity or common purpose, but
instead show Twain's many facets as a writer and social commentator,
and give a hint of the harvest to come from his many more unpublished
manuscripts. In "Frank Fuller and My First New York Lecture" an anxious
Twain overhears two men looking at a handbill for his first New York
lecture.  One asks the other "Who is Mark Twain" and the other replies
"God knows--I don't" (p. 15). Hence, the title of this marvelous little
collection. By the end of this book every reader will know the answer
to that question.