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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Tue, 26 Dec 2006 12:24:29 -0600
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Michael
J. Kiskis.



_Printer's Devil:  Mark Twain and the American Publishing Revolution_.
Bruce Michelson. Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2006. Pp. XIII,
299. Hardcover. $34.95. ISBN 0-520-2759-0.

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 by Michael J. Kiskis, Elmira College.

Copyright  2006 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

In _Printer's Devil: Mark Twain and the American Publishing Revolution_
Bruce Michelson moves beyond an examination of Samuel Clemens as a primal
force in humor as well as beyond the work of humor more generally.
Michelson's earlier works were _Mark Twain on the Loose: A Comic Writer and
the American Self_ (1995) and _Literary Wit_ (2000). In _Printer's Devil_
he focuses on Clemens's experience within the maelstrom of nineteenth
century publishing, and especially the impact of technological innovation
on both the process and product of book production. Early in his
consideration of Clemens's immersion in nineteenth century print culture,
Michelson offers a broad summary statement:

The innovations that reconstructed American publishing after 1840, changes
that only increased in scope and fury during the end of the nineteenth
century, altered nearly everything that a "book" was and could be--not only
its physical construction, demographic reach, and economic value but also
its potential as a cultural artifact and even its epistemology. Every
decade of Clemens's life from 1850 through 1900 brought radical disruptions
in that reality, and in every one of those decades he re-created himself as
an author to respond to that new world (19).

For too long we have looked at Clemens's alter ego Mark Twain almost
exclusively as a construction of and reaction to literary stresses,
personal bouts of creativity, and professional anxiety. We have focused on
the individual traits of the writer and the persona and presented and
analyzed those traits tied to the printed word or (in some cases) the
broader cultural and historical moment. Clemens's position in and reaction
to print history and specifically print technologies, however, are more
complex than we have so far understood (or even thought to admit).
Michelson's bracing look at Clemens and Mark Twain and the way each was
shaped by vertiginous changes in the publishing industry offers new insight
into Samuel Clemens and the symbiotic relationship between the printer's
devil who became one of America's more influential authors and the
technology that entranced, bewitched, and ultimately ruined and then
resurrected him.

Technological innovation radically transformed the publishing industry
through the nineteenth century. Michelson focuses on five major innovations
that appeared between 1840 and the Civil War. The first of these is the
development of stereotype and electrotype. Electrotype was important
because it allowed safe shipping of plates to distant presses. Book
publishing became more dispersed and books were more readily available
nationally. The technology also had genuine implications for the wide
circulation of copies of art works. Michelson states, "Beyond the
production of high-quality relics of set type and engravings,
electroplating processes played havoc with the Western decorative arts and
rituals of status display by multiplying and deepening the confusion on the
streets about authenticity and intrinsic value" (38). Michelson also
discusses the illustrations in several of Clemens's books and explains how
readily available illustrations and art reproduction jumbled distinctions
of social class and the concomitant evolution of taste for the authentic.
For example, consider the art on display in Clemens's travel books or the
various samples of art work on display in the Grangerford home in
_Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_.

Several innovations affected the speed of production and the cost of
materials. Powered type-revolving and automated bed-and-platen presses
allowed for exponential increases in the speed and, therefore, the quantity
of books printed. Mechanized manufacturing lowered paper costs. Added to
the increase in efficiency was a marked improvement in distribution with
the expansion of the railroad and telegraph networks. This extension of the
distribution network for literary products and basic kinds of social and
cultural information made it possible for larger publishing companies to
extend their reach into the west. Instantaneous communication of
information often made small town newspapers obsolete. Many, like Orion
Clemens's various newspapers, were driven out of business because of the
ready availability of regional and national publications.

Technical advances in electroplating and cost-reductions in printing
illustrations led to a surge in multi-media production. Books offered
readers both textual and visual representations. This innovation held
special importance for Clemens because it affected his definition of
himself as a literary worker and made the work of book creation much more
complex and compelling as a creative act. In Michelson's words:

As a massive dissemination of printed images in periodicals and books
transformed the American experience of reading, the new imperative for
visual experience transformed Mark Twain's thinking about the books that he
intended to write, the subjects he wrote _about_, his rhetorical style, and
the tastes and values of the audience he was writing to. . . When _The
Innocents Abroad_ established Mark Twain as an author of picture-laden
books, he began to play a central role in designing books that followed,
hiring his illustrators, vetting their pictures, doing images himself--and
collaborating, now and then, in the piracy of other people's work (44).

Michelson provides an extensive discussion of Clemens's engagement in the
American publishing industry, ranging from his early years as a printer's
devil and apprentice; to his successful years as an author in the stable of
the American Publishing Company and as a publisher himself with his
creation of the Charles L. Webster & Company; to his final years when he
was forced to relinquish control of his texts to the marketing and
production whims of Harper and Brothers. Throughout, Michelson frames his
discussion within a clear statement of purpose to review:

. . . how the life of Sam Clemens, and the career and public identity of
Mark Twain, took shape under the pressure of this revolution . . . to
observe how these technological transformations manifest themselves in Mark
Twain's texts--not only in their embellishment but also in how they are
written and structured as prose--and how this print revolution is engaged
as a _subject_ in these texts. . .[and to consider] the metaphoric presence
of the Mark Twain legacy, and its special importance now, in the midst of
another media revolution (19-20).

These purposes form the spine of the argument that flows through five
chapters and an afterword. In each of the chapters, Michelson spotlights
several of Clemens's major works and demonstrates how the technology of
publishing tied directly to Clemens's thinking about the creation of
literary art, both as a literary process and as a product shaped by the
available technology. This symbiotic link becomes especially clear as
Michelson examines _Innocents Abroad_, _A Tramp Abroad_, _Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn_, and _A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court_. There
are also substantial discussions of the _Mysterious Stranger_ manuscripts,
_Extracts from Adam's Diary_, _Eve's Diary_, and "King Leopold's Soliloquy."

Michelson provides a variety of careful, focused examinations of the
relation of illustration to text and the increasingly sophisticated weaving
of illustrations into the text. He also discusses Clemens's relationship
with various illustrators, especially E. W. Kemble, and of the changing
aesthetic and pre-modern sensibilities that drove the illustrations of
Clemens's later works, including Adam's and Eve's diaries. The advent of
the Kodak box camera becomes vital and offers genuine challenges to the
relationship between prose and picture when the photos of abuse in King
Leopold's Congo drag readers' attention away from Clemens's literary
soliloquy to confront readers with the reality of torture. Michelson's
discussion of the conflict between written and visual representation is
especially good here, as is his comment on the sophisticated manipulation
of some of the photographic evidence.

Perhaps most compelling is Michelson's chapter on _Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn_. The chapter forces us to confront the implications of
Huck's supposed authorship and to ask not only who is telling the story
(Huck? Mark Twain? Sam Clemens?) but also how readers can best juggle the
mix of time frames and the understandings or definitions of authorship that
plague the novel. Michelson begins his discussion: "Huck's comments about
that previous book and about the reliability of the man who wrote it
complicate the problem of who is speaking now, and where and when, and what
passes for 'truth' in _Tom Sawyer_, or in this new novel, or memoir, or
what it is that begins here" (119). The issues of authority and voice are
paramount and demonstrate the volatile nature of the narrative line. The
issues here revolve not only around Huck's voice but around the act of
authorship and, ultimately, the combination of text and illustration, all
of which leads readers to experience the collaborative nature of the novel.
The mix of time and place and voice and image upsets easy interpretation
and makes the novel new and subversive: "In several dimensions, this novel
is both an artifact of a new information age and a meditation on what it
meant to be an author amid the expansion of American publishing from the
time of Huck's boyhood on to the summer of 1883, when Mark Twain apparently
recovered his interest in the sequel, took up the manuscript again, and
completed it" (134). Ultimately, the novel aims at two audiences, which
deeply complicates the notion of a singular tale: "Mark Twain is writing
for a vast market; Huck himself, as a boy making a book, can harbor no such
intentions or dreams. This means that as readers we have two books for the
price of one, a naive personal history written or spoken by a boy in his
teens, fresh from a perilous experience on the Mississippi River and
telling it all essentially for his neighbors, and a performance by the most
celebrated humorist of the Gilded Age, crafted as a mass-market corporate
enterprise" (138).

In the end, this dual project offers a complicated picture of the
relationship between literacy of a peculiar and local sort to the expansion
of a broader cultural awareness, flawed as it is because of the lack of
control over the intersection of individual bits of knowledge and the
general dissemination of those bits by a publishing industry concerned only
with getting pages and images out to the masses. This is exemplified by
Huck's imperfect but certain knowledge of history and the duke and the
king's ability to use a shallow understanding of the world to manipulate a
small town audience. Michelson makes clear that the world of Huck Finn has
been and continues to be influenced by the broad distribution of culture, a
culture that is a shallow mix of image and fact. In short, _Huckleberry
Finn_ is about the spread of a shallow literacy. And in the end, Huck's
narrative, as a creative act, can be imagined as a complex act of refusal
and subversion. According to Michelson:

Mark Twain's impersonation of Huck is an act of subversion as well. Working
together, what do they subvert?  The etiquette and the ostensible
reliability of the omniscient narrative voice, to be sure, but also the
constrictive civilities of an industrialized American literary culture,
orthodoxies of structure, form, plot, dictated by a publishing and
marketing system that was acquiring the pathologies of an industry. They
resist the disappearance of the author into the accumulation of his own
printed words, the compounding perils of modern literary success (163).

This is a very different conversation than the one we are most used to
hearing about the difficulties and transgressions of the novel. It is
refreshing. And it helps us see the role of the novel as a shaper of a
broad aesthetic discussion covering the warp and woof of nineteenth century
American literacy. And twenty-first century literacy as well.

Roughly three-quarters of the way through his book, Michelson offers this

Mark Twain's outbreaks of micromanagement, his reveries of long-range
success, and his harassment  of managers, hired artists, engineers, and
anyone else who had professional dealings with him can be assembled into
one long tale of personal unhappiness, with enough character flaws in
evidence to suit a Eugene O'Neill. But that same body of evidence can be
read differently, and with stronger relevance to the present. Mark Twain
knew publishing: he knew printing; he knew what it took to be a
first-magnitude American author. With energy and prodigious experience, he
tried to dominate and was overwhelmed--and what figured most in bringing
him down, I think, was not some mythological Wheel of Fortune or tragic
flaw, but an onward rush of innovation so strong and treacherous that a man
who had known movable type and presses and writing since childhood could
not keep up with it all or stay out of its way (184).

Samuel Clemens is a representative figure, but not merely in the way that
we have come to be taught. True, he is involved in and helps to shape the
social and moral and political discussions of his time and of ours. But
here we have a Clemens who is deep in the center of a revolution that pulls
readers out of the nineteenth century toward a more complex understanding
of the role that print technology--and now the role of information
dissemination in the whole--plays in how we see the world either as
individuals or as a social group. Clemens's books and his artistic
understanding evolve and are made more complex and more resonant because of
his own understanding of the technology of print and its effects on readers
moving into the modern era. In all, Clemens's role as artist is much more
complex than one that is defined only by a writer's work in prose, and the
breadth and depth of his creative involvement can be appreciated best as we
come to see his strides and his successes and failures in multi-media