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Larry Howe <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 24 Sep 1999 13:11:04 -0700
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Book Review

McCullough, Joseph B., and Janice McIntire-Strasburg (eds.). _Mark
Twain at the Buffalo Express: Articles and Sketches by America's
Favorite Humorist_. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press,
1999. Pp. 309 + xlvii. Cloth, 6-1/4" x 9-1/4". $30.00. ISBN

Many books reviewed on the Mark Twain Forum are available at
discounted prices from the TwainWeb Bookstore, and purchases from this
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by
Larry Howe <[log in to unmask]>
Roosevelt University

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 This review may not be published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

Twain biographers and critics have often noted that he left more
unpublished than published writing. A good deal of both has been
carefully examined and reprinted, as we might expect for a writer of
Twain's reputation. Considering all the attention that his work has
attracted, it's rather surprising that a considerable portion of  his
published writing has remained largely unavailable to modern readers
until now. In _Mark Twain at the Buffalo Express_,  Joseph B.
McCullough and Janice McIntire-Strasburg have collected a fascinating
array of articles and sketches Twain wrote during his year-and-a-half
tenure as editor and co-owner of the _Buffalo Express_ from August of
1869 to January of 1871. The volume yields much to interest both
scholars and general readers.

To be sure, several notable scholars--Louis Budd, Jeffrey Steinbrink,
Bruce McElderry, Martin Fried, and Bruce Michelson, for example-- have
examined and commented on Twain's Buffalo years.  But this new
collection suggests that much more remains for discussion. The editors
have derived their text "from a microfilm of the original printing of
the _Buffalo Express_, since printed copies of the newspaper no longer
exist" (xi), except in the case of sketches published simultaneously
in the magazine, _Galaxy_, judging the latter a more reliable
copy-text.  They describe their editing practices as conservative and
will make available a complete list of emendations for anyone who
contacts them directly.  They have arranged the material
chronologically in all instances except Twain's "Salutatory," which
appeared four days after the first attributed piece.  The pieces are
divided into five groups according to biographical circumstances, but
the relevance of these groupings is difficult to detect in the pieces
themselves. The volume includes notes that identify references to
people and places not generally known, and supply relevant information
from Mark Twain's letters.  A modest index consists mostly of names of
people mentioned in the texts of Twain's articles and sketches or in
the notes.

The most notable feature of the editors' apparatus is the
introduction, which provides an interesting account of how Buffalo
became the place where Twain would settle into business and become a
family man upon marrying Olivia Langdon.  Twain had pursued an
interest in several other newspapers before buying into the _Express_.
His first choice was the _Cleveland Herald_.  When his negotiations
with the _Herald_ stalled, he made offers to purchase a share of the
_Hartford Courant_, and later the _Springfield (MA) Republican_.
During this same period, he declined an invitation from David Ross
Locke (Petroleum V. Nasby) to join him at the _Toledo Blade_.   In the
end, it was Jervis Langdon, his future father-in-law, who found him
the post with the _Express_ and loaned Twain half of the $25,000
buy-in price for his share in the newspaper.  Langdon's generosity
would later include the purchase of a very comfortable three-story
house as a gift to his daughter Olivia and her new husband.

In addition to placing Twain's output as editor of the _Express_ in
the context of his new family life, the introduction relates this
journalistic venture to his other publishing activities.  For example,
the sketches that also appeared in the _Galaxy_ afforded him a higher
literary profile.  And in very Twainian fashion, he wasn't at the
_Express_ much more than ten weeks before setting out on a twelve-week
lecture tour that took him through five states.  The introduction also
offers some even-handed interpretation of general trends in the pieces
that follow as well as at least one reference to unpublished pieces,
not included, that complement some of the sketches.

As informative as this introduction is, the most valuable materials in
this volume are the sketches and articles.  Not all are new
discoveries; some Twain published himself in _Sketches New and Old_
(1875) and in other book-length compilations.  Still, their appearance
here is instructive; sketches like "The Capitoline Venus" or "An
Awful--Terrible Medieval Romance" take on a different cast when we
view them among the daily output of a professional journalist.
Notably, the sketches and articles, taken as a whole, give evidence
both of where he had come from and where he was going.  His affinity
for tall tales, hoaxes, and barbed squibs honed during his days as a
California and Nevada journalist persisted even after he had resettled
in the genteel East.  And certainly much of his fascination with the
West continued in a series of letters that he wrote jointly with D. R.
Ford, a traveling scientist.  In fact, the correspondence is nearly
all Twain's because Ford generated far fewer letters than originally
promised.  Twain had anticipated writing perhaps two to every one of
the scientist's letters, but the editor's share of the correspondence
grew, expanding his reminiscences of the far West, in order to fill
the vacuum left by his traveling correspondent's failure to comply
with the contract.  The original plan was an extension of what he had
achieved in the _Alta California_ letters written during his voyage
aboard the Quaker City.  And the development of those letters into the
travel narrative _Innocents Abroad_ became the model for turning  the
_Express_ letters into _Roughing It_.  The _Express_ columns also
provide evidence of his admiration of his father-in-law and patron,
Jervis Langdon.  No doubt, Twain's gratitude influenced the flattering
columns he wrote about Langdon's financial interests.  And surely,
having a son-in-law in the newspaper business offered distinct public
relations benefits for an industrialist like Langdon.  These benefits
were forthcoming almost immediately.  Within four days of joining the
_Express_, Twain wrote a column, with ostensible impartiality, in
which he endorsed the good-heartedness of coal barons, among whom he
named Langdon, and exonerated them from blame in the recent escalation
of coal prices.

In at least one case, though, Twain's willingness to write on behalf
of Langdon's interests may give us pause.  For example, the unsigned
critical piece from March 9, 1870 on the coal miners' union shows very
little sympathy for the very real dangers that coal miners faced, and
their exploitation by mine owners.  Given that Twain knew something
about mining, having spent some of his western years prospecting for
precious metals, one might imagine that he would have been critical of
the working conditions that coal miners endured.   And in light of the
independence that marked his own mining enterprises, and his
expectation of gaining the full profit for any ore he extracted, we
might also expect that the labor struggle would have piqued his
sympathy.  Granted, the Molly Maguires were a controversial group of
activists to whom were attributed some very brutal events, but Twain's
fondness for the mine owners here sounds a very different chord from
his account in _Life on the Mississippi_ of how the Pilots'
Association outmaneuvered the steamboat owners' attempts to curtail
pilots' wages.   When we consider that his wife was heir to a coal
mine owner, his critique of the coal miners' union smacks of special
pleading.  Perhaps just as significantly, though, we can read in this
moment of insensitivity to the plight of labor at least one side of
the mixed logic of _A Connecticut Yankee_ and _Mysterious Stranger,
No. 44_, as well as Clemens's own ambiguous relation to the labor of
the printer's trade and his disastrous investment--both capital and
emotional--in the Paige typesetter.

Conversely, we see in another unsigned piece entitled "Only A Nigger,"
from August 26, 1869, two weeks after taking his post, his emerging
concern for the social injustice of Southern race relations. Although
the title and sophistication of this piece is likely to inspire as
much misinterpretation as has the use of the same charged term in
_Huckleberry Finn_, the performance is a specimen of the kind of
critical irony that distinguishes his best work.

What stands out most strongly in this collection, though, is not the
range of subject matter in his journalism, but rather his repeated
focus on the craft of writing.  That is, his topic in many of these
articles and sketches is very often writing itself.  Readers will
probably be familiar with the frequently re-printed "Journalism in
Tennessee."  But the degree to which the fascination generating that
burlesque pervades nearly every piece is striking.  For example, he
returns repeatedly to a hot piece of gossip of the day--Harriet
Beecher Stowe's revelation of Lord Byron's incestuous affair with his
sister.  On the one hand, this salacious item is a tidbit that
exploits popular interest, much like celebrity gossip of today.  But
on the other hand, Twain's treatment of it highlights the rhetorical
considerations by examining the authority of the claim, the
appropriateness of its dissemination, and the problem that arises when
a literary artist is exposed for questionable, if not outright
objectionable, personal behavior.  In numerous instances, Twain takes
as his topic the act of writing, either that of journalists or of
readers who correspond with the _Express_ because of what they've read
there.  Perhaps most often, he addresses his own literary acts.  In a
number of cases, he lampoons his inability to write on a subject with
any authority, as in "How I Edited an Agricultural Paper."

In another signal instance, he takes a form of reading as his topic
when he describes the scenery of a Boston production of _A Midsummer
Night's Dream_, acknowledging that he is far from adept in theatrical
criticism.  Nor does he want to be because professional judgment
eliminates esthetic pleasure:

        I suppose if I were a doctor I would see consumption where
        ignorant people only saw and admired a blush on a handsome
        face; and I might see a death warrant in what another man took
        for a beautiful complexion; and I suppose that in cases where
        ignorant were charmed with what seemed a romantic languour
        [sic], I would say, "Blue mass is what she wants-- the young
        woman's liver is out of order."  I do not wish to be a
        critic, or a doctor.   For when I see such a thing as this
        "Midsummer Night's Dream," I wish to "gush;" and when I see
        female beauty I wish to "gush" again and continue to "gush."

This modest disqualification of his critical sensibilities foreshadows
the account he delivered six years later in "Old Times on the
Mississippi" explaining how he lost his romantic attachment to the
river by having mastered reading of it as a pilot:

        No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river.
        the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of
        usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe
piloting of
        a steamboat.  Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my
        heart.  What does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheek mean to
        doctor but a "break" that ripples above some deadly disease?
        Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him
        signs and symbols of hidden decay?  Does he ever see her
        beauty at all, or doesn't he simply view her professionally,
        comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself?  And
        doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or
        lost most by learning his trade? (_LOM_, 120-1 [Oxford Mark

His misgivings about the distortion of a professional's perspective
notwithstanding, in many of the _Express_ sketches and increasingly
throughout his career, he demonstrates how much he is consumed with a
literary professional's concern with language and its influence over
all other aspects of social and personal life.

Indeed, the degree to which the act and effects of writing dominate
his attention at this Buffalo stage of his career suggests the
evolution of his identity from journalist to what he would call
"littery man."  In a letter to Orion early in March of 1871, just as
he was about to terminate his journalistic career, he expressed his
frustration with newspaper writing as a creative outlet: "Haven't I
risked cheapening myself sufficiently by a year's periodical dancing
before the public?" (xliii).  The rush of daily deadlines, to which he
was less and less inclined to respond, and the pressure of filling
column inches became more and more onerous. He longed for the prestige
and the opportunity that serious authorship seemed to hold out.

Still, the Buffalo years were clearly very important in this
professional transition.  The _Express_ sketches show that the more
alert Twain became to the power and problems of linguistic
representation, the more profoundly he became a man of letters,
skilled in the use of language and yet astute to both the dangerous
distortions and inadequacies of language.