The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Harold K.
_Mark Twain's Civil War_. Edited by David Rachels. University of Kentucky
Press, 2007. Pp. 220. Cloth. $30.00. ISBN 978-0-8131-2474-2.
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
By Harold K. Bush, Jr.
Saint Louis University
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Copyright (c) 2008 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.
_Mark Twain's Civil War_ is a fine, readable collection of writings on the
Civil War by and about Mark Twain. Surprisingly, David Rachels begins his
collection by telling the story of the U. S. Congressional debate regarding
new postage stamps in 1940. Odd as it seems, this is a particularly apt
anecdote with which to begin, because it was at this time that a number of
mistaken and amusing impressions about Twain's war experiences were aired
to the general public. The kicker came when Congressman Joseph Shannon
opined that Twain's war service proved that he was "not of the same kidney
as real Missourians" (p. 2).
This minor controversy emerged from a debate over the best place to issue
the first day stamps bearing the image of Mark Twain: should it be in
Hannibal, or Hartford? (Such weighty matters, then as now, are evidently
important enough to require the time of tax-paid legislators and to take up
valuable space in the Congressional Record, which surely would have
delighted, or irritated, the man under discussion.) But a remarkable
aspect of this opening episode of the volume is to highlight how Mark
Twain's participation (or non-participation) in the War of Secession
immediately broaches matters of pride, masculinity, national memory, and
the tricky lines separating fiction from fact all at the same time.
Thus does Rachel's interesting introduction focus on two important themes
that emerge in his analysis of Mark Twain's war record and the various
writings in which they are expressed. First is his consideration of the
obvious confusions that turn up from account to account, and indeed overall
the sense of confusion that constitutes a major theme in most of these
different tales. Rachels does a worthwhile job of showing how confusing
service in Missouri really was during these heated times. Nowadays, it is
becoming more common for critics to refrain from calling Twain a
"Confederate," even though he occasionally used that moniker for himself.
Indeed, when I undertook my own lengthy study of the scholarly work on
Twain's Civil War writings, I was struck over and over by the sheer number
of (often famous) critics who stated unapologetically that Twain was, in
fact, a Confederate soldier. However, as several scholars have recently
shown (most notably Terrell Dempsey in his excellent historical account,
_Searching for Jim_), Twain was never a Confederate. Rachels does admit as
much ("he was technically never a member of the Confederate Army" [p. 7]),
but he simultaneously shows how confusing the situation must have been. I
would even venture to say that his comments succeed in complicating this
issue somewhat, and in emphasizing these difficult distinctions, so that I
come away from the introduction slightly less certain of my own
understanding about Twain's situation. Despite his important
qualifications, Rachels grounds Twain's wartime movements within the sphere
of the Confederacy, and some of Rachel's comments are worth questioning,
such as when he claims that Twain "fought in support of slavery," or that
it was clear to him that he had "answered the call of the Confederacy" (pp.
12, 6). The header of the section on _Roughing It_ begins, "After quitting
the confederate cause, Sam Clemens traveled west ..." (p. 21).
We might quibble with these matters, I suspect, but it is also necessary to
state, at the very least, that opinions do vary on these matters. In fact
Rachels shows admirably that such confusions were relevant to Twain's
personal experience of enlisting, and that they are solidly written into
several of the accounts, notably his very first public speech on the war,
delivered in 1877, when he states that the competing loyalties sent
ambiguous signals: "Well, you see, this mixed us. We couldn't really tell
which side we were on" (p. 5). This comment is slightly amended in the most
famous narrative he produced, the "Private History of a Campaign that
Failed" (1885), where Twain says, "This mixed us considerably, and we
could not make out just what service we were embarked in" (7). These young
recruits were obviously mixed up as to their proper loyalties, and besides
Missouri, this must have been a common emotion faced by enlisted soldiers
throughout the border states--and quite possibly, affecting many other
southerners as well.
The second important idea that Rachels develops is when he utilizes Tim
O'Brien's distinction between what he calls "happening truth" and "story
truth," a paradigm O'Brien first put forth in his Vietnam novel, _The
Things They Carried_. Rachels broaches the important question of the
"truthfulness" of Twain's accounts of his war was experience. Fifty years
ago, John Gerber produced a paper, "Mark Twain's Private Campaign," that
outlined the various manifestations of this tale; Gerber counted eight,
including Absalom Grimes's account in his book published over 65 years
after the war's inception. Among other things, the many years between the
publication of various accounts, and the fact that several people produced
these differing versions, allow readers today to be rather uncertain about
what actually occurred. Most famously, did Twain witness, and perhaps even
have a hand in, the death of a soldier, as narrated near the end of the
"Private History"? Probably not, is the consistent response of the
biographers and historians. However, Rachels's implementation of O'Brien's
model allows us to envision a somewhat different response to that tricky
question. Yes, in terms of happening truth, it probably did not really
happen. But the story truth contained in the "Private History" is much more
enduring because of that single death. Whether or not readers of Rachels's
book would agree, at least his invocation of story truth brings a fresh
perspective to this chestnut of Twain biography.
Indeed, the value of the "story truth" in these tales takes on new life,
when they are read with O'Brien's paradigm in mind. It is worthwhile to
have finally in one volume the many versions of Twain's war record
presented here. The book comprises two main sections, besides the
introductory essay. The first section, called "Nonfiction," includes
Twain's first known remarks about his war experience in 1877; the "Private
History" of 1885; Twain's remarks made in 1887 at a veteran's banquet in
Baltimore; his 1901 speech in New York (notable for its praise of Abraham
Lincoln); and some interesting excerpts from the autobiographical
dictations of January, 1907. There are one or two other pieces that might
have been included here, such as Twain's plea for the Lincoln memorial in
1907, which would have been a nice complement to the 1901 speech. This
section also contains the account by Absalom Grimes, composed in 1926, and
the sections of Albert Paine's biography that cover the war period. It also
takes in a few non-fictional excerpts from _Roughing It_ and _Life on the
Mississippi_, though a few of the very fine sections of _Life on the
Mississippi_ that deal with war issues are not included here.
The second large section is titled "Fiction," a strong collection of the
stories in which Twain dramatizes events during the war years: "An
Exchange of Prisoners" (1863), "Lucretia Smith's Soldier" (1864), "The
Facts in the Case of the Great Beef Contract" (1870), "A True Story"
(1874), and "A Curious Experience" (1881). These tales still entertain,
such as the ending of "Lucretia Smith's Soldier," which reveals that the
soldier Lucretia was pining for was not her lover at all. An excerpt from
_The Gilded Age_ rounds out the section, and the book ends with the "Battle
Hymn of the Republic (Brought Down to Date)," a parody of the most famous
song of the war years that remained unpublished during Twain's lifetime.
The book is handsome, well produced, and well illustrated. One might
question the inclusion of a piece such as the "Private History," or for
that matter even certain speeches, into a section called "Nonfiction."
Indeed, we might even quibble with the desirability of separating the
writings out as either fictional or nonfictional, given the content of the
introduction and the emphasis on the blurring of lines between these two
categories. More positively, many of the selections, such as the "Private
History," "A True Story," "The Facts in the Case of the Great Beef
Contract," and the excerpts from the novels, all present the original
illustrations, an additional boon. Although it does not include very much
scholarly apparatus (no index and little historical support for unknown
names, places, events, and so on), the volume is a nice addition to the
Twain bookshelf, and perfect for reading in an easy chair, with its roomy
pages and comfortable font and style. More should be written about Mark
Twain and the Civil War--the central event in American history--and this
volume is a timely contribution to that enterprise.
Harold K. Bush, Jr.
Saint Louis University