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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Wed, 26 Apr 2006 17:12:58 -0500
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_A Companion to Mark Twain_. Edited by Peter Messent and Louis J. Budd.
Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Pp. xxi + 342. Hardcover. $149.95. ISBN

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Barbara Schmidt

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 This review may not be published or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

The Blackwell Companions to literature and culture aim to provide
undergraduate and graduate students with new perspectives and insights as
developed by leading scholars around the world. A quick scan of the
thirty-eight previous Blackwell Companions listed in the front pages of the
current Mark Twain edition indicates that Twain is the first American
author to have a Blackwell volume devoted exclusively to his life and
writings. _A Companion to Mark Twain_ contains thirty-five essays from
thirty-six contributors. (Mark Dawidziak and R. Kent Rasmussen have joined
efforts to provide one essay titled "Mark Twain on the Screen.")  The
essays, approximately ten to twelve pages in length, range from
biographical studies to literary criticisms and theoretical commentary. The
biographical contributions are highly accurate and the critical and
theoretical components are thought-provoking. Each essay provides the
reader with an extensive bibliography for references and further reading.

_A Companion to Mark Twain_ offers six broad subject areas with four to
eight essays on each subject. The six main topic areas are "The Cultural
Context," with subtopics related to concepts of nationality, human nature,
race, gender, modernity, politics, and imperialism. "Mark Twain and Others"
includes subtopics related to the Sagebrush bohemians, southern humorists,
Charles Dickens, George Washington Cable, and William Dean Howells. "Mark
Twain: Publishing and Performing," discusses theories of orality, the
profession of writing, magazine publishing, stage performance, and
depictions of Twain and his works on movie screens and television. "Mark
Twain and Travel" contains four essays related to the Mississippi River,
the American West, Continental Europe, and travel writing in general. "Mark
Twain's Fiction" devotes essays to Twain's short fiction, the longer works
of _The Adventures of Tom Sawyer_and _The Prince and the Pauper_ (as
juvenile literature), _Huckleberry Finn_, _A Connecticut Yankee in King
Arthur's Court_, _The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson_, and Twain's writings
in his later life. "Mark Twain's Humor" contains essays devoted to visual
humor, humor after the Civil War (which is a close examination of an often
overlooked book titled _Mark Twain's Library of Humor_ and its
contributors), amiable humor, and wit. A final seventh section titled "A
Retrospective" written by Alan Gribben is an all-encompassing essay on "The
State of Mark Twain Studies" which provides the historical overview of past
Twain research and criticism as well as prospects for the future. It is
sufficient to state that Twain's major works receive discussion throughout
the seven separate subject areas. It is beyond the scope of this book
review to provide an in-depth analysis of all thirty-five essays, but the
following noteworthy examples--one from each section--provide a sampling of
the contributions.

In an essay by Susan K. Harris for "The Cultural Context" section titled
"Twain and America's Christian Mission Abroad" Harris builds upon the
foundation of research by Jim Zwick related to Mark Twain's
anti-imperialism stances. Harris argues that the United States's entry into
a global economy via imperialist expansion profoundly affected Twain's
understanding of the underlying agenda of American Christianity and the
missionary movement. Harris concludes, "Rather than continuing the
nineteenth-century conversation that first mapped 'Christian' onto
'American,' and then divided Christians into the good and the bad, the
early twentieth-century conversation mapped 'American Christian' onto
'imperialist,' feeding Twain's cynicism about the 'damned human race' "
(p. 50-51).

In the "Mark Twain and Others" section, Lawrence I. Berkove examines
"Nevada Influences on Mark Twain" and discusses the art of the hoax as
practiced by "Sagebrush authors."  According to Berkove, "Having learned
from the best, Twain eventually bettered his instructors. Every substantial
work of fiction that he wrote for the rest of his life has hoaxes at its
core--some of them extremely subtle and sophisticated and very serious.
This was the principal Nevada legacy to his writing. It was one of two
distinguishing constituents of his style" (p. 164). Berkove stresses the
importance of recognizing a thematic structure disguised by hoax and irony
which is at the heart of all Twain's major works.

"Mark Twain: Publishing and Performing" features an essay by Thomas D.
Zlatic titled "'I don't know A from B': Mark Twain and Orality" Zlatic
provides an easy-to-understand definition of orality which stresses that
the term refers to "habits of the mind" that are developed from speech
communication. Over the course of his lifetime, Twain was familiar with the
rural oral tradition, reading aloud for entertainment, the development of
national print technologies and mass marketing, and electronic
communications of the telephone and telegraph. Zlatic examines a number of
Twain's works with a focus on the theory of oral dynamics. According to
Zlatic, "Two stories that deal with cultures in which the peasants live in
worlds close to primary orality provide Twain's contradictory reflections
on the oral mind. In _A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court_,
illiteracy is a primary impediment to human progress; in _Joan of Arc_ it
is a prerequisite for moral victory" (p. 216). Zlatic also discusses the
appeal that his dictated oral autobiography held for Twain.

In an essay titled "Twain and the Mississippi" which is included in the
"Mark Twain and Travel" section, Andrew Dix provides a theory of a
Mississippi River death wish. Dix states, "While the topic of the
Mississippi is indeed recurrent in Twain, it is thus by no means always
comforting or familiar. Dix argues that Twain's Mississippi is evocative of
American contradictions and traumas in the closing decades of the
nineteenth century. Dix associates the Mississippi River with a death
instinct and examines Twain's texts which associate the river with death.
Dix states, "consider how the protagonists in _Tom Sawyer_, _Tom Sawyer,
Detective_, and _Huckleberry Finn_ are all drawn in states of melancholy to
the Mississippi because of the possibilities it offers of self-erasure (p.

Hilton Obenzinger's contribution to "Mark Twain's Fiction" is an essay
titled "Going to Tom's Hell in _Huckleberry Finn_."  Obenzinger focuses on
the "evasion" section of Twain's masterpiece and suggests that the
character of Tom Sawyer in _Huckleberry Finn_ "is an incarnation of 'the
bad-boy deity,' a type of character who fascinated Twain throughout his
career" (p. 402). Obenzinger traces Twain's fascination with this sort of
character to the apocryphal _Infancy Gospel of Thomas_ which depicts a
mischievous young Jesus. Twain read the apocryphal gospel in 1867 and
thereafter incorporated the bad boy character based on young Jesus into his
writings. Obenzinger also comments on the connection between Jesus and
Twain's character of No. 44 in _The Mysterious Stranger_ manuscripts.
According to Obenzinger, "The fact that this extraordinary, amoral
character appears both early and later in Twain's career highlights the
importance of the bad-boy diety: it provides a kind of frame or bracket for
an insistent fascination with an excessive type of male character
throughout much of his work, including Hank in _A Connecticut Yankee in
King Arthur's Court_ along with the character of Tom in _Huckleberry Finn_"
(p. 410).

One of the true highlights of this book is Louis J. Budd's essay on "Mark
Twain's Visual Humor" which documents three of Twain's uses of visual
humor. These are his own comic and cartoon drawings which appeared in some
of his works and magazine articles; his mastery of the "deadpan" in his
public performances; and finally, what Budd calls "a sleeper"--Twain's
in-bed photographs and portraits. Budd notes "For 30 years I have been
tracking appearances of the in-bed pose and could compete for
longest-footnote-of-the-year" (p. 483). Budd examines the rational as well
as psychic humor "embedded" in the in-bed photograph--taken at a time in
history when only royalty received visitors while in bed. Budd also
stresses the need for Twain studies to have a finding list of Twain's
photographs, portraits and cartoons--a plea that all scholars can gladly
endorse and support.

Alan Gribben's wrap-up "Retrospective" essay on "The State of Mark Twain
Studies" draws on almost every conceivable major resource or study devoted
to Mark Twain since his death. A library that contains every title and
article Gribben references would be a well-stocked Mark Twain research
facility. From the earliest studies, to reference books, to literary
journals, Elmira conferences and internet discussion groups--Gribben
manages to put all of them into perspective. "All in all, then, the future
for Mark Twain studies seems to justify a highly optimistic forecast as a
potentially golden age of textual, historical, and critical commentary.
Scholarly critics who conduct research in the second century after Samuel
L. Clemens's demise can build upon enormous advantages" (p. 552). Gribben's
only note of caution regards the tendency of some critics who push to
expurgate Twain's works of their racial epithets and crude cultural
characterizations in exchange for political correctness.

In any scholarly volume such as Blackwell's _A Companion to Mark Twain_, a
measure of its usefulness depends on the adequacy and accuracy of its
indexing. One minor quibble with this edition is with the indexing.
Reference notes, some of which contain critical references and additional
facts, are not indexed. Thus, such names as Ralph Ashcroft and Isabel Lyon
(both on p. 51) and Samuel Moffett and Pamela Moffett (both on p. 336)
which appear in reference notes do not appear in the index. The oversight
in indexing reference notes can also be applied to titles of some of
Twain's own works such as "The Death Disk" (p. 272) and "As Concerns
Interpreting the Deity" (p. 483). Both works are discussed in reference
notes but do not appear in the index.

The omission from the index of proper names, titles, and even political
parties spills over into the bodies of the essays themselves. Some
examples: James S. Leonard's essay "Mark Twain and Politics" mentions
Anti-Doughnut, Freemasons, Whigs, Know-Nothings, and Mugwumps--none of
which are indexed. Shelley Fisher Fishkin's "Mark Twain and the Stage"
mentions Twain playing a leading role on stage in James R. Planche's _Loan
of a Lover_ (p. 262). Neither Planche nor his play are in the index.
Probably the most noticeable arbitrary indexing or lack thereof can be
found in R. Kent Rasmussen and Mark Dawidziak's "Mark Twain on the Screen."
 In this essay, a number of actors, actresses and titles are discussed. A
few examples of those who made it into the index include Bing Crosby, Errol
Flynn, Jason Robards, Jackie Coogan, Will Rogers and Boris Karloff. Those
overlooked (and sometimes in the same sentence as those who were included)
are Jack and Mary Pickford, Ken Burns, Walt Disney, and Eddie Albert. Also
failing to find its way into the index is Twain's anti-vivisection story "A
Dog's Tale" and its movie version titled _Science_ (both mentioned on p.
280). By the time the indexer or indexers reach Alan Gribben's masterpiece
finale, they have given up and offer the reader this explanation--"Note:
Alan Gribben's final essay in this volume consists of a bibliographical
review, and the many names of authors, essays, books it contains are not
indexed individually here. The chapter should be consulted in its own right
as a listing of Twain criticism over the years" (p. 555).

In spite of the space-saving economical index, lack of photos (readers
could have benefited by seeing at least one of the "in-bed" photos
discussed by Budd) and other visual enhancements, this volume is a solid
contribution to Twain scholarship and a credit to its editors and essayists.

In summation, it is interesting to note a common theme surfacing in so many
of the essays--the difficulty in capturing and defining the true Mark Twain
and his works. From Lawrence Berkove: "He transcends all local identities
and labels, for he made of himself something unique and rare" (p. 168-169).
From Peter Messent: "One of Twain's great strengths as a writer is his
constant resistance to easy categorization, his ability to stretch our
literary definition to their limits...While his work certainly shares a
number of key realist attributes, it also escapes the boundaries of the
genre at almost every turn" (p. 204). From R. Kent Rasmussen and Mark
Dawidziak: "While the cornucopia of Clemens cinema is not short of
quantity, it is sadly lacking in quality...not a single one in the bunch is
generally considered a masterpiece" (p. 277). From Holger Kersten: "His
depiction of Europe and his attitude toward it cannot be easily summarized
and categorized" (p. 334). From Henry Wonham: "Twain's short fiction is
unprecedented and incomparable. He refused to play by the accepted
rules..."(p. 358). From Bruce Michelson: "Mark Twain's wit will continue to
evade our capacity to name its delights and outbreak of
wit in a Mark Twain narrative can burn like an acid that no laboratory
crucible can contain..." (p. 521, 528). From Alan Gribben: "while the
nuances and entirety of Mark Twain's life and mind are unlikely ever to be
completely inventoried (which is one sign of his genius), this in itself
guarantees that Twain studies will be endless" (p. 554).

A complete list of the contributors and their professional affiliations is
available at the publisher's website at:

It is unlikely a dozen or so additional "companions" with several hundred
scholarly contributors would unlock a fraction of the riddles of Twain's
genius. However, this current volume offers much food for thought and will
serve to enhance future studies and research.