The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Carolyn
Rasmussen, R. Kent. _Bloom's How to Write about Mark Twain_. New York:
Bloom's Literary Criticism, 2008. Pp.324. ISBN 978-0-7910-9487-7.
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Carolyn Leutzinger Richey
San Diego State University
Copyright (c) 2008 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.
Over the years, I've read numerous texts analyzing Mark Twain and his
writing. I've also added various biographical and reference works to my
personal library so that I may connect the dots, as it were, between the
man and his writings. One such resource is _A Tom Sawyer Companion_ by John
D. Evans which ties Clemens's boyhood in Hannibal to specifics scenes and
characters in _The Adventures of Tom Sawyer_. Another is R. Kent
Rasmussen's _Mark Twain A to Z_, an encyclopedic reference on Twain, his
life, and his works. I value each of these texts and authors because both
assist the novice and the experienced scholar to connect the man to his
texts and to understand and analyze both. Kent Rasmussen has done it again;
he has given us another invaluable tool to add to our personal libraries:
_Bloom's How to Write about Mark Twain_.
What first interested me in writing the review for Rasmussen's book is the
fact that I regularly teach an advanced composition class at San Diego
State University that focuses on writing about children's literature.
During the fifteen years of teaching this course, I've discovered that
many, if not most, students really do not understand how to write about
literature. Most students are accustomed to writing personal narrative or
creative pieces and have difficulty "critically thinking" about literature
and writing literary analysis. Also, to my surprise, I found out years ago
that most students really do not know what critical thinking is. They
imagine it is thinking "deep thoughts" or looking at something in depth,
but the actual process eludes most of them. In essence, how to think
critically about Mark Twain is what Rasmussen offers in this book: he
guides the reader to think critically about Mark Twain and his major works
and then to write well-constructed and astute essays about them.
_Bloom's How to Write about Mark Twain_ is one of a series of books edited
by Harold Bloom that offers guidelines "to inspire students to write fine
essays on great writers and their works" (v). Bloom's series focuses on
those major writers who are "must-knows" for all students of literature. In
his introduction to this text, Bloom identifies Mark Twain as one of these
writers, one of America's most influential writers, and goes so far to say,
"Huck Finn takes the path that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza cut in their
wanderings through a declining Spain, and Twain can be thought of as the
American Cervantes" (viii). Consequently, Rasmussen's entry in this Bloom
series offers the guidelines needed to write about our "authentic American"
To accomplish its goal, _How to Write about Mark Twain_ is organized
structurally like a composition class. Rasmussen presents what I call a
building-blocks approach to writing the critical essay in general and to
writing the critical essay specifically about Mark Twain and many of his
texts. When I teach advanced composition, I start with this back-to-basics
approach, emphasizing the process of writing the essay and what components
to include within such an essay. The first chapter in Rasmussen's book
provides detailed instructions on how to accomplish this task. As I began
reading, I found Rasmussen's approach mirroring my own approach to writing
about literature and using many of the same writing strategies, exercises
and steps of the critical thinking and writing process. He goes into great
detail on such necessary steps to writing a good essay as outlining, body
paragraphs, introductions and conclusions and using and documenting sources.
The remaining chapters provide a model for analyzing and writing about
Twain and any of his texts. The second chapter offers an overview of the
issues and approaches to take in writing about Mark Twain himself. In this
and subsequent chapters, Rasmussen addresses topics to consider when
writing about Twain and each chapter's particular text. While every chapter
does not address all the same topics, each does address the most relevant
subjects to consider, including "Reading to Write," "Topics and Strategies"
(each including sample topics): "Theme," "Character," "History and
Context," "Philosophy and Ideas," "Form and Genre," and "Language, Symbols,
and Imagery." In each of the subsections, Rasmussen adds suggestions for
particular writing topics. For example, in the chapter on _Pudd'nhead
Wilson_, he presents an approach to writing about the "'One drop' theory of
race" and whether Twain is advocating this theory that says "any person
with a trace of African ancestry is a negro" (211). Rasmussen subsequently
supplies not only potential ways to address this topic, but also potential
reference sources that might prove useful. In this example, he offers
Shelley Fisher Fishkin's text _Was Huck Black?_ as a starting point.
Rasmussen concludes each chapter with a section on how to write Compare and
Contrast Essays and suggests possible topics of comparison. Finally, he
closes each chapter with an up-to-date bibliography specific to the chapter
As both a teacher and writer, I especially appreciate that Rasmussen offers
both typical and innovative approaches to understanding Mark Twain and his
texts. In essence, _How to Write about Mark Twain_ can be viewed as strong
case for the continued study of this great American writer, even after more
than a century of literary criticism. One question that has plagued Twain
and his writing since the publication of _The Adventures of Tom Sawyer_:
Who is Twain's audience? In his chapter on _Tom Sawyer_ Rasmussen hits on a
crucial divide among literary scholars of Mark Twain. Is this text (or
Huck's) just children's literature? Or as W. D. Howells described it, is
"it the best boys' novel ever written"? (84). If it is the best "boys'
novel," according to Rasmussen, the identity of the audience creates a
dilemma that Twain subsequently faced with this book and his other boys'
books that followed. As Rasmussen explains, the author himself questions in
his introduction the "primary purpose . . . to entertain children; however,
he also expresses his desire for adults to look at childhood from their
perspective" (84). Along with addressing this problem of audience,
Rasmussen also clarifies that _Tom Sawyer_ and Twain's other children's
texts are worthy of literary analysis on the same level as "adult"
literature because, unlike the children's literature of his time, Twain
offers more complex stories with more complex yet authentic characters. By
looking at the philosophy and ideas behind _Tom Sawyer_ or any other text,
along with the form and genre, the student/writer can find "much greater
depth than may at first appear" (83).
Besides addressing Twain's best-known boys' books (Tom and Huck's
adventures) and those that are deemed representative of Mark Twain's works,
Rasmussen also examines the texts that receive most criticism for not being
typical Twain texts, for example _The Prince and the Pauper_ and _A
Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court_. To this end, Rasmussen offers
some simple guidelines on how to read a text so that readers and writers
can gain the most, no matter how atypical the text may be. Besides these
four novels, Rasmussen also discusses additional texts which fit into the
typical and atypical Twain categories: _Pudd'nhead Wilson_, the "Jumping
Frog" story, "The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg," "The War Prayer,"
_Roughing It_, and _Life on the Mississippi_.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Rasmussen's _How to Write about Mark
Twain_ is the formula it offers. In "handbook" fashion, the author
repeatedly, but not redundantly, discusses the relevant topics necessary to
understand the writings of Mark Twain. This is a valuable tool for teachers
and student writers because it acts as both a writing handbook and a
resource for composition. However, this classification of Rasmussen's book
presents the same question of audience that many of Twain's texts do. For
whom is _How to Write about Mark Twain_ intended? Is it designed for
students? If so, is it addressed to high school or college students? Is it
designed for teachers? If so, is it addressed to high school or college
teachers? The answer to these questions of audience can be answered in the
same way Twain answers his own question of audience in his first "boys'
book." _Bloom's How to Write about Mark Twain_ is intended for all of these
audiences: the novice and the scholar; the student and the teacher. Through
his myriad topics and suggestions, Kent Rasmussen gives us all fresh ways
to approach our authentic American author, Mark Twain.