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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 19 Jun 2008 08:47:15 -0500
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by
Robert Morton.


_ The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Mark Twain_. By Pam
McAllister. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008. Paperback,
xvi + 217 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8264-1813-5. $19.95.

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 for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Robert Morton
President, Board of Trustees,
The Mark Twain Library Association
Redding, Connecticut

Copyright (c) 2008 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published
or redistributed in any medium without permission.

The dictionary widget on my iMac desktop reminds me that the origin of
the word companion comes from Old French and means "one who breaks
bread with another." Well, I suppose that's as good a place to begin as
any when considering how to start nibbling at the vast feast of
writings by Samuel Langhorne Clemens.

Unlike at most meals, we usually begin to tuck into Mark Twain's
groaning board with a main course--the meaty and perennially popular
novels--rather than any one of a hundred appetizing short stories,
witty quotations, or traveler's anecdotes. Once we become accustomed to
the fare, however, and find it not only satisfying but also leading to
a hunger for more, we may feel rather daunted by the size and variety
of the menu. The prices beside the entries are not large; it is
possible to find, buy cheaply in nice paperback editions, or download
free and read online much of what Mark Twain wrote. But the vast array
of delicious sounding selections across a wide range of tastes--toasts,
speeches, short stories, witticisms, novels, journalism, letters,
autobiographical tidbits, journals of voyages--may lead to a sense of
surfeit before one even begins. And the question then is where and how
to begin this expansive culinary adventure.

After stumbling along beside this long, long banquet table not knowing
which delicacy to sample first, one may decide to look around for a
guide into the goodies, a companion, let us say. And we find on our
dictionary widget that such a companion can be both a person and "a
book that provides information about a particular subject." But that's
a pretty drab description of an intelligent and useful _aide de
cuisine_ for this potentially very large, long, and diverse meal.

Thanks to the Forum we have access to numerous and knowledgeable human
companions to consult. But there is no shortage of books as well, the
most recent of which is Pam McAllister's _The Bedside, Bathtub &
Armchair Companion to Mark Twain_ released by Continuum Books in Spring
2008 only in paperback and priced at $19.95.

McAllister has served as a companion before, having co-authored guides
to Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie previously. But here she is on
her own, and evidently tackled the assignment with relish, admitting in
her Preface that she has been something of a Twainiac since her preteen
years. She also admits, however, and this is an interesting personal
revelation by an author-editor, that although she loves Twain, she's
not quite so sure that she likes him. And the way in which she
articulates both her passion and her reservations tells the reader as
much or more about Twain as about McAllister. She writes: "He was
committed to disentangling his adult life from the race prejudices he
had learned in the slaveholding South of his childhood, and, like Huck
Finn, made demonstrative progress. He was far less committed to working
on his prejudices against Native Americans, Roman Catholics, or the
French. His struggle of a century ago touches a raw nerve in an America
that is still burdened by discord and division; watching him stumble
along so publicly I am simultaneously uncomfortable with and impressed
by the relentless but unfinished effort" (xiii).

These personal observations, however, occupy only a moment before
McAllister launches into her full-fledged role as companion to the man
and his work. Much of the book's value lies in the broad-ranging survey
of Twain's key life events as well as his literary output, both of
which she treats essentially chronologically, with some subjects set up
for consideration by theme or subject. Some of the sections seem oddly
out of sequence: a listing of "Short Works of the 1860s" and a
digression on cats in Twain's work precedes the biographical beginnings
of his work as a writer. But perhaps one can't blame McAllister too
much for wanting to get to the real reason to care about Twain--his
stories--although his early jobs as a printer's devil, an apprentice
riverboat pilot, a gold miner, and a soldier make pretty lively
reading; not your granddad's career track. Similarly, a section on the
writer's illustrators appears well before the publication of all of the
notable works that carried pictures in their texts. This may be more of
a failure of McAllister's editor than herself, but it does seem odd to
learn about this art before we have been introduced to the literary
work that spawned it.

The first of the writings on McAllister's menu is "The Celebrated
Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," a short story that was more notable,
of course, for its instant and wide popularity than either for its
quality or for its having earned the author any money. But it put him
on the literary map. Poet James Russell Lowell pronounced it, "The
finest piece of humorous writing yet produced in America" (p. 35). And
McAllister here reveals her formula for engaging with Twain's text; a
précis of the work's storyline--sometimes quite elaborate and if not
elegantly retold at least clearly so--followed by a very useful
subsection called "The Story behind the Story."

These section-ending sidebars are the condiments and the spices that
make this _Companion_ more than a mere dishing out of well-known tales
reheated in the oven. The histories of their publication, their impacts
on the audience, and their roles in Twain's evolution both as a writer
and as a celebrity lend considerable added value. Anyone can summarize
the plot elements of Twain's major stories, novels, and traveler's
tales, but only a devoted gourmet like McAllister has the broad palate
and diverse tasting background to serve up these flavorful side dishes.
Some of her exegeses, such as the one following her summary of
_Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_ dig very deeply into the issues and
literary questions that have followed the novel through time and they
add to a reader's larger appreciation of the work whether it precedes
or follows a reading of it. I find them the real added value of a book
that may be thought of as simply part of what McAllister herself calls
"The Mark Twain Industry," places, publications and etc. that simply
capitalize on the great man's celebrity.

In addition to the summary chapters on Twain's life, the author has
stewed up a number of brief essays that shed light on different aspects
of our hero's character and habits. An amusing two-page piece called
"Billiards (Good) and Bicycles (Bad)" discloses that Twain apparently
never could master riding a two-wheeler, but was a fair hand at poking
billiard balls across a felt table, though he once revealed "The game
of billiards has destroyed my naturally sweet disposition" (61). On
that aspect of the great man's personality, McAllister had revealed in
her Preface that one of the reasons she wasn't sure she "liked" Twain
was that he had "an unpredictable temper and abrupt mood swings"
(xiii), although she documents no examples of either that I recall.

Further divagations on Twain's life include a chapter on "Where Twain
Wrote and How;" a short section on the popular song "The Sweet Bye and
Bye" and its relation to his beloved wife, Livy (apparently Twain
misremembered that it was playing when they met, although the tune
hadn't been written yet); and a somewhat squeamish exploration of
Twain's curious late-in-life preoccupation with girls from the ages of
eleven to fifteen, a school of pretty young things he dubbed his
Angelfish. McAllister's final take is that although it "had all the
makings of a scandal . . .Twain's relationship with the young girls was
platonic and avuncular" (178).

Most interesting among the various glimpses of the author's personal
life is the long and thoughtful chapter on Twain and religion, a
subject that he dealt with in many ways and with many attitudes over a
very long time. One of his best friends, of course, was the Reverend
Joe Twichell, who had the sad task of presiding over the funerals of
two of Mark Twain's daughters, his wife, and of Twain himself. But the
Bible, which Twain had read thoroughly, and religion itself were
manifest in Twain's writings throughout his life. Perhaps the most
charming and inventive of Twain's references to Bible history, of
course, are the putative "diaries" of Adam and Eve, in which Twain
seems to reveal his own character in the guise of Adam--skeptical,
curmudgeonly, short-tempered--and that of the woman he loved best, his
wife, Livy, as a pure, bright spirit, full of enthusiasm, optimism, and
womanly wiles. (I recently had the pleasure of editing the two texts
into a paired reading of the two monologues, alternating the voices,
and the audience went easily from laughter and delight to moist-eyed
admiration at the author's humor and depth of feeling.)

Taking my culinary analogy to its perhaps absurd limits by evoking the
old cliché that "the proof of the pudding is in its eating," it must be
said of Pam McAllister's _Companion_ that as true and useful
"companions" to the Twain life and oeuvre there are two considerably
better ones; R. Kent Rasmussen's _Mark Twain A to Z: The Essential
Reference to his Life and Writings_, and _The Oxford Companion to Mark
Twain_ by Gregg Camfield with a notable advisory board and essays by
eight scholars and writers of distinction. Though neither of these
books might do well beside the bathtub (being respectively just short
of 600 or 800 pages), they seem absolutely essential companions to any
serious reader's exploration of Mark Twain. Virtually any useful
reference to a person, a fact (from Railroads to Typewriters) or an
idea (from Anti-Semitism to Women's Rights) will be found here in one
or both volumes.

That said, there is value in the new paperback. The book is a handy
size and length and costs less than the others (though both can be had
in used editions); it covers a great deal of ground in a short and
readable form; and it can be read with pleasure and profit from start
to finish. Indeed, it pretty well must be read in that way since it
serves poorly as a reference work for there is no index. To find
anything specific one would have to pore over the table of contents
extremely carefully in the hopes of finding what you were looking for,
perhaps even knowing in advance what period of the author's life you
were investigating.

Nevertheless, as a final measure of the new book's merits, I will quote
from R. Kent Rasmussen's blurb for the back cover, and you can make
your minds up as you browse the book in your favorite bookstore: "Of
the growing number of literary companions to Mark Twain this lively
labor of love by Pam McAllister must surely be the most companionable.
Although not weighted down by scholarly apparatus, it is both thorough
and reliable, as a good companion should be. Better still it's
consistently full of fun and surprises."