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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 16 Jul 2009 09:13:20 -0500
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by
Joseph Csicsila.


_The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Penguin Enriched eBook Classic_
(Kindle Edition). Introduction by John Seelye. Edited with notes by Guy
Cardwell and R. Kent Rasmussen. 368 pp. Penguin Classics (2008).
Format: Kindle Edition (1547 KB). ASIN: B001GXP7YO. $5.60 includes
wireless delivery via Amazon Whispernet.

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:
Joseph Csicsila
Eastern Michigan University

Copyright (c) 2009 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published
or redistributed in any medium without permission.

In 2003 Vic Doyno brought academic Mark Twain studies officially into
the digital age with the release of the _Huckleberry Finn CD-ROM: The
Complete Buffalo & Erie County Public Library Manuscript--Teaching and
Research Edition_. Doyno's project was met with universal praise and
has since become a nearly indispensible tool for many who teach and
write about Twain's 1885 masterpiece. In 2008 Penguin Books became the
first commercial publisher to make available a fully downloadable
electronic scholarly edition of Twain's 1885 masterpiece designed
specifically for popular handheld units such as the Amazon Kindle, Sony
Reader, and Apple iPhone. However, despite R. Kent Rasmussen's
excellent editorial contributions, _The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
A Penguin Enriched eBook Classic_ is something of a disappointment not
only for instructors who might be looking to assign a reliable eText to
their tech-savvy students but also for general readers who are
expecting something more than just a digital version of a worn-out

_The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Penguin Enriched eBook Classic_
is essentially an enhanced electronic version of the novel in the
popular Penguin Classics paperback series. Part of what appears to be a
limited inaugural offering, _Huck Finn_ is one of ten titles from the
Classics list selected thus far by Penguin to be made available in this
new format. In addition to the Introduction, short list of suggested
readings, and explanatory notes that appear in the current Penguin
hardcopy print edition, the enhanced electronic version offers more
than 100 pages of bonus material assembled by noted Twain scholar R.
Kent Rasmussen, including a detailed chronology of Twain's life, stills
from an early film version of _Huck Finn_, a handful of contemporary
reviews of the novel, an expanded Further Reading section, descriptions
of online Twain resources, images of Twain's residences, a selection of
E. W. Kemble's illustrations from the 1885 first edition of _Huck
Finn_, and almost thirty pages of enriched eBook notes organized by
chapter. As for the overall design of Penguin's electronic _Huck Finn_,
this is as user-friendly as it gets. Both sets of editorial notes, for
example, are easily accessible through either hyperlinks or pop-up
windows embedded in the text of the novel. The fonts are inconspicuous
and the amount of text that appears on each electronic page is
virtually indistinguishable from paperback versions, which taken
together makes for a much less obtrusive reading experience than one
might expect from a computer-generated novel. (After just a few
paragraphs, I completely forgot that I was reading an eText.)  These
features combined with a price that currently comes in at just under
$6, make the electronic _Huck Finn_ difficult to pass up.

That said, there are a number of problems with the supplemental content
of the Penguin electronic _Huck Finn_. To begin, the scholarly
Introduction, written by John Seelye in 1985, is badly outdated. The
last twenty-five years have seen the publication of scores of academic
books and biographies, the circulation of hundreds of scholarly papers
and articles, and the making of numerous major discoveries (not the
least of which is the recovery of the first half of the _Huck Finn_
manuscript, itself, in 1991), all of which have fundamentally shifted
major aspects of our understanding of Mark Twain and his work. None of
these advances, regrettably, are reflected in Seelye's decades-old
essay. What's worse is that precisely because of its age, the
Introduction, at least when judged by scholarly standards, comes off in
places as slightly misleading. For instance, the very first paragraph
features the following statement: "The latest scholarly reconstructions
of composition show that the author began writing the novel with one
purpose and plot in mind, discarded that plot partway through, set the
book aside for years, and at one point threatened to destroy the
manuscript" (xiii). Apart from whether or not this representation still
accurately depicts the consensus view of Twain's composition of _Huck
Finn_, it certainly does not reflect the "latest scholarly
reconstruction." Again, the Introduction is from 1985. Since then, our
understanding of how Twain wrote _Huck Finn_ has altered considerably.
Moreover, to read Seelye's Introduction one might conclude that Leslie
Fiedler, Leo Marx, Van Wyck Brooks, Lionel Trilling, and Henry Nash
Smith endure as the foremost voices in Mark Twain criticism, as they
are the only scholars mentioned by name. My complaint, to be perfectly
clear, is not with Seelye's scholarship or with his Introduction in and
of itself--there are elements throughout the piece that continue to
recommend it as a functional overview of Twain's novel. My criticism,
instead, is directed at the decision to showcase the essay unrevised in
such a ground-breaking new format. Penguin, it would seem, has missed
an extraordinary opportunity as the first publisher to offer an
electronic scholarly version of _Huck Finn_ to bundle Twain's novel
with the kind of cutting-edge editorial apparatus that this
state-of-the-art technology merits. But as it stands, the disparity
here between the content and the format is unnecessarily conspicuous.

Other features of the Penguin electronic _Huck Finn_ diminish the
project in some rather noticeable ways. Although Rasmussen provides
nearly 30 illustrations for the first edition in the appendix
(accessible through hyperlinks), one wonders why Penguin did not simply
insert the images directly into the novel itself, particularly inasmuch
as Twain considered them to be such an important feature of his
narratives?  Additionally, several of the explanatory notes compiled by
Guy Cardwell in 1982 are marked by the same kinds of problems plaguing
facets of the Introduction. In at least two places Penguin let stand
the now-discredited chronology of Twain's composition of the _Huck
Finn_ manuscript. Note 14, one of the volume's longest and most
detailed, and note 17 both identify the end of chapter 16, where the
steamboat famously smashes Huck and Jim's raft, as the point at which
Twain set the manuscript aside in 1876. Following the discovery of the
first half of the manuscript 1991, Vic Doyno established fairly
conclusively that Twain actually took his story two and a half chapters
beyond that long-conjectured point to the middle of chapter 18 before
stopping in September 1876. Another limitation of the volume's textual
apparatus is reference throughout the newly added Enriched eBook Notes
section to John Seelye's _The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_
(1970) and Jon Clinch's _Finn_ (2007), two novels based on characters
and episodes from _Huck Finn_. The repeated comparison of these
spin-off plots to Twain's is a little bizarre, particularly for an
electronic text presumably marketed in some measure to students. Why
not use the space to refer to more relevant (if reliable) material?  In
one case, for example, an episode in Clinch's novel is used to discuss
the somewhat notorious description of the "House of Death" that Huck
and Jim come across in chapter 9. That note reads: "Jon Clinch's 2007
novel _Finn_, a backstory about Huck's father, uses this passage as its
prologue. The novel later explains the writing on the wall and the
strange contents of the room" (303). Clinch's fictional treatment of
the floating house is inspired, but it does nothing at all to
illuminate Twain's novel. Twain's floating house, as Vic Doyno argues
rather conclusively in his _Writing Huck Finn_ (1991), is actually a
seedy backwoods brothel, a point Clinch chooses to ignore.

No question that _The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Penguin
Enriched eBook Classic_ breaks new ground as the first electronic
scholarly edition of Mark Twain's 1885 masterpiece, but in the end it
comes off as a rushed endeavor--like a paperback book simply scanned
into a computer file--for it to make much of a splash. Perhaps
Penguin's most notable accomplishment here is that it has hinted at the
pedagogical possibilities open to the eBook format. With just a little
more vision and ingenuity, projects such as the electronic _Huck Finn_
will undoubtedly become an essential feature of twenty-first century
literature classrooms. They may even serve one day as a means for
bringing the reading public back to the "classics" en masse by
providing instructive contexts for those works in the kind of truly
innovative ways that only this new format will allow. Time will
certainly tell.