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Kevin Bochynski <[log in to unmask]>
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Kevin Bochynski <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 5 Nov 2014 05:31:54 -0800
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_Mark Twain's America, A Celebration in Words and Images_. By Harry L. Katz and the Library of Congress. Little, Brown and Company, 2014. 244 pages. Hardback. $40.00. ISBN 978-0-316-20939-7.

Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted prices from the TwainWeb Bookstore, and purchases from this site generate commissions that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit <http:/>.

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by
Kevin Mac Donnell

Copyright (c) 2014 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

This is not the first time Little, Brown and Company has published a book with the title _Mark Twain's America_. In 1932 they were the proud publishers of _Mark Twain's America_ by Bernard DeVoto, an able refutation of Van Wyck Brook's Freudian 1920 thesis, _The Ordeal of Mark Twain_. The opposing viewpoints set forth in those two books became the foundation of all Twain scholarship for the next fortyyears, and being the publisher of the better of those two books was a source of pride.

The dust jacket features an image of two steamboats with a portrait of Mark Twain superimposed above them. But the steamboats are a puzzle. This coffee-table book includes images of at least forty-five steamboats, but not a single one of the twelve that were piloted by Mark Twain, even though images of nine of those vessels do exist. This failure to connect the dots between Mark Twain and his America is a recurrent problem throughout the entire book.

There is some good writing at the beginning of the current book. The brief preface by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington and the foreword by distinguished essayist and editor Lewis H. Lapham are a fine beginning. But neither of their contributions foreshadows what is to come and several recent online reviews read more like airy enthusiasm rather than critical analyses of the content.

Another piece of good writing at the beginning of this book is the copyright notice, and it deserves to be quoted in full:

"All right reserved. In accordance with the U. S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at [log in to unmask] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights."

That’s good writing. It’s concise and to the point. It does not mince words and even has a hint of a threat before offering a premature thanks at the end. Copyright infringement is always unethical, and when it takes place for commercial gain it is a criminal act. Copyright notices are rarely quoted in book reviews, but this one is a foreshadowing of things to come.

After the thoughtful foreword by Lapham, the text and illustrations are a disappointment. The narrative itself is superficial and heavily weighted with extended quotations, often unsourced. The illustrations, although attractive, with many in color, are familiar to most Mark Twain scholars. Milton Meltzer's _Mark Twain Himself_ (1960) and Dennis Welland's _The Life and Times of Mark Twain_ (1991) are heavily illustrated biographies of Mark Twain and do a much better job of conveying his place in history and in his culture. As first impressions go, the first impression this book presents is that of another pleasant, if superficial, coffee-table book--a nice thing to give as a gift, but not to be taken too seriously.

However, a close analysis of the text indicates trouble and a lot of it. The first three of the four serious problems with this book can best be summarized as the three Ds--dates, data, and dots. The reader can hardly progress through more than a few pages without stumbling over a misdated image or event, misleading statement, some absurd error of fact, or some puzzling failure to connect the dots between some person or event and Mark Twain himself. The book has the feel of something hastily cut and pasted together, a derivative cobbling together of facts and images.

First, let's look at some dates. A photograph of Mark Twain and his childhood sweetheart, Laura Hawkins, taken in November 1908 at Mark Twain's last home in Redding, Connecticut (46), is dated 1902 and the nearby text would lead the reader to believe the photo was taken in Hannibal, Missouri. A photograph of Mark Twain in his famous sealskin coat and ushanka (108) with the fur turned out is dated "1880s." That coat was purchased from Bergtold Brothers in Buffalo in September 1871. An illustration from _A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court_ (1889) is misdated 1891 (161), a well-known July 1903 photograph of Mark Twain with John T. Lewis is lazily dated "ca. 1900" (165), and a photograph of Mark Twain at Stormfield is dated 1910 (180) when it was in fact taken in November 1908. This is only a short list of dating errors.

A few misdated images and events might indicate hasty or sloppy work, but bad data--getting the facts wrong points to a lack of familiarity with Mark Twain biography. The misleading statements and errors begin as early as page 3 and continue unabated throughout the book. Only a few examples will suffice. Twain's first published work of fiction, "The Dandy Frightening the Squatter," is presented as Twain's "first national essay" (27). We are never told of his first national essay (a sketch describing the town of Hannibal). The authors tell us that Twain became a steamboat Captain (38), apparently unaware of the distinction between a captain and a pilot, a distinction that was not a small one, as Twain himself made clear in his writings. We are told about his "first published compilation of comic sketches" identified as an 1874 edition of _Mark Twain's Sketches_ (96), nevermind that it was actually preceded by the 1867 _The Celebrated Jumping Frog of
 Calaveras County, and Other Sketches_, Mark Twain's first book, as well as five pirated editions. Reginald T. Sperry illustrated the cover of the 1874 edition, but the authors attribute it to True Williams (96).

Other ill-informed illustrator identifications include Dan Beard who is credited with designing the cover of _Life on the Mississippi_ (41), but that was the work of John T. Harley. Harley, along with Edmund H. Garrett and A. B. Shute illustrated that book. The appearance of Twain's jumping frog story famously launched him to fame when it appeared in the _New York Saturday Press_, but it's called the _New York Sunday Press_ (76) in this book. On pages 109-10 the errors crash together in a mind-bending pile-up: a photo of Twain and his family on the porch (or ombra) at the Hartford house is described as being taken in a gazebo, the Katharine Seymour Day House (aka Chamberlain-Day House) that sits next door to Harriet Beecher Stowe's home is identified as Twain's Hartford home, and Twain's wife Livy is credited with building him the study at Quarry Farm where he wrote his greatest works when in fact it was built for him by her sister Susan Crane. The
 authors then confuse Twain's Buffalo home with Quarry Farm and follow this with a statement that indicates a lack of awareness that Quarry Farm, Twain's summer residence, is in Elmira. The authors tells us Twain sold his Elmira home at a loss, again confusing his Buffalo home with the Elmira residence. That concludes the two-page pile-up.

According to the authors, _Mark Twain's Library of Humor_ is an "important source of his funniest writings" (128) even though this anthology included only extracts reprinted from his previous works along with dozens of other comic works by other authors. The authors commit an especially amateurish _faux pas_ when a photo of Olivia Clemens is identified as "Olivia Twain" (157). The authors accept the 1916 edition of _The Mysterious Stranger_ as Twain's work (172), although most scholars have known for decades the true sad sordid story of who actually wrote large portions of the 1916 edition, even going so far as to invent characters Mark Twain never included in his notes.

If wrong dates and false data were not bad enough, a reader might expect a book about Mark Twain's America would connect some dots between Mark Twain and his America. At one point (174) the authors credit Dan Beard again for illustrations by another illustrator (Lucius Hitchcock) but they also include images by Art Young (141) and Frederick Opper (90) without mentioning their connections to Mark Twain. At pages 124-25 the authors present several of Dan Beard's illustrations from _A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court_, and discuss the work at length without ever making mention that Beard used famous people and political figures of the day (like Queen Elizabeth for the portrait of a pig) as his models for many of his illustrations for that book. The list of unconnected dots is too long to include in its entirety, but includes mentions of Bayard Taylor (21-2), Rudyard Kipling (231), and William Henry Vanderbilt (91) but no discussion of their
 connections with Twain. There is even a cartoon of Twain (103) that is misread as an example of "ridicule" but this cartoon appeared in _The American Publisher_, the house journal of Mark Twain's own publisher, and was a promotional ploy that was printed with Twain's blessing.

Two possible bright spots in this book might have been the Mark Twain chronology at the front of the book (6-15) and the United States chronology at the back (182-232). Together these two chronologies comprise 59 pages of the 236 pages of text in this book, not counting the index. They are at least one-fourth of the book, and nicely frame the text.

However, the majority of entries in these chronologies are not actually the work of Katz or the Library of Congress. Most of the Mark Twain chronology is lifted verbatim without permission or acknowledgement from R. Kent Rasmussen's well-known reference work, _Mark Twain A to Z_ (1995), and some of the entries in the United States chronology are likewise lifted from Rasmussen's work.

Rasmussen's _A to Z_ chronology comprises hundreds of blocks of text printed in six columns covering the 75 years of Twain's life. The first four columns cover Twain's own life, and the other two columns cover literary and historical events. The Mark Twain chronology in _Mark Twain's America_ contains at least 367 sentences or phrases lifted from 193 of the 280 blocks of text found in the first four columns of Rasmussen's work, and an additional 45 sentences or phrases lifted from 35 blocks of text from the other two columns, and used in the United States chronology, bringing the total number of passages lifted from Rasmussen's work to more than 400. One example can suffice. Here's theauthors' text for 1894 from page 12:

"Gives frequent speeches and readings in New York City until March . . ."

"Gives power of attorney to H. H. Rogers, who assigns his copyrights to Livy."

"Webster & Co. goes into bankruptcy in April."

"Paige Compositor is tested at _Chicago Herald_ where it proves impractical as a commercial device."

Here are Rasmussen's entries from that same year (Rasmussen, 1995, p. xx):

"gives frequent speeches and readings in New York City (6 Mar.)" 

"gives power of attorney to H. H. Rogers, who assigns his copyrights to Livy" "

(Apr.) Webster & Co. goes into bankruptcy."

"Paige Compositor is tested at _Chicago Herald_ where it proves impractical as a commercial device."

Rasmussen is not the only victim. Some entries in the United States chronology are also lifted from a book by David K. Williams, _Before Our Very Eyes_ (2008). Williams provides a chronology in his book covering the history of slavery from 1619-1865, and he includes events from just thirteen years between 1835 and 1865, the period that overlaps with the Katz and Library of Congress chronology. From those thirteen years five sentences or phrases have been lifted verbatim from four of those years. The year 1838 will suffice as an example. Here is the Katz and Library of Congress text from page 184: 

"The Underground Railroad, organized by U. S. abolitionists, transports southern slaves to freedom in Canada."

"A Philadelphia proslavery mob burns down Pennsylvania Hall in an effort to thwart antislavery meetings May 17."

Here is the text at page 79 from _Before Our Very Eyes_:

"The Underground Railroad, organized by U. S. abolitionists, transports southern slaves to freedom in Canada . . ."

"A Philadelphia proslavery mob burns down Pennsylvania Hall in an effort to thwart antislavery meetings May 17."

_Mark Twain's America_ includes both an "Acknowledgements" and a "Selected Bibliography" (233-34) but neither acknowledges Rasmussen or Williams as sources. They do list the two recent _Autobiography_ volumes (2010, 2013) from the University of California Press, as well as works by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Justin Kaplan, Milton Meltzer, Ron Powers, Gary Scharnhorst, and _Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography_ (2001) by Geoffrey Ward, Dayton Duncan, and Ken Burns. Other Mark Twain scholars who have published a book on Twain might be tempted to question whether Rasmussen and Williams are the only victims of piracy.

The unauthorized use of verbatim selections from Rasmussen's 430,000 word work probably represents less than 4% of Rasmussen's total text. However, all but a handful of the roughly 300 entries in the Katz and Library of Congress Mark Twain chronology are copied from Rasmussen's work. The chronology in Rasmussen's _Mark Twain A to Z_ is one of its most useful and valuable features and Rasmussen's chronology is also the most useful and valuable text in _Mark Twain's America_.

It is deeply unsettling to see the Library of Congress falsely claiming co-authorship of copyrighted material. Mark Twain fought pirates all his life, but never viewed the Library of Congress or any of its former employees as possible culprits. One can't help but wonder if Mark Twain, were he alive today, would extend his well-known quips about Congress and Congressmen to include their library and its librarians.

Little, Brown and Company must also shoulder some blame for not having this book adequately vetted. It is painfully obvious that the authors did not know enough about Mark Twain to produce a factually accurate book, and routine vetting by qualified readers with a modicum of Mark Twain expertise would very likely have caught most errors and disconnected dots, and led to the prepublication exposure of the piracies.

Who among those teachers who are members of this Forum would give this text a grade higher than an F if it had been turned in by a student? That's the grade this volume gets from this reviewer.