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"R. Kent Rasmussen" <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 11 Oct 2013 18:47:56 -0700
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BlankToday's mail brought an elaborate promotion for a 15-volume collection of facsimile reprints of Mark Twain books produced by the Bradford Press of Morton Grove, Illinois. As many members of the Forum are probably receiving the same package, it may not be inappropriate to make some observations here about this offer. I don't wish to recommend whether anyone should or should not buy these books, but I do recommend a close study of the offer before making a decision.

The glossy Bradford packet recalls Publisher's Clearinghouse sweepstakes promotions from years ago. It contains seven separate pieces presenting redundant information and instructions, even including stickers to affix to the reply form. Like the old sweepstakes packets, it's a confusing array.

I've not seen any of the facsimile books the company produces, but if they are as faithful to the original editions as the promotion claims, I expect they're fully worth their $49.99-per-volume asking price. The heart of the promotion is an offer of _The Celebrated Jump Frog_ facsimile volume for $19.99. Also offered is attractive "bronze-finished" (whatever that means) bookends to purchasers of the set's fifth volume, _A Tramp Abroad_. That offer takes some effort to understand. The books are sent out on a free-trial basis, presumably in numerical order. To receive the free bookends, one apparently must examine the first five volumes and buy at least the fifth volume. I see no clear explanation of whether one must pay shipping charges, or what the shipping charges may be, for return volumes, so there is a hidden cost to consider.

Incidentally, the publisher's claim that its books are the "first" authentic reproductions of Mark Twain's first editions isn't quite true. Full facsimile reproductions of _Tom Sawyer_ and _Huckleberry Finn_ have been available for many years. Granted those books represent only two of Mark Twain's titles, but this new set itself is anything but comprehensive. Its 15 titles have no clear unity. In once place, the set is described as "the first-ever replicas of Mark Twain's works as he himself envisioned them. ... These authentic replica editions ... appear precisely according to Twain's original intent in every detail." That's a curious assertion. The publisher seems completely unaware of the work of the Mark Twain Project, which for many years has been restoring the texts of Mark Twain's books as he intended them. To imply that facsimiles of first editions satisfy his original intent simply isn't true. An outrageous contradiction in the set is its inclusion of the 1916 edition of _The Mysterious Stranger_, which Albert Bigelow Paine and Frederick Duneka rewrote, drawing on two separate Mark Twain manuscripts. How that bogus edition can be described as meeting Mark Twain's "original intent" is mysterious indeed. The only explanation for its inclusion in this set must be its beautiful illustrations by N. C. Wyeth (whom one flyer describes as "the 19th century's most respected American illustrator"--an extravagant claim for a man who began illustrating books in the 20th century).

Yet another flyer calls the books "authentic reproductions of Mark Twain's original first editions." What exactly does that mean? The set includes 13 American editions and 2 British editions. The two British titles are _Tom Sawyer Abroad_ and _Tom Sawyer, Detective_. The latter story was not issued as a stand-alone title in an early American edition, so an argument can be made that the British edition is an "original first edition." There was, however, an American edition of _Tom Sawyer Abroad_. Why isn't it used instead of the British edition? Because the Chatto & Windus edition came out four days before its handsomer American counterpart, I suppose it could be regarded as the "original first edition," but so what? Chatto editions of _Tom Sawyer_ and _Huckleberry Finn_ came out before the American editions, too, but those aren't the editions replicated in this collection.

The overall selection of titles is curious, too. It includes _Innocents Abroad_, _A Tramp Abroad_, and _Life on the Mississippi_ but not _Roughing It_ or _Following the Equator._ With the emphasis the publisher places on attractive illustrations, surely the lavishly illustrated _Following the Equator_, with its beautiful decorative cover, merits inclusion. Another heavily illustrated first edition missing from the set is _Sketches New & Old_. Why is it excluded while lightly illustrated titles such as _The American Claimant_, _Tom Sawyer Abroad_, and _Tom Sawyer Detective_ are included?

I'll reiterate that these books may truly be worth their asking prices, and it's possible I'll buy some myself. I am, however, a little skeptical of the publisher's claims about the books being authentic in every detail. I've already cited some of the publisher's misleading statements, including the howler about Wyeth. Other errors can be found in the flyers (e.g., Edward W. Kemble's initials are not "W. W."; _The Prince and the Pauper_ is not about Edward III; W. W. Denslow did not contribute illustrations to _The Innocents Abroad_). Moreover, the suggestion that building a collection of original editions could cost "upwards of $169,000" is ludicrous. I've purchased early editions (including many firsts) of all but two of the editions in this facsimile collection and paid less than one-one hundredth of that figure for them. Yes, pristine first editions would have cost me a lot more, but not 100 times more.

At the recent Elmira conference, a participant gave a presentation about this facsimile edition that was received with some embarrassment and dismay. Apart from being a blatantly commercial presentation that seemed inappropriate at the conference, the presentation revealed a shocking ignorance of the work of the Mark Twain Project and completely overlooked the existence of the Oxford Mark Twain edition, edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Unlike the Bradford edition, the Oxford edition has a true unity--its 29 volumes (including several composite volumes) represent the first American editions of all Mark Twain books published during his lifetime. The Oxford volumes are not reproductions of the original books' designs and bindings, but they do contain facsimile reproductions of their original pages. They include all the titles in the Bradford set except _The Mysterious Stranger_, which has no business being part of any Mark Twain collection, and at least 17 additional titles. If you already have the Oxford set, all the Bradford set will add to your collection is _The Mysterious Stranger_ and a lot of beautifully reproduced bindings.

One final mystery: At the Elmira conference, the representative for the Bradford set suggested that the world is clamoring for authentic reproductions of books such as _The Gilded Age_. Is that true? I wonder. I can't imagine many libraries that already own original editions or the sturdy Oxford set rushing to buy these facsimiles. Bradford says its set is "strictly limited to just 4,999 complete sets worldwide." If that means they are actually printing that many books, I think we can be confident that most of them will be remaindered at bargain prices. However, I suspect they'll start with a much smaller number of books.