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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Kent Rasmussen <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 22 Apr 2003 15:57:13 -0700
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
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I finally got a copy of Gregg Camfield's THE OXFORD COMPANION TO MARK TWAIN (OCMT) yesterday and thought it may be of interest to some of you to hear what the author of an ostensibly rival work, MARK TWAIN A TO Z (MTAZ), thinks of it.

I'll begin by admitting that it is difficult for me to be entirely objective about a book that Oxford University Press touts as "destined to become the definitive reference work for a generation of Twain lovers" not long after the same press let its paperback edition of MTAZ go out of print. That rankles. However, Oxford's failure to market my book properly has actually worked to my advantage by moving my original publisher, Facts On File, to give me a contract to revise the book. Had Oxford kept MTAZ in print, I would probably not be revising it right now.

That brings me to another point: the curious timing of my MTAZ writing work. In the midst of working on the first edition, Le Master and Wilson's MARK TWAIN ENCYCLOPEDIA (MTE) came out. Now, while I am in the midst of writing a new edition of MTAZ, OCMT has come out. Is that like weird, or what? Let it go.

As a matter of fact, having Camfield's book in my hands right now is helpful. In addition to being in a position to smouch from Camfield, as I did with MTE, I find that having the book gives me pause to reflect on what I should be doing with my own book. Publication of MTE proved a blessing to me, as it allowed me to concentrate on my strengths: grubbing for hard facts, organizing details, and explaining the basics to fellow newcomers to Mark Twain studies, while leaving high fallutin' literary analysis to the academics. I admit it. I'm not really a Mark Twain scholar. I'm a historian who likes to write reference books and has a passion for studying Mark Twain.

When MTAZ came out, several reviewers praised it for its avoidance of scholarly jargon. There was a good reason for that: I didn't know any. I couldn't have explained the difference between "deconstruction" and "decontamination" (by the way, are they related?), and a word like "orality" merely made me think of toothpaste. No, better to concentrate on what I do reasonably well, and leave the heavy thinking to the people who don't have cabbages for brains.

Well, now that I've had 24 hours to peruse Camfield's book, what do I think of it? I'll go out on a limb immediately and say that I think it's a wonderful book--one that every Mark Twain scholar and all serious Mark Twain buffs should own. Whether the 3.5 pound hardback tome is worth the $21.50/pound tariff that Oxford has set is up to you and your banker to decide. For my part, if I hadn't managed to cadge a free review copy (no, *this* isn't my review), I would be inclined to wait for a paperback edition to come out. However, this isn't a slam on Camfield, as I would probably do the same if I had to pay for one of my own books.

2003 is shaping up to be an exceptional year for new books on Mark Twain. We've already seen Fanning's amazing book on Orion and Sam (about which I expect to say more in the future); the University of Missouri Press has two exciting new titles coming out in the fall; and we have Camfield's book. If this ain't the best year for new books in a decade, it's certainly the best year since 1995. (If there are other 2003 books that I've omitted, so much the better.)

As I was starting to say, Camfield's COMPANION is a wonderful book. It's beautifully written in a relaxed, comfortable style (imagine allowing contractions in an Oxford UP book!); it has some delightfully funky design features ("decorated," rather than "illustrated" is the word that comes to mind); and it is a Golconda of esoteric information and stimulating insights. It truly is a "companionable" book--one that you might want to put by your bedside for late-night browsing and occasional prolonged reading. Open to any page, and you'll find something interesting to read and, most likely, some obscure fact that you never read before. I can say this with some authority, as one who once thought he was the obscure-facts-meister of Twaindom (to quote a term that once threw my stepdaughter into gales of laughter). There is no doubt that Camfield knows his stuff. He also knows how to make it interesting.

Now for the carping. I'll begin by saying that in view of Oxford's claims to OCMT's definitiveness, I was mystified not to find a single acknowledgment in the book that MTAZ exists (aside from the occasional fact that may have been lifted from MTAZ's pages). However I don't take this personally, as Camfield doesn't acknowledge the existence of MTE, either. I suppose that is one way to claim the whole field for oneself, but let it go.

My main criticisms of OCMT probably have less to do with Camfield's authorship than with Oxford's packaging and promotion of the book. Is it, in fact, a *reference* book? As the author of three reference books and the editor of dozens more, I'm inclined to think not. (Almost coincidentally, I became a reference-book editor after writing MTAZ. However, I might have found greater fulfillment in a profession that supported my writing work with sabbatical leaves and grants. Let it go.) Oxford calls OCMT a reference book, and the book has the superficial appearance of a reference book: 300 articles arranged alphabetically by topic; a detailed chronology (which, incidentally, has a familiar look that I can't quite put my finger on); a long, long list of Mark Twain's writings; cross-references; and an index. However, it takes more than features such as these to make a book a true reference book. It needs more hard facts, a tighter structure, and something resembling a plan to present information that readers can count on finding within its pages. This is where OCMT seems to comes apart, as Barbara Schmidt noted in her Forum review in late January.

The fact is that the very things that make Camfield's book so good are the same things that make it a poor reference book. As a fuel for the imagination OCMT is very good, but as a vegetable, it is a distinguished failure. The main reason is that Camfield takes for granted an enormous amount of knowledge on the part of his readers and wastes little time telling them things that he assumes they already know. Indeed, one of his favorite catch phrases is "of course"--innocent-sounding words on the surface but a definite tabu in real reference-book publishing. The duty of a reference book is to provide to supplicants calling its door, complete and reliable information, not to wink at its readers conspiratorially, as if the facts should already be known to all of us, so that we can get on with the real business at hand. Of course, if we are fortunate enough already to know the facts, then we're delighted to be relieved of hearing them repeated and are ready to get on with more interesting business.

Camfield's essays have no clear plan; one never knows what to expect to find in one until one reading it all the way through. His essay on the Paige typesetter is good example. Instead of immediately explaining *what* the typesetter is, Camfield launches into a fascinating discussion of CONNECTICUT YANKEE and Mark Twain's investment problems. One has to read down most of the page to discover what the machine actually was. This is good, stimulating essay writing. It probably would have pleased Mark Twain (remember how he instructed Howells to knock the stuffy orderliness out of LIBRARY OF HUMOR?). However, it's not necessarily a good way to write reference material. Any newcomer to Mark Twain depending on this book for hard facts had better wear a helmet, to avoid scratching a hole in his head out of bewilderment. (Having a copy of MTAZ at hand would help protect the scalp, however.)

Many of Camfield's essays open with challenging statements or provocative tidbits, then wander off in interesting directions that may or may not lead to answers of the questions that readers might bring to them. In this regard, the book could not be more different than MTAZ. OCMT also differs from my book in being more selective about the topics it covers. No pretense whatever is made that the book is comprehensive. But, why should it be? If Oxford didn't burden the book with its ludicrously inflated description, any reasonable reader would appreciate it for what it really is: a damned fine collection of essays.

In summary, then, I'm grateful to have Camfield's book. I expect that I'll turn to it often, not so much for hard information but for stimulating insights and pure entertainment. Did I mention that the book can be fun to read? Here's an example: Camfield's essay on Charles Darwin discusses how Mark Twain misunderstood and misrepresented Darwin's theory of evolution. Camfield concludes the essay with this:

"Darwin read Twain equally eagerly, and reportedly kept Twain's works at his bedside. It is unknown whether Darwin misinterpreted Twain."

You won't find that sort of thing in MTAZ or MTE, as humor is out of place in a dictionary.

Oh, one more point I want to bring up: Camfield's alternating use of "Twain" and "Clemens" (as well as "Mark Twain" and "Samuel"). It would be interesting to have some go through the book with highlighters to mark each term with a different color, then flip through the pages to see if any clear patterns emerge.

Decisions on whether to call the Great Man "Clemens," "Mark Twain," or simply "Twain" have bedeviled every person who has ever written at length about him. When I wrote MTAZ, I nearly drove myself crazy deciding what to call in every sentence. I never much liked calling him "Twain," so that was out. That left "Mark Twain" and "Clemens." Since my book was to be called MARK TWAIN A TO Z, the latter seemed inappropriate, so I went with "Mark Twain"--about 4,400 times, according to a computer word count. Since then I have regretted that decision and am probably going to go with "Clemens" in most instances in the revised book. After all, while Mark Twain clearly wasn't always "Mark Twain," he was almost always "Sam Clemens."

Camfield seems not to have made a decision on this matter, as his essays flip-flop on "Twain" and "Clemens" throughout the book. He tends to go with "Clemens" when talking about the man and "Twain" when talking about the writer, but even here he is not consistent. Sometimes, an essay starts out with one name then drifts into using the other. If anything, "Twain" seems to be predominant overall. However, anyone reading the book and wondering who "Twain" is won't find a single entry listed under that word and will find only "Twainweb" in the index.

This inconsistency strikes me as especially interesting because Camfield is generally punctilious about treating pseudonyms and character names as trademarks. For example, the character "Huckleberry Finn" is listed under "H," not "F." Likewise, while you won't find "Mark Twain" under "T," you will find it under "M." This raises a fundamental question: If "Mark Twain" is to be regarded as the correct pseudonym, then why is "Twain" used so often in its place? Wouldn't "Mark" be more apt? Calling him "Twain" makes less sense than calling "Leonardo da Vinci" "da Vinci," instead of "Leonardo."

I bring this up not as a criticism of Camfield, but as an example of the difficult of knowing what to call our subject. I don't claim to have solved the problem myself.

Incidentally, while I'm on the subject of pseudonyms, I learned from Camfield the delightful hidden meanings of "Orpheus C. Kerr" and "Dan De Quille." If I've ever read explanations of those names before, I'd forgotten them.