TWAIN-L Archives

Mark Twain Forum


Options: Use Forum View

Use Monospaced Font
Show Text Part by Default
Condense Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Gregg Camfield <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 8 Dec 1995 11:48:58 -0500
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
text/plain (134 lines)

        Tom Quirk (ed.).  _Mark Twain: Tales, Speeches, Essays, and
        Sketches_.  New York: Penguin Books, 1994.  Pp. xxxv, 410.
        Paper, 5-1/8" x 7-3/4".  $10.95.  ISBN 0-14-043417-8.

        Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:

                Gregg Camfield <[log in to unmask]>
                University of Pennsylvania

        Copyright (c) Mark Twain Forum, 1995.  This review may not be
        published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reading criticism or preparing a course syllabus, it is all too easy to
think of Mark Twain exclusively as a novelist--jack-leg, perhaps, but
novelist nonetheless.  Each year I receive, unsolicited, mountains of new
and improved editions of _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_, _Pudd'nhead
Wilson_, and _Connecticut Yankee_, and I've recently been asked by yet
another publisher if there is a market for yet another edition of one of
Twain's most famous novels.  As much as I like to see Twain in print, I
almost hope not because the impulse of the publishing and scholarly
worlds to focus on Twain's novels distorts Twain's achievement.  Any
honest assessment of Twain's work must agree with Tom Quirk's belief
that, "as if by instinct, [Twain] seems to have been naturally adept in
virtually every prose genre--the fable, the sketch, the tale, the
anecdote, the maxim, the philosophical dialogue, the essay, the
speech--and to have understood generic requirements sufficiently to
burlesque and satirize them as well" (p. xi).  But as much as Twain was a
master of numerous shorter genres, the lack of good, inexpensive volumes
of shorter works has left a huge gap in the college course syllabus.
Quirk's volume may well serve to fill that gap.

Granted, there are other collections of Twain's short works, from the
definitive, expensive, and as yet incomplete Mark Twain Project editions
published by the University of California Press, to the magisterial,
nearly comprehensive, textually accurate, huge, and still very expensive
_Collected Tales_ in the Library of America series, to Charles Neider's
cheap but shoddy collections, to the volume I have used for years in my
teaching, Harper's _Great Short Works of Mark Twain_, edited by Justin
Kaplan.  All of these volumes have shortcomings for classroom use, either
in cost or in quality.  While the California edition and Louis J. Budd's
Library of America edition are the ones for a scholarly and personal
library respectively, Quirk's edition may be the best for the classroom.
Unlike either Neider's or Kaplan's editions, Quirk's edition gives us
trustworthy texts and gives us the publishing contexts we need to be able
to use them well, but he does not gum up the texts themselves with
unneeded annotation nor with cumbersome interpretive headnotes.  The
collection allows the reader to _read_, and gives its auxiliary
information unobtrusively, in a select bibliography for further reading,
in a note on the texts, and in a delightful introductory essay that shows
off Quirk's talents as much as it illuminates Twain's.

Indeed, the introductory essay is worth the price of the book for any
Twain fan.  Like so many of Quirk's articles on Twain, it is an essay in
the best sense of the word.  It easily serves its ostensible purpose,
namely, to explain his selections of texts, with ease and grace.  It then
transcends that purpose in delivering well turned observations that give
bright glimpses into the heart of Twain over the entirety of his career.
Quirk's voice seems attuned to Mark Twain's strengths as
conversationalist and raconteur, and while he seems to familiarize us
with Mark, he is also alive to the contradictions, frustrations, and
lapses that also are so much a part of Twain's work.

Quirk tells us that "The selections gathered together here are meant to
give a comprehensive if somewhat uneven sense of the vast range of Mark
Twain's short fiction and prose, to disclose not merely the variety of
his imaginative invention and diverse talents but the range of his
emotional condition as well" (p. xi).  Certainly this volume does all
that.  And in its selections, it acknowledges the recent shifts in
interest in Twain studies, giving us not the tidied up Twain of the
Harper and Brothers' tradition, but a much messier, wilder author.

Quirk begins with some examples of Twain's early journalism, including
"Letter from Carson City," and "Washoe--`Information Wanted,'" before
moving on to the first full version of the jumping frog story, "Jim
Smiley and His Jumping Frog."  He also gives us a sample of the off-color
Twain in "[Date, 1601] Conversation, as It Was by the Social Fireside, in
the Time of the Tudors."  It's good to know that this sketch will finally
be readily available, so that when people ask if Twain really did write
about sex and flatulence, it will be easy to point them to the source (of
sorts--though why Twain so liked to juxtapose ejaculation with flatulence
I'll leave to Freud or Bakhtin.)  Quirk also gives us "Sociable Jimmy,"
the newspaper sketch that Shelley Fisher Fishkin has recently brought to
our attention for the light it sheds on _Huck_, and he includes a
generous selection of Twain's aphorisms, which are usually relegated to
compendia of quotations, like _The Columbia Encyclopedia of Quotations_
or _The Portable Curmudgeon_.  The long and short of this volume, then,
is that Quirk has produced an anthology that is up-to-date in giving us a
picture of Twain as we are coming to understand him.

These additions to the expected contents of a book of Twain's shorter
works does not crowd out many of the old favorites, but things do get
crowded out.  Of course, no anthology ever _fully_ satisfies, because the
very process of selection means one person's choice will defy another's.
And while I know that selection is a necessity, I still must complain
that Quirk chose so sparingly from the series of articles known
collectively as "Old Times on the Mississippi."  As a teacher, I always
have wanted a good, cheap text of those articles without the encumbrance
of the rest of _Life on the Mississippi_.  I've always felt that those
articles were the apex of Twain's art in shorter forms.  For this
otherwise excellent volume to leave me with little from "Old Times" means
I'll have to go back to the copy-shops to supplement the syllabus.
Still, this is not a bad price to pay for an otherwise useful anthology.

For the most part, the selections in the volume are organized
chronologically, rather than by subject or genre.  This organization is,
I think, a strength in that it becomes easier on reading the entire book
to see patterns and shifts in Twain's writing over time.  Given the value
of such a structure, I was puzzled by the one lapse in the organization:
the last six selections in the book are tucked under a sub-head, "On
Writing and Writers."  Why does one topic get separate treatment,
especially since it suggests that these comments on writing are somehow
out of the chronology of the rest of Twain's output?  The problem with
the organizational anomaly is compounded by a significant gaff made by
the book's designers when they prepared the layout for the Table of
Contents.  The Table of Contents appears to end on p. vii with the entry
for "The Death of Jean," followed by a significant amount of blank space
running to the end of the page.  No reader would expect to turn the page
to find what looks like a second table of contents to cover the essays on
writers and writing, but there it is, isolated by the unaccountable white
space.  While this may seem a minor quibble, a book that has no index
needs a user-friendly Table of Contents.  I hope Penguin corrects this
problem in future printings.

Such complaints notwithstanding, I find the book not only useful but a
pleasure.  It's always a pleasure to read Twain, but it's even more
pleasurable to see the surprising range of Twain between two covers.
This volume has enough variety for every mood, so it is perfect not only
for course adoption, but also as a travelling companion, as a back-pocket
book, as Mark Twain for the airplane.  That's how I have used it so far;
I expect it to become a well used companion--though I doubt I'll ever use
its "Map of Paris" for real guidance.