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charles crow <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 3 Mar 1996 11:30:13 -0500
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     Fischer, Victor, and Michael B. Frank (eds.), and Lin Salamo (assoc.
     ed.).  _Mark Twain's Letters_.  Vol. 4 (1870-1871).  (The Mark Twain
     Papers.)  Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London:  University of California
     Press, 1995.  Pp. xxxiii + 792.  Cloth, 6-1/2" x 9-1/4".  $55.00.  ISBN

     Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:

          Charles L. Crow <[log in to unmask]>
          Bowling Green State University

     Copyright (c) Mark Twain Forum, 1996.  This review may not be published
     or redistributed in any medium without permission.

The fourth volume of this superb series of _Mark Twain's Letters_ is the
thickest thus far, reflecting the growing social and professional
complexity of Samuel Clemens's life in his middle thirties.

The two-year period represented by this volume has a painful dramatic
unity, beginning and ending with Clemens on the lecture circuit, writing
to Olivia Langdon (first as his fiancee, then as his wife).  The early
letters are filled with anticipation of the marriage of Sam and Livy;
other letters take us through the fairy-tale surprise of Jervis Langdon's
gift to the couple of a handsomely-equipped home in Buffalo, and a
partial ownership in the _Buffalo Express_.  The reader who knows the
outline of Clemens's life will experience these happy letters with dread,
however, and perhaps a guilty sense of voyeurism, knowing of events about
to befall the young family.

The tragedy unfolds in Clemens's letters: his father-in-law, Jervis
Langdon-- who represented the father Clemens had long desired--dies of
stomach cancer, after exhausting weeks of bedside vigil by Sam and Livy.
A friend of Livy comes to visit, falls ill of typhoid, and dies in the
Clemens home.  Livy collapses from the strain of these events, nearly
loses her first child, and finally gives birth to a sickly son.  The
Clemenses flee Buffalo, their early happiness there having become an
agony after "eight months' sickness & death" (347).  Sam is driven by his
consequent lowered productivity back onto the lecture circuit, after
earlier promises to Livy to remain at home.  And, of course, more
misfortune will pursue the couple in the year following the close of this
volume, with the death of their young son Langdon.

This two-year period, in fact, provides a kind of overture to the decades
to come, which will repeat, on a larger scale, the pattern of domestic
happiness followed by illness, flight, bereavement, and guilt.  Late in
his life, Clemens again would exhibit the complicated relationship to his
craft he first shows here, finding it both a torment (in his need to
maintain his comic mask during personal misfortune), and a therapeutic

In the short run, however, these letters document the resiliency of Sam
and Livy, and the beginning of patterns of life that would hold through
most of the 70s and 80s.  In place of the abandoned Buffalo home, a house
in the Hartford suburb of Nook Farm is rented, and plans begin for the
home in which (as it would turn out) their daughters would be raised.
Quarry Farm, the home of Susan and Theodore Crane above Elmira, becomes a
place of refuge, as it would be for the remainder of Clemens's years in
the United States.  In spite of delays, fatigue, and interruption, the
composition of _Roughing It_ is pressed on to conclusion.  Reminiscences
of Hannibal in a letter to Will Bowen point the way toward the most
potent material of his career.

During these two years Clemens was refining his related crafts as writer
and lecturer, and his Mark Twain persona.  This volume will not resolve
the much-debated question of Livy's role in shaping Mark Twain, but it
does provide much information about his working habits, and about the
network of family, friends, and professional allies who were in support
of him.

Thus the two lecture tours represented here show Clemens still struggling
to earn his later mastery.  Letters to Livy, his agent James Redpath, and
others attest not only to physical hardship--uncomfortable hotels and
fatiguing trains--but his difficulty with writing the lectures
themselves.  Though famous even then as one of the best of America's
platform performers, Clemens endured indifferent audiences and bad
reviews, and rewrote while on the road, chipping and carving his lectures
toward success.  Similarly, while _Roughing It_ grinds toward conclusion,
behind schedule, we find Clemens writing urgently to Orion and to western
friends for material.  Other projects--as would be the case throughout
his career--are abandoned; Clemens persuades his publisher, Elisha Bliss,
Jr., to fund an agent who is sent to South Africa to research a
never-written book on diamond mining.

The most complicated professional relationship Clemens had at this time
was with his publisher Bliss, as is amply documented here.  To understand
the nuances, the reader should consult Jeffrey Steinbrink's _Getting to
Be Mark Twain_; but much of the fencing, mixed affection and exasperation
on both sides, and something of Bliss's skilled management of Clemens, is
apparent in the letters.  A remarkable event of this relationship is
Bliss's hiring of Orion as an assistant in the American Book Company as a
favor to Sam and as a way for Bliss to enforce his claim to Sam's
loyalty.  The volume also provides considerable insight into the
endlessly fascinating relationship of Sam and Orion, that living parody
of his younger brother's most quixotic character traits.

This volume, then, offers rich material for the serious scholar of Mark
Twain as well as much of interest to the general Mark Twain fan.  There
are over 300 letters, about half published here for the first time.
Production is of the high quality we expect of a Mark Twain Papers
volume.  The editors provide the necessary explanatory notes for each
letter, without submerging the letters under their weight.  The serious
apparatus is in the "Textual Commentaries" in the back of the book, which
provides full information on the provenance of each letter, condition of
the manuscript (if it exists), textual variants, and publishing history;
and we see here the immense effort of scholarship behind this volume
(roughly equivalent, I suspect, to building a cathedral).  The reader may
also browse in five useful appendices: "Genealogies of the Clemens and
Langdon Families," "Enclosures with the Letters," "Advertising Circular
[for his 1871-72 lectures]," "Book Contracts," "Photographs and
Manuscript Facsimiles."  In this last section, I was amused by the
reproduction of a letter Sam wrote on nine irregularly torn tiny scraps
of paper to his mother, with whom he always shared a waggish sense of humor.

I do have one reservation about the apparatus, however.  The editors
index only the letters themselves--persons addressed, and references in
the text--not the scholarship used in the notes.   Works of scholarship
are placed in a bibliography titled "References."   This practice
produces a clean, single-purpose index, but renders impossible any
attempt to judge the extent to which the editors have drawn on particular
scholars, or even to locate where that use might be.  Nor is the
"References" section complete.  Jeffrey Steinbrink, for instance, the
scholar (mentioned above) who has most recently written about this phase
of Clemens's life, is not included at all in the "References," though the
editors do cite him in their notes on page199.

This quibble, however, will not prevent the volume from being
indispensable.  Fifty-five dollars is more than pocket change for most of
us, but, considering the editorial hours involved, the price is a
bargain.  All libraries should buy it, and many Mark Twain scholars will
want to own their own copies.

The series of publications from the Mark Twain Papers, now directed by
Robert Hirst, has been a jewel of American scholarship for nearly thirty
years.  Its continuance, and the publication of its texts at reasonable
prices, depends on grants and private donations.  The present volume
acknowledges support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and
also of gifts to the Mark Twain Papers from dozens of individuals.  In an
era of declining funds from federal agencies, such support by friends of
Mark Twain scholarship, such as members of the Forum, is essential.

Charles L. Crow                         |  [log in to unmask]
Department of English                   |  voice mail:  (419) 372-7556
Bowling Green State University          |  fax: (419) 372-0333
Bowling Green, Ohio 43403