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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 17 Jun 2008 21:27:03 -0500
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by James
E. Caron.



_The Adventures of Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass_. By Mark Twain. Edited
by Charles Honce. Forward by Vincent Starrett. A Note on "A Celebrated
Village Idiot" by James O'Donnell Bennett. Limited edition of 500
copies. Privately printed by Keokuk Public Library, 2007. Hardcover,
xxiv + 59 pages. $49.95

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of this book, please call
the Keokuk Public library at (319) 524-1483 to check for availability.

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
James E. Caron
University of Hawaii at Manoa

Copyright (c) 2008 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published
or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Before Mark Twain: Sam Clemens presents Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass

Sam Clemens the printer would have loved this book. The typeface was
composed by hand on a Linotype machine, and the book was printed on a
Heidelberg Windmill 10 x 15 Letterpress printing press, then
hand-bound. The volume was originally published in 1928, and this
fund-raising project for the Keokuk Public Library now can boast five
hundred facsimile copies, individually numbered. The only change to the
1928 edition is the addition of what is said to be the earliest
painting of Sam Clemens as a young man, an artifact owned by the

Sam Clemens the yarnspinner would have appreciated the cover, which
lists "Mark Twain" as the author of "The Adventures of Thomas Jefferson
Snodgrass," because it presents a manifestly anachronistic lie: there
was no Mark Twain when Sam Clemens wrote the three mock travel letters
in late 1856 and early 1857 for the _Keokuk (Iowa) Daily Post_.

Sam Clemens the professional writer of comic sketches, tales, travel
books, and novels might not be so pleased, however, to see in print
some of his earliest efforts to participate in the uncouth and
irreverent tradition of American democratic humor. On his way to Brazil
to make his fortune with the newly-discovered coca plant and its
magical medicinal qualities, Clemens was barely twenty-one years of age
when he scribbled the letters. As part of his efforts to fund his
journey, Clemens probably arranged to write for the _Post_ as he worked
his way down river from Keokuk. Sam never got any closer to Brazil than
New Orleans, where he abruptly decided that steamboat piloting, not
raising coca, was the job he truly wanted.

The Snodgrass letters hold some interest for students of Mark Twain,
especially when they consider his relationship to earlier, antebellum
comic writers. Their format as parodic travel letters and their
presentation of a country clodhopper link the Snodgrass letters with an
important strand of nineteenth-century comic writing that had started
with Seba Smith's Jack Downing letters in 1833 and that, by 1857,
included the Pete Whetstone letters (Charles F. M. Noland), the Major
Jones letters (William Tappen Thompson), the first series of the Biglow
Papers (James Russell Lowell), and the Philander Doesticks letters
(Mortimer Thomson). On the horizon was Charles Farrar Browne with his
Artemus Ward letters. Started in January 1858, Browne's series of mock
letters from a traveling showman would make him the most famous, best
known, and best paid comic writer and mock lecturer in the United
States, a model that Clemens would consciously imitate in the 1860s
when he had invented Mark Twain and was still tinkering with the
elements of his comic creation. These examples made the comic genres of
the mock letter to the editor and the mock travel letter preferred
vehicles for displays of rustic wit and backwoods storytelling as well
as for excursions into political and social satire.

For all their historical interest, the comic qualities of the Thomas
Jefferson Snodgrass letters are, for the most part, predicable and thus
less than riveting. Snodgrass presents the classic profile of an
ignorant lout from the hinterlands, foolishly vain about himself and
his hometown, Keokuk, as he travels to other cities. In the first
letter, he attends a production of Shakespeare's _Julius Caesar_ and
makes such a disruptive spectacle of himself that a policeman ejects
him from the theater. His antics include playing a tune on his comb
because he thought his musical talent superior to what he was
witnessing on stage. He keeps a "dierrea" for his journey and reveals
his ignorance about trains--the duties of conductors as well as the
features of steam engines. He puts on airs when he arrives in Chicago
because his countrified morality transforms the city into the gateway
to hell. He routinely flaunts the stereotypical pugnacity of the
frontier's lower orders as he casually exhibits his bigoted attitude
toward the Irish, Germans, Jews, and women.

There is slapstick when Snodgrass falls on a fat Irishwoman in a
railroad car and she stuffs him under a seat. There is satire about
municipal bureaucracy when he visits Cincinnati. There is a hint of Tom
Sawyer when Snodgrass complains about ticket policy on the train as he
trades his "yaller ticket for a red one, which wasn't Sunday school
fashion, where you get ten red tickets for one of tother color" (27).
Clemens's rendition of country dialect suggests the mixed quality of
the letters, Snodgrass displaying Crockett-like phrases such as "drat
my buttons" (26), but also using words like "magnanimous" and
"superfluous."  Snodgrass at times can also sound like Jack Downing,
noting that the plotters against Julius Caesar "laid their heads
together like as many lawyers when they are gettin ready to prove that
a man's heirs ain't got any right to his property" (10). However, the
letters sustain no satiric point of view comparable to the Downing
letters, their comic qualities instead a farrago of dialect spellings,
obvious puns, wild jokes, and outlandish situations.

Indeed, Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass's behavior creates a large distance
from Major Downing's civic morality and eironic presentation. Nor does
Snodgrass portray the rough-and-tumble morality of Sut Lovingood
scourging his community with practical jokes. Instead, Snodgrass by the
third and last letter embodies a much more cynical view of the common
man in frontier environments. In this final installment, Snodgrass's
vanity reveals his darkest side. Accosted by a young woman who pretends
to know him and who asks him to hold her basket for a moment, Snodgrass
stands in the street waiting for her return while fantasizing that her
attraction for him is such that soon he will meet her father, who, rich
and respectable, will beg Snodgrass to marry his daughter. The woman
never returns, and Snodgrass eventually discovers that the basket
contains a baby. Chagrined that he will be noticed with his squalling
burden by passersby on the street, he returns to his hotel room to make
a plan. His concern with what others think is again highlighted when he
crams the basket under his bed and covers it with clothes to prevent
the servant girls from seeing it. The next day he is discovered trying
to "poke the dang thing through a hole in the [river's] ice" (47). The
letter ends with him in court, implying in his sign-off to the editor
that he will write again. Apparently, Clemens never bothered to fashion
a conclusion to the misadventure, or to imagine other incidents for
Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass.

Attempting to drown a baby as though it were an unwanted kitten has no
precedents in antebellum comic writing. The risque quality of "Nettle
Bottom Ball; or, Betsy Jones' Tumble in the Mush Pan" (John Robb) or
"That Big Dog Fight at Myers's by 'Obe Oilstone'" (Phillip January),
which feature, respectively, female and male nudity, or the
scatological joke at the end of the celebrated backwoods sketch, "The
Big Bear of Arkansas" (Thomas Bangs Thorpe), simply are not emotionally
anywhere near the neighborhood. Also pale by comparison is the comic
violence of Sut Lovingood's yarns or even the grotesque tales about the
swamp doctor, Madison Tensas. Like a black hole at the center of a
galaxy, the scene with Snodgrass and the baby swallows every particle
of comic light-heartedness.

However, as an example of over-the-top comic violence, the scene is far
from the last Clemens will write. For instance, as Mark Twain he will
imagine disfigured and maimed children in "Those Blasted Children"
(1864), will wish for a double-barreled shotgun to blast into "a
million fragments" a member of the cabinet of the Hawaiian king,
Kamehameha V (1866, "Letters from Hawaii"), and will claim to have
calmed himself at the end of a diatribe against the trials and
tribulations of traveling in Europe by destroying a beggar and eating
"the friendless orphan" (1869, _The Innocents Abroad_). Perhaps the
climax to such dark imaginings is the ending of "The Facts Concerning
the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut" (1876), which features the
numerous bodies of tramps Mark Twain has supposedly murdered, stacked
in his basement like cordwood. Maybe the scene is reprised in the raft
passage excised from _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_, with the tall
tale of the murdered baby in the barrel that haunts its killer. Though
Snodgrass ready to drown a baby is extreme even in this catalog, it
suggests that early and late, Sam Clemens stood ready to indulge a
horrific brand of comic presentation.

In addition to the letters, this new edition from the Keokuk Public
Library features a Foreward that presents the letters as curiosities,
as museum pieces, and a note to close the volume, entitled "A
Celebrated Village Idiot."  Written by James O'Donnell Bennet, a
well-known reporter for the _Chicago Tribune_ (apparently the piece
originally appeared in the _Tribune_), the note sketches the
eccentricities of Orion Clemens that were still orally circulating in
Keokuk in the early twentieth century.

All the elements of _The Adventures of Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass_'s
contents provoke curiosity. The book's manufacture elicits admiration.
For collectors of Mark Twain memorabilia, the book offers a must-have
opportunity. For Mark Twain scholars, the book offers an opportunity to
contemplate the comic talent of Sam Clemens in a derivative yet raw
stage, wherein one can nevertheless glimpse the future.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Jim Caron has published essays on the tall tale,
laughter and evolution, antebellum comic writing, George Washington
Harris, Frank Norris, Hunter Thompson, Bill Watterson, Charlie Chaplin,
and Mark Twain. His book _Mark Twain, Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter_
will be published this summer by the University of Missouri Press's
series, "Mark Twain and His Circle."