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Taylor Roberts <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 29 Aug 1995 19:47:03 EDT
text/plain (195 lines)
[N.B.: The following book review was authored by Wesley Britton.  I am
merely posting it on his behalf.  Thanks to Kevin Bochynski for helping to
speed along its appearance on the Forum. --Taylor Roberts]


       Rasmussen, R. Kent.  _Mark Twain A to Z: The Essential Reference to
       His Life and Writings_.  Foreword by Thomas A. Tenney.  New York:
       Facts On File, 1995.  Pp. 576.  Cloth, 8-1/2" x 11".  130
       illustrations; 3 maps; 2 charts; index; appendix; bibliography;
       cross-references; 15-page chronology; tables.  $39.95 until 31
       December 1995, $45.00 thereafter.  ISBN 0-8160-2845-1.

       Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:

              Wesley Britton <[log in to unmask]>
              Grayson County College

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  This review may not be
       published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

With the appearance of G.K. Hall's editions of Tom Tenney's _Mark Twain:
A Reference Guide_ (1977) and Alan Gribben's _Mark Twain's Library: A
Reconstruction_ (1980), a new dimension opened in Twain scholarship, and
for many years these books were the indispensable starting points for
researchers looking for both primary and secondary sources on the life and
works of Mark Twain.  The publication of _The Mark Twain Encyclopedia_
(Garland, 1993) added a third volume crucial for both specialists and
students seeking basic information about Twain.  Now, Kent Rasmussen's
_Mark Twain A to Z_ is clearly as important as these contributions, and is
clearly a volume no school or public library can be without.  It is
certainly a resource all Twainians will find as invaluable as the three
earlier reference books.

What may first surprise many is the name of the author, Kent Rasmussen not
being a known light in Mark Twain circles.  Previous to his Twain work,
Rasmussen earned his Ph.D specializing in African history at UCLA, where
he then spent six years as associate editor of the Marcus Garvey papers.
He edited the 1930 novel _Black Empire_ by African-American author George
Schuyler, and co-edited the _Dictionary of African Historical Biography,
Zimbabwe_ (1977).  He wrote _Mzilikazi of the Ndebele_, the biography
_Migrant Kingdom: Mzilikazi's Ndebele in South Africa_ (1978), and the
1979 _Historical Dictionary of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe_.  Currently, he is an
editor of reference works at Salem Press in Pasadena, California.

Rasmussen's interest in Twain began in earnest in 1990 when he began
reading Twain while studying Mormon history.  He read _Roughing It_ in
search of the quote where Twain referred to _The Book of Mormon_ as
"chloroform in print."  Interested in the humorous collections of _The
Left Handed Dictionary_ and _The Unafraid Dictionary_, he began compiling
a book of Twain quotes in a computer database library, planning to write
a Twainian answer to Ambrose Bierce's _Devil's Dictionary_.  (This project
may yet appear courtesy of Facts On File.)  In 1991, he sought out trade
publishers for the project, but Facts On File was then looking for someone
to do a Twain A to Z in the model of their _Shakespeare A to Z_ edition.
Uneasy about not being a Twain scholar, Rasmussen took on the opportunity,
envisioning a comprehensive collection eschewing reviews of secondary
sources, keeping to the hard facts--the nuts and bolts rather than
interpretative theory.  As stated in the introduction, the emphasis of _A
to Z_ is on Who, What, and Where, not How or Why, although Rasmussen does
not shy away from offering new perspectives on important figures and
literary works.  However, his work primarily succeeds in reflecting his
desire to show the difference between what Twain said as opposed to what
others can say about him.

The appearance of the _Mark Twain Encyclopedia_ gave Rasmussen some second
thoughts until he noticed clear distinctions between his work and the
_Encyclopedia_, a compilation of a variety of scholars that bears a
detailed comparison with _A to Z_.  The _Encyclopedia_, Rasmussen
observed, is more theoretical than his project, addressed more to those
"in the know."  His purpose was to reach the general reader, not being
concerned with broad issues and interpretive criticism but rather
providing information in a way not to put off specialists.  He attempted
not to be influenced by the _Encyclopedia_, and felt that this decision
liberated him from having to cover everything.  He could concentrate on
hard facts, dates, and detailed descriptions of Mark Twain's works.

For example, his discussion of _Huckleberry Finn_ is 40,000 words long,
and his entries on _A Connecticut Yankee_, _Tom Sawyer_, and Twain's other
lengthy works are equally exhaustive.  His analysis of many works provides
details not readily available elsewhere, as in his treatment of _Following
the Equator_ and _More Tramps Abroad_, which collates the differing
chapters of the American and British editions.  By using computer
searches, Rasmussen assembled references to characters such as Hank Morgan
directly from the text, providing a useful summary of characters' actions,
and these actions are given chapter and verse citations for quick
reference.  Another distinction between the _Encyclopedia_ and _A to Z_ is
that Rasmussen gives word counts for Twain's books and stories, complete
birth and death dates and places, and detailed biographies not restricted
by length limits (such as those that were imposed on _Encyclopedia_
contributors).  Some biographies, such as on Thomas Edison, are more
detailed in _A to Z_, and, for short stories and essays, Rasmussen
frequently identifies the publications in which readers can currently find
these pieces.  He includes synopses of Twain films and musicals, listings
of actors who have played Twain characters, histories of Mississippi
riverboats, detailed accounts of Twain's travels and his relationships
with places and people, and the most detailed chronology to date.  Some
articles, such as "Autobiography," provide information either not readily
available or not otherwise assembled in one place.  And all of this
information is enlivened by the numerous contemporary photographs, film
stills, illustrations by Dan Beard and others, as well as photographs
taken after Twain's death of his friends and haunts.

Still, the greatest strength of _A to Z_ is its extensive analysis of
literary works and fictional characters, some succinct, some appropriately
detailed to provide parallels to Twain's sources or other writings.  One
source Rasmussen consulted while writing his synopses was Robert Gale's
two-volume _Plots and Characters in the Works of Mark Twain_ (1973), which
he found difficult to use.  The information was lumped together, and
Rasmussen could find no sense of relationships between actual books and
Gale's synopses.  Rasmussen chose an easy-to-use structure that will
benefit both the general reader and the well-trained scholar by first
providing a general precis and historical overview of the work, then a
chapter-by-chapter breakdown with minimal interpretation.  This format
makes  it easy to find specific references, such as locating just where
"Jim Blaine's Story of the Old Ram" is in _Roughing It_.  Further, each
item is thoroughly cross-referenced with entries on numerous short items
and entries on characters that add information for those seeking more
focused discussion.  Rasmussen wanted to create a "very clear statement of
what is in Mark Twain's books," and no other source comes close to
achieving this goal.

Beyond compiling facts and data, Rasmussen often contributes new points of
view and fresh insights.  One example of his original contributions is his
commentary on the Civil War, describing the impact of the war on Twain and
his associates.  Another interesting item is Rasmussen's noting Twain's
own use of offenses Twain objected to when used by James Fenimore Cooper.

Noticeable weaknesses in _A to Z_ are the brief commentaries on posthumous
publications, although his discussions of _The Great Dark_ and the various
incarnations of _The Mysterious Stranger_ are particularly helpful.  He is
also uneven in his treatment of the authors who influenced Twain, omitting
names such as Thomas Carlyle.  Some information is repeated in related
articles, as in the two entries on the book and character of Huckleberry
Finn.  Rasmussen occasionally accepts critical theory as fact.  For
example, he re-states William L. Andrews' claim that Henry Clay Dean was
the inspiration for the "War Prayer," although other possibilities--
notably Thomas Paine's "Common Sense"--have been proposed for this honor.
In his discussion of Huckleberry Finn as character, he seems to accept
Shelley Fisher Fishkin's "Sociable Jimmy" theory as fact, although he is
more circumspect in citing the theory in his entry on "Sociable Jimmy."

Readers interested in short bibliographies on specific subjects will need
to consult the _Mark Twain Encyclopedia_, which also contains topics not
covered by Rasmussen, such as "animals," "auctions," "The Bible,"
"Calvinism," "Bibliographies," or the odd "Orality" essay.  On the other
hand, _A to Z_ contains topics not in the _Encyclopedia_ such as
"Burglary," "Caves," and "Ferguson," as well as the many short items that
would not have been appropriate to the _Encyclopedia_'s format.

_Mark Twain A to Z_ thus neither replaces nor supersedes _The Mark Twain
Encyclopedia_, but is rather a volume that should be consulted as well, in
some instances first for basic information and textual analysis.  In these
cases, the _Encyclopedia_ would then open doors into critical views,
interpretation, and summations of current schools of thought on Twain.
Rasmussen is far more accurate regarding times, places, and other details,
as he had opportunity to double-check _Encyclopedia_ items, and he
frequently provides dates when the other work simply claims "not
available."  Collections carrying one volume necessarily need the other
for both verification and additional information.  Together, these two
works demonstrate the world of Mark Twain is too complex for any one
source, and that the subject is far from exhausted even with these
mutually-indispensable contributions.  For example, neither volume has an
entry on Mark Twain's relationship with Walt Whitman.  As Rasmussen
himself notes, he could have included much more if not for the space
limitations of book publishing.

Rasmussen sought and gained support from the Twain community during the
evolution of his book, and acknowledges, in particular, _Mark Twain
Journal_ editor Tom Tenney, who very strongly supported the volume, read
the manuscript, made many corrections and suggestions, and wrote the
foreword.  Rasmussen also credits Kevin Bochynski ("We must have made 1000
messages between us") for both helping compile data and sharing his
computer savvy.

But it is obvious that the computer was Rasmussen's primary collaborator,
_A to Z_ demonstrating the importance of computer technology in modern
scholarship for more than dry data bites.  For example, using the computer
to examine the primary texts, Rasmussen found unusual trends and topics,
but many (some 330 entries) had to be deleted for space.  Admittedly, many
of these items would not directly benefit researchers, but could be fun
for a future concordance with such topics as "stake, burning at," "tarring
and feathering," balloon trips," and "surfing."  We can hope that
ultimately Rasmussen's entire computer base, complete with deleted
entries, will become available on-line.

As it stands, _Mark Twain A to Z_ is the most important Twain publication
event of the year, and, at its reasonable price, should quickly become a
standard source in both public and private libraries.  Rasmussen's work on
Twain has also resulted in his forthcoming _Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys
and Girls_ (Contemporary Books), and it is clear Twain scholarship now has
a new authority from whom we can expect further important efforts.