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Mark Twain's Letters, vol. 4, 1870-1871.

Edited by Victor Fischer and Michael B. Frank, with associate editor Lin Salamo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. xxxiii, 792 pp. $55.00.

These days the savvy consumer first of all checks out the specified contents of a package: here, the texts of three hundred and thirty-eight more letters by Mark Twain, more than half of them previously unpublished, as well as most of or else the complete text from the other side of the correspondence; an astonishingly detailed, sometimes brilliantly speculative annotation including the recovery, for example, of not just the identity but a life-sketch of persons obscure even in their own times; another two hundred and fifty pages of secondary matter, such as a bountiful clutch of photographs, the schedule for Twain's lectures in 1871-72 and a facsimile of the circular sent out by his agent, a five-page listing of his newspaper and magazine pieces in 1870-71, and fifty pages of index that will gratify both the selective researcher and the Twain specialist too busy to reread the whole volume for some needed passage. Though each reviewer will single out different bonuses, I was especially impressed by the reconstructed list of guests at the Clemenses' wedding and most startled by Twain's contemptuously anti-union editorial backing his capitalist father-in-law.

Consumers today also want assurance about nutritional value. Here we can watch Twain parading into marriage, then taking on an upper-middleclass household, blossoming promptly as a parent, and, by the middle of 1871, realizing that another child is on the way. On his professional side, we watch him bustling to energize the Buffalo Express into both a prominent newspaper and a cash-machine before quickly giving up while solidifying his cocksureness about his viability as a free-lancer, fitfully psyching himself up to produce another hefty subscription book while learning to live gleefully with the fact that The Innocents Abroad had earned him nationwide fame certified by a flow of royalties; and swearing off the career of lecturer before, in the fall of 1871, going back on the circuit with a self-assurance that let him read the mixed reviews more analytically than resentfully while experimenting for more fetching subjects. Those who already know the grand scenario will find much fresh detail, whether about his addiction to tobacco in childhood and its stop-and-go-again pattern during the first years of marriage or the precise figures for the newlyweds' incomes and running expenses. The aesthetically tolerant can enjoy or at least boggle at the lucky success with the "Fortifications of Paris" map and Twain's notions for promoting it into a monument of humor. Anybody minimally sympathetic can understand better his duelings with publisher Elisha Bliss and his often testy mood during the one-night stands along the circuit in the Northeast.

Though familiar in outline and already ridiculed by every biographer, Twain's scheme to spin out a book by sending, in Civil War terms, a substitute (or, in current terms, a human camcorder) to join the diamond-rush in South Africa swells now into awesome grandiosity. He assures his proxy that their travelogue will become "frightfully celebrated . . . not only here but in every language in civilized Europe" (p. 260). Moreover, he guarantees to train the returnee into a smashingly popular lecturer. Fantasizing still further ahead, Twain may next insert him into "some quaint country" to absorb material for a second book--perhaps again concocted by Twain though "I'll have you so well known in 18 months that there will be no man so ignorant as to have to ask `Who is John Henry] Riley?'" (p. 263). No doubts undercut this exuberance. "Pull & all haul my scheme as you please-criticize as you will, it's as sound as a drum--there isn't a leak in it" (p. 262). Indeed, he was so meticulous as to anticipate secondary problems: If Riley should incidentally "pick up" more than five thousand dollars worth of diamonds, Twain, as mastermind and bankroller of the trek, would get half. A reader has to struggle beyond the blatant proof that Twain himself was emotionally the model for Colonel Sellers of The Gilded Age in order to concede that Riley did have a background and skills that fitted the plan--if only it had made sense to start with.

In spite of such blind canyons, these letters for 1870-71 do follow an encompassing shape. After rounding off a wordy courtship quite self-consciously, the blissful couple lead us through the honeymoon months with the perhaps least interesting Mark Twain we will ever meet. Or, if still interesting, he disappoints his shaggier admirers by conforming as ecstatic soulmate, reverential son-in-law, and gladly house-broken husband who worries that friends will track mud over the expensive carpets. Soon he rises, however, to an astonishing patience under the pressure of several major illnesses and two deaths, a puzzlingly fragile baby, and a somehow ungraspable yet gritty inertia at the newspaper he meant to propel into eminence. Overall, he behaved heroically though now and then venting his wearied frustration to his brother Orion or Elisha Bliss, both of whom gave him cause to do so. In March 1871 he raged to Orion: "I am simply half-crazy--that is the truth. And I wish I was the other half" (p. 364). About the same day he warned Bliss: "You do not know what it is to be in a state of absolute frenzy-desperation. I had rather die twice over than repeat the last six months of my life." But by September he had essentially regained equilibrium, signalling that to Bliss with a characteristic twist: "Did I offend with my last letter? I didn't mean to, but I am such an ass that I do most things ass foremost" (p. 459). So far as the detailed record shows, he had never offended his wife, Olivia, during even the most trying months.

While the subplots wandered about, Twain had become a family man and a briskly professional humorist by December 1872. But obvious questions look ahead. In their too seldom private life can gentle Olivia ride the whirlwind that her husband continually stirs up? Can she manage a household with several servants despite his slam-bang help? Is she sturdy enough for a second child so soon? Will sickly Langdon Clemens grow into health and let us observe the acclaimed interpreter of boyhood interacting with a son? What kind of sensibly ample house will the Clemenses build in sedate Nook Farm? As for the humorist-author, can the book he is jerry-building sell anywhere near so well as he almost desperately counts on? Meanwhile, can he meet the deadlines he keeps extending? Will he sidetrack too much energy into enterprises that his unique talents do not suit? The next volume of letters cannot come too soon for me.

Loose ends and arcs of humor too good to ignore dangle over the edges of any patterning of Twain. Nobody who knows about his domestic crises during the spring of 1871 could expect him to squander effort on trying to spare a supposed genius from hanging for murder. Even those who knew about the Riley scheme must have gaped at hearing that "one of these days I propose to write an Autobiography of Old Parr, the gentleman who lived to be 153 years old & saw the reigns of 8 English kings" (p.446). Even connoisseurs of Twain's agility with personae are startled by the letters or inscriptions from Langdon at the age of four days, five days, two weeks, seven weeks, and six months (the last on a photograph for Bret Harte). And always, in every seam, there's the spontaneous wit. Younger brother ridicules Orion for negotiating hard about some vague prospects: "Might as well stipulate that one should have two golden harps hereafter under certain conditions, before finding out whether he is going to be able to play acceptably on one first" (p.230). Or, giving his sister-in-law some upbeat news: "Livy drinks ale, now, for a tonic.... She was as tight as a brick this afternoon (as the historian Josephus would say). She talks incessantly, anyhow, so the ale hadn't any the advantage of her there, but it made her unendurably slangy, & that is what we grieved for" (p.358). I confess to admiring Twain's humor most when it's least rehearsed and personally functional. So I hope that no contract of any kind will hold up the publishing--with "innards and all"--of the almost forty years of correspondence still left.
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Author:Budd, Louis J.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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