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Mark Twain's Letters, vol. 5: 1872-1873.

Mark Twain's Letters: Volume 5: 1872-1873, edited by Lin Salamo and Harriet Elinor Smith. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. xxxv, 939 pp. $60.00.

After a few years, when all the reviews of Mark Twain's Letters: Volume 5 have appeared, I plan to survey them and see how my peers and betters handled it. Not to rate them on the sternness of their standards but to get a profile of their interests and tastes. Part of that profile is, however, predetermined, I hope. Anybody with the least respect for documentary editing will have to feature the continuing meticulousness in presenting the primary texts, here another three hundred and nine letters--"well over half" never published before. Though hard-core scholars can't help yearning to handle original documents, they can, after absorbing the (revised) "Guide to Editorial Practice" and the hundred pages of "Textual Commentaries," proceed as confidently as if they had done so. In fact they will get far more out of this volume than if they were operating from solely their own expertise.

Also predictably, hard-core researchers who can't help still admiring substantial scholarship will sigh with pleasure but also boggle at the depth and fineness of detail, at the recovery of facts that had apparently disappeared down the stream of time. We get an inversion of the monumentally obtuse detectives in Twain's "The Stolen White Elephant." Even the shrewdest literary snoop will wonder, "How did the editors find out that?" Many a Twainian will come back to learn more on some matter that he or she is not the least concerned about now. Because assorted examples of facts waiting for users would grow zanier than a sketch for MAD TV, I instance only the notes (pp. 463-470) on the list of thirty-two names that Twain drew up for gratis copies of The Gilded Age. Beyond identifying all but one individual (given only by surname), the editors explain or else soundly conjecture what Twain had in mind for each case. Cumulatively, these notes encapsulate his life purposes, moods, and professional behavior in the fall of 1873.

But I don't mean to billboard this volume as a lean "whodunit?" A mass-reprint house would cut off the appendices (such as the book contracts or the journals that Twain kept in England though not, I hope, the letters written before 1872 but found too late to run in previous volumes). Nor will the chain stores stack this kind of blockbuster (almost a thousand pages) in the center aisle. It does take a Twainian to appreciate (in both senses) the mini c.v.'s of almost every person, no matter how obscure then or later, who flits by here, and the exactitude about Twain's tireless comings and goings that corrects previous guesses or just mistakes. Of course, beneficiaries of the first four volumes of this edition don't need my assurances, but like a Michael Jordan fan I can't help expressing my enthusiasm again.

Actually, the unpredictability about other reviewers concerns whether they will highlight Twain as author or as lecturer or as humorist or as Samuel L. Clemens, the (relatively) private individual. Some of his strongest admirers, understandably, keep focused on his texts, particularly his major books. Here they can observe him gingerly discovering that Roughing It was another best-seller and therefore starting to take himself (relatively) seriously--if only in spurts. A letter to Whitelaw Reid (20 April 1873; previously unpublished) blurts out: "I am not a man of trifling literary consequence." This self-assertion would eventually bring painful consequences. Reid (who would soon declare that "courtesy is the Trojan Horse, inside of which the enemies of independent journalism are conveyed to its citadel") intensely resented Twain's pressure on the New York Tribune to puff The Gilded Age, which genetically oriented scholars can watch moving here from a joint project with Charles D. Warner to heavily illustrated print to Twain's current enterprise.

The too few critics interested in him as a platform performer will emphasize how hard he worked at preparing, revising, and delivering his after-dinner speeches as well as his lectures, especially in the United Kingdom, and will respect how painstakingly he experimented with his stage manner or, simply, his body language. However, if at all educated, reviewers will be neither surprised nor downcast to hear that as he wound up his triumphs abroad he decided to "retire from the platform permanently." The irreverent minds that prefer Twain the humorist, particularly those that enjoy him at his (relatively) most spontaneous, will focus on the grace notes like brother Orion "is as happy as a martyr when the fire won't burn" or "am justing off to the station" or on riffs (p. 198) that probably had still more forethought. We get the authentic and arguably cruder text of his thanks for W.D. Howells's review of Roughing It (not The Innocents Abroad, as A.B. Paine told us): "... I am as uplifted & reassured by it as a mother who has given birth to a white baby when she was awfully afraid it was going to be a mulatto." An essayist with plenty of room could not resist quoting more elegant, sustained cadenzas from Twain's always seething intellectual-moral ebullience.

Finally, some reviewers may choose to function as micro-biographers because inviting materials lead in many directions. We get the first rounded episode of Twain as a family man: A daughter arrives, a son dies, marriage settles into a warmly affectionate routine or frequent letters whose candor assumes mutual loyalty. We get an expanding picture of Twain as a social animal: Curiously, he did not consider himself gregarious, which he was, fortunately, because just about everybody who could insisted on meeting him--even in England, to his genuine surprise. We watch him learn to bear the costs of celebrity: Along with the rising tide of acclaim start to thicken the belittling rumors, all the more painful because they now rate as "news." Uneasily, we watch him taking still greater risks, emotional and financial and professional: Forgetting the years just ahead, we start expecting disaster on the next page. More prosaically, we watch the self-made intellectual continue to grow: In spite of all the drains on his time and energy, he keeps managing to enlarge his mind. But Twain, until recently a journalist by trade, also kept up his habit of following current events besides trying to comprehend better the socio-political forces that drove them: When he declared from England to his sister-in-law that he "would a good deal rather live here," he chose out of both more topical and more educated reasons than vanity or income.

The inventively diligent editors come up with a bonus for biographers--private reactions to Twain set down when fresh. At first sight a State Department functionary in London detected a "sinister expression" on Twain, who also did "not seem to know as much as would hurt him." By the time of a dinner party nine months later, that functionary had been stampeded or just charmed, recording in his diary that Twain's "remarks were all shrewd, his language terse and appropriate, and his manner entirely free of affectation" (p. 395). The diarist did remark shrewdly himself, however, about Twain's "comical drawl, which seems natural, but which one occasionally suspects is put on in order to turn over in his mind what he shall say before he utters it." Likewise, Edward Emerson, who happened to share an Atlantic crossing, reported to his sister in Concord that Twain "has or very probably affects a very broad and rustic speech and a drawl" (p. 226). Overall, Emerson was puzzled, pleasantly, by this "curious looking bird" who comes across as a "simple, countrified serious man."

These caveats or worse, if made public, would not have subdued Twain for long. Under his touchiness and nagging self-reproach lay a proud, irreducible core of identity. Invited to react to a reminiscence of him as a "bitterly sarcastic... impatient autocrat" when editing the Buffalo Express, he granted that his critic "has discovered my besetting weakness, which is unreflecting & rather ungraceful irritability. It isn't a pleasant trait." Yet he went on serenely: "I have some pleasant ones, but modesty compels me to hide them from the world, so no one gets the benefit of them but myself" (p. 329). I closed Mark Twain's Letters: Volume 5 firmly liking the man, as did so many of his contemporaries, whatever the friction at the edges. The hearsay about him was attractive enough that unlikely persons maneuvered to savor his wit and dynamism. These letters also show him, often anyway, as flexible, generous with the money he so staunchly hunted, far more candid than most of us, and irrepressibly curious about the world--animal or mineral or vegetable or human.
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Author:Budd, Louis J.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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