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Mark Twain Today

ISSUE:  Summer 1989

Mark Twain’s Letters, Vol. I: 1853—1866. Edited by Edgar M. Branch, Michael B. Frank, Kenneth M. Sanderson. California. $35.00.

On Oct. 19, 1865, the day after he finished the “Jumping Frog” story, Sam Clemens wrote to his brother and sister-in-law that he had at last found his vocation—”seriously scribbling to excite the laughter of God’s creatures.” Written across the top of the letter was an afterthought: “P.S. You had better shove this in the stove—for if we strike a bargain I don’t want any absurd “literary remains” & “unpublished letters of Mark Twain” published after I am planted.” In this lucid moment, just as he was approaching the age of 30, Mark Twain could see both where his heretofore miscellaneous career as typesetter-steamboat pilot-miner-reporter was apparently heading, and what the consequences of such a career might be.

By now the consequences are clear. Mark Twain’s humor and satire, his skill in the creation of narrative and character, and his ability to capture the rhythms of speech in print have led to his uncontested enshrinement as a major American and world author. Interest remains high in Mark Twain’s biography, in his published works, in the thousands of pages of manuscript yet unpublished, and in his letters, which until now have been available only in small, special groupings (The Love Letters of Mark Twain, Letters to his Publisher, Letters to Mary) and in two wildly incomplete and badly edited versions, those by Albert Bigelow Paine in 1917 and Charles Neider in 1982.

Thus a definitive edition of the letters, underway for a decade at the Mark Twain Project in Berkeley, has been long awaited. Mark Twain’s Letters, Volume 1:1853—66, the work of 14 editors supported by NEH and private donors, is the first in a series of some 20 volumes that will bring to print, by the end of the century, all of the extant 10,000 letters written, as he variously signed them, by Samuel L. Clemens, Sam, Mark Twain, and Mark.

Mark Twain’s Letters, Volume I, contains 126 letters, more than 40 of them previously unpublished, written between August 1853 (when Clemens was 17) and December 1866 (when he was 31). This is the rich ore of experience that Mark Twain would refine into literature for the rest of his life. The letters begin with the first extended trip taken by young Sam Clemens—cocky, independent, yet eager for letters from home—when he traveled East to see the New York World’s Fair, Washington, and Philadelphia. They detail his return to Missouri and Iowa, where he worked as a typesetter and a contributor of occasional sketches to newspapers. The letters document Twain’s four years as a Mississippi steamboat pilot—his Yale College and his Harvard, as Melville put it about whaling ships—and then his five-and-a-half years in Virginia City, San Francisco, and Hawaii, where his career, fitful as it appeared at the time, steadily progressed from miner to mining-town reporter to feature writer to traveling correspondent to humorous lecturer.

This is the period when Sam Clemens began to sign his sketches as “Mark Twain”; when he heard an old miner tell a story about a loaded frog in Angels Camp, Calaveras County; when he decided that he had “had a “call” to literature, of a low order—i.e. humorous”; when he accepted the commission of the Alta California to travel as a correspondent to Europe and the Holy Land. The volume ends with Twain’s departure from California on Dec. 15, 1866, having conquered the West (“I sail tomorrow . . .leaving more friends behind me than any newspaper man that ever sailed out of the Golden Gate”), and with the East and Europe before him (“we feel confident,” said the Alta, that “his letters . . .from his new field of observation, will give him a world-wide reputation”).

These letters of Mark Twain’s adolescence and early manhood occupy one-third of the 600-page volume. Another third is devoted to detailed, sometimes exhaustive, notes on the letters, where a reader can find descriptions of the New York Fair of 1853, itineraries of the steamboats that Clemens piloted, the prices of mining stocks in which he had an interest, the history of California periodicals to which he contributed. The final third consists of appendixes (genealogy, a calendar of Clemens’s piloting assignments, maps, photographs, facsimiles of letters) and a hundred pages of “Editorial Apparatus.”

This handsome and expensive volume, and others issued by the Mark Twain Project, are not without their critics, who—echoing Edmund Wilson’s “Fruits of the MLA” attack on editorial “boondoggles” in the mid-1960’s—complain of too much annotation, too little production, and, for the letters, a “barbed wire” theory of transcription. Such criticism, on all three grounds, is unjustified.

The editors have invented a new method for transcribing letters from manuscript to print, which they call “plain text.” This method is a compromise between the extremes of transcription defined by Fredson Bowers: “clear text,” which subordinates details of manuscript errors and revisions to notes, so that the text can be easily read; and “genetic text,” which reproduces these details through symbols that make reading difficult. Plain text takes the middle ground, incorporating some of the idiosyncrasies of the manuscript “in order to make the text as complete and informative as possible without destroying its legibility.”

Here is A. B. Paine’s clear text transcription of a letter from Clemens to his sister-in-law describing the death of his younger brother Henry in a steamboat accident:

Men take me by the hand and congratulate me, and call me “lucky” because I was not on the Pennsylvania when she blew up! . . . I left Saint Louis on her, but on the way down . . . .

Charles Neider, erratically following Paine, drops the comma and gratuitously italicizes the ship name Pennsylvania. The California edition brings us back to the text that Clemens actually wrote:

Men take me by the hand and congratulate me, and call me “lucky”beg-because I was not on the Pennsylvania when she blew up! . . . I left Saint Louis on her, but on they was- way down . . . .

Here the several kinds of emphasis and the mistakes, masked in the Paine and Neider versions, poignantly convey Clemens’s condition at the time—exhausted and, as a Memphis journalist described him, “almost crazed with grief.” Plain text is a brilliant innovation in editing, for it gives us both a readable transcription and the feel of the letters, insofar as it is possible to do so in print. Appropriately enough, this method is analogous to Mark Twain’s own plain text theory of the vernacular, new in its time, in which he provided clues to the sounds and rhythms of spoken English while preserving the ease of conventional written text.


Moreover, the meticulously transcribed letters provide new and often more precise information about Clemens and his works, and allow us to sharpen our interpretations. Critics have made much over the 1866 letter to his mother and sister in which Mark Twain seems to reject the “Jumping Frog” as a “villainous backwoods sketch.” With the full letter in front of us, including photographic facsimiles of the two clippings that Twain carefully pasted in (“Mark Twain’s story . . .has set all New York in a roar . . . . It is voted the best thing of the day”; “That rare humorist “Mark Twain” whose fame is rapidly extending all over the country . . . .”) we can clearly see that his reference to a “villainous backwoods sketch” is a bit of false modesty on the part of a proud young author.

The annotation of Mark Twain’s Letters is indeed heavy, but, since the notes are tucked in after each letter in reduced type, the reader can take them or leave them alone. The reader who takes them will discover a vast amount of information about mid-century American life in New York and St. Louis and Virginia City and San Francisco, as well as a running biography of Clemens—the latter especially useful since all the standard biographies are flawed and new biographical information tends to be piecemeal and widely scattered. Often the information brings new light to bear on the tales and novels as well as on the author’s methods. The notes concerning the Pennsylvania explosion, for example, reproduce part of Clemens’s article, now extant only in a clipping in his scrapbook, that describes Henry as having been critically injured in the initial explosion, after which he extricated himself and “escaped on a mattrass to a raft or open wood boat, where he lay exposed . . .for eight hours.” In retelling the incident a quarter of a century later in chapter 20 of Life on the Mississippi, the author has Henry, thinking he is unhurt, decide heroically to “swim back to the boat and help save the wounded.” The editorial policy is to include everything that might be useful to an inquiring reader, no matter what the angle of inquiry. We cannot legislate for future generations of scholars, but it is a good guess that Mark Twain’s letters will not need to be edited again.

The production rate of the Mark Twain Project, now directed by Robert Hirst, is, if not rapid, clearly solid and steady. The project has issued 20 volumes, divided into two categories—Works (previously published writings, including Roughing It, What Is Man?, Connecticut Yankee, Tom Sawyer, Tales & Sketches) and Papers (previously unpublished writings, including Satires & Burlesques, Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts, Fables of Man, Notebooks & Journals, and Letters). A new and excellent feature of the Project is the Mark Twain Library, which reproduces the texts and the more essential notes from the Works and Papers volumes, without the scholarly apparatus, in reasonably priced editions, both paper and hardback. Thus Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is available three ways, all with the original Kemble illustrations and the raftsmen’s passage: a Works edition, 944 pages with full notes, apparatus, and appendixes, for $65.00; a Library edition of 479 pages, in cloth ($22.50) and paper ($7.95). Eventually a selected and streamlined edition of the Letters will be available in the Library series.

Even Edmund Wilson would be pleased. At last we are getting superb editions of Mark Twain’s writings, in full detail for scholars and libraries and in an accessible but still precise form for students and the public. That, as Twain might have said to the members of his Damned Human Race Luncheon Club, is about the best human beings can do.


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