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The Literary Remains of Mark Twain

ISSUE:  Spring 1977

Mark Twain’s Notebooks & journals.
Volume I (1855—1873) edited by Frederick Anderson, Michael B. Frank, and Kenneth M. Sanderson. California. $20.00.
Volume II (1877—1883): edited by Frederick Anderson, Lin Salamo, and Bernard L. Stein. California. $21.50.

On October 19, 1865, Sam Clemens—nearly 30 years old, in debt, haphazardly employed—wrote a letter to his brother Orion. Encouraged by the completion of his first significant creation, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” Clemens overflowed with occupational reflections: “I never had but two powerful ambitions in my life. One was to be a pilot, & the other a preacher of the gospel.” He had become a pilot, but preaching was a failure “because I could not supply myself with the necessary stock in trade— i.e., religion. . . . I have a religion—but you will call it blasphemy. It is that there is a God for the rich man but none for the poor.” But, Clemens explained, he did have a call to humorous writing: “I really begin to believe there must be something in it.” Then a premonition apparently struck him, and he added a postscript. “P. S, You had better shove this in the stove—for if we strike a bargain [Orion to preach; Sam to write] I don’t want any absurd “literary remains” & “unpublished letters of Mark Twain” published after I am planted.”

Mark Twain was planted in 1910. He left behind an enormous pile of unfinished manuscripts, notebooks, letters, and autobiographical dictation—millions of words in all—and no stove. With the release of this material into the public domain, the establishment of the Center for Editions of American Authors, and the population explosion in American scholarship, the publication of Mark Twain’s literary remains has become, along with preaching, humorous writing, and steamboating, an American occupation. Under the general editorship of Frederick Anderson, dozens of scholars and scores of graduate assistants are engaged in two massive projects: The Works of Mark Twain (new editions of volumes published during the author’s lifetime) and The Mark Twain Papers (previously unpublished material). The Works will include some 30 volumes, of which two—Roughing It; What is Man?— have been released. The Papers are projected for at least 20 volumes, with nine now in print. Mark Twain’s Notebooks & Journals, volumes I and II, are the latest.

Even before Mississippi pilot Horace Bixby advised his cub to “get a little memorandum-book,” Sam Clemens had begun a lifelong habit of taking notes. He started at the age of 19, and he was still making entries 55 years later on a trip to Bermuda a few weeks before his death. It is remarkable, even miraculous, that 49 notebooks have been preserved—two or three, possibly a half dozen, are missing. Of the extant total of 450,000 words, approximately one-fourth was published in 1935 by Albert Bigelow Paine in a volume now distinguished only for its inadequacies and omissions. Mark Twain’s Note-book & Journals, volumes I and II, give us the first 21 notebooks in a complete and meticulously edited form. The physical appearance of the notebooks and the entries offers clues concerning the contents and their use. The books vary in size but they tend to be small, with pages measuring about 4 by 6 1/2 inches, and later, 2 by 3 1/4 inches—designed for a traveler’s pocket rather than a writer’s desk. Although there are some longer entries, most are short paragraphs, and there are many single-line, even single-word entries. Dozens of lists are included. Paging through the entries, one is struck by their miscellaneous, hasty, fragmented appearance. What the appearance suggests the contents confirm. These books of notes reveal the habits of a journalist rather than an artist; they are the memoranda of a writer not as writer, but as reporter, traveler, businessman, social creature, doer of errands. When the writer shows through, it is as a collector of raw materials, and there are few hints of finished work. The notebooks break off during the summers at Quarry Farm, when Mark Twain was most productive as a writer.

Although no generalizations do full justice to the accumulation of notes over half a century, the bulk of the material can be seen in broad categories. Two of the earliest notebooks record the schooling of the apprentice cub in the mysteries of piloting, an occupation close to Mark Twain’s heart (“I loved the profession far better than any I have followed since, and I took a measureless pride in it”) and one which provided the material for “Old Times on the Mississippi.” The notebooks, however, give little hint of the magic of the river or the psychology of maturation celebrated in “Old Times.” They are largely short-hand technical descriptions of landmarks; “Then S on Ill cor. of II [island], h opn on Ms pt. —go outside 2 sngs in neighborhood of wrecks mk 2 at h of II.” Here the usually indefatigable editors, perhaps stymied less by technical shorthand than by the impossibility of identifying island points and snags and wrecks that were constantly changing, deviate from their normal practice of complete transcription and give us selections.

A small number of entries scattered throughout the notebooks suggest the traditional commonplace book. We can look over Mark Twain’s shoulder as he records his reading of George S. Weaver’s Lectures on Mental Science, Voltaire’s Dialogue Entre un Plaideur et un Avocat, Lincoln’s second inaugural address, Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander’s “Burial of Moses.” But the majority of entries are travel notes—a record of facts and impressions that stretches from the Sandwich Islands to Jerusalem. Mark Twain was a relentless traveler, and his equally relentless notebook provided the grist that would be milled first in letters to the Sacramento Daily Union and the San Francisco Alia California, then in such books as The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, A Tramp Abroad, and Following the Equator.

One other large category can only be labeled miscellaneous. Mark Twain stuffed his notebooks with names and addresses, newspaper clippings, facts (“Great extinct crater of Mauna Loa is 24 miles circumference & 1,270 feet deep”), hotel bills, a chess game, daily events (“Have lost my pipe, & cant get another in this hellfired town”), a recipe for brandy punch, laundry lists, names of girls and racehorses, French lessons, a Hawaiian lexicon, errands (“Get letter of int from Uncle John to Sheriff”), and fragmented pieces of anecdotes, quotations, and humor. For the most part the humorous notations are punch lines, snappers, nubs, conclusions; and we can only guess at the full contexts: “”white man heap savvy too much—Injun gone in—” “; “wife perfect but blamed if she suits me”; “ Johnson—My God have I been _____ my grandmother!” “Traveler asks 3 boys what they do—last & smallest says “I nusses Johnny, eats apples & totes out merde. ” “In some cases these shorthand tag lines conceal sexual jokes. The notebooks are almost invariably decorous—even the mild “totes out merde” became simply “toats out” when Mark Twain entered it a second time. But concealment was the by-product rather than the purpose, for the habit of jotting down punchlines, often without narrative or characterization, perfectly describes the use of the entries as a whole as aids to the memory rather than as finished performances. Mark Twain was too accustomed to writing for print and performing for audiences, public and private, to spend his energies polishing his notebooks.

What are we to make of these two volumes—five pounds, 1369 pages, 2153 footnotes, 170 pages of “Textual Apparatus,” at a price of $41.50? And if we think of the notebooks as a steamboat trip from St. Louis to New Orleans we have only reached Memphis. Three more volumes are promised. There are likely to be four differing reactions to this mass of material. We will have the effusions of the enthusiast—the Notebooks present “an enchanting record of a great writer’s mind,” as Doris Grumbach wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov. 15, 1976). More sober scholars will present a predictably qualified opinion: while the Notebooks do not significantly change or even modify our knowledge of Mark Twain’s life and writings, they remain of considerable interest to specialists and their publication is an important service to scholarship. Somewhere there must lurk a dissenter, a young Edmund Wilson who will rise up to ask why. Why should one invest 50 hours of reading and $41.50 on Mark Twain’s laundry lists when for the same time and half the money one could read his major works, or Shakespeare’s. And we may expect the bibliographical quibbler who will pitch his tent on the ground of the “Textual Apparatus” and offer battle on end-of-line hyphenation and conjectural readings. All of these reactions are valid, with the exception of the last. I have no gauntlet to fling down on the tables of emendation. Having not collated the text with the original notebooks, I can innocently report that the bibliographical method seems admirably precise and complete. The often difficult texts of the notebooks are made accessible without glossing over the complexities of transcription or interpretation.

The dilemma remains, The Notebooks are full of interest; they will, however, be read and used largely by specialists; and they are vulnerable to attack on the grounds of triviality and unselective voluminosity. Their interest is not directly literary for, unlike the autobiographical dictation, the Notebooks contain very little memorable prose. One hunts in vain for striking observations or profound thoughts or witty statements. Their literary value is in outlining the mountains of fact which loom behind much of Mark Twain’s writing. Here we have the raw ore of the remarkable experiences that would be transmuted: piloting on the Mississippi, mining and journalism in the West, travel to the Sandwich Islands, then to Europe and the Holy Land, Bermuda, and Europe again. In this respect the early Notebooks are the most interesting, for Mark Twain’s writing gradually became released from the fetters of literalism as he sought his material further and further in the past. His first significant book, The Innocents Abroad (1869), was based on the 1867 Quaker City excursion, still fresh in mind and notebook. Roughing It (1872) reverted to the earlier Western years (1861—66). “Old Times on the Mississippi” (1875) reached further back to pre-war piloting days (1857—61). Moving steadily backward in time, Mark Twain then returned to the Hannibal of memory and imagination for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), the later chapters of Life on the Mississippi (1883), and Huckleberry Finn (1885), Having reached his earliest days with the aid of his notebooks, Mark Twain could push back no further. The retrospective chain of association was broken, the development from journalist to travel writer to author was complete, and Mark Twain’s imagination sought new fields. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court (1889) was based on a literary source, Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. Autobiography does appear in the later works—all fiction is autobiographical—but it is less insistent, less controlling. Thus the Notebooks will be of most use in exhuming literary sources for the first part of Mark Twain’s career.

Specific literary artifacts are imbedded throughout. The knowledgeable reader will discover dozens of entries that point to later works:

Coleman with his jumping frog—bet stranger $50—stranger had no frog, & C got him one—in the meantime stranger filled C’s frog full or shot & he couldn’t jump—the stranger’s frog won.

Mountaineers in habit of telling same old experiences over & over again in these little back settlements. Like Dan’s old Ram, which he always drivels about when drunk. The “Tragedian” & the Burning Shame. No women admitted.

Jim Gillis’s yarn about the blue jays that tried to fill Carrington’s house with acorns.

Many entries can be seen as rehearsals for character parts, elaborated in more extended dress rehearsals in the notebooks kept during the leisurely pace of ocean voyages. Wandering through the pages are several versions on the salty, voluble, blistering sea captain based on Ned Wakeman; the fool; the scrapper at the feast of languages; and, most important, the vernacular character. Again and again we are able to see Mark Twain arranging the heavy polarities that served as a theory of humor in print shops and pilothouses and mining camps: “unveiling new wonders beyond—of towering walls of verdure—gleaming cataracts of vines. . . D—n the blackguard with the damaged plug hat,” Much of the development of Mark Twain’s humor is illustrated by the refining of these crude extremes, in the invention of the contrapuntal Mr. Brown, and then in Brown’s demise as his creator learned how to contain the oppositions necessary for humor within the balanced view of a single character such as the cub pilot, Huckleberry Finn, and Hank Morgan.

The other major interest of the Notebooks is directly biographical. Here we have the whole man—eating (“Breakfast . . .$2.00”) and drinking (“Whisky . . .$8.00”)—but not breeding. Almost the whole man then, with a wealth of detail that sharpens our focus and gives us a sense of the felt life pulsing behind the hasty, jagged entries. Mark Twain’s admiration for Horace Bixby—one recalls his running Hat Island at night in “Old Times”—is substantiated in a new dimension by the entries made on board the Alonzo Child, a steamboat which Clemens, as pilot not cub, had run aground in a fog in November 1860:

Was a good deal of water inside Dead Man. Was probably 6 or 7 ft in Glasscocks—night—didn’t try.

Was probably water enough bet. bars at head Hurricane— had to go after woodboat—didn’t try.

Afraid of 82.

The early notebooks may in fact provide an uncritical admirer with more biography than he wants. It will come as a surprise to those who have not read the early sketches that our much acclaimed humanitarian can complain that “they put me in the aftermost seat in [church] with the niggers d—n them” or that “the Jew . . . not to our thinking a white man, presumed so far as to take the same liberty [of sitting on the Captain’s sofa]”; that our severe national critic can raise the flag of chauvinism (“all at once a thrill went through the whole ship . . .she had flung the stars & stripes to the breeze!”); and that America’s greatest humorist was endlessly addicted to woeful jokes. It is embarrassing to find Mark Twain taking part in shipboard pranks such as getting a monkey drunk, walking off with a marble head from the Acropolis, condescending to second-cabin passengers, and copying bad poems and flatulent descriptions into his notebook as examples of “Eloquence.” His gifts and his perceptions, unlike Huck Finn’s, did not come early or easily.

Near the end of The Innocents Abroad the narrator observes “what a stupid thing a notebook gets to be at sea” and invents some examples: “Tuesday—Somewhere in the neighborhood of the island of Malta. Cannot stop there. Cholera. Weather very stormy. Many passengers seasick and invisible,” This in turn suggests “the journal I opened with the New Year once, when I was a boy” in which all the entries were identical: “Got up, washed, went to bed. . . . That journal finished me,” he concludes, “I never have had the nerve to keep one since.” Forty-nine notebooks refute this playful conclusion, but hundreds, perhaps thousands of entries substantiate the protest. It is difficult to find compelling interest, for his day or ours, in Mark Twain’s lessons in elementary French (“Ton frere, Thy brother; Ta soeur, Thy sister; Ma tante, My Aunt”), his laundry lists (“2 pair white cotton Socks; 1 summer cravat; 2 white Handkerchiefs; 1 pair twilled Drawers”), or his notes on the entries at the 13th annual fair of the California State Agricultural Society (“Graded Cattle. Fine wool Sheep—Spanish Merino. Graded Sheep. Goats.” ). The reader of these volumes, dozing through the tables of latitude and longitude that record the slow progress of the becalmed clipper Smyrniote from the Sandwich Islands to San Francisco, may wish for a selected edition. Aside from the difficulty of untangling the interrelated threads of a complex skein, such a wish is shortsighted. No two readers would select quite the same entries, and every Twainian can find significance in corners that appear dark to others, Even such a scrap as “Cigars . 25” tells us something about Mark Twain at 19. “D—d poor hotel” and “Horse begin to _____ like a thunderstorm,” written long before meeting Olivia Langdon and W. D. Howells, suggest that wife and editor were not culprits in the emasculation of a rough Westerner’s graphic narrative. Occasionally a tiny detail, buried in a list or technical description—”mk 2 at h of II”—will ignite recognitions that flash across the literary horizon. Entries that seem unpromising sometimes acquire new meaning as the context builds; it is remarkable how rapidly Mark Twain’s French improved during a pilot’s layovers in New Orleans. A selected edition, however desirable it might seem during many doldrum passages, would also mask the impact of the notebooks as a whole. Taken by and large (a phrase Mark Twain illustrates with a catalogue of the Smyrniote’s sails), the volumes demonstrate qualities of mind that inform novels as well as notebooks: an interest in dialect revealed, even in hasty and incomplete entries, by the careful underlining of words and syllables that signaled a speaker’s emphasis; a zest for specifics—names, facts, statistics; and organization by a linear, baggage-car method that Richard Bridgman suggests is at the core of the colloquial style. And the full text, fragmented and distractive as it is, gives a rich sense of the innumerable interests and distractions that cut at the high bank of Mark Twain’s talent.

There is another kind of objection that can be made: editorial elephantiasis. The more than two thousand footnotes, some of them a full page long, tend to err on the side of fullness. Mark Twain’s single-line reference to the steamboat Westerner (“10 o’clock Saturday night on board steamer Westerner”) triggers a Homeric annotation which gives us the boat’s origin, its color, its membership in the St. Louis & Keokuk Packet Line, its daily schedule out of St. Louis, and a statement of praise from the Hannibal Missouri Courier (“perhaps the finest and most agreeable boat for travel, on the Western waters”). Then we have an account of the Westerner’s sinking, its recovery, and its resumption of operations as attested to by both the St, Louis Daily Missouri Democrat and the St. Louis Missouri Republican. The steamboat is never mentioned again by Mark Twain, although a later brief entry “Fare to H. . . . 2.00”) prompts the editors, after hypothesizing that the reference concerns deck passage fare to Hannibal from St. Louis, to suggest hopefully that “Clemens may have taken the Westerner for this fourteen-hour voyage upstream.” The reader has the disquieting feeling that if Mark Twain had written “Got up, washed, went to bed,” we would be treated to a discussion about Jane Clemens’s soap making, hard and soft water in Hannibal, and tables of sunrise and sunset in Central Standard time.

Nevertheless, the fault here is the excess of a proper zeal. It is more than compensated for by the hundreds of obscure places and people illuminated by the editorial research team and by Frederick Anderson’s admirable introductions to each notebook. An academic reader may suspect the contribution of graduate students who have not yet learned how to hit a subject cleanly and let it drop, but too much knowledge is finally better than too little. However massively miscellaneous, however vaguely related to strictly literary concerns, however many dull stretches of river and trivial landmarks along the way, the Notebooks & Journals get us as close as we are likely to get to the truth about Mark Twain’s life. And since that life both nourished and famished the imagination of one of our greatest writers, only the whole truth will do.


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