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The following review appeared 19 June 2008 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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The dictionary widget on my iMac desktop reminds me that the origin of the word companion comes from Old French and means "one who breaks bread with another." Well, I suppose that's as good a place to begin as any when considering how to start nibbling at the vast feast of writings by Samuel Langhorne Clemens.
Unlike at most meals, we usually begin to tuck into Mark Twain's groaning board with a main course--the meaty and perennially popular novels--rather than any one of a hundred appetizing short stories, witty quotations, or traveler's anecdotes. Once we become accustomed to the fare, however, and find it not only satisfying but also leading to a hunger for more, we may feel rather daunted by the size and variety of the menu. The prices beside the entries are not large; it is possible to find, buy cheaply in nice paperback editions, or download free and read online much of what Mark Twain wrote. But the vast array of delicious sounding selections across a wide range of tastes--toasts, speeches, short stories, witticisms, novels, journalism, letters, autobiographical tidbits, journals of voyages--may lead to a sense of surfeit before one even begins. And the question then is where and how to begin this expansive culinary adventure.
After stumbling along beside this long, long banquet table not knowing which delicacy to sample first, one may decide to look around for a guide into the goodies, a companion, let us say. And we find on our dictionary widget that such a companion can be both a person and "a book that provides information about a particular subject." But that's a pretty drab description of an intelligent and useful aide de cuisine for this potentially very large, long, and diverse meal.
Thanks to the Forum we have access to numerous and knowledgeable human companions to consult. But there is no shortage of books as well, the most recent of which is Pam McAllister's The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Mark Twain released by Continuum Books in Spring 2008 only in paperback and priced at $19.95.
McAllister has served as a companion before, having co-authored guides to Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie previously. But here she is on her own, and evidently tackled the assignment with relish, admitting in her Preface that she has been something of a Twainiac since her preteen years. She also admits, however, and this is an interesting personal revelation by an author-editor, that although she loves Twain, she's not quite so sure that she likes him. And the way in which she articulates both her passion and her reservations tells the reader as much or more about Twain as about McAllister. She writes: "He was committed to disentangling his adult life from the race prejudices he had learned in the slaveholding South of his childhood, and, like Huck Finn, made demonstrative progress. He was far less committed to working on his prejudices against Native Americans, Roman Catholics, or the French. His struggle of a century ago touches a raw nerve in an America that is still burdened by discord and division; watching him stumble along so publicly I am simultaneously uncomfortable with and impressed by the relentless but unfinished effort" (xiii).
These personal observations, however, occupy only a moment before McAllister launches into her full-fledged role as companion to the man and his work. Much of the book's value lies in the broad-ranging survey of Twain's key life events as well as his literary output, both of which she treats essentially chronologically, with some subjects set up for consideration by theme or subject. Some of the sections seem oddly out of sequence: a listing of "Short Works of the 1860s" and a digression on cats in Twain's work precedes the biographical beginnings of his work as a writer. But perhaps one can't blame McAllister too much for wanting to get to the real reason to care about Twain--his stories--although his early jobs as a printer's devil, an apprentice riverboat pilot, a gold miner, and a soldier make pretty lively reading; not your granddad's career track. Similarly, a section on the writer's illustrators appears well before the publication of all of the notable works that carried pictures in their texts. This may be more of a failure of McAllister's editor than herself, but it does seem odd to learn about this art before we have been introduced to the literary work that spawned it.
The first of the writings on McAllister's menu is "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," a short story that was more notable, of course, for its instant and wide popularity than either for its quality or for its having earned the author any money. But it put him on the literary map. Poet James Russell Lowell pronounced it, "The finest piece of humorous writing yet produced in America" (p. 35). And McAllister here reveals her formula for engaging with Twain's text; a précis of the work's storyline--sometimes quite elaborate and if not elegantly retold at least clearly so--followed by a very useful subsection called "The Story behind the Story."
These section-ending sidebars are the condiments and the spices that make this Companion more than a mere dishing out of well-known tales reheated in the oven. The histories of their publication, their impacts on the audience, and their roles in Twain's evolution both as a writer and as a celebrity lend considerable added value. Anyone can summarize the plot elements of Twain's major stories, novels, and traveler's tales, but only a devoted gourmet like McAllister has the broad palate and diverse tasting background to serve up these flavorful side dishes. Some of her exegeses, such as the one following her summary of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn dig very deeply into the issues and literary questions that have followed the novel through time and they add to a reader's larger appreciation of the work whether it precedes or follows a reading of it. I find them the real added value of a book that may be thought of as simply part of what McAllister herself calls "The Mark Twain Industry," places, publications and etc. that simply capitalize on the great man's celebrity.
In addition to the summary chapters on Twain's life, the author has stewed up a number of brief essays that shed light on different aspects of our hero's character and habits. An amusing two-page piece called "Billiards (Good) and Bicycles (Bad)" discloses that Twain apparently never could master riding a two-wheeler, but was a fair hand at poking billiard balls across a felt table, though he once revealed "The game of billiards has destroyed my naturally sweet disposition" (61). On that aspect of the great man's personality, McAllister had revealed in her Preface that one of the reasons she wasn't sure she "liked" Twain was that he had "an unpredictable temper and abrupt mood swings" (xiii), although she documents no examples of either that I recall.
Further divagations on Twain's life include a chapter on "Where Twain Wrote and How;" a short section on the popular song "The Sweet Bye and Bye" and its relation to his beloved wife, Livy (apparently Twain misremembered that it was playing when they met, although the tune hadn't been written yet); and a somewhat squeamish exploration of Twain's curious late-in-life preoccupation with girls from the ages of eleven to fifteen, a school of pretty young things he dubbed his Angelfish. McAllister's final take is that although it "had all the makings of a scandal . . .Twain's relationship with the young girls was platonic and avuncular" (178).
Most interesting among the various glimpses of the author's personal life is the long and thoughtful chapter on Twain and religion, a subject that he dealt with in many ways and with many attitudes over a very long time. One of his best friends, of course, was the Reverend Joe Twichell, who had the sad task of presiding over the funerals of two of Mark Twain's daughters, his wife, and of Twain himself. But the Bible, which Twain had read thoroughly, and religion itself were manifest in Twain's writings throughout his life. Perhaps the most charming and inventive of Twain's references to Bible history, of course, are the putative "diaries" of Adam and Eve, in which Twain seems to reveal his own character in the guise of Adam--skeptical, curmudgeonly, short-tempered--and that of the woman he loved best, his wife, Livy, as a pure, bright spirit, full of enthusiasm, optimism, and womanly wiles. (I recently had the pleasure of editing the two texts into a paired reading of the two monologues, alternating the voices, and the audience went easily from laughter and delight to moist-eyed admiration at the author's humor and depth of feeling.)
Taking my culinary analogy to its perhaps absurd limits by evoking the old cliché that "the proof of the pudding is in its eating," it must be said of Pam McAllister's Companion that as true and useful "companions" to the Twain life and oeuvre there are two considerably better ones; R. Kent Rasmussen's Mark Twain A to Z: The Essential Reference to his Life and Writings, and The Oxford Companion to Mark Twain by Gregg Camfield with a notable advisory board and essays by eight scholars and writers of distinction. Though neither of these books might do well beside the bathtub (being respectively just short of 600 or 800 pages), they seem absolutely essential companions to any serious reader's exploration of Mark Twain. Virtually any useful reference to a person, a fact (from Railroads to Typewriters) or an idea (from Anti-Semitism to Women's Rights) will be found here in one or both volumes.
That said, there is value in the new paperback. The book is a handy size and length and costs less than the others (though both can be had in used editions); it covers a great deal of ground in a short and readable form; and it can be read with pleasure and profit from start to finish. Indeed, it pretty well must be read in that way since it serves poorly as a reference work for there is no index. To find anything specific one would have to pore over the table of contents extremely carefully in the hopes of finding what you were looking for, perhaps even knowing in advance what period of the author's life you were investigating.
Nevertheless, as a final measure of the new book's merits, I
will quote from R. Kent Rasmussen's blurb for the back cover, and you can
make your minds up as you browse the book in your favorite bookstore: "Of
the growing number of literary companions to Mark Twain this lively labor
of love by Pam McAllister must surely be the most companionable. Although
not weighted down by scholarly apparatus, it is both thorough and reliable,
as a good companion should be. Better still it's consistently full of fun