Critical Companion to Mark Twain: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. R. Kent Rasmussen. With Critical Commentary by John H. Davis and Alex Feerst. 2 vols. Illus. New York: Facts on File, 2007. Pp. 1140. Hardcover. $125.00. ISBN 978-0-8160-5398-8.

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The following review appeared 30 July 2007 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2007 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Alan Gribben

Only thirty years ago there were no reference works -- other than a compilation of quotations by Caroline T. Harnsberger -- devoted specifically to the works of Mark Twain. Then came Robert L. Gale's two-volume Plots and Characters in the Works of Mark Twain (1973). Suddenly a person could easily review the literary figures and their actions in Twain's published as well as unpublished writings. Among other things, Gale's book was a sign of Twain's academic ascendancy, but to the practicing scholar it more fundamentally meant hours saved -- lots of hours -- because the episodic nature and the wide breadth of Twain's oeuvre often makes it difficult to recall when a certain character appears (or reappears) or where a particular incident occurs.

Since Gale's groundbreaking guide arrived on the scene, various publishers have provided a crowded bookshelf of scholarly aids to assist the critic and researcher. Numerous quotation handbooks, bibliographies, and collections of interviews and reviews have tremendously facilitated Twain scholarship. In separate and lengthy essays The Dictionary of Literary Biography Series took up the subject of Mark Twain from numerous perspectives, including his reputations as a novelist, short story writer, realist and naturalist, humorist, and journalist. James D. Wilson's excellent A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Mark Twain (1987) elaborated on one of Twain's genres that had received short shrift. J. R. LeMaster and James D. Wilson's ambitious 825-page compendium, The Mark Twain Encyclopedia (1993), discussed topics as wide-ranging as "Edinburgh," "Editions," "Free Thought," "German Language," "Impersonators," and "Jesus" besides supplying summaries of Twain's works and listing relevant secondary sources.

That latter book, The Mark Twain Encyclopedia, was followed by three significant volumes that expanded on its format and contents. R. Kent Rasmussen's Mark Twain A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Writings (1995) dazzled readers with its sheer comprehensiveness, going beyond plots and characters to list the myriad people, events, and locales in Twain's life. Gregg Camfield's The Oxford Companion to Mark Twain (2003) became the most openly opinionated of the reference works, offering engrossing and sometimes almost whimsical essays. Peter Messent and Louis J. Budd's A Companion to Mark Twain (2005), formidable in terms of topics and tone, brought together the observations of thirty-six experts on multiple dimensions of Twain's background, attitudes, and roles.

For sheer convenience, however, Rasmussen's Mark Twain A to Z has proven hard to surpass. Now Rasmussen comes forward with an updated and enlarged version of his own encyclopedia, Critical Companion to Mark Twain: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, issuing again from Facts on File but featuring a different, two-volume organization. The wavering scholar-critic contemplating the acquisition of this $125 reference work is likely to ask at this point whether a well-thumbed copy of Mark Twain A to Z might continue to suffice, or whether a financial outlay for the new version is inevitably necessary.

The answer is that, while the earlier version is certainly advantageous for rapid consultation, the new Critical Companion to Mark Twain: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work sets a new standard for completeness and detail. Its publisher promises 360 new entries and 100 new illustrations. Often the prior entries are also improved, as with that for the lecture agent James B. Pond. In the 1995 edition, Rasmussen merely notes that "Pond's memoir, Eccentricities of Genius (1900), includes a chapter on Mark Twain," whereas this 2007 incarnation explains that Pond's book "has three chapters on Clemens, including one that provides a first-hand account of their trip together in 1895." The entry for sculptor Karl Gerhardt is now accompanied by a photograph of Gerhardt's bust of Mark Twain. There is an entire entry for "deaf-and-dumb characters," whereas previously there was none. A lengthy paragraph is devoted to "The Sweet Bye and Bye," a sentimental song to which Twain alludes in several of his works. The Zulu tribe has a separate entry this time. The previous edition summarized the careers of the noted Twain scholars Walter Blair and John S. Tuckey, but this 2007 book pays tribute as well to Hamlin Hill, Louis J. Budd and Everett Emerson. An added entry even discusses Clemens's mustache--its first appearance and his references to his shaving difficulties. One of the most engaging new entries takes up the topic of Twain's various book dedications.

Whereas in the 1995 volume fewer than eight total pages were given over to "Books by Mark Twain" and "Suggested Reading," in the 2007 update a massive 132-page Appendix section presents the reader with a "Chronology," "Books by Mark Twain," "Suggested Readings" (now annotated), "Mark Twain Sites on the World Wide Web," "Novels about Mark Twain," "Filmography," "Mediagraphy" (audio-visual materials), "Glossary" (in which words like "blatherskite" are defined and illustrated), and "A Mark Twain Calendar of Days" (ticking off Twain's principal activities and events, day by day).

On the other hand, a few of the briefer entries have disappeared from the encyclopedia section, and are placed instead with the expanded discussions of the literary works in which they appear--"Abblasoure" and "Cambenet," for example, English villages that figure in A Connecticut Yankee appear in a section titled "Characters and Related Entries" immediately following the discussion of "Dramatic Adaptations." Likewise "Pudding Lane" from The Prince and the Pauper. The new arrangement for the material is believed by the publisher to work to the advantage of students who are new to Twain's works.

The largest adjustment for those accustomed to Rasmussen's simpler 1995 encyclopedia will be getting used to the two-volume format. Volume II supplies the historical, geographical, and biographical information. It is Volume I that treats Twain's literary works individually, and these examinations are quite painstaking -- even, for instance, giving the little-appreciated "A Dog's Tale" more than two and a half pages. What makes this first volume of particular interest to working scholars is the meticulousness of each of these analyses of Twain's stories, essays, and novels along with their receptions. For most works, Rasmussen, assisted by John H. Davis and Alex Feerst who contributed "Critical Commentary," not only offers sections titled "Synopsis," "Background and Publishing History," and "Characters and Related Entries," but then adds a "Bibliography" of selected publications. Thus the entry for "Extracts from Adam's Diary," for example, concludes by referring the reader to scholarly commentary by Lawrence I. Berkove, Stanley Brodwin, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Ursula LeGuin, and James D. Wilson. That for "What Is Man?" recommends scholarship by Sherwood Cummings, Charles Johnson, Tom Quirk, John S. Tuckey, and Linda Wagner-Martin. Rasmussen's original description of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn occupied only fourteen pages; here Twain's masterpiece is accorded sixty-three. The seventy-nine chapters of Roughing It also had fourteen pages in 1995; now thirty-one pages are lavished on that episodic travel narrative, including a precise run-down of the twenty-seven colorful characters mentioned by the garrulous Jim Blaine. The essays about The Adventures of Tom Sawyer consider such subjects as "Boy Capitalist," "National Myths," "St. Petersburg: From Supreme Idyll to Theater of Hypocrisy," "Playing by the Book," and "Dramatic Adaptations." How much more could a student, professor, or independent scholar want at one's finger-tips?

Back to that initial and basic question, then. Yes, it would indeed be possible to go on studying Twain and his writings without owning this two-volume set. But a scholar or critic who elects to skip this purchase will be missing out on R. Kent Rasmussen's incredibly massive tribute not only to this American author's contemporary milieu and literary output but to the entire enterprise and achievements of Mark Twain studies as well. Critical Companion to Mark Twain: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work represents an incredible accomplishment for this most productive and resourceful of the Twain reference experts. Again all of us in the field clearly owe him a major and long-term debt.


ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Alan Gribben is head of the English and Philosophy Department and Dr. Guinevera A. Nance Alumni Professor at Auburn University Montgomery.