Mark Twain's Geographical Imagination. Joseph A. Alvarez, ed. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009. Hardcover, 167 pages. $58.95. ISBN: 978-4438-0585-8.

Amazon sales commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project,
University of California, Berkeley, CA.

The following review appeared 20 November 2017 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2017 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Barbara Schmidt

This collection of essays edited by Mark Twain scholar Joseph A. Alvarez was inspired by a 2005 South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA) conference session. The session was organized by Morehouse College professor Eileen Meredith, who coined the title of the session that this book uses. Then of Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina, Alvarez was not involved in that session, but he nevertheless took up a suggestion from Cambridge Scholars Publishing (no relationship to Cambridge University Press) to shape a book around the subject of Mark Twain's writings on geography. In June 2006, he posted a call to the Mark Twain Forum listserv for papers on Mark Twain's individual travel writings. The result was this collection of ten essays, including two originally presented by Jeffrey Melton and Charles Martin at the SAMLA conference. When the book was published in late 2009, it received sparse publicity and no reviews and then quickly fell out of print. However, in a stroke of good luck for those who failed to find a copy previously, the book is now once again listed on and a request to the publisher for a review copy was promptly answered.

The book's cover features a popular cartoon of Mark Twain standing atop a laughing globe that appeared on 22 December 1900 in the New York Commercial Advertiser. It was signed by a cartoonist with the initials LWM whose identity remains unknown in spite of several queries over the years on the Mark Twain Forum to solicit assistance in providing his or her name.

Alvarez begins the volume with his introduction titled "Mining Ore from Physical and Imaginative Travels." Therein he observes that Mark Twain's geographical imagination took him back almost 2000 years to the Garden of Eden--when he wrote the Adam and Eve diaries--and carried him into time travel, heaven, and various fantasy spaces.

Contributors to the volume include several names familiar to members of the Mark Twain Forum. Among them is John Bird, author of the book's first essay, "Metaphors of North and South, East and West in Mark Twain's 'The Private History of a Campaign that Failed'" (pp. 7-16). Calling attention to the tendency of many readers to overlook the fact that much of Mark Twain's story is fiction, Bird sees that Civil War story to be "about confusion over directions, and even more deeply, about confusion over war in general and war writing in particular" (7). He goes on to show how Mark Twain used the story as a sort of corrective to northern views of published accounts of the war--an implicit criticism, perhaps, of the Century magazine series of wartime memoirs in which the piece first appeared.

The book's second chapter, by another familiar name--John H. Davis--is titled "Bridging the Gap: The Twin Kingdoms of The Prince and the Pauper" (17-34). Davis's "two kingdoms" are the real world of 16th century England that the novel's characters inhabit and the dream worlds of the characters' imaginations. Davis sees the dichotomy of the two realms as central to the novel.

"Roughing It: Mark Twain's Geography of the West, Imagined and Real" (35-40) is by radio comedian Horace J. Digby--the volume's sole nonacademic contributor. He examines Mark Twain's experiences as an explorer, in the very real sense of an on-the-ground adventurer in the Far West.

In "The Significance of Mark Twain's Hawaiian Sojourn Revisited" (41-50), David B. Kesterson offers a bold reassessment of the importance of Mark Twain's 1866 trip to the islands. In blunt terms, he argues that "Mark Twain's life and career were forever changed by the four-months' exposure to island culture and geography, for his experience in the islands helped create an eclectic author and citizen of the world ..." (42). Noting that the trip was both Mark Twain's first sea voyage and his first immersive experience in a foreign culture, Kesterson goes on to show how the trip deepened his interest in geography and travel, concluding "that Mark Twain's sojourn in Hawaii was the major catalyst for his becoming a world traveler and ultimately an international celebrity" (49).

"The Illinois Side of Mark Twain" (51-65) by Sandra Littleton-Uetz, is a true work of geographical imagination. Because of the vast extent of Mark Twain's world travels one wouldn't expect what he wrote about a commonplace American state to be of great interest, but Littleton-Uetz argues otherwise. After connecting Mark Twain's remark that he "would move a state if the exigencies of literature required it" to a later comment he made about the "storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one's head," she builds a persuasive argument that a prime example of such a storm is Mark Twain's imaginative use of the Illinois side of the Mississippi River.

The most original chapter in this book may be Charles D. Martin's "Tom Sawyer's Lessons in Geography; Or, The Holy Land as Flapdoodle in Tom Sawyer Abroad" (67-81). Though written for the SAMLA conference a dozen years ago, the paper is very timely in late 2017, as PBS television stations across the country are broadcasting Mark Twain's Journey to Jerusalem: Dreamland. The PBS docudrama is about Mark Twain's 1867 visit to the Holy Land but deals with some of the same issues as Martin's essay. Martin sees Tom Sawyer Abroad as "essentially a geography lesson couched in the form of a romantic narrative ..." that "serves as a corrective to the proliferation of dull school textbooks and other insipid instructional narratives that posed as boys' stories." He goes on to argue that through "Tom Sawyer's lessons in geography ... Twain lays bare the inherent ideological bias of geography and establishes the science as an implement of imperial conquest" (69).

In "Mark Twain, Huck Finn, and the Geographical 'Memory' of a Nation" (83-99) Janice McIntire-Strasburg builds a convincing argument for Mark Twain's facility in making the Mississippi river a metaphor of American life. The title of Jeffrey Alan Melton's "Seeing the River: Mark Twain's Landscape Imagination" (101-115), seems to address a similar subject, but the chapter actually goes well beyond the Mississippi to examine how Mark Twain imagined other landscapes in both the United States and foreign lands.

In "The Stranger in Paradise: Dollis Hill, Florence, Dublin, and Samuel Clemens' Creative Imagination" (117-129) Mark Woodhouse focuses on three places where Mark Twain resided for extended periods--Dollis Hill in London, England; Florence, Italy; and Dublin, New Hampshire. While exploring how those locations influenced the fictional works Mark Twain wrote while living in them, Woodhouse looks for "common elements of environment that these locales share with each other and with Quarry Farm that appeared to exert a particular influence on Clemens' creative process" (118).

The book's final chapter, by Tracy Wuster, is "'Interrupting a Funeral with a Circus'" Mark Twain, Imperial Ambivalence, and Baseball in the Sandwich Islands." Wuster begins with a discussion of a humorous 1889 banquet speech Mark Twain gave on Americans playing baseball in the Hawaiian Islands and then moves into an exploration of "how the Sandwich Islands existed as a geographical marker of [Mark Twain's] imperial ambivalence--a real place transformed into a fantasy through which he could explore questions of imperialism" (132).

Featuring a comprehensive list of works cited and index, this collection is a nice historical snapshot of a neglected aspect of Mark Twain studies by some leading scholars. Generous previews of the text may be read online at