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The following review appeared 16 July 2009 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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In 2003 Vic Doyno brought academic Mark Twain studies officially into the digital age with the release of the _Huckleberry Finn CD-ROM: The Complete Buffalo & Erie County Public Library Manuscript--Teaching and Research Edition_. Doyno's project was met with universal praise and has since become a nearly indispensible tool for many who teach and write about Twain's 1885 masterpiece. In 2008 Penguin Books became the first commercial publisher to make available a fully downloadable electronic scholarly edition of Twain's 1885 masterpiece designed specifically for popular handheld units such as the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, and Apple iPhone. However, despite R. Kent Rasmussen's excellent editorial contributions, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Penguin Enriched eBook Classic is something of a disappointment not only for instructors who might be looking to assign a reliable eText to their tech-savvy students but also for general readers who are expecting something more than just a digital version of a worn-out paperback.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Penguin Enriched eBook Classic is essentially an enhanced electronic version of the novel in the popular Penguin Classics paperback series. Part of what appears to be a limited inaugural offering, Huck Finn is one of ten titles from the Classics list selected thus far by Penguin to be made available in this new format. In addition to the Introduction, short list of suggested readings, and explanatory notes that appear in the current Penguin hardcopy print edition, the enhanced electronic version offers more than 100 pages of bonus material assembled by noted Twain scholar R. Kent Rasmussen, including a detailed chronology of Twain's life, stills from an early film version of Huck Finn, a handful of contemporary reviews of the novel, an expanded Further Reading section, descriptions of online Twain resources, images of Twain's residences, a selection of E. W. Kemble's illustrations from the 1885 first edition of Huck Finn, and almost thirty pages of enriched eBook notes organized by chapter. As for the overall design of Penguin's electronic Huck Finn, this is as user-friendly as it gets. Both sets of editorial notes, for example, are easily accessible through either hyperlinks or pop-up windows embedded in the text of the novel. The fonts are inconspicuous and the amount of text that appears on each electronic page is virtually indistinguishable from paperback versions, which taken together makes for a much less obtrusive reading experience than one might expect from a computer-generated novel. (After just a few paragraphs, I completely forgot that I was reading an eText.) These features combined with a price that currently comes in at just under $6, make the electronic Huck Finn difficult to pass up.
That said, there are a number of problems with the supplemental content of the Penguin electronic Huck Finn. To begin, the scholarly Introduction, written by John Seelye in 1985, is badly outdated. The last twenty-five years have seen the publication of scores of academic books and biographies, the circulation of hundreds of scholarly papers and articles, and the making of numerous major discoveries (not the least of which is the recovery of the first half of the Huck Finn manuscript, itself, in 1991), all of which have fundamentally shifted major aspects of our understanding of Mark Twain and his work. None of these advances, regrettably, are reflected in Seelye's decades-old essay. What's worse is that precisely because of its age, the Introduction, at least when judged by scholarly standards, comes off in places as slightly misleading. For instance, the very first paragraph features the following statement: "The latest scholarly reconstructions of composition show that the author began writing the novel with one purpose and plot in mind, discarded that plot partway through, set the book aside for years, and at one point threatened to destroy the manuscript" (xiii). Apart from whether or not this representation still accurately depicts the consensus view of Twain's composition of Huck Finn, it certainly does not reflect the "latest scholarly reconstruction." Again, the Introduction is from 1985. Since then, our understanding of how Twain wrote Huck Finn has altered considerably. Moreover, to read Seelye's Introduction one might conclude that Leslie Fiedler, Leo Marx, Van Wyck Brooks, Lionel Trilling, and Henry Nash Smith endure as the foremost voices in Mark Twain criticism, as they are the only scholars mentioned by name. My complaint, to be perfectly clear, is not with Seelye's scholarship or with his Introduction in and of itself--there are elements throughout the piece that continue to recommend it as a functional overview of Twain's novel. My criticism, instead, is directed at the decision to showcase the essay unrevised in such a ground-breaking new format. Penguin, it would seem, has missed an extraordinary opportunity as the first publisher to offer an electronic scholarly version of Huck Finn to bundle Twain's novel with the kind of cutting-edge editorial apparatus that this state-of-the-art technology merits. But as it stands, the disparity here between the content and the format is unnecessarily conspicuous.
Other features of the Penguin electronic Huck Finn diminish
the project in some rather noticeable ways. Although Rasmussen provides nearly
30 illustrations for the first edition in the appendix (accessible through
hyperlinks), one wonders why Penguin did not simply insert the images directly
into the novel itself, particularly inasmuch as Twain considered them to be
such an important feature of his narratives? Additionally, several of the
explanatory notes compiled by Guy Cardwell in 1982 are marked by the same
kinds of problems plaguing facets of the Introduction. In at least two places
Penguin let stand the now-discredited chronology of Twain's composition of
the Huck Finn manuscript. Note 14, one of the volume's longest and
most detailed, and note 17 both identify the end of chapter 16, where the
steamboat famously smashes Huck and Jim's raft, as the point at which Twain
set the manuscript aside in 1876. Following the discovery of the first half
of the manuscript 1991, Vic Doyno established fairly conclusively that Twain
actually took his story two and a half chapters beyond that long-conjectured
point to the middle of chapter 18 before stopping in September 1876. Another
limitation of the volume's textual apparatus is reference throughout the newly
added Enriched eBook Notes section to John Seelye's The True Adventures
of Huckleberry Finn (1970) and Jon Clinch's Finn (2007), two novels
based on characters and episodes from Huck Finn. The repeated comparison
of these spin-off plots to Twain's is a little bizarre, particularly for an
electronic text presumably marketed in some measure to students. Why not use
the space to refer to more relevant (if reliable) material? In one case, for
example, an episode in Clinch's novel is used to discuss the somewhat notorious
description of the "House of Death" that Huck and Jim come across
in chapter 9. That note reads: "Jon Clinch's 2007 novel Finn,
a backstory about Huck's father, uses this passage as its prologue. The novel
later explains the writing on the wall and the strange contents of the room"
(303). Clinch's fictional treatment of the floating house is inspired, but
it does nothing at all to illuminate Twain's novel. Twain's floating house,
as Vic Doyno argues rather conclusively in his Writing Huck Finn (1991),
is actually a seedy backwoods brothel, a point Clinch chooses to ignore.
No question that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Penguin Enriched eBook Classic breaks new ground as the first electronic scholarly edition of Mark Twain's 1885 masterpiece, but in the end it comes off as a rushed endeavor--like a paperback book simply scanned into a computer file--for it to make much of a splash. Perhaps Penguin's most notable accomplishment here is that it has hinted at the pedagogical possibilities open to the eBook format. With just a little more vision and ingenuity, projects such as the electronic Huck Finn will undoubtedly become an essential feature of twenty-first century literature classrooms. They may even serve one day as a means for bringing the reading public back to the "classics" en masse by providing instructive contexts for those works in the kind of truly innovative ways that only this new format will allow. Time will certainly tell.