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The following review appeared 16 June 2003 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2003 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Harrisburg Area Community College
Well, as few reviews of the first edition are out there (online, only Jim Zwick's review at boondocksnet.com is readily available), it's worth remembering what this collection offered in the first place. One nugget close to my heart was, and is, "Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians," a literary fragment which has moved scholars beginning with Walter Blair to speculate why Twain abandoned the project as well as inspiring various writers to finish the story on Twain's behalf. Another nugget is "Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy," a puzzle in that the story seemed but a few pages short of completion -- one more afternoon of work would have resulted in a text akin to Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective. For $15.00, there's no reason not to have these stories on your bookshelf.
For scholars, this collection offers the most definitive version of the important "Villagers of 1840-3" material, including the proper placement of the ending. Before this collection, the "Villagers" texts were published in other University of California volumes over six years when no one knew how to transcribe Clemens's hand accurately. The editor's extensive revisions of the biographical directory (first published in shorter form in 1969 in Hannibal, Huck and Tom) helps illumine the point that "Villagers" was more fact than fiction. In-depth studies revolving around the all important "matter of Hannibal" should look to "Villagers" where the Clemens family becomes the "Carpenters." Again, the "Villagers" material would interest few general readers, but the lists of names with brief descriptions are Twain's notes and offer insights for scholars and researchers.
Nonetheless, reading these extremely entertaining fragments, I am forced to admit anyone without a great deal of knowledge about Twain's canon would find encountering this collection an exercise in frustration. Who but a devoted aficionado wants to read stories without endings? For scholars, "Schoolhouse Hill" is a step in the process that led to No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger; for the casual reader, a tale beginning with Huck and Tom, then shifting into mystical fantasy leaving Twain's beloved boys behind as mere supporting characters, can only lead to questions. Murders and boy detectives are one thing: snowstorms that kill on contact seem more precursors to Stephen King. "Hellfire Hotchkiss" intrigues the reader with a dramatic opening to a potential adventure. Then, the heroine disappears riding down the river. For scholars, this sketch is a piece of a puzzle that adds depth to studies on independent women in Twain's work. For the uninitiated, it's like watching the first scenes of Pulp Fiction, or any film with pretitle action for that matter, without seeing what happens after the theme music ends.
Of course, this collection was never intended to be more than what it is -- the most authoritative assembly of interrelated unfinished manuscripts which supplement explorations into all the "Hannibal" writings. For years, the Twain community has used these fragments and no doubt new generations will put these puzzles to fresh uses. For them, and any Twainian who missed the opportunity to pick up a copy the first time around, this book is indispensable.
Still, for those who've poured over these pages before, we can but wish the collection will someday warrant more than a simple reprint to become a true new edition. What would be most useful is an introduction pulling some of the key materials from the extensive "Explanatory Notes" into preparatory pages at the beginning of the book. This would help readers unfamiliar with the contexts of the fragments for what follows rather than assuming anyone picking up this volume will take the time to thumb to the back matter to seek clarifying explanations. Of course, I'm talking about an audience the first edition wasn't attempting to reach, but even Twain devotees would find the collection more "user friendly" had the explanations been divided between preparatory and supplementary pages. In addition, such an introduction could include summaries of what speculations have been offered regarding the fragments. For example, those who've not read the suggestions published by Walter Blair long ago in Life magazine (December 20, 1968) might be intrigued by Blair's notion that Twain abandoned "Indians" for fear he would have had to explore the issue of rape.
As the edition stands, it's worth noting that there remain issues and puzzles not resolved in the past 13 years. Those notes at the back of the volume are worthy of a second look. For example, the notes for "Jane Lampton Clemens" (p. 278) throw an entirely different light on John Marshall Clemens and his slave trading with a slave named "Charley." The notes point out that it is plausible that "Charley" may have actually been a horse and not an African-American male. Scholars who've written about John Marshall Clemens taking "Charley" down river to sell him for a barrel of tar may need to rethink this conclusion -- the evidence is not conclusive one way or the other. Perhaps even old hands in Twain-craft can pick up fresh insights from this, ah, old horse.
So, after 13 years, it's worthwhile for researchers, students, and libraries
to have access to these hors d'oeuvres, and hopefully the volume can find a
useful place in the classroom. Students interested in Twain's views on Indians
have the "Indians" fragment as well as the excellent notes which summarize
Twain's views on Native Americans throughout his career. Students wishing entertaining
insights into Twain's playfulness with spiritualism (I love the séance
where Byron, Shakespeare, and other dignitaries "appear") can find
nuggets in "Schoolhouse Hill." Such delights for students, and for
Mark Twain aficionados, are not to be missed. All other readers should be aware
this is a collection not intended for casual reading.