Mark Twain: The Complete Interviews. Edited by Gary Scharnhorst. University of Alabama Press, 2006. Pp. 719. 22 illus. 6 x 9. ISBN 0-8173-1522-5. $75.00 cloth.

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The following review appeared 19 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This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.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:
Kevin Mac Donnell

Mark Twain speaks to us in five voices. His written works are his primary and most familiar voice. His collected letters are his second voice, filling in the days and hours of his biography, reflecting his shifting moods, his revolving enthusiasms, and evolving relationships. His third voice is echoed in the many speeches that have come down to us only in printed form, and though less familiar to general readers, they are often quoted. His fourth voice, virtually unknown to general readers but familiar to scholars, are his annotations in the many books that survive from his personal library, often extensive and insightful, and frequently written as if he knew posterity would be peeking over his shoulder some day. His fifth voice is the interview. Fewer than seventy-five of his nearly 300 known interviews have ever been reprinted from the original newspapers and magazines where they first appeared during his lifetime, making them the least accessible and most neglected of Mark Twain's five voices.

This unfortunate problem has been elegantly remedied by Gary Scharnhorst's exhaustive one-volume compilation of 258 of Mark Twain's interviews. Expanding on the pioneering work of Louis J. Budd, Scharnhorst's work is a welcome addition to Mark Twain studies. As a journalistic genre, the interview format with its conversational questions and answers was a fairly new phenomenon at the beginning of Mark Twain's career, and very few American authors before Mark Twain were formally interviewed. A combined compilation of the known interviews of Poe, Melville, Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, Cooper, Irving, Howells, Whittier, Holmes, Longfellow, Lowell, and Dickinson would probably not fill a volume half the size of Twain's collected interviews. In fact, no other nineteenth century author could be said to speak to modern readers in this fifth voice.

Starting in 1871, these interviews span nearly the whole of Twain's career, although more than 200 of them date from the last fifteen years of his life. Twain was most accessible to the press during his travels, with the result that the bulk of the interviews cluster around the times when he was on the road during lecture tours--the reading tour with George W. Cable in 1884-85, his world tour of 1895-96, his time in England and Germany from 1897-1900, his last visit to Hannibal in 1902, and his triumphant visit to England in 1907. The very last known interview was conducted by a woman who all but broke into the Bermuda home where Twain was staying in the last months of his life.

Read in chronological order, these interviews trace Mark Twain's maturation as a writer and story-teller, reveal his growing mastery and manipulation of his celebrity persona, expose his sometimes subtle and sometimes shameless self-promotion, provide glimpses into his family and professional relationships, and chronicle his candid views on people and topics not always reflected in his other voices. As valuable as his own words are the varied reactions of the interviewers themselves. In a few interviews, but only a few, Twain lets slip an unguarded comment or an interviewer spots some telling detail. In those moments, lucky readers come as close as is possible to experiencing what it would have been like to sit down, light a smoke, and chat with Mark Twain in private conversation.

Reading chronologically, readers can also watch Mark Twain's physical appearance evolve. His white summer suit first shows up in August of 1876, a bit earlier than many readers might expect (interview no. 4), his hair first attracts notice in 1879 (no. 11), and is described as turning white by November, 1895 (no. 99). His twinkling blue eyes repeatedly draw comment (nos. 92 and 200 are good examples), and his delicate "baby"-like skin gets noticed too (no. 200). Twain's drawl evolves in some curious ways. After being the subject of constant commentary by American reporters from the 1870s through the early 1890s, his drawl draws no notice from reporters in London and Germany in the late 1890s, until his very last London interview in October 1900 (no. 132). Surely, foreign reporters would have encountered enough Americans to have noticed Twain's distinctive drawl as something unusual. Sure enough, by the time he arrives in Hannibal in 1902, his famously long slow drawl gets noticed again (no. 158) and was soon causing some American reporters to misspell place names and proper names because of Twain's habit of swallowing second syllables and slurring his vowels.

Readers will be delighted with the vivid portraits painted by some interviewers of Mark Twain in familiar places like Hartford (no. 47) or Quarry Farm (no. 44) or Bermuda (no. 258). A number of the interviewers are worthy of note themselves. Rudyard Kipling is probably the most famous of Twain's interviewers (no. 50), but other authors like Robert Bridges, Robert Barr, George Townsend (aka "Gath"), and Edward Bok also interviewed him. Even Twain's own nephew, Samuel Moffett, conducted one interview (no. 80) and future Pulitzer Prize winner Lucius "Lute" Pease conducted two (no. 73 and 76).

Thumbing through more than 700 pages, timid readers may opt instead to make use of the excellent index to sample only those interviews that touch on topics of special interest like race, copyright, smoking, drinking, fashion, nudity, religion, lecturing, female suffrage, bicycles, exercise, humor, and euchre. Although not specifically included as a topic in the index, a number of Mark Twain's interviews shed new light on his reading habits (nos. 14, 28, 44, 48, 58, 84, 85, 86, 87, 90, 109, and 144). Twain constantly mentions the books, authors, and subjects he is reading at the moment and never hesitates to render a verdict on them.

Other topics not specifically indexed include Mark Twain's writing habits and his theories on the creative process (nos. 17, 53, 64, 85, 88, 103, 122, 127, 144, 152, 171, and 220). His comment that Huckleberry Finn was easier to write than The Prince and the Pauper or Tom Sawyer may surprise many. In at least three interviews (nos. 64, 88, 152) he claims Huckleberry Finn as his own favorite among his writings. In another interview (no. 17) he claims he does not revise his writings, and in another (no. 53) he plays cylinder recordings of his own dictations for a reporter.

Memorable moments abound in Twain's encounters with interviewers. One reporter sneaked backstage during the Twain-Cable tour and interviewed Mark Twain and George W. Cable in snatches as they took turns running back and forth from the stage between their performances (no. 38). Another reporter provides an amusing account of how Twain was detained as he boarded the first-class section of a steamer because his umbrella did not look as nice as the umbrellas carried by other first-class passengers (no. 57). It will shock some to hear Twain endorsing censorship through copyright laws (no. 113), or calling William Dean Howells an "ass," even if in jest (no. 200). Some readers may be upset to know that Twain uses the word "nigger" in an interview in 1896, but will be relieved to see that in context he is clearly using it to reflect the thinking of bigots, using the word "negro" himself in the very same sentence (no. 118). In another interview (no. 138) Twain attends his first college football game (Yale-Princeton) and roots for the losing team (Princeton).

Another interview (no. 163) is memorable for Mark Twain's description of how he and Howells behaved like peeping Toms when they spotted a pretty girl through an alley window in Boston--an incident that "thrilled" Howells--both of them first pausing to gaze, then walking further along, and then going back for a "good long, lingering look." In some interviews Twain holds his emotions in check and chooses his words carefully, but at other times the public persona melts away and Sam Clemens emerges with tears flowing at the mention of his Hartford home (no. 196) and again in 1907 when he recalls his bankruptcy (no. 216). But when the subject of Bret Harte comes up, Twain does not contain himself and later must modify his careless comments (no. 84 and 88). By the time readers finish the first one-hundred interviews they will recognize Twain's favorite jokes, sound bites, and stock responses to frequent loaded questions like "What do you think of our fair city Mr. Twain?" Interview no. 100 is notable for Twain's discourse on what makes American humor distinct from humor in other countries.

It is doubtful many readers will notice the absence of any interviews, but Scharnhorst does exclude certain interviews, for the most part with good reason, as he explains in his introduction. Among the exclusions are self-interviews which more properly belong among Twain's creative writings and most interviews not published until long after they occurred, thereby casting doubt on their veracity. Interviews that contain no direct quotes of Twain's words are excluded, although interview no. 2 is a reasonable exception to this rule, perhaps because it is one of the scarce very early interviews.

Scharnhorst also excludes imaginery interviews concocted from snippets of Mark Twain's writings, and interviews repudiated as inaccurate or bogus by Twain himself. But readers will wish Scharnhorst had made at least one important exception to this rule. Scharnhorst publishes Twain's "repudiation" of his interview with Elinor Glyn (no. 246), but Twain's protestations hardly sound like a whole-hearted repudiation. Twain expresses contempt that Glyn had published what he considered to be a private conversation, and seems especially irked that Glyn reported his conversation in much weaker language than he had actually used. He confirms that she had conveyed the substance of his opinions on her novel about adultery, but seems most upset that she left out his judgment that it told a "sort of truth" that should not be published. Readers are teased with Twain's tantalizing "repudiation" and can only imagine what Glyn's watered-down text of the original interview actually said, even though Glyn published it herself in 1907.

Scharnhorst chops off the end of an interview (no. 62) because Twain wrote a letter repudiating only the end of that interview. This saves a little space, but having the rest of that interview along with Twain's letter of repudiation would have allowed readers to judge whether Twain's repudiation should be taken at face value.

To save space and duplication, Scharnhorst also excludes "duplicate" interviews when several reporters left accounts of a single interview session. When Mark Twain stepped onto the street or off a boat he was often surrounded by a gaggle of reporters, each of whom filed slightly different accounts of what was seen and said. In these instances Scharnhorst prints what appears to be the fullest or most accurate account, followed by extracts of Twain's own words from the other reporters' accounts, but it is still a loss not to have the impressions of the other reporters. This was certainly a difficult editorial problem with no perfect solution, but sometimes the reactions of reporters are as interesting as Twain's own words.

Interviews originally published in translation are also excluded since an interview given in English, published in German, and then translated back into English might be less than reliable (those who disagree should read Mark Twain's translation of his jumping frog story). Happily, a list of the twelve interviews excluded for this reason is included in the appendix. But were there only twelve such interviews? In Carl Dolmetsch's Our Famous Guest (p. 34) it is reported that Twain was interviewed nine times during his first two weeks in Vienna in October 1897, but only two interviews from that time and place appear in the appendix. Also, the appendix would be more useful if it included citations for all of the excluded interviews, regardless of the reasons for exclusion.

One interview with some excluded text warrants mention for the benefit of future readers of this volume, especially scholars. Interview no. 178 appears with a citation to The New York Times, April 10, 1904, but the text provided is the severely abridged text that appears in Paul Fatout's Mark Twain Speaks for Himself, (pp. 189-91), a source not listed in Scharnhorst's list of sources. The complete New York Times text appears in Scharnhorst's "Mark Twains Interviews: Supplement One" in American Literary Realism (Spring, 2007) with additional footnotes. Also included in the Spring 2007 ALR are seven interviews that were unknown at the time Scharnhorst's book went to press. Readers of Mark Twain: The Complete Interviews will want to keep a copy of Scharnhorst's supplement close at hand.

Another exclusion not obvious to most readers are the photographs and line drawings that often accompanied Mark Twain's interviews when they first appeared in magazines and newspapers. Space was no doubt at a premium in this massive compilation, and the illustrations that are provided are complementary to the text, but readers cannot be blamed for wanting more. Twain's interview just after his return to New York in 1900 was originally illustrated with several candid photographs that are a topic of amusing conversation between Twain and the reporter as the photographer follows them around in the street during the interview (no. 137). Robert Barr's interview with Mark Twain in 1892 is another example of an interview that was illustrated with seldom-seen images of Twain (no. 38).

In a book of this size and scope, footnoting problems are almost a certainty, but they are still an annoyance. Many of the interviews have footnotes that are lengthier than the interviews, and these abundant footnotes are welcome, and are extremely informative. But inconsistent footnotes may remind readers of the characters in Huckleberry Finn, who spoke in different dialects. Readers want footnotes to succeed in "talking alike." To cite just a few examples, Twain's secretary, Isabel Lyon, is repeatedly footnoted in many interviews, even when it is obvious who she is, but in one interview (no. 248) she is not footnoted at all even though her identity is not immediately obvious from the context of that particular interview. In another interview (no. 201) Twain visits for five minutes with the President of the United States but readers are not told who was President in December 1906 when this visit took place. But this same President, known for walking softly and carrying a big stick, is identified in the previous interview (no. 200). Reporter "Lute" Pease gets cited as "Lute" (no. 73) and "Luke" (no. 76) and readers could be excused for assuming "Lute" is a misprint, but readers would be wrong. Offsetting this spelling error, however, Twain's butler gets his name spelled correctly: Claude Joseph Beuchotte. The misspelling of Claude's name began with no less a distinguished Twain scholar than Hamlin Hill and the tradition has been unwittingly carried on by several others, but not by Scharnhorst.

The most frustrating feature of some of the footnotes are dead-end "see"-references (nos. 62, 77, 103, etc.), where readers are referred to a footnote elsewhere in the text, only to discover that it does not exist or is not to be found where it was said to be. Some tedious last-minute copy-editing would have avoided this glitch. There are very few factual errors in the footnotes, but a pair of minor ones should be mentioned only because they pertain to Mark Twain's own writings. In interview no. 238, footnote 8 describes Christian Science as a two-volume work; that book was a single volume. In footnote 10 from the same interview, Following the Equator is cited as a source of quotes similar to those printed in the text, with no mention that the quotes printed in the text are from English As She Is Taught. Tabulations of these footnote flaws are merely the required caveats and quibbles that must be imposed on any major scholarly edition that will be relied upon as a standard text for years to come. Scharnhorst is fastidious in crediting to Louis J. Budd those footnotes copied from Budd's trail-blazing work on Twain's interviews, and Scharnhorst's own footnotes are informative and plentiful. The responsibility of footnoting 258 interviews spread out over more than 700 pages was undoubtedly daunting. The mere thought of such a burden leaves this reviewer with weak knees.

Weighing in at just over three pounds, and with just an ounce of flaws, this brick of a book is a major structural support in the solid wall of Twain's writings. It takes its place alongside Mark Twain Speaking (Twain's speeches, edited by Paul Fatout) and the scholarly editions of Twain's writings prepared by the editors at Berkeley and Iowa. Scharnhorst's edition not only adds to the growing mass of Twain's writings, but by bringing nearly all of Twain's interviews into a handy single volume it presents a fresh and previously unfamiliar voice from a great American author, full-throated, booming, and a boon to Mark Twain scholars and readers who choose to listen.


My apologies for the long delay in posting this review; health problems resulting from a dog attack in the fall of 2006 which necessitated surgery prevented my finishing the review earlier. Based upon everything Mark Twain ever said about cats, he would probably agree with this reviewer that they are more conducive to writing than dogs. - Kevin Mac Donnell.