Mark Twain Under Fire: Reception and Reputation, Criticism and Controversy, 1851-2015. By Joe B. Fulton. Camden House, 2016. Pp. 291. Hardcover $90.00. ISBN 978-1-57113-553-7 (hardcover).

[The original edition of this book was halted shortly after this review was published in 2017.
This link is to the revised edition published in 2018.]

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The following review appeared 30 January 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This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.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:
Kevin Mac Donnell

General readers encountering the title of this extremely useful book may be reminded of the recent controversy over Alan Gribben's edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that substituted three words in order to deliver Mark Twain's masterpiece into the hands of students who might otherwise never have been allowed to read it in the classroom and discuss it with their peers. Twain scholars will likely have longer memories and recall the decades of competing schools of criticism launched by Van Wyck Brooks and Bernard De Voto. Some scholars and other Twainians will no doubt reach back further in time and be reminded of Twain's reputation by the time he reached the height of his fame or the censorious reaction of the Concord Free Library toward Huckleberry Finn. But very few will think back to the initial reception of Twain's earliest newspaper writings, where this book begins. Fulton begins with those earliest writings and their reception, and explains how Twain's reputation evolved during his lifetime, and how his reputation continued to evolve as his writings attracted more serious criticism. He digs deep into many of the controversies that have followed ever since, producing a reliable and comprehensive survey of Mark Twain criticism.

The title of the book derives from a letter Twain wrote on November 24, 1867 to Frank Fuller, who had organized Twain's first lecture engagements in New York earlier that year. Twain swore to Fuller his intention to establish a "reputation that shall stand fire" (11). Twain's writings had been under fire more than once in Hannibal, Nevada, and California, and although Fulton does not make it clear, Twain was only referring to his reputation as a lecturer when he wrote those words to Fuller. However, it's clear to the reader that Twain's attitude applies to his writings and that he'd felt under attack. The cover design of the book, featuring the famous image of Twain holding a pistol aimed at imaginary fleeing burglars in 1908, serves as a reminder that Twain could fire back at his critics--figuratively if not literally--during his lifetime, and Fulton quotes generously from Twain's return fire.

Twain has remained under fire ever since his death, and the critics who are the special focus of Fulton's survey are "public intellectuals, book critics, and scholars" during Twain's lifetime and since. Fulton says he "draws on the techniques of the historian, biographer, bibliographer, and literary scholar to track trends in Twain criticism and to illuminate the forces that shaped them" (7), and he is careful to note that the "history of Twain criticism is necessarily the history of literary tastes" and that those tastes "change and evolve in response to contemporary culture and to the responses of prior readers" (6-7). This observation might seem self-evident, even banal, but the never-ending shifts in Twain criticism provide striking reminders of that obvious truth. Fulton says he has included some works that have been ignored "as a corrective" and admits that when he has left out works it "is not to imply their lack of importance" (7-8), although he never gets around to saying what their exclusion does imply. Indeed, scholars expecting to find broad coverage of scholarship in recent decades may question certain inclusions and omissions.

Along the way, Fulton utilizes the sources one would expect anyone surveying Twain criticism to use: the guiding works of Thomas Tenney and Louis J., Budd, various indexes of the MLA, ALA, and ProQuest, relevant journals like the Mark Twain Journal, American Literary Realism, and the Mark Twain Circular, and the bibliographical works by Merle Johnson, Jacob Blanck, Robert Rodney, Jason Horn, and Roger Asselineau, as well as all the books and studies that record international Twain criticism. Fulton also hints at the sensational when he says he has used FBI files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, and unpublished letters and journals, and has exposed a major plagiarist, outed a Nazi propagandist, and exposed numerous conspiracies. More about this later.

During Twain's lifetime his main critics were book reviewers rather than scholars, but Fulton's research proves that this distinction is not as sharp as it sounds. He reveals the academic affiliations of many of those who reviewed Twain's works, as well as their relationships and friendships with each other as well as with Twain himself, and it becomes obvious that book reviewers in Twain's day were representative of the scholarly community. Besides book reviews, criticism of Twain's writings increasingly appeared in anthologies and histories of American literature, whose editors usually had academic backgrounds or who held university professorships. Fulton's survey of Twain's rise in the American literary canon between 1880 and 1910 is as thorough as any, and his survey of French and British critics is also inclusive. Fulton notes a sudden shift in criticism of his writings starting about 1900 when Twain's writings moved toward biting social satire and political polemics. Toward the end of Twain's life Archibald Henderson, a mathematics professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote the first serious critical study of Twain's work, and Fulton's discussion of Henderson's approach and influence is illuminating, although he misdates the American edition of Henderson's book to 1912 rather than 1910 (39-40).

Twentieth-century criticism was first shaped by the opposing views of Van Wyck Brooks and Bernard DeVoto, and Fulton's fulsome and entertaining account of the debates that raged and personal battles that ensued reveal his gift for story-telling. Along the way, Brooks suffers a nervous breakdown and DeVoto openly feuds with Albert Bigelow Paine. The words "ass" "jackass" and "little terrorists" are bandied about (72-73), and the combative DeVoto even takes on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joe McCarthy before it's all over. Fulton includes the positions of everyone who had anything to say or write on either side in his extended account (54-92) of the verbal sparring that often borders on hilarious hand-to-hand combat.

Moving on to other twentieth-century criticism, a variety of works are highlighted. The importance of Coley Taylor's 1935 study of Twain's reading, the first of its kind, is given its due, for example, and Robert Ramsay and Frances G. Emberson's A Mark Twain Lexicon (1938) is likewise recognized as an essential and influential source. Fulton also examines discussions of Twain's anti-imperialist writings by Paine (who suppressed some of Twain's anti-imperialist remarks), Edward Wagenknecht, Jim Zwick, and others. There is a good discussion of how German criticism of Twain was shaped in part by a Nazi propagandist--who is exposed for the first time by Fulton--and his discussion of how Twain's writings were presented by American and Russian critics during the Cold War includes the exposure of Philip Foner as a plagiarist whose Mark Twain: Social Critic (1958) may rival the recent massive plagiarisms by the Library of Congress found in Harry Katz's Mark Twain's America (2014).

When Fulton turns to the criticism of "the New Criticism" school, things don't calm down. His lively accounts of Dixon Wecter, Lionel Trilling, T. S. Eliot, Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, and others include not just their Twain criticism, but their relationships and personalities. Leslie Fiedler stirs the pot and John S. Tuckey shocks academia with his exposure of Paine's fraudulent text of The Mysterious Stranger, while James M. Cox curiously fails to grasp the importance of his colleagues' accomplishments, and a smug Kenneth Lynn behaves badly. Fulton quotes Henry Nash Smith's observation on Twain's writings, in which Smith warned that they cannot be understood outside of their "social setting." Fulton adds that the same is true of Twain criticism, because each generation of critics tries "to recreate the image of America" (135).

No study of Twain criticism can fail to include the work of the Mark Twain Project, and Fulton provides a very good history of its beginnings and the careers of the early editors of the Mark Twain Papers. He describes the intense early debates over editorial practice, even if he overlooks the childish homophobic pun in the title of Edmund Wilson's infamous attack on Frederick Anderson: The Fruits of the MLA (1968). However, when Fulton discusses the more recent editing of the Mark Twain Papers he drifts off course. Some have complained over the years about the pace of publication of Twain's previously unpublished writings, and Fulton makes clear he agrees with those who think the pace is too slow. Fair enough. But when he goes a step further and suggests that a "dog in the manger" attitude may be behind this slow pace and mentions his own experience seeking permission to publish a previously unpublished Twain manuscript himself, the reader cannot help but feel that his criticism may be personally motivated.

Regretfully, he does not stop there. In 1986, Robert Hirst, editor of the Mark Twain Project, feeling it necessary to defend himself against criticisms of the pace of publication and slow responses to enquiries, gathered together 214 pages of correspondence on this subject, mostly between himself and several other Twain scholars. He gave copies to four people. A few of the letters make sharp comments or unsubstantiated accusations against living scholars. Fulton quotes liberally from these letters, including letters that a reasonable person could consider both confidential and defamatory. These letters, none written for publication, are quoted without the permission of any of the letter-writers (the copyright holders) themselves. Fulton did not interview any of those letter writers--and did not consult those they may have defamed. This reviewer has done so, and can say with confidence that the full story is untold here. At this moment in his survey Fulton appears to be a clumsy journalist rather than the careful scholar on display in the rest of his book. Some may even view his inclusion of those letters as a kind of ad hominem attack by proxy, regardless of his intent. This lapse in judgment mars an otherwise excellent guide to Mark Twain criticism.

Looking at more recent criticism, Fulton gives a full accounting of linguistic and religious studies of Twain's writings, and describes the influence of New Historicism, New Criticism, New Scholarship, and Transnational Criticism, which necessarily includes discussions of Louis (Lou) J. Budd, Hershel Parker, Stanley Brodwin, Harold (Hal) K. Bush, Kenneth Lynn, and others. He tracks late twentieth-century shifts in criticism, represented by Jonathan Arac, Sherwood Cummings, Lawrence Berkove, Guy Cardwell, Joseph Csicsila, James D. Wilson, Jeffrey A. Melton, Laura Skandera-Trombley, Susan K. Harris, Gregg Camfield, and David E. E. Sloane, among others. He delineates the scholarly disputes that have attached to Hamlin Hill's Mark Twain, God's Fool (1973) and Shelley Fisher Fishkin's Was Huck Black? (1993), and traces dissensus in other areas of Twain criticism. He reserves high praise for the research of Alan Gribben, and can be forgiven when he devotes three pages to his own writings on Mark Twain. He is especially critical of "political activism coupled with dilettantism" (196), giving as examples those critical writings that apply Twain's anti-imperialist writings to US foreign policy of the last fifty years.

Mark Twain himself first came under fire in 1851 while working for a Hannibal newspaper, and he or his writings remained under attack the rest of his life. His writings still draw fire, and those who write about Twain draw fire as well, and, as Fulton sometimes gleefully demonstrates, even fire at each other. On the whole, Twain studies have been friendly and collegial, but the debates that have taken place are captured here in less than 300 pages. Various biographies and reference works--as well as a number of critical studies--have been neglected or overlooked, just as some inclusions stand oddly out of place, and some living scholars may be rightfully offended by the tone of the coverage of their work or their exclusion altogether. But most of the major battles have been amply documented in Fulton's study, and this reviewer hopes that the war will go on and on, with no serious casualties, enlightening the combatants at every rank, and encouraging frequent desertions from the opposing armies. After all, being under fire need not require being overheated. In 1881, Mark Twain called war a "wanton waste of projectiles" and many skirmishes in Twain studies certainly fit that description, including the misfires in this volume. On June 9, 1879, Twain wrote to a newspaper "My invariable practice in war has been to bring out of every fight two-thirds more men than when I went in." That's the model of warfare this reviewer endorses for future Mark Twain criticism.


Update: September 2018

Mark Twain Under Fire: Reception and Reputation, Criticism and Controversy, 1851-2015. By Joe B. Fulton. Camden House, 2018. Pp. 291. Paperback $49.95. ISBN 978-1-64014-034-9.

This "Briefly Noted" is an addendum to my January 2017 review of the first edition of this book. In that review I lavished well-deserved praise on this reliable and nearly comprehensive survey of Mark Twain criticism and scholarship, but also noted that some of Fulton's discussion of the Mark Twain Papers, and his inclusion of a letter making a serious and unsubstantiated accusation against a prominent Twain scholar were out of place in this kind of book. Fulton responded to my review defending his statements and concluding "In my treatment, I believe I approached the matter legally, fairly, and responsibly." Since that time, either Fulton or his publisher have apparently been persuaded otherwise.

The first edition abruptly vanished from and was described at the publisher's website as no longer available. Happily that is no longer the case. A new paperback edition has been issued, with the defamatory material in question removed. This revised paperback edition has a new index and also corrects some small typos and errors--a date is corrected, a word or two have been added or changed, some additions have been made to the text and bibliography, and one name has been removed from the acknowledgments. The result is a useful and entertaining volume that belongs on every Mark Twain reference shelf, making its return to print welcome news.