Mark Twain on Potholes and Politics: Letters to the Editor. Edited by Gary Scharnhorst. University of Missouri Press, 2014. Pp.-xvi, 208. Hardcover $35.00. ISBN 978-0-8262-2046-2

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The following review appeared 6 July 2015 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
R. Kent Rasmussen

Over the past decade, Gary Scharnhorst has demonstrated a marvelous knack for assembling useful books out of material by and about Mark Twain that is fascinating and illuminating but generally overlooked. In 2006, he published Mark Twain: The Complete Interviews, a long-needed collection of 258 articles, most of which had not seen in print since their original publication. That stout volume drew some mild complaints because of the redundancy of many interviews, but Scharnhorst disarmed such critiques three years later with the perhaps ironically titled Mainly the Truth: Interviews with Mark Twain, a condensed collection half as long as the earlier book.

In 2010, Scharnhorst published a profoundly different -- but equally welcome -- collection, Twain in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates. That compelling volume brought together nearly one hundred extracts written by people who knew Mark Twain personally. Although most of its items were already familiar to Mark Twain scholars, the book nevertheless made a valuable contribution by assembling widely scattered texts under one cover.

Scharnhorst's third collection is of yet another type, and -- like its predecessors -- is equally welcome. Mark Twain on Potholes and Politics contains 101 letters that Mark Twain wrote to newspapers and other publications. With its letters numbered and arranged in chronological order, it opens with an 1866 letter to the San Francisco Examiner about a corrupt police chief and concludes with a March 1910 note to the New York Evening Journal reporting that "while I am not ruggedly well, I am not ill enough to excite an undertaker." The collection includes 15 letters from 1866-1869, 38 from the 1870s, 22 from the 1880s, 6 from the 1890s (when Mark Twain was out of the United States most of the time), and 20 from the first decade of the twentieth century.

It is unclear what part of the total number of newspaper letters Mark Twain may have written Scharnhorst's 101 selections represent. Scharnhorst's brief introduction says only that "Mark Twain addressed dozens of letters to newspaper and magazine editors." "Dozens," however, somehow seems to suggest a number smaller -- not larger -- than 101, and other letters are known to exist.

In 1948, Arthur L. Vogelback published "Mark Twain: Newspaper Contributor" in American Literature. According to Scharnhorst, it is "the only scholarly article" about Mark Twain's letters to editors published up to now. Vogelback's article contains extracts from four letters not in Scharnhorst's book, even though the article covers only the years up to 1879 (a period accounting for just over half of Scharnhorst's letters). A particularly surprising omission in Scharnhorst's book is Mark Twain's November 20, 1872 letter to the Boston Transcript concerning the heroism he personally observed when the crew of the steamship Batavia saved the crew of another, wrecked ship. Already published in several other books, that letter is significant as an example of Mark Twain's ability to move other people to take action; in this case to bring tangible rewards to the Batavia sailors.

While it would have been helpful for Scharnhorst to say something more concrete about the total number of newspaper letters Mark Twain may have written, it also would have been good if he had explained how he selected the letters he does use. The entire editorial apparatus of his book is unusually skimpy for a volume published by a university press. There is no explanation of exactly where the book's texts come from or how they were edited. One might presume texts were transcribed directly from the original newspapers, but if that is the case, why not simply say so? If it is not the case, then some explanation is essential.

The majority of letters in this book should already be familiar to many scholars, as most have been republished before, some multiple times. By searching text strings on Google Books, I identified more than 60 letters published in other modern books. (Because texts of books under copyright are rarely complete on Google Books, I probably missed many other letters.) At least 21 letters appear in University of California Press Mark Twain's Letters editions. Albert Bigelow Paine extracted at least four letters in Mark Twain: A Biography (1912) and put at least three in Mark Twain's Letters (1917). At least six appear in Charles Neider's Mark Twain: Life as I Find It (1961) and at least nine in Paul Fatout's Mark Twain Speaks for Himself (1978). Scharnhorst thanks the Mark Twain Papers and Project for permitting him to use eight letters from manuscripts that "were either unmailed or mailed and not published." Four of those letters have appeared in previously published books, leaving four that appear in print for the first time in Scharnhorst's book.

The fact that most of the letters in Potholes and Politics have been previously republished does not materially diminish the value of the book. Having so many letters to editors collected in one volume makes it easier both to find the individual letters and to gain a perspective on the nature of Mark Twain's proclivity for writing to editors. Vogelback described Mark Twain as "an incorrigible writer of letters to the press. Whenever he was stirred--and he was easily stirred--by some happening, whenever his sensibilities or opinions were outraged, he proceeded to give strong and articulate vent to his feelings." Those remarks capture the essence of why these letters are important: They present Mark Twain's thoughts at his most spontaneous and unguarded moments. Scharnhorst is certainly right in saying a great number of the letters are "hilarious" and that most readers should "simply enjoy them," but he might have gone further in commenting on their deeper significance. In a single, almost off-hand comment, he says, "At the risk of making a substantive point ... I believe Twain learned in these letters, by responding to various news reports and op-ed pieces, how to write in a cacophony of voices." That is doubtless true, too, but it still overlooks the impact of the letters on Mark Twain's contemporaries.

Throughout most of his long writing career Mark Twain was perceived by the public and many critics as a "mere" humorist -- a funny man, but not one whose opinions on weighty matters needed to be taken seriously. This despite that fact that all the while he kept up a vigorous and very public correspondence with the press that clearly revealed -- to anyone who troubled to pay attention -- that he had opinions worthy of being taken seriously. The final paragraph of Vogelback's 1948 article summed up this point poignantly: "These newspaper letters of Mark Twain's show the man's extraordinary zest in the world about him. National affairs, shipwrecks, crime and punishment, social manners, public causes -- all were grist for his mill. The letters display his early talents not only as humorist, but as a skilled and serious writer who had worth-while things to say on the America of his time."

Yes, many of Mark Twain's letters were both funny and frivolous, but the extent of his serious interests can be seen in the range of issues his newspaper letters address. These include capital punishment, censorship, China's Boxer Rebellion, copyright law, France's occupation of Mexico, government corruption, Hawaii's economy, imperialism, maritime safety, post office inefficiency, public health, Russian despotism, temperance crusades, trial by jury, wars, where to situate General Grant's tomb, and woman suffrage. Not the usual stuff of mere humorists.

Scharnhorst's head notes and generally spare annotations help put many letters in context, but one could wish he had gone further in that direction, especially as Vogelback had demonstrated that the back stories of some letters are as fascinating as the letters themselves. Moreover, there is much to be said about how some readers resented Mark Twain's efforts to be serious. For example, Vogelback devoted several pages to a letter published in the March 10, 1873 New York Tribune in which Mark Twain satirically criticized petitions to save a convicted murderer named Foster from execution and also threw in a shot at the jury system. The next day's Tribune published a letter from a reader who "suggested that it would be well if clowns and actors, among which class he placed Twain, would stick to their business of amusing the public and not meddle with matters above their level ..." The letter writer was especially incensed by Mark Twain's mixing "clemency touching capital crimes and sentimental burlesque," but the writer's main point reflected what was evidently a widely held view about Mark Twain: once a mere humorist, always a mere humorist, regardless of evidence to the contrary. (Scharnhorst includes Mark Twain's letter [pp. 62-63] but his brief postscript to it mistakenly attributes the reader's letter to the newspaper's editors.)

An example of another missed opportunity to tell a fascinating back story is Mark Twain's long letter of July 16, 1885 replying to a Christian Union article on parenting with suggestions based on his own and his wife's experience as parents. Scharnhorst's head note merely describes the letter as a response "to a hypothetical story about how to discipline a child." I expect that Scharnhorst had not yet seen my own book Dear Mark Twain: Letters from His Readers (2013) when he wrote that note, as my book contains two reader responses to Mark Twain's Christian Union letter. One of these, signed "Thomas Twain," is the vilest letter to Mark Twain I have ever seen. When I first read it, I marveled that Mark Twain didn't jump to track down its author so he could horsewhip him for what he had said about Livy. Mark Twain's reaction was mild -- presumably because he assumed that the letter writer was the actual subject of the original Christian Union article -- and thus a non-hypothetical man whom his own letter had criticized severely. (An alternative explanation of Mark Twain's mild response might be that he failed fully to understand what Thomas Twain proposed to do to Livy.)

If future scholars take up the subject of Mark Twain's newspaper letters in depth, Scharnhorst's book will give them a strong start. For now, we can still remain grateful to Scharnhorst for making the letters more accessible.

One final criticism must be leveled at the University of Missouri Press for its woefully inadequate index. Readers turning to the index to find what Mark Twain said on subjects such as "potholes" and "politics" or almost any of the subjects enumerated above won't find entries for them. The index is rich in listing personal names, titles of Mark Twain works, and a handful of events, but is otherwise barren. The only generic terms it lists are "capital punishment," "copyright," "lectures," "temperance," and "woman suffrage." Readers looking for place names or other generic terms, are out of luck. (P.S. For letters on potholes, see pages 96-98.)