The following review appeared 8 June 1997 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1997.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
John H. Davis <JHDavis@micah.Chowan.edu>
Murfreesboro, North Carolina
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
What may one say about this new, paperback edition of R. Kent Rasmussen's Mark Twain A to Z after Wesley Britton's thorough and very positive review for the Mark Twain Forum (29 August 1995) of the original, hardcover version? "Too many"--Huck's phrase for "too complex"--does not fit books filling needs and offering fresh views. With a man whose total output, eighty-seven years after his death, is yet to be published, and whose life and literature gain interest, fascination, and respect as years pass, the field broadens before us. Because this book places each item in context and directs beyond specific to broader context and to other contexts, the reader grows not tired but intrigued by connections. Rasmussen's knowledge and approach paradoxically both satisfy and whet Twainian appetites. Mark Twain A to Z and the Mark Twain Encyclopedia (New York: Garland, 1993), only its seeming rival, make readers more keenly aware of the richness of the person they concern and of the richness available in one volume.
Whereas comparisons and contrasts are useful, the Mark Twain Encyclopedia and Mark Twain A to Z are not in competition. What is not in one is often in the other. Neither book is complete. Rasmussen states in his "Introduction," "The attention that this book distributes among Mark Twain's writings is deliberately uneven. In general, it looks most closely at the works most often read," though he concedes that some aspects of other less-read works have led him to devote them space not otherwise deserved (v). Mark Twain A to Z approaches each entry in its own way so that overlaps are not redundant. Because of Twain's diversity and complexity, this book and future works about him can still present fresh views and new information.
Rasmussen's experience between his two editions supports the preceding statements. For some topics, Rasmussen offers information not only not available elsewhere, but, in this edition, some added information not available in his own hardcover Mark Twain A to Z. For much of it, he expresses gratitude in the "Acknowledgements" to Forum members, particularly Barbara Schmidt, whose sharing of her research permitted "this edition [to contain] facts never published before" (iv). He especially cites her for uncovering lost material about True Williams, James W. Paige, and Frederick J. Hall. In fact, when he compiled the earlier edition, he could find no information about Paige and Williams following their relationship with Mark Twain, forcing him to write open-ended entries for them. In a letter to me, Prof. Rasmussen calls those entries "the most important changes in the book" because Barbara Schmidt found "information that no one--including the editors at the Mark Twain Project--had seen before" and generously allowed him to use it in making "substantive revisions of the Paige and Williams entries that made Mark Twain A to Z the first book to provide that valuable information." He not only tells of Paige's death in a poorhouse and burial in a potter's field but provides both birth and death dates for Paige, data not previously available. Rasmussen also provides this latter and other "lost" information about Hall.
Rasmussen notes that after Wesley Britton's review on the Forum, members became acquainted with Mark Twain A to Z. They have cited it often in discussions there and also contacted Rasmussen directly, contacts which "helped me fix textual problems that might otherwise go undetected . . . " (iv). He elaborates in his letter, " . . . a good share of the corrections I made can be attributed to suggestions made by members of the Mark Twain Forum." Although "not allowed to make every change [he] would have liked" because of economic restraints, he welcomes all ideas and corrections Forum members offer him. At present, however, he explains, "The book as a whole is simply a photo reproduction of the original Facts On File hardback edition, reduced in size . . . [to which] OUP allowed me to make a restricted number of corrections, so I used that opportunity to fix a number of minor errors and to add some information."
Therefore, the problems, omissions, and critical concerns reviewers have found essentially remain in this paperback edition. An entry about Thomas Carlyle, as an influence upon Twain, has not been added; commentaries on posthumous publications are still brief; some information repeated is still repeated in some related topics; critical conclusions are not greatly altered; and one still must consult other sources if one desires short individual bibliographies for particular topics and for certain missing topics. Contrasted with the value of Rasmussen's contributions, however, these reservations are not great, so let us look at virtues, especially in two areas. One, the overriding difference between Mark Twain A to Z and similar works, is its composition by a single writer, rather than being an edited book composed by diverse contributors. The other is its worth as a text in a course devoted largely to Mark Twain.
Mark Twain A to Z benefits from being the result of one writer. Obvious possible disadvantages are a lack of a variety of approaches and perspectives, the scattering of the writer's time and effort over a multitude of topics, the scarcity of specialized knowledge about some subjects, neglect of items less interesting to the writer, excessive space devoted to personal interests, and limits upon knowledge of what should be included and upon what can be included. An obvious problem facing the single writer is the enormity of the task involved in compiling and writing such a book. Despite perceived demerits by reviewers and others that readers may encounter, Rasmussen meets this challenge well. As valuable as are the voices of many, one may say that a work dealing with multiple aspects of a single literary figure written by a single author with a single vision, particularly this book, offers several advantages.
One personality speaking with one voice, Rasmussen dominates and links each item to all others with that single vision and tone. Rather than use "See also . . . " at ends of entries, Rasmussen places references directly in each commentary, saving needed space as well; and because he is the writer of each one, he is more keenly aware of the relevance of material in one section to that in another. He places in small capital letters the names of items located elsewhere in Mark Twain A to Z and identifies pertinent scholars and scholarship in his discussion; however, these scholarly references are not necessarily listed in his extensive bibliography in the back of the book. In the entry for "Sociable Jimmy," he refers to both Paul Fatout's Mark Twain Speaks for Himself and Shelley Fisher Fishkin's Was Huck Black?. Fishkin's title appears in the bibliography, and Fatout's does not (though two other titles by him do), but by also naming the year of the Fatout book in his text, Rasmussen gives enough information to find it. Within his discussion, Rasmussen, noting Jimmy's precedent in Twain's first published work dominated by a child voice, of course, refers the reader to Huckleberry Finn, thence to Fishkin's thesis, but he also mentions "a similarly loquacious character . . . in chapter 27 of A Tramp Abroad" (435). These interior cross-references, based on both scholarly relationship and personal recollection, avoid inconsistencies of omissions and inclusions often found at the ends of articles in multiple-contributor works.
The single writer is also freer to go down avenues that, while not closed to them, collaborators of multiple-writer and edited books are less likely to travel. Even within the parameters his overall subject requires, he can largely choose his own topics to include or, at least, those he wishes to concentrate on. Editors probably would not delegate topics such as "haunted houses" in Twain's works, the related "House of Death," the significance of "cholera," and would likely hesitate or even avoid "Nigger" as a separate entry. "Racial Attitudes," as in the Mark Twain Encyclopedia, is a more likely general title in a collaborative work.
Through these topics, Rasmussen, as his own editor and writer, offers knowledge gained from his study and observations of specific areas of interest, not general topics assigned to others. Haunted houses serve pivotal roles in several stories. Despite frequent critical usage, "house of death" does not appear in Huck's story. Cholera occurs a surprisingly high number of times in Twain's works. The phrase "Nigger Jim" does not occur in Huckleberry Finn. A topic such as "Steamboats" or "Riverboats" is more likely to appeal to an editor of Twainiana selecting for others, though probably not topics about individual boats except, maybe, "Mark Twain," but Rasmussen devotes five columns to "Steamboats," a half-column to "Mark Twain" (a name given to several steamboats but none Clemens served), and brief paragraphs about every steamboat he did serve as cub and as pilot (18 boats). In these accounts, Rasmussen tells, among other fascinating information, that on his last trip to the Mississippi River, Twain helped dedicate a boat rechristened "Mark Twain" in his honor, that an accident Twain places aboard Crescent City in Life on the Mississippi actually happened aboard City of Memphis with him piloting; and that Alonzo Child, the last boat he piloted and the only one he ever seriously grounded, was converted into a Confederate ironclad and became the setting for "Newhouse's Jew Story."
Because his interests range broadly and are more inclusive than academic, Rasmussen extends the term "Mark Twain" beyond "Mark Twain Circle," "Mark Twain Company," "Mark Twain Foundation," and journal titles to include "Mark Twain Lake," "Mark Twain State Park," and not only "Mark Twain Memorial" but "Mark Twain Memorial Bridge." Here also are titles of television films. In Mark Twain A to Z, information about media adaptations follows entries about the works involved; productions concerning Twain himself appear alphabetically by title. Curiously, since he can select his own topics based on his knowledge and predilections, Rasmussen, who wishes to compile a Twainian version of The Devil's Dictionary, does not include Ambrose Bierce, an acquaintance of Twain's.
Among the most fascinating aspects of Rasmussen's entries are his "asides"--extra (unexpected) information, offering knowledge and personal insights revealing of both Twain and him. Despite his saying, "I have elected to concentrate on hard factual information and leave analysis and interpretation to others" (v), Rasmussen offers more. After briefly citing the usual example of "Jumping Frog" as illustrating the technique of "How to Tell a Story," he exemplifies with a paragraph about Uncle Laxart's tedious tale in Joan of Arc. He tells that Twain pokes "gentle fun" at Harriet Beecher Stowe in Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy and that, in her last years, then senile, she wandered uninvited into neighbors' homes and startled them with yells. The reader learns that, a few hours after he helped conduct Twain's funeral, the Rev. Joe Twichell's wife died, and that Clara Clemens was pregnant when Twain died (109). Rasmussen also tells of other famous people who died the same year (109). He tells not only that Twain played Miles Hendon in family dramatic productions of The Prince and the Pauper but adds names of later actors to play Hendon (e.g., Errol Flynn, Guy Williams) and the Earl of Hertford (e.g., Claude Rains, Harry Andrews). In "A Horse's Tale," Twain names a horse thief "Hank Butters" as an attack upon Henry Butters of the Plasmon company, in which Twain lost money; and Buffalo Bill scouted for the Fifth Cavalry, not the Seventh (as the story says).
One expects a section about Huckleberry Finn, but Rasmussen also includes one on the huckleberry, noting that a reference to huckleberry pie in a film version of the novel is anachronistic in 1840s Arkansas; that only two characters call Huck by his full Christian name in the novel, and that the name is used as an epithet in Connecticut Yankee. A solar eclipse, part of the Yankee's trickery, did not occur in 528, the time of the story, but Halley's Comet passed two years later; Rasmussen mentions a novel that "uses the return of Halley's Comet  as the occasion for Mark Twain's return to Earth." In his entry about Hannibal, Rasmussen gives readers some of its modern flavor with the names of some businesses: "Aunt Polly's Handicrafts," "Injun Joe's Campground and Waterslide," "Pudd'nheads," and "Tom 'n Huck Motel," with a picture of its neon sign. Indian Territory, Huck's possible escape route, was just 200 miles from the setting of the last chapters of Huckleberry Finn.
Comments about media versions of the novel are often interesting. The first dramatic adaptation called "Huckleberry Finn" was based on episodes from Tom Sawyer; the first film version was shot on location along the Mississippi River to resemble E. W. Kemble's illustrations for the novel; the first sound production, a sequel to the film Tom Sawyer, gave a prominent part to Becky Thatcher. Rasmussen says Universal Studios bought film rights to "Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians" after it appeared in Life magazine in 1968. This reader appreciates such bits of information in this kind of book as much as the standard material and interpretations. A single voice speaks with love and keen interest in his subject that other admirers of that subject also feel.
To answer, "What may one say about Mark Twain A to Z as a text in a course with an emphasis on Mark Twain?," one may state many positive uses. Recommending it on the practical level are inexpensiveness, durability and attractiveness as a paperback, reasonable size and weight, clearly written prose, and easily readable type. Although a paperback, it lies flat, making for easier use in reading, finding items, and taking notes. Entries are easily located, with titles boldfaced on crisp, non-glaring, white paper. The format contributes to accessibility: map and chronology in front; specific title names suited to the average reader rather than such general headings as "Scatology" or "Exaggeration," that may hinder the typical student; a listing by year of Twain books, contemporary and posthumous, with a recommendation of their availability in the new Oxford Mark Twain and the editions of the Mark Twain Project; a bibliography of "Suggested Readings," preceded by advice about other bibliographies; and, finally, an extensive index.
If a student cannot find an item alphabetically in the text, it may appear in the index. In the text, it may be under another heading, in the discussion of a related topic, or within an entry about the book in which it was published. Disappointed by not seeing any of the McWilliams stories listed alphabetically, I found all three and commentary about the characters under "McWilliams family" after looking for the stories in the index. As another example, according to this index, references to and comments about Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes, which receives no entry of its own, occur in thirteen other entries.
A difficulty facing those studying or interested in Twain is that he was so prolific, touching so many people, so much American history and culture as well as other cultures and countries, and wrote in such an array of genres that a virtual library is required to hold the diverse aspects of him and his creations. One cannot read or learn everything Twainian, but a portable book that brings together information about that material would certainly aid teaching and understanding of the general and the specific. Mark Twain A to Z is a library of Twain that a person can hold in one hand. As that virtual library is easier to carry than a laptop computer, it provides some mini-library services to the student in both classrooms and dorm rooms. Rasmussen not only gives computer-derived word-counts for Twain works but also synopses, overall and chapter-by-chapter summaries. He is particularly proud of these synopses, in his letter calling them "the best ever published . . . not only more accurate than those in Cliff's Notes and the like . . . but they are more analytical and are enhanced by their cross-references to other entries."
Considering the breadth of Twain's literature, the breadth of Mark Twain A to Z, and the restrictions placed upon Rasmussen, these synopses are quite extensive and full. He provides twelve pages of synopsis of Huckleberry Finn. For the student of Mark Twain, these overviews are, as Rasmussen states, "valuable aids for reviewing and for gaining fresh insights" and, particularly in writing a paper and gathering evidence to support a point, "invaluable for finding where in a book certain episodes are discussed." Seeking the context of "The Professor's Yarn," for example, one finds that it is chapter 36 of Life on the Mississippi.
With Mark Twain A to Z as a text, these advantages are available to the student daily for class preparation and discussion, especially as discussions raise questions and veer in various directions. Among other library services in his book are a chronology of Twain's life, a map of his travels and residences in the United States, brief critical comments about his life and works, insights that aid understanding of both, and illustrations of literature, events, and personalities. The chronology and map would help the student studying Twain gain perspective regarding the man, his life, his works, and his times. The map illustrates the extent of Twain's American travels; he either traveled through or lived in all but eight of the present fifty states, all but six of the forty-eight contiguous states. Aiding understanding of the breadth of his experience after leaving Hannibal are symbols for cities where he lived, with significant ones in boldface, travel lines--with arrows indicating direction--to show movement during the steamboat years, his stagecoach trip west, and his last trip across the country, all with relevant years beneath them. The map is pictorial support for Leland Krauth's essay in Studies in American Fiction, "Mark Twain: A Man for All Regions" (Autumn 1985), offering a visual illustration that every area of the country has a claim upon Mark Twain. Students should realize the impact of his personality and writings upon their country. This map suggests the reach of "the most conspicuous man on the planet." One wishes that Rasmussen had prepared a similar map for the rest of the world.
The chronology, which Britton calls in his review "the most detailed . . . to date," lists yearly activities under these categories: "Residences and travel," "Personal and business," "Writing and publishing," "Family and friends," "Literary events," and "Historical events." Side by side are happenings in the lives of Twain, people he knew, in his literature, in literature by others contemporaneous with his life, and in the world during his lifetime. This table helps students place Twain's life and works amid other events and lives and better understand relationships within his time and between it and our time. Also helpful in gaining perspective are Rasmussen's providing with each entry for a person in the text not only years but also dates of birth and death and places of both birth and death. One more often knows place of birth than of death. Learning both contributes to a fuller portrait.
The usefulness of Rasmussen's criticism and insights have been noted and suggested, but the visual aspect of Mark Twain A to Z also recommends it as a text for a course concerned with Mark Twain. The photographs, lithographs, and drawings of people, events, and literature bring the subjects alive--giving them contemporary substance rather than leaving them lost amid words in immateriality--and help revive the flavor of their times. Mark Twain A to Z does not have the musty air that some reference books have. As such, it would be better appreciated and better used by a student. The student can learn from its pictures as well as its text. This student can use it as a continuing text throughout the course, refresh memory, learn basic ideas about the man, his times, and his literature, discover standard criticism and be led to other appropriate criticism, and gain insights that can lead to personal insights. It can serve the student each class period as well as be the basis for reports and papers, providing other places to find more knowledge. Obviously, Mark Twain A to Z benefits students in a college course devoted to Mark Twain in many ways. Prof. Rasmussen reports that Shelley Fisher Fishkin (University of Texas, Austin) required it in her class when it was available only in hardback and said that it was "a great success."
Equally obvious is that this book is an asset to the person who simply likes Mark Twain. As such, also equally obviously, Mark Twain A to Z is highly recommended. The single voice of Kent Rasmussen speaks with knowledge, authority, understanding, and with enthusiasm. One may say, finally, that reasons exist beyond those in this review and others to own this book. Place it beside the Mark Twain Encyclopedia and alternate between them. Read and enjoy.