Buy the book from Collins, Brian. When In Doubt, Tell the Truth, and Other Quotations from Mark Twain.
New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.
Pp. xvii + 142. Cloth. $19.95.
ISBN 0-231-10498-7.

Buy the book from Rasmussen, R. Kent. The Quotable Mark Twain: His Essential Aphorisms, Witticisms, and Concise Opinions.
Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1998.
Pp. xxvi + 356. Bibliography, index. Cloth. $25.00.
ISBN 0-8092-3088-7.

Commissions from purchases are donated to the Mark Twain Project

The following review appeared 11 May 1998 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 1998 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed by:

Barbara Schmidt <>
Tarleton State University
Stephenville, TX

Brian Collins' When In Doubt, Tell the Truth, released in 1997, was one of the first Mark Twain general quote books to surface on the market since the appearance of Alex Ayres' Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain a decade earlier. With an attractively designed dust jacket, typeface and page layout, Collins' volume contains 700 Twain quotations.

Collins provides an introduction outlining his perception of Twain's preoccupation with "five general concerns: human nature, history, the American scene, the art of the writer, and the tradition of the maxim itself" (xiii). Collins then presents his collection of quotes--often categorized by concepts rather than keywords. For example, search for the quote in his book's title, "When in doubt, tell the truth," and you won't find it under the "Truth" entries. It is neatly tucked away in the "Honesty" category. Looking for a Twain quote on "ants"? It is best to look in the "Insects" category. And a quote on Wagner and his opera is found under "Culture."

Collins' collection lacks an index or any type of cross referencing and this is one of its major weaknesses. If the reader who is searching for a particular quote can't guess which concept some of the quotes might have been filed under, it is next to impossible to locate them. Although citations are provided for each quote, the book has no bibliography, and a lack of consistency among some citations makes it difficult to tell from which edition of a book some of the quotes originated.

Another weakness of Collins' collection is that several of the quotes are referenced back to Alex Ayres' quote book of a decade earlier. And Ayres provides no original citation for these quotes. Among these casualties are "Golf is a good walk spoiled"--a quote that has never been found in the Twain canon but still remains ever present in the petrified "attributed" category.

R. Kent Rasmussen's newest entry into the realm of Twain reference books is The Quotable Mark Twain. It is an unprecedented collection of more than 1,800 quotations, half of which have not appeared in any other quote collection. Over seven years in the making, Rasmussen has gathered material from Twain classics as well as lesser-known writings; approximately twenty percent of the volume contains quotes from Twain's personal letters to friends and acquaintances. Typical of these is the following comment by Twain on Huck Finn: "Most honestly do I wish I could say a softening word or two in defence of Huck's character, since you wish it, but really in my opinion, it is no better than those of Solomon, David, Satan, and the rest of the sacred brotherhood" (97).

Rasmussen's volume includes Twain's comments related to famous nineteenth century personalities--from Prince Albert to Emile Zola; cities and countries he visited; opinions of his own books; and even catchy new words that captured his attention, such as "fructifying" and "neodamode." In addition, numerous illustrations from Twain's first editions accompany many of the quotations, and a list of credits is provided for the illustrations.

In The Quotable Mark Twain, multiple quotes pertaining to one topic are presented in chronological order, which allows the reader to detect any shifts over time in Twain's attitudes about a particular person or subject. For example, in a letter to his mother written in 1866, Twain wrote of Bret Harte: "Though I am generally placed at the head of my breed of scribblers in this part of the country, the place belongs properly to Bret Harte." By 1907, he was calling Harte "An invertebrate without a country" (120-1).

The uniqueness of The Quotable Mark Twain can be attributed to the editorial standards for the volume. Quotes taken directly from dialogue within a story or quotes that represent the voice of a character within the story are followed by the name of the character who uttered the phrase. Sources used and citations for each quote are from the most authoritative sources available--whether it be original typescripts, University of California editions, original first editions, or other original source material. An introduction to the bibliography at the end of the book guides the reader through what constitutes the most authoritative sources.

The importance of using the most authoritative source for a quote is illustrated by comparing Collins' and Rasmussen's versions of a quote that originally appeared in one of Twain's 1865 columns for the Californian literary weekly titled "Answers to Correspondents". In Collins' When In Doubt, Tell the Truth, the quote on "Babies" reads, "A soiled baby, with a neglected nose, cannot be conscientiously regarded as a thing of beauty" (12). Collins' source is Charles Neider's 1961 edition of Complete Humorous Sketches and Tales. Rasmussen's quote reads in part, "A sore-faced baby with a neglected nose cannot be conscientiously regarded as a thing of beauty . . ." (19). Rasmussen's source is the 1981 edition of the University of California's Early Tales And Sketches (vol. 2). The vision conjured up between a "soiled baby" and a "sore-faced baby" is significant, and underscores the importance of pin-pointing the correct phrasing as Twain intended it--without editorial tampering.

The Quotable Mark Twain, dedicated to the staff of the Mark Twain Project in Berkeley, is accompanied by a foreword written by Shelley Fisher Fishkin and includes an introduction by Rasmussen that examines the longevity and enduring qualities of Twain's writings. In his introduction Rasmussen also discusses quotes often misattributed to Twain, including "Golf is a good walk spoiled." The Quotable Mark Twain has an added bonus of a chronology of Twain's writings, and the index is comprehensive and could only be surpassed by a computerized search engine.

When in Doubt, Tell the Truth and The Quotable Mark Twain share at least 295 quotes in common. Most are the perennial favorites without which no Twain quote book would be complete. A comparison of two quote books of such different magnitudes (700 vs. 1,800 entries) and with such vastly different editorial standards is difficult. Although When In Doubt comes out on the bottom of this list--both in size and editorial standards--the volume does contain approximately 400 quotes that are not included in The Quotable Mark Twain. It will provide good "idea starters" for writers less familiar with Twain's writings who are simply seeking a pithy quote with which to launch a paper or speech. On the other hand, The Quotable Mark Twain has set new editorial and reference standards for any future Twain quote collections.