restricted access Mark Twain's Letters: Volume 1, 1853-1866, and: At Home Abroad: Mark Twain in Australasia (review)
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Reviewed by
Edgar Marquess Branch, Michael B. Frank, and Kenneth M. Sanderson, eds. Mark Twain's Letters: Volume 1, 1853-1866. Berkeley: U California P, 1988. 662 pp. $35.00.
Miriam Jones Shillingsburg. At Home Abroad: Mark Twain in Australasia. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1988. 241 pp. $27.50.

The experts in documentary editing are finally establishing their special identity through their own society, journal, and handbooks of procedure. So it is forgivable here to bypass that aspect of Mark Twain's Letters with little more than a tribute to how meticulously the three editors (and three associates) have labored. Imaginatively, too, because they realized that Twain, who first supported himself as a typesetter and then as a journalist, followed professional rules; for instance, instead of dashing off his private letters idiosyncratically, he "indubitably understood the equivalents in type for the various kinds of underscore." Still, the editors stayed aware that some of the early CEAA texts so painstakingly rendered manuscript into print that the array of symbols erected a "barbed wire," as one critic complained. They aimed for (and achieved) a "plain" text that is "optimally legible" while still, to be sure, "maximally faithful."

Readers will take different levels of interest in the detailed, profuse notes. With the editors' bridges over gaps in the correspondence added, the notes use about as much space as the primary text. Only somebody who has tried to find such background material, especially for the Nevada years, can recognize how much "lost" information those notes recover. They help to create an almost day-to-day sense of the sweating, trekking half of the Clemens Gold and Silver Mining Company. Twain's well-known yarns about its nonfortunes turn out to have more basis in hardscrabble fact than admirers of his recklessly self-inflating humor have cared to suspect. This volume supersedes any other account of his life between the ages of seventeen and thirty when, back from the Sandwich Islands, he paraded through California and Nevada before shipping out for the east coast.

Of course, the letters are richest when they lead us deeper into Twain's best work, which includes some of those very letters. Half of the texts in this volume are new to print, whereas almost all the rest are reproduced exactly for the first time. They give us firmer reasons for grasping the point at which, during the river years, Twain's self-confidence as a humorist took a sudden leap. Or we can date more precisely and can intuit more subtly his emotional tensions when he began, fatefully, to finance his prospecting with his "Josh" letters to the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. We can now ponder more knowledgeably his outburst of 19 October 1865 to Orion and Mollie Clemens—after a tantalizing break of [End Page 265] eleven months in the correspondence that has survived. The text gives no reason to doubt that even so playful a personality was sincere when insisting that "I never had but two powerful ambitions in my life. One was to be a pilot, & the other a preacher of the gospel." He went on to expand much more feelingly on that second calling.

Although the letters also map lesser peaks and valleys of ambition, Twain increasingly showed tenacity as a journalist. Cheered by the eventual results, we tend to see his Hawaiian stint as a lark, but he complained about Hilo: "Confound that island, I had a streak of fat & a streak of lean all over it—got lost several times & had to sleep in huts with the natives & live like a dog." During one misadventure when the fault for getting lost was all his, he had to bed down in the open near a volcano. "Even then," recalled his companion, "the man wanted to tell me a story, that he was reminded of, hungry as we were." No future biographer can resist building on that scene. At Home Abroad: Mark Twain in Australasia records many more anecdotes, naturally, about a now famous writer making a lecture tour of the "world" in 1895-1896. But Miriam Jones Shillingsburg's greatest contribution nails down the practical details of the three months during...