- Printer's Devil: Mark Twain and the American Publishing Revolution
When the young Sam Clemens began his apprenticeship to Joseph C. Ament, publisher of the Missouri Courier in Hannibal, Missouri, every stage in the production of print was performed by hand. By the time the author internationally known as Mark Twain died, the entire industry of printing and publishing had been mechanized. Indeed, Twain's career was enabled by these developments. Nevertheless, as the Mysterious Stranger manuscripts attest, he maintained a nostalgic fascination with the manual apparatus of the printer's trade. Mark Twain's many experiences with and deep ambivalence about the radical transformation of the publishing industry during his lifetime is the topic of Bruce Michelson's remarkable study, Printer's Devil: Mark Twain and the American Publishing Revolution, which seeks to reassess Twain's well-known literary career in terms of the contemporary information age. This is a book, then, which works to understand one revolution in terms of another, with Twain's exemplary career providing the frame of reference by which to measure not only the nature and extent of technological and cultural transformation, but also the depth and complexity of possible responses to it. While the strengths of Michelson's study derive from his remarkably meticulous analysis of the former, its liabilities emerge in his vexed allegiances to the latter, as the disillusioned bewilderment of Twain's late career comes to determine the schizophrenic tone of Michelson's approach to both revolutions. [End Page 134]
Printer's Devil sets out to achieve three major objectives: to review "the life of Sam Clemens, and the career and public identity of Mark Twain" in terms of the publishing revolution (19); to observe how the technological transformations of this revolution "manifest themselves in Mark Twain's texts" (20); and to understand our own information revolution as "an exponential intensification and complication of the crisis that broke out in Mark Twain's childhood" (20). Thus Michelson starts out with an analysis of Twain's image in the press, arguing that Twain's attitude toward his developing celebrity exposes "the delusion that we are indeed whoever or whatever it is that we say we are, or even think we are, especially when the identity in question is constructed in print for a public composed of thousands of millions of strangers" (59). Thus this chapter reveals how the burgeoning print marketplace undermines authorial agency and identity. Michelson's next chapter turns to the developing technologies of image reproduction, analyzing A Tramp Abroad as "an agglomeration of textual and visual experience with no continuity of mood, subject or aesthetic principle" (91). Possibly in anxious reaction to the implications of the argument in his prior chapter, Michelson expends much energy attempting to prove that this is the closest Twain ever came "to creating a word-and-image book whose contents were of his own making and choosing" (107). Michelson extends this interest in the complexities of the illustrated text into his analysis of Huckleberry Finn, concluding that "when a narrative is profusely enhanced by visual experience, which both extends and complicates the imaginative experience fostered by the verbal text, then the reading process cannot be linear" (134). This notably postmodern conclusion leads inevitably to a final chapter on "Mark Twain and the Information Age" which ranges across a wide variety of Twain's late endeavors, from A Library of American Literature to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court to Pudd'nhead Wilson to Adam's Diary and Eve's Diary to King Leopold's Soliloquy to the Mysterious Stranger manuscripts. In all these efforts Michelson sees a loss of agency, "a media revolution absorbing an individual talent into a multidimensional turmoil, affecting the intention of literary texts, the connections of the writer to his own words, and the public identity that his own words had constructed" (165).
Michelson's knowledge of the technical details of this "media revolution" is astonishingly capacious and meticulous and, as a material history of print and...