- Mark Twain’s Audience: A Critical Analysis of Reader Responses to the Writings of Mark Twain by Robert McParland
The title and first chapter of this volume promise a great deal, not only to Twain scholars but also to all those engaged in the project of better understanding how literary texts affected the lives of readers in the nineteenth and early twentieth [End Page 116] centuries. McParland delineates his purpose and scope right at the beginning: “This study aims to bring us closer to the affective relationships of reader and writer by considering the responses of some of the common readers of Mark Twain” (3). Immediately after this comment, McParland lists a number of excellent questions about who these readers might have been and how they might have responded to Twain’s texts. Unfortunately, he never provides any satisfying answers to these questions, and consequently this book is a great disappointment.
At the outset, readers are told that to assess the “cultural impact” of Twain’s works, this book will explore audience response through a wide variety of resources, including “letters, diaries, autobiographies, reading circles and literary societies, library records, newspapers and periodicals, and other personal and public documents” (10). Subsequent chapters are devoted to responses to The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It; readers’ experiences with The Gilded Age; audiences’ reactions to Twain’s lectures; children’s, especially girls’, reception of Twain’s works; the impact of institutional environments such as schools, libraries, and churches on response; the gender, racial, ethnic, and regional dimensions of Twain’s readership; Twain’s “Global Audience”; and readers of his works since his death in 1910. Taken in outline, these chapters all sound quite ambitious and interesting. When examined in closer detail, however, they offer only cursory treatments of these very complex subjects.
First, one must comment on something rarely worth mentioning in a review of an academic monograph: the egregiously poor quality of the text itself. There are a number of mistakes in proofreading and grammar, a great many disunified paragraphs, and multiple nonsequiturs. The writer also could have done a much better job of considering his audience; readers of this book likely do not need multiple-page accounts of the genesis of various novels, summaries of their plots, or a description of how the pseudonym “Mark Twain” came about. At times, too, the reader is forced to plow through paragraphs of extraneous details about topics of no relevance to an understanding of Twain’s audiences, such as a detailed history of the buildings in one sales agent’s territory in St. Paul, Minnesota. The text also continually repeats the same information in different places. The overall result is that reading this text will sorely try one’s patience.
Another weakness of this book is that it never addresses how the various formats in which readers interacted with Twain’s texts might have affected their responses. For example, while a good bit of time is spent on the mechanics of Twain’s subscription publishing efforts, nowhere does one learn how readers of these books might have interacted with them differently than did those who read his works in cheaper editions. This lack of differentiation among text formats is prevalent throughout the rest of the book as well. One [End Page 117] would have appreciated, for instance, a chapter on how the reading fields (to use Jerome McGann’s term) for magazine and newspaper appearances of Twain’s fictions established very different horizons of expectations for their readers.
The limited range of works investigated in any detail also disappoints. Most of the attention is focused on earlier works such as The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, and The Gilded Age; much less is written about responses to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Pudd’nhead Wilson, and the darker pieces from Twain’s later period, some of which were published posthumously. Many people today would, undoubtedly, be interested to know how readers responded to Twain’s fictions when he was not so obviously “humorous.” Granted, a small...