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  • Brief Reviews
  • Gary Scharnhorst

Andrew Levy. Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era that Shaped His Masterpiece. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. xiv + 342 pp. Cloth, $25.00.

Roy Morris, Jr. American Vandal: Mark Twain Abroad. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2015. 279 pp. Cloth, $27.95.

Dear Mark Twain: Letters from His Readers. Ed. Kent Rasmussen. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2013. 295 pp. Cloth, $27.50.

The director of a university press once told me that any book with “Mark Twain” in the title would sell. These three books illustrate the point. Unfortunately, none of them is very good. The first two contain nothing new, and the third contains virtually nothing new worth knowing. None of them rises to the level of a respectable Ph.D. dissertation. Levy’s book has been celebrated by critics who, in my opinion, do not know any better. He argues for the significance of family in the novel, a theme Michael Kiskis and others have foregrounded for years, and for the role of minstrelsy, a motif explored in Huck Finn and other Twain writings by Eric Mott, Sharon McCoy, Randall Knoper, Frederick Woodard, and Donnarae McCann, among others. Morris’ volume is as derivative as his earlier Lighting Out for the Territory (2010). Rasmussen, who specializes in compiling overpriced reference books for underachieving high school students based on others’ research, such as Mark Twain A to Z and Critical Companion to Mark Twain, works a slight variation on that model—a collection of correspondence, mostly fan letters, that Twain received in the mail well over a century ago, long relegated to files in the Mark Twain Papers that had been justifiably ignored. They tell us virtually nothing new about Twain or his readership. How we can extrapolate the demographics of Twain’s audience from this evidence is beyond me. A request for an autograph tells us nothing more about an author and his or her audience than an invitation to dinner tells us about a chef and his or her recipes. The best part of the book is the index. At least the page numbers seem to be accurate. No need to order a copy. If you’ve already bought a copy, you should return it for a refund. Could an annotated edition of Clemens’ cancelled checks be next? (GS) [End Page 188]



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