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  • Projecting Mark Twain From Bohemia to Xinjiang
  • Katherine E. Bishop (bio)
Mark Twain on Potholes and Politics: Letters to the Editor. Edited by Gary Scharnhorst. Columbia: University of Missouri Press. 2014.
The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature. By Ben Tarnoff. New York, NY: Penguin Press. 2014.
Mark Twain in China. By Selina Lai-Henderson. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 2015.

Although he did take up several pen names during his career, Samuel L. Clemens predominantly stuck with his most famous nom de plume, Mark Twain. If asked to imagine Twain, most people would call to mind his bushy hair, mustache, and eyebrows along with his signature white suit, and, perhaps, a cigar. Although his wardrobe was more varied than such a sketch would denote, [End Page 41] Twain’s look, in its wild stability, came to represent an immovable figure of the American frontier. For many, Twain’s visage became the look of American letters: individual, a bit unkempt, and reassuringly familiar. But the relatively static vision of Twain’s figure belies a multifarious oeuvre that continues to be reshaped and expanded by new readings and perspectives. More than that, it reflects his carefully scaffolded writerly persona: Twain’s construction of his brand. Loren Glass’s discussion of literary celebrity in Authors, Inc.: Literary Celebrity in the Modern United States, 1880–1980 (2004) and Judith Yaross Lee’s recent contribution on the intersection of humor and postindustrial capitalism, Twain’s Brand: Humor in Contemporary American Culture (2013) among others, have begun to draw back the curtain and examine the mechanisms afoot behind his celebrity. This work is continued in the three books at hand.

Twain’s literary legacy begins, of course, with humor, his foremost trait—at least in the United States; as Selina Lai-Henderson explains in Mark Twain in China, Twain has long been principally an anti-imperialist elsewhere in the world. Only recently have translations been able to make strides with his comedic elements. Twain’s humor propelled his first major American hit, the short story “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” later republished as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” and other enduringly popular works. Encapsulating Western linguistic and comedic flair, “Jumping Frog” took both coasts by storm in 1865—how and why it did so are a few of the threads Ben Tarnoff unravels in The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers who Reinvented American Literature. Tarnoff explains that, as with everything, timing was key—Twain was able to take advantage of having settled in the West just before it, and its literature, were connected to the East by the transcontinental railroad. Figuring out how to sell America on frontier-steeped stories as an integral part of its image, and thus carving a path for himself into the national literary scene, Twain also made these images a central part of his own story. Moreover, letters to editors captured in miniature the charisma that Twain was known for on the lecture circuit and so provided an easily accessible forum for his conversational engagement with the public and self-shaping, as Gary Scharnhorst celebrates in Mark Twain on Potholes and Politics: Letters to the Editor.

In addition to allowing Twain to weigh in on topical issues and increase the market saturation of his voice, early letters, eventually transformed into the bestselling travelogue The Innocents Abroad, were lauded for capturing an essential, American point of view—and for doing so with verve. Popular readers and scholars alike are still interested in Twain’s humor, his travel writings, and his “distinctly” American voice; however, as demonstrated in these three studies, his reputation has become increasingly complicated by works exploring the depths and vitality of his voice and vitriol. The revitalization of polemical tracts including “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” and “The United States of Lyncherdom” has attracted the attention of recent scholars (including those featured here), producing inquiries into the growth of his satire, the impetuses behind his texts, and the sustained socio-cultural effects of his writings. The end of Twain’s hundred-year [End Page 42] moratorium on his autobiography, the subsequent publication of the work...


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