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  • Mark Twain on Potholes and Politics: Letters to the Editor ed. by Gary Scharnhorst
  • Jonathan Hayes
Mark Twain on Potholes and Politics: Letters to the Editor. Edited by Gary Scharnhorst. University of Missouri Press, 2014. 224 pp.

Throughout his writing career, Mark Twain regularly composed letter-to-the-editor pieces for newspapers and magazines in the United States and abroad. As demonstrated by the 101 letters that volume editor Gary Scharnhorst includes in Mark Twain on Potholes and Politics: Letters to the Editor (published as part of the Mark Twain and His Circle Series at the University of Missouri Press), Twain was an engaged participant in public matters great and small. He skillfully utilized the letters-to-the-editor genre to reach a popular readership of mass circulation periodicals by opining on current events. The letters Scharnhorst includes in this volume range from those Twain wrote at the outset of his writing career as a reporter in San Francisco in the 1860s to an update on his failing health written in Bermuda weeks before his death in April 1910, when he cracked he was “not ruggedly well” but also “not ill enough to excite an undertaker” (185). The volume covers such a range of topics published in various venues as to trace the broad arc of Twain’s writing career, providing illuminating information for scholars and general interest readers about Twain’s travels, his literary and publishing experiences, and his views and attitudes on major political issues and figures. (For example, he initially opposed women’s suffrage, he mocked US imperial pretensions to annex the Hawaiian Islands, and he spoke in favor of revolution in Russia against Czar Alexander III.)

In addition to providing a resource on Twain’s stances on public affairs, these letters will also have significance for literary scholars particularly concerned with Twain’s creation of his public authorial persona, which he [End Page 181] achieved in part through his sustained appearance as a letter writer in mass circulation periodicals. In this vein, Scharnhorst’s volume continues a line of scholarship influenced by Louis J. Budd’s Our Mark Twain: The Making of His Public Personality (1983). While Twain does not report as a journalist in these letters but rather writes as a popular author and newspaper reader, this volume contributes to studies of Twain’s journalism and newspaper experiences, including Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s From Fact to Fiction: Journalism & Imaginative Writing in America (1985) and James E. Caron’s Mark Twain, Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter (2008), the latter of which appears also as part of the Mark Twain and His Circle Series. Read in the context of Twain’s cultivation of reading publics, these letters to the editor illuminate his ongoing engagement with popular audiences as an essential component of his success as a literary figure.

While Twain flippantly describes his letters about the Hawaiian Islands on the occasion of the death of King Kamehameha in 1872 as lacking in statistics because “most human beings like gossip better,” he tellingly alludes to his goal of capturing a mass reading public: “I proceed after the largest audience and leave other people to worry the minority with arithmetic” (48). Twain nevertheless includes ample numerical information about the islands and their foreign and indigenous populations, their geography and climate, and their valuable sugar industry, which he describes as the commercial goal of proponents for US annexation. In another letter, Twain facetiously equates the benefits of public notoriety with authorial celebrity. Referring to John H. Surratt, who had been suspected in Lincoln’s assassination, Twain imagines a manager who utilizes Surratt’s infamy as a promotional strategy: “Mr. Surratt’s manager, I fancy, is deliberately procuring this persecution, and the deep old fox knows that it is exactly the sort of advertising he needs” (42). Twain’s letters sarcastically announce his own supposed notoriety, particularly when he imagines suffragists denouncing him as a “wretch” and “atrocious scoundrel” (11–12). In more sincere letters, Twain advocates for international copyright law, criticizes English publishers pirating editions of his books, and denounces his impersonators looking to turn a quick buck. In each of these letters, Twain casts himself as an author...


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pp. 181-184
Launched on MUSE
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