To all appearances, this hefty volume is a reference book. It has many features one expects in such books, such as lengthy appendices and an alphabetical arrangement of its subject matter. The bulk of the book comprises about three hundred essays, whose subjects range from Twain’s individual works and people and places important in his life to themes in his writings and other aspects of his life, thought, and work. The book also includes eight contributions by other scholars and noted writer Nat Hentoff (on “Censorship”) and playwright Arthur Miller (on “Performance”).
The Oxford Companion to Mark Twain is what its title implies: a companionable work, one to be kept near at hand to answer quick questions, to find fresh insights into Twain books that one is reading, or merely to browse and explore. In contrast to true reference works, it is an eclectic and intensely personal work. Editor Gregg Camfield distills important trends in recent scholarship and blends in his own views, formed over many years of research and reading. No rigid plan dictates what goes in his essays, making each a little serendipitous voyage of discovery. For example, his essay on the Paige typesetter (an invention in which Twain invested much of his fortune) begins not by explaining what the machine was but by discussing the relationship between the novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Twain’s investment problems. This makes for good, stimulating essay writing that would have pleased Mark Twain himself.
Aiming to reach the broadest possible audience, Camfield avoids scholarly jargon and writes in a relaxed, comfortable style that never fails to be clear and is often drolly witty. The book itself is attractively, though not lavishly, illustrated, and has some delightfully funky design features. A gold mine of esoteric information and stimulating insights, The Oxford Companion to Mark Twain is a book that anyone seriously interested in Mark Twain may wish to put by the bedside for late-night browsing and occasional prolonged reading.