Mark Twain A to Z

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Mark Twain is probably the best-known and best-loved American writer, both in the United States and around the world. New editions of various volumes of his works appear each year and continue to sell, alongside newly configured collections of his shorter pieces. His books are taught in classrooms in every region of the globe. More than one hundred articles and books about him appear every year. Whatever the current trend in literary or cultural criticism, Mark Twain proves himself amenable to being deciphered by whatever methods fashion dictates. The constant stream of scholarly studies—one that shows no signs of slowing down—suggests that one can never know enough about this complex and intriguing figure.

Mark Twain A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Writings is a magisterial reference work that should have major impact both on scholars and on lay readers. Unprecedented in its reach and its scope, it is scrupulously accurate in details and boldly imaginative in its conception. This staggering undertaking would be impressive if it were the achievement of more than a dozen scholars working in concert for many years; it is truly remarkable that it is the work of one author, R. Kent Rasmussen. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a book by Mark Twain will find this readable and engaging volume a true delight. Scholars who have immersed themselves in Twain’s work for decades will find it no less rewarding. A felicitous blend of meticulous scholarship, sound judgment, and lucid prose, Mark Twain A to Z is, in short, an extraordinary book worthy of the extraordinary man who is its subject.

Mark Twain A to Z has a number of features that make Twain’s dizzyingly diverse works and marvelously complicated globetrottings accessible and comprehensible in new and distinctive ways. A comprehensive chronology that is by itself worth the price of the book, complete publishing histories and lively and correct plot summaries of every major work and many minor ones, entries on real people whose lives Twain touched as well as characters of his own invention, entries on places Twain visited and wrote about, and numerous reproductions of photos, sketches and graphic illustrations from Twain’s books, are just a few of the many features that make this book so useful.

Take, for example, the fourteen-page chronology that opens the volume. Starting with 1835, the year of Twain’s birth, and running through 1910, the year of his death, Rasmussen assembles intriguing year-by-year notes in the following categories: “Residences and travel,” “Personal and business,” “Writing and publishing,” “Family and friends,” “Literary events,” and “Historical events.” Typical of Rasmussen’s sage insight into how to make this sort of material useful, the “Writing and publishing” column has the subcategory “Events in his fiction.” Here one can see the approximate time frames when various books are set in the context of what was going on in Samuel Clemens’ personal life during that period. The juxtapositions that emerge are intriguing, as events from Clemens’ childhood are set against his literary reconstructions of those periods.

Unlike so many “timetables of history” volumes content to leave entire columns blank, Rasmussen’s chronology is a dense one, with hardly any categories left blank in any year. One can read down the “Literary events” column and have a useful historical overview of the history of world literature. One can read down the “Family and friends” column and have a good gloss on the basic facts of Samuel Clemens’ personal life. One can track the vagaries of Clemens’ various financial undertakings in the “Personal and business” column. Or one can put it all together and marvel at the richness and complexity of one of the most remarkable lives ever lived.

Like the chronology, the “Background and Publishing History” subsections that appear, not only for entries on major works but also for scores of minor ones, are invaluable. Rasmussen unravels the often tangled publishing histories of individual works and stitches them back together again with a neatness and coherence that would have impressed Mark Twain himself. Under the entry “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” for example, Rasmussen describes Twain’s efforts to tell this story over a period of three decades, exploring along the way such issues as the difficulties scholars have had dating various versions of the material. He describes the portion of the material Twain published, the parts he left unpublished, and even what aspect of the story was dramatized in the Will Vinton’s 1985 animated claymation film, The Adventures of Mark Twain. The almost throwaway comment about the claymation film in the “Captain Stormfield” entry is typical of the breadth of Rasmussen’s knowledge. The section on dramatic adaptations of The Prince and the Pauper (1881), for example, includes references to the first American-made feature film of it in 1915, as well as a Soviet version in 1943, a Chinese version in 1966, and an Indian version in 1968; it also alludes briefly to television adaptations and a reworking of the...

(The entire section is 2131 words.)