The Fruits of the MLA: II. Mark Twain

Mark Twain
Mark Twain; drawing by David Levine

At the end of my earlier article, I discussed the advisability of printing an author’s notes and early drafts—that is, what Lewis Mumford calls his “garbage.” This question is raised by Mr. Franklin R. Rogers at the beginning of his Introduction to Mark Twain’s Satires and Burlesques, one of the volumes of Mark Twain’s hitherto unpublished papers which are being brought out in fourteen volumes, under the auspices of the Modern Language Association by the University of California Press. “It should always be with some misgivings,” Mr. Rogers confesses, “that an editor presents to the public materials which the author has discarded. By returning the materials to his files, the author has voted against publication. By resurrecting them, the editor risks exposing the author to the adverse criticism which he wished to avoid. But, at the same time, the resurrection serves a valuable purpose by making available almost indispensable evidence to be used by those seeking to understand the creative process.” In this case, Mr. Rogers claims that the many false starts and imperfect pieces that have been collected here show that it was not true that Mark Twain, as he sometimes pretended, found it easy to tell a story, that, on the contrary, he often found great difficulty in getting one under way. A parody of Victor Hugo, he believes, throws some light on Mark Twain’s attitude toward the South in the Civil War and toward the policies of the Republicans afterwards. But beyond this, for the ordinary reader, who is not obliged to use them for a Ph.D. thesis, these papers have no interest whatever. If he has already looked into this author’s complete works, he knows that Mark Twain, during his lifetime, had already published so much now uninteresting clowning that there can be very little point in salvaging any he rejected.

In the volume of Mark Twain’s Letters to His Publishers, edited by Mr. Hamlin Hill and published in the same series, there is ample evidence that, as Mr. Hill begins by saying in his Introduction, “It was a dangerously dehumanizing experience to be Mark Twain’s publisher,” since you were likely to be subjected to abuse that suggests the zöological denunciations which are standard in the Soviet Union. One of his publishers is “not a man, but a hog”; his successor is called a tadpole. Of the first of these he writes to his brother, “I have never hated any creature with a hundred thousand fraction of the hatred which I bear that human louse Webster”; and of another man he writes that he “was a tall, lean, skinny, yellow, toothless, bald-headed, rat-eyed professional liar and scoundrel…I have had contact with several conspicuously mean men, but they were noble compared to this bastard monkey.” Mr. Hill believes, no doubt correctly, that Mark Twain’s fury against these publishers was at least partly due to their failure to make as…

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