Peddling power of Twainiana

The Annotated Huckleberry Finn - A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage - The Short Works of Mark Twain
April 18, 2003

Madeleine Minson looks at the marketing genius of novelist Mark Twain

The Mark Twain industry, judging by these volumes, is alive and well, and not just in Hannibal, Missouri, the small town on the Mississippi where Twain grew up. There is Twainiana everywhere in this town, which lives well on its now-legendary resident. One can stay in Hotel Clemens, dine at Becky Thatcher's cafe, spend one's money in Huck Finn Shopping Plaza and get fleeced at the Mark Twain Casino. When Jorge Luis Borges made the pilgrimage to Hannibal in 1982, as Michael Patrick Hearn explains in his excellent introduction to The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, he was unimpressed with the razzmatazz and the Mark Twain Museum. All he wanted to do was touch the river, which he described as the source of Twain's strength. So he squatted on the riverbank, and his journey was complete.

Norton has produced two lavish, highly illustrated volumes aimed at Twain enthusiasts - the kind of people who might visit Hannibal.

The Annotated Huckleberry Finn , edited by Hearn, is a Twain devotee's dream and likely to become a standard work. Much is gathered in this volume. Here are all of E. W. Kemble's original illustrations, reproduced in sepia.

There are rare photographs, maps, cartoons and drawings, including the Kemble plate that delayed the first edition as someone had added what looked suspiciously like a penis to the picture of Mr Phelps.

Above all, there are accessible notes to explain everything one has ever wondered about, and much else besides. Drawing on decades of Twain scholarship, Hearn's notes range from simple explanations of words, non sequiturs and textual changes to elaborate accounts of local customs, issues of composition, parallels between fictional events and Twain's life, and critical debates about the book. Their usefulness is evident right from the start - I have never seen the dialects mentioned in the explanatory preface explained so well. Hearn can be forgiven if his notes occasionally state the obvious, as he manages to make many of them fascinating anecdotal reading in their own right.

Here, too, is a hefty, 150-page introduction, which gives a vivid picture of the events surrounding the publication of Huckleberry Finn. Hearn brings the 1880s to life by relying heavily on newspaper sources, following the debates that raged all over the US about Twain's latest offering. What comes across most strongly is how involved Twain was in the marketing of his novel. He suggested ways of selling the book, which was peddled door-to-door by subscription: it could be offered as a package with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Prince and the Pauper. He also arranged for newspaper serialisations; went, with George W. Cable, on the extensive Twins of Genius promotional tour; considered giving readings in Europe; took a bookseller to court because he promised the book too early and cheaply; and timed the issue of review copies to maximise attention and sales. Somewhat sneeringly, the San Francisco newspaper Alta California praised Twain's marketing genius and called it "the best advertised book of the present age".

Twain himself kick-started the Twain industry; he wanted his writing to pay. He had, after all, used his new-found writerly wealth to build a mansion for his family in Hartford, Connecticut. It was an eccentric, 19-room "combination of Mississippi steamboat, English castle and Victorian church", and cost a fortune to keep up. But what really worked wonders with the sales of Huckleberry Finn was the Concord Free Public Library's decision to ban the book from its shelves over what it called its rough language and "very low grade of morality".

Hearn's focus is not only on the business of publishing. He also writes in depth on topics such as Twain's wife Olivia's expurgating of her husband's works; his dealings with Kemble over the illustrations; Huckleberry Finn 's afterlife as musical, theatre and film; and the second wave of backlash against Twain - the charges of racism that became prominent from the 1950s onwards.

Norton's other offering is more curious, if no less handsomely realised.

The short story A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage was previously unpublished in book form. Twain wrote it in 1876 as a "blind novelette" for the Atlantic Monthly. His intention was to write a skeleton plot and invite leading writers, such as James Russell Lowell and Henry James, to continue the story - a heady romp in which a Frenchman is found in the snow on the prairie outside a small town not unlike Hannibal, matrimonial complications ensue and there is a sudden murder. As it is all plot, the story feels thin; plot was not one of Twain's strengths. Not surprisingly, none of the writers took up the cue. But it is certainly of scholarly interest: some elements recur in Huckleberry Finn and the surprising ending is, like Tom Sawyer Abroad, a caustic dig at Jules Verne.

In The Short Works of Mark Twain, Peter Messent points out that lots of Twain material is still unavailable; more early short stories in particular are likely to resurface. The Twain well has not run dry; there is material aplenty for costly editions and academic works. In his contribution, Messent seeks to refute the view, encouraged by Twain's own remarks, that the seven short-story collections published during his lifetime were hastily thrown together money-making vehicles. Instead, Messent claims, Twain took a keen creative interest in the making of the books, including the selection of texts. To support his assertion, he explores the publication history of the collections and looks for thematic coherence in them.

Messent also discusses individual stories with the secondary, rather tricky, aim of analysing the modes of humour Twain employed (an endeavour about which he expresses reservations). His main finding in this area - that there is "a certain loss of comic pliancy in Twain's later writings", which become "increasingly monologic" - is not the strongest aspect of his study. It works better as an exploration of the neglected role the collections play in Twain's oeuvre and, as such, makes a welcome addition to the scanty literature on the short fiction.

Still, there is no getting away from Twain's financial interest in his works, including the short fiction. His imagination thrived on the Mississippi river Borges paid tribute to, but it was his marketing acumen that helped to ensure the penetration and popularity of his vision of Mississippi life - and, indeed, laid the foundation for his posthumous success. If he could visit Hannibal today, I suspect he would rather like it.

Madeleine Minson is a freelance translator and reviewer.

The Annotated Huckleberry Finn

Editor - Michael Patrick Hearn
ISBN - 0 393 02039 8
Publisher - Norton
Price - £25.00
Pages - 480

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