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Vol. V: 1872-1873

by Mark Twain

Pub Date: June 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-520-20822-6
Publisher: Univ. of California

 An astonishingly dull but comprehensively annotated collection of letters from an unexceptional period in Twain's life. Like the phone book, this is one of those hefty tomes you're terribly glad exists, even though there's little reason to go through it cover to cover. Its very thoroughness, its rounding up of every epistolary scrap, from bills, to perfunctory thank-yous, to itineraries of arrivals and departures, ensures vast stretches of tedium. But even when not quarreling over printing details with his publisher or setting up dates for speaking tours, Twain the correspondent bears little relationship to Twain the genius of 19th-century American literature. Even when he is corresponding with intimate friends or his beloved wife, Olivia (Livy), there is an unrevealing quality to almost every letter, as if he were deliberately resting his talent. Salamo and Smith (members of the Mark Twain Project at the Bancroft Library, Univ. of California) are to be commended for the incredible depth, range, and detail of their work. Their scholarship is impeccable, their erudition extensive--one has the feeling that they could probably account for almost every hour of Twain's life--and learned footnotes abound, often dwarfing the brief letters. During this time span, Twain embarked on building a house, suffered the death of a child, and made regular visits to England, sometimes to lecture, sometimes to bask in the warm admiration of the British. He also published his only cowritten book (The Gilded Age, with Charles Dudley Warner). But Huckleberry Finn and the full flowering of Twain's talent are still several years away. A major scholarly resource, but slow-going and unrewarding, proof of how compartmentalized genius can sometimes be. (80 b&w illustrations, not seen)