Just when we thought there was nothing else to learn about Twain, another facet of that literary jewel appears.
Well-known Twain scholar Rasmussen (Critical Companion to Mark Twain, 2007, etc.) has selected 200 letters from among the many thousands Twain's fans and foes wrote to Twain during his career. Even more impressive is the fact that the editor has researched the lives of the correspondents, relying heavily on online sources like Ancestry.com and Findagrave.com to help him supply information about the writers—a number of whom, often autograph hounds, were not who they claimed to be. Twain seemed to have a keen nose for smelling the bogus and often noted his distrust and/or disdain on the letter before filing it. The letters range from adoration to disgust, the latter occurring more during Twain’s later years when his writings darkened and he satirized his targets more savagely—especially religion and imperialism. It’s surprising how many writers sent Twain poems they had composed in his honor (not much is memorable), and many wanted to tell him stories—about their reactions to his books, their own childhood experiences and, later, how his works enriched their lives. Some wrote to console him on the losses of his wife and daughter. A few, hearing he was dying, wrote to tell him how much he’d meant to them. There are smaller moments, too. A boy collector wants some of Twain’s cigar bands. A little girl wants Twain to write about Tom Sawyer as an adult. Some folks want money; others want to meet him. Although most are common folks, Twain also heard from poet James Whitcomb Riley and former president Rutherford B. Hayes.
Well-selected, thoroughly researched and thoughtfully annotated—a surprising, welcome addition to the apparently endless Twain shelf.