In 2008, a special issue of Time magazine called Mark Twain “the most widely known literary figure on the planet,” dubbing him America’s “first literary superstar.” Despite their journalistic hyperbole, such comments testify to Twain’s hypercanonical status and to his iconic popularity in the broader culture. But equally significant is the phrase in the largest letters on that issue’s cover: “The Dangerous Mind of Mark Twain.”
Clearly the Time editors believed that this announcement would startle readers who viewed Twain as anything but dangerous. And indeed, for many in the English speaking world, Twain has come down as the white-haired, white-suited humorist, the genial author of two beloved boys books, and the avuncular wise-cracking wit. However, for many literary historians and scholars, Twain is the consummate writer of realistic fiction, the polished travel raconteur, the political commentator who opposed Western imperialism, the champion of the oppressed and exposer of shams, the author repressed by bourgeois values, the trenchant social satirist whose later writings embody an increasingly dark view of the human condition, and even a proponent of Cold War American exceptionalism.
Such a variety of conceptions raise an important question: How did we get so many — and such divergent — Mark Twains, as well as the myriad other Twains in existence over the last 150 years?
The question is significant because conceptions of Twain and his texts have never been solely the products of his extraordinary writings and his crafting of his public persona. Rather, the diverse ways Twain and his texts have been received have also been major shaping factors. As reception-study critics and theorists have persuasively argued and demonstrated, the meaning, significance, and shape of literary texts, as well as writerly careers and reputations, are very much the products of the way those texts are read, interpreted, structured, and re-presented by readers, the mass media, and literary critics, all within the interpretive formations in which responses unfold. That dynamic certainly applies to Twain. Consequently, the various versions of Twain and his writings deserve wide-ranging analysis as products of both that reception process and its changing history.
To provide that analysis, my newest book, The Mercurial Mark Twain(s): Reception History, Audience Engagement, and Iconic Authorship (Routledge, 2023), offers a detailed examination of the way Twain, his texts, and his image have been constructed by his audiences. Drawing on archival records of responses from common readers, reviewer reactions, analyses by Twain scholars and critics, and film and television adaptations, this study provides the first wide-ranging, fine-grained historical exploration of Twain’s reception in both the public and private spheres, from the 1860s until the end of the twentieth century.
To do so, The Mercurial Mark Twain(s) is divided into two sections. Part one treats Twain’s reception during his lifetime, from the mid 1860s until his death in 1910. Chapter one begins with responses to his Western journalism and early lecture tours through 1875. Examining both reviews and comments by common readers–including Twain’s fan-mail correspondents–chapter two moves on to the reception of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer through the publication of what literary critics generally regard as Twain’s most controversial novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Drawing on the same evidence, chapter three picks up the story with reactions in both the public and private spheres to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and continues through Twain’s reception at the end of the nineteenth century. In chapter four, the analysis traces out the reception and building of the reputation and renown of Twain during his last decade, particularly as it involves some of his now lesser-known writings.
Part two turns attention to the posthumous responses, presentations, and re-creations of Twain from 1910 until the end of the twentieth century. Chapter five discusses Twain’s early afterlives from 1910 to 1939, with special emphasis on the first major critical evaluations of his career and the interpretations of his works in early film adaptations. In chapter six we get an extensive look at the growing momentum in the construction of a mercurial Mark Twain in the 1940s and 1950s, both among literary critics and historians and in mass culture. Chapter seven, which treats his reception in the sixties and seventies, focuses especially on the solidification of the Twain canon, key interpretive controversies about several of his texts, and the developments of even more multiple versions of Twain. The book concludes with an eighth chapter devoted to explorations and explanations of a range of ongoing and new Twains via developments in literary criticism, TV and film, and other forms of mass and popular culture by the close of the twentieth century.
— Jim Machor, Professor Emeritus