The Mythologizing of Mark Twain

The Mythologizing of Mark Twain


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817302016
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 10/30/1984
Series: Alabama Symposium on English and American Literature
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)
Lexile: 1490L (what's this?)

About the Author

Sara de Saussure Davis and Philip D. Beidler are on the faculty of the Department of English, The University of Alabama.

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The Mythologizing of Mark Twain

By Sara deSaussure Davis, Philip D. Beidler

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1984 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8861-4


Collecting the Works of Mark Twain

John C. Gerber

The current scramble for Twainiana is a sign–and a telling one–of the larger-than-life position that Mark Twain has come to occupy in our culture. Mark Twain collectors vary in age from ten to ninety, in economic status from young students with just, enough spare change to buy an 1898 reprint to business and professional persons willing to pay $3,000 or more for a first printing, in commitment from casual collectors who buy a single work on impulse to ferrets who haunt the bookstores and plague the dealers by mail for the works they most need to fill out their extensive holdings.

Booksellers confirm this extraordinary interest in collecting Mark Twain material. Several years ago, J. W. Warnick wrote in the Book Collector's Market that, with the possible exceptions of Steinbeck and Faulkner, Mark Twain is "the most collected American author today." Recently, two booksellers, Van Allen Bradley of Scottsdale, Arizona, and Warren R. Howell of San Francisco both wrote me that there is a strong and continuing demand for Mark Twain books. David Holmes of George S. MacManus Company in Philadelphia goes further in saying that "except for truly exceptional items only Melville has rivalled Twain in increased interest over the past few years." He adds that Twain, in his opinion, has won over the greatest number of enthusiastic collectors. "The Longfellows, Hawthornes, Emersons, Lowells, etc. have not moved ahead much at all." Willis Monie of Cooperstown, New York, puts it in a letter to me still more sweepingly: he finds Twain to be "the most collected, by far, of American authors, and, in this country at least, of all authors."

Why this extraordinary demand? Why are so many people collecting the works of Mark Twain? Some of the reasons apply to collecting of all kinds. Collecting has been, and is, a common human trait; witness the old license plates nailed to garage walls, the beer cans displayed on shelves in wood-paneled dens, the unnumbered accumulations of string, buttons, dolls, baseball cards, theater programs, and National Geographics, as well as collections of stamps and coins, books, and works of art. Hamlin Garland kept menus and theater stubs, and just the other day I heard of two characters who vie with each other in collecting steel tractor seats.

Doubtless there is a dissertation written in some sociology department that learnedly spells out the economic, psychological, educational, and social factors responsible for collecting, and how collecting may be seen as an index of cultural trends. More simply, we may mention here such causes as the desire for unique possessions, the excitement of the search, the drive of competition, and the delight of showing off one's acquisitions. For collectors turned investors, moreover, there is the hope that a collection of Prendergasts or silver dollars or the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs may serve as a hedge against inflation. Such general considerations, however, do not account for the special popularity of Mark Twain materials. Why collect these? Let me offer three reasons.

One reason must surely be the continuing popularity of Mark Twain himself. His pictures continue to appear in newspapers and magazines, and he continues to be quoted and alluded to in books and articles and TV programs of almost every description. Nor is his popularity limited to this country, for he is still one of the two or three best-known and most widely read American authors abroad. Two years ago, when I had the happy opportunity to lecture to students majoring in English in universities in Peking, Nanking, and Shanghai, it was Mark Twain they wanted to hear about—not just Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn but the author himself.

Possibly the surest proof of continuing popularity is the fact that he is still being exploited commercially. One may sniff at such exploitation, but it would not occur if the man were not well known and widely respected: a legend, if you will. In the past, advertisers have used his picture in spreads for such items as cigars, collars, sardines, flour, health food, billiard tables, and Campbell's soup. More recently they have used him to popularize Old Crow and both McCormick and Mark Twain distilleries, beer mugs, dolls, plates, calendars, and Tennessee Gas. The owners of the Delta Queen invariably include his picture in advertisements for their Mississippi River cruises, and the makers of a new card game for youngsters have been featuring his picture, along with those of Washington and Lincoln. His likeness also appears on one of four medallions struck by the U.S. Mint. Approximately 70,000 persons visit his former home in Hartford every year, and 200,000 his former home in Hannibal.

To repeat, this kind of exploitation would not be engaged in if Mark Twain were not a legend in our time. As a legend, Mark Twain is alive and well—and almost as well known as he ever was.

In addition, many collect his books simply because they are attractive on their library shelves. First editions of Emerson and Hawthorne merely blacken the room, and those of Howells and James don't exactly brighten the place. But Mark Twain's American editions, sold by the subscription method, had to be not only substantial in size but eye catching in appearance. The housewife, before buying it, wanted to know how a volume would look on her parlor table. The agents of the American Publishing Company, Osgood, and Charles L. Webster and Company, Mark Twain's chief publishers in the nineteenth century, were prepared not only to tell her but to show her. They would produce a prospectus containing samples of cloth and leather bindings, gold stampings, engravings, and enough of the text to reveal how readable the type was.

Although they did not use the word, so far as I know, subscription publishers in the nineteenth century knew how to "package" their products to make them sell. As a result, a row of Mark Twain's first editions is still a delight to see, ranging from the black and gold of Innocents Abroad and Roughing It, through the green or blue of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, with their gold and black ornamental designs, to the light green cloth and gorgeous gold and blue stampings of A Connecticut Yankee and the rich brown cloth and gold lettering of Pudd'nhead Wilson. If some of these are bound in half-calf or morocco, so much the better. Even the earliest book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches, not published by a subscription house, appears in a variety of colors, with a gold vignette of a frog on the front cover staring determinedly at the upper right-hand corner or, more rarely, in the lower middle staring up just as determinedly at the title. In Life on the Mississippi, J. W. Warnick observes, we see "the pinnacle of American book design." He also praises the scrollwork on the cover of The Prince and the Pauper.

Though less varied and somewhat less attractive, English editions add further color, especially the Chatto and Windus books, bound in scarlet with black and gold lettering that vaguely suggests Egyptian hieroglyphics. Canadian and Leipzig editions, usually bound in more somber colors, by that very fact add variety, thereby gratifying a number of collectors who keep adding Mark Twain books, in part to apply greater brightness and variety to the palette on their book shelves.

A third reason for the current activity in the market for Mark Twain materials is that, despite the dwindling supply, there is still much to be found, especially for those who are willing to extend their search beyond first printings of the best-known books. Jacob Blanck lists 277 Mark Twain primary books and books that contain first-edition material. Such figures are just the start. Many of these editions appeared in several printings and some of the printings in several states. For example, the text of Roughing It, published in 1872, was not reset until 1900; instead, the American Publishing Company issued ten reprintings of the first setting. Thus, though copies of the first state of the first printing are hard to find, copies of other states and printings of the first edition are not particularly elusive. After all, close to 100,000 of them were printed. Similarly, while the first states of Innocents Abroad, Tom Sawyer, and the other major works are rare—and expensive when they are found—collectors, even those of modest means, can put together substantial collections of later states and printings.

The Mark Twain market includes much more than American books, however. There are all the early printings of foreign editions, not only English, Canadian, and the German editions in English but the many translations into foreign languages as well. The prospectuses are at present an especially hot item, albeit expensive. Collectors who have the facilities for storing them properly can still find magazines and newspapers that carry original Mark Twain material—not copies of the Territorial Enterprise, to be sure, but such prominent publications as the Atlantic, Century, and Cosmopolitan. For the persistent collector, also, occasionally such odds and ends are available as autographs, letters, photographs, auction catalogues, banquet and lecture programs, and books and household items Mark Twain owned. Finally, for those with stout hearts and deformed consciences are all the books and articles about the author. Thomas A. Tenney, in his extraordinarily useful Mark Twain: A Reference Guide and in the supplements that have appeared since 1977, lists some 16,750 of them—and about fifty more come out every year.

The real excitement, however, is in the competition for early states of first printings of first American editions (for simplicity's sake I shall usually call these versions "firsts"). Whether one can afford these firsts or not, they are the items that almost all Mark Twain collectors covet, the works that evoke their deepest interest, the not-so-holy grails for which they joust, the prizes for which they may have to give up a vacation or a new car. To get into this competition these days, one must have patience, tenacity, money, and not a little idiocy. This competition is "hard ball" whereas the rest of it is good clean fun.

What is happening, of course, is that swelling numbers of collectors, including wealthy business and professional persons, are competing for a diminishing supply of the earliest states of American editions. One never writes any longer for a copy of a first printing listed in a catalogue—never writes, that is, if he or she really wants the item. Even by telephone, in my experience, one has only one chance in four or five of getting what one wants, and no chance at all if the item is rare. Mr. Monie comments that if he gets a fine copy of one of the scarcer items, he cannot hold it long enough to catalogue it. Even asking a dealer to search for a book is no guarantee of success: Van Allen Bradley this past year has been able to obtain only 35 of 202 items on his Mark Twain "want list."

It is not surprising, therefore, that prices have skyrocketed. If proof of this is needed, let me rank a score or more works according to the prices listed in Van Allen Bradley's most recent Handbook. These are all prices asked for cloth-bound copies without dust jackets, and do not include autographed or otherwise eccentric copies. Interestingly, not all of the titles are the familiar ones.

Up to $5,000 The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Up to $2,500 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar for 1894

Up to $1,200 The Gilded Age

Up to $1,000 Tom Sawyer Abroad, Tom Sawyer Detective, and Other Stories

Up to $800 A True Story; Be Good, Be Good: A Poem

Up to $750 Innocents Abroad, Life on the Mississippi

Up to $600 Number One: Mark Twain's Sketches. Authorized Edition, Facts for Mark Twain's Memory Builder

Up to $550 The Prince and the Pauper

Up to $500 A Murder, A Mystery, and A Marriage

Up to $450 A Tramp Abroad, Queen Victoria's Jubilee

Up to $400 Roughing It, Old Times on the Mississippi, Pudd'nhead Wilson, Eye Openers

Up to $350 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; Punch, Brothers, Punch!

Up to $300 A Curious Dream, The Mysterious Stranger, To the Person Sitting in Darkness, Tom Sawyer Abroad

Mr. Holmes tells me that many of the first printings in the lower price range have increased in cost even more dramatically, sometimes by a factor of ten. Thus Alan C. Fox, a dealer in Sherman Oaks, California, asked, and got, $200 for a copy of Nightmare; $400 for a copy of Sketches, New and Old; and $800 for a copy of A True Story and the Recent Carnival of Crime. The cost of offbeat items has kept pace. Fox received $450 for a printer's dummy of The £1,000,000 Bank-Note, and asked $4,250 for a prospectus of A Connecticut Yankee and $5,750 for one of Huckleberry Finn. These latter items he ultimately turned over to the Heritage Bookshop in Los Angeles, which promptly discounted them by 30 percent, but even so, the price of $2,975 for Yankee represents a very considerable jump from the $600 asked by John Howell–Books five years ago, especially since the Heritage volume lacks a sample of the half-morocco backstrip and all of the order sheets.

Why this passion for the earliest states of first American editions? Why will a buyer pay $1,200 for a copy of The Gilded Age, bearing the date 1873, when for $15 he or she might find one dated 1874 that in most respects is identical, even to calling Colonel Sellers "Eschol" rather than "Beriah"? Are there rational reasons for such behavior?

There are reasons that I can offer, of course, but they will have to be speculative. I have talked with collectors and booksellers and have tried to identify my own motives in buying an occasional first. But what follows is a series of hunches which lead me to conclude that no material reason, economic or otherwise, fully accounts for the current demand for firsts, and, therefore, that we are forced to assume that the firsts have taken on a mystique, a legendary quality, an appeal that quite transcends material matters. But first, to the material matters.

1. Investment. At least in the back of the minds of most buyers of firsts, I suspect, is the notion of investment. First editions in fine condition have increased in value dramatically in the last ten years or so, and no American works more than Mark Twain's. His is probably the most active market, as we have seen, and, therefore, the one in which prices are most likely to continue bullish, at least for the foreseeable future. So a collection of first printings of such works as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and The Jumping Frog may very well be a shrewd hedge against inflation.

Yet most collectors I know consider investment only a subsidiary reason for buying Mark Twain firsts. In buying a book, dealers normally pay only half of what they hope to get for the book. Hence if collectors pay $100 for a book today, they can count on getting only $50 for it tomorrow. The market value for the work will have to double before the initial investment is returned, in dollars that will probably be worth less. Before a collector can receive an appreciable return, therefore, market values have to triple. In short, a collector (as investor) who pays $1,000 for a first printing of Tom Sawyer in very fine condition is betting that its value will ultimately be at least $3,000. ("Ultimately" could mean ten years—or twenty.) The person who is out to improve his or her nest egg quickly would be far better advised to buy bank certificates or Treasury bills, and I suspect most book collectors know it. The current demand for firsts, therefore, can be attributed in part to economic motives, but by no means entirely so.

2. Manufacture. Also, the demand can be attributed in part to a desire for superior physical products, but only in part. Collectors who fancy themselves as highly discriminating insist on early states because they believe that they are superior physically. To be sure, impressions on sheets that rolled off the press first are likely to be sharper than impressions on reprints. There is no denying that with continued use the plates wore down, as did the stamps used for the lettering and designs on the cover. But as for other aspects of manufacture the firsts seem to have no advantages, even for the most discriminating buyers.

To put this another way, there is little or no evidence that the American Publishing Company, Osgood, or Webster lavished special care and expense on the first run of an edition. One gets the feeling that, regardless of the printing, the printers and binders did what was handiest at the moment. A first printing, for example, may be on laid or wove paper, or even on both (indeed, a single copy may be on both). Books in a first printing may be sewn or stapled. The fact that early copies of Huckleberry Finn appeared in both green and blue cloth carries no significance with respect to the quality of the book qua book. Those in blue bring higher prices simply because they are scarcer. Gold and sprinkled edges, half-calf and half-morocco bindings, were available to those who were willing to pay a higher tariff, regardless of the printing.


Excerpted from The Mythologizing of Mark Twain by Sara deSaussure Davis, Philip D. Beidler. Copyright © 1984 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Collecting the Works of Mark Twain JOHN C. GERBER,
"Norman Rockwell Sentimentality": The Rockwell Illustrations for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn ALLISON R. ENSOR,
Autobiography as Property: Mark Twain and His Legend ALAN GRIBBEN,
Mark Twain, "Funniest Man in the World" HENRY NASH SMITH,
A "Talent for Posturing": The Achievement of Mark Twain's Public Personality LOUIS J. BUDD,
Life on the Mississippi Revisited JAMES M. COX,
Mark Twain and the Myth of the West HAROLD H. KOLB, JR.,
Mark Twain and the Myth of the Daring Jest STANLEY BRODWIN,

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