FW: BOOK REVIEW: David Rachels, ed., _Mark Twain's Civil War_
- Those not up on the latest in Mark Twain studies will find much of interest in this new book.
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-------------- Forwarded Message: --------------
From: Barbara Schmidt <schmidt@...>
Subject: BOOK REVIEW: David Rachels, ed., _Mark Twain's Civil War_
Date: Thu, 17 Jan 2008 12:12:16 +0000
> The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Harold K.
> Bush, Jr.
> _Mark Twain's Civil War_. Edited by David Rachels. University of Kentucky
> Press, 2007. Pp. 220. Cloth. $30.00. ISBN 978-0-8131-2474-2.
> Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted prices from
> the TwainWeb Bookstore, and purchases from this site generate commissions
> that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit <http://www.twainweb.net>.
> Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
> By Harold K. Bush, Jr.
> Saint Louis University
> Copyright (c) 2008 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
> redistributed in any medium without permission.
> _Mark Twain's Civil War_ is a fine, readable collection of writings on the
> Civil War by and about Mark Twain. Surprisingly, David Rachels begins his
> collection by telling the story of the U. S. Congressional debate regarding
> new postage stamps in 1940. Odd as it seems, this is a particularly apt
> anecdote with which to begin, because it was at this time that a number of
> mistaken and amusing impressions about Twain's war experiences were aired
> to the general public. The kicker came when Congressman Joseph Shannon
> opined that Twain's war service proved that he was "not of the same kidney
> as real Missourians" (p. 2).
> This minor controversy emerged from a debate over the best place to issue
> the first day stamps bearing the image of Mark Twain: should it be in
> Hannibal, or Hartford? (Such weighty matters, then as now, are evidently
> important enough to require the time of tax-paid legislators and to take up
> valuable space in the Congressional Record, which surely would have
> delighted, or irritated, the man under discussion.) But a remarkable
> aspect of this opening episode of the volume is to highlight how Mark
> Twain's participation (or non-participation) in the War of Secession
> immediately broaches matters of pride, masculinity, national memory, and
> the tricky lines separating fiction from fact all at the same time.
> Thus does Rachel's interesting introduction focus on two important themes
> that emerge in his analysis of Mark Twain's war record and the various
> writings in which they are expressed. First is his consideration of the
> obvious confusions that turn up from account to account, and indeed overall
> the sense of confusion that constitutes a major theme in most of these
> different tales. Rachels does a worthwhile job of showing how confusing
> service in Missouri really was during these heated times. Nowadays, it is
> becoming more common for critics to refrain from calling Twain a
> "Confederate," even though he occasionally used that moniker for himself.
> Indeed, when I undertook my own lengthy study of the scholarly work on
> Twain's Civil War writings, I was struck over and over by the sheer number
> of (often famous) critics who stated unapologetically that Twain was, in
> fact, a Confederate soldier. However, as several scholars have recently
> shown (most notably Terrell Dempsey in his excellent historical account,
> _Searching for Jim_), Twain was never a Confederate. Rachels does admit as
> much ("he was technically never a member of the Confederate Army" [p. 7]),
> but he simultaneously shows how confusing the situation must have been. I
> would even venture to say that his comments succeed in complicating this
> issue somewhat, and in emphasizing these difficult distinctions, so that I
> come away from the introduction slightly less certain of my own
> understanding about Twain's situation. Despite his important
> qualifications, Rachels grounds Twain's wartime movements within the sphere
> of the Confederacy, and some of Rachel's comments are worth questioning,
> such as when he claims that Twain "fought in support of slavery," or that
> it was clear to him that he had "answered the call of the Confederacy" (pp.
> 12, 6). The header of the section on _Roughing It_ begins, "After quitting
> the confederate cause, Sam Clemens traveled west ..." (p. 21).
> We might quibble with these matters, I suspect, but it is also necessary to
> state, at the very least, that opinions do vary on these matters. In fact
> Rachels shows admirably that such confusions were relevant to Twain's
> personal experience of enlisting, and that they are solidly written into
> several of the accounts, notably his very first public speech on the war,
> delivered in 1877, when he states that the competing loyalties sent
> ambiguous signals: "Well, you see, this mixed us. We couldn't really tell
> which side we were on" (p. 5). This comment is slightly amended in the most
> famous narrative he produced, the "Private History of a Campaign that
> Failed" (1885), where Twain says, "This mixed us considerably, and we
> could not make out just what service we were embarked in" (7). These young
> recruits were obviously mixed up as to their proper loyalties, and besides
> Missouri, this must have been a common emotion faced by enlisted soldiers
> throughout the border states--and quite possibly, affecting many other
> southerners as well.
> The second important idea that Rachels develops is when he utilizes Tim
> O'Brien's distinction between what he calls "happening truth" and "story
> truth," a paradigm O'Brien first put forth in his Vietnam novel, _The
> Things They Carried_. Rachels broaches the important question of the
> "truthfulness" of Twain's accounts of his war was experience. Fifty years
> ago, John Gerber produced a paper, "Mark Twain's Private Campaign," that
> outlined the various manifestations of this tale; Gerber counted eight,
> including Absalom Grimes's account in his book published over 65 years
> after the war's inception. Among other things, the many years between the
> publication of various accounts, and the fact that several people produced
> these differing versions, allow readers today to be rather uncertain about
> what actually occurred. Most famously, did Twain witness, and perhaps even
> have a hand in, the death of a soldier, as narrated near the end of the
> "Private History"? Probably not, is the consistent response of the
> biographers and historians. However, Rachels's implementation of O'Brien's
> model allows us to envision a somewhat different response to that tricky
> question. Yes, in terms of happening truth, it probably did not really
> happen. But the story truth contained in the "Private History" is much more
> enduring because of that single death. Whether or not readers of Rachels's
> book would agree, at least his invocation of story truth brings a fresh
> perspective to this chestnut of Twain biography.
> Indeed, the value of the "story truth" in these tales takes on new life,
> when they are read with O'Brien's paradigm in mind. It is worthwhile to
> have finally in one volume the many versions of Twain's war record
> presented here. The book comprises two main sections, besides the
> introductory essay. The first section, called "Nonfiction," includes
> Twain's first known remarks about his war experience in 1877; the "Private
> History" of 1885; Twain's remarks made in 1887 at a veteran's banquet in
> Baltimore; his 1901 speech in New York (notable for its praise of Abraham
> Lincoln); and some interesting excerpts from the autobiographical
> dictations of January, 1907. There are one or two other pieces that might
> have been included here, such as Twain's plea for the Lincoln memorial in
> 1907, which would have been a nice complement to the 1901 speech. This
> section also contains the account by Absalom Grimes, composed in 1926, and
> the sections of Albert Paine's biography that cover the war period. It also
> takes in a few non-fictional excerpts from _Roughing It_ and _Life on the
> Mississippi_, though a few of the very fine sections of _Life on the
> Mississippi_ that deal with war issues are not included here.
> The second large section is titled "Fiction," a strong collection of the
> stories in which Twain dramatizes events during the war years: "An
> Exchange of Prisoners" (1863), "Lucretia Smith's Soldier" (1864), "The
> Facts in the Case of the Great Beef Contract" (1870), "A True Story"
> (1874), and "A Curious Experience" (1881). These tales still entertain,
> such as the ending of "Lucretia Smith's Soldier," which reveals that the
> soldier Lucretia was pining for was not her lover at all. An excerpt from
> _The Gilded Age_ rounds out the section, and the book ends with the "Battle
> Hymn of the Republic (Brought Down to Date)," a parody of the most famous
> song of the war years that remained unpublished during Twain's lifetime.
> The book is handsome, well produced, and well illustrated. One might
> question the inclusion of a piece such as the "Private History," or for
> that matter even certain speeches, into a section called "Nonfiction."
> Indeed, we might even quibble with the desirability of separating the
> writings out as either fictional or nonfictional, given the content of the
> introduction and the emphasis on the blurring of lines between these two
> categories. More positively, many of the selections, such as the "Private
> History," "A True Story," "The Facts in the Case of the Great Beef
> Contract," and the excerpts from the novels, all present the original
> illustrations, an additional boon. Although it does not include very much
> scholarly apparatus (no index and little historical support for unknown
> names, places, events, and so on), the volume is a nice addition to the
> Twain bookshelf, and perfect for reading in an easy chair, with its roomy
> pages and comfortable font and style. More should be written about Mark
> Twain and the Civil War--the central event in American history--and this
> volume is a timely contribution to that enterprise.
> Harold K. Bush, Jr.
> Saint Louis University