May 24, 2013

R. Kent Rasmussen

Letters to America’s first literary superstar
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According to Dear Mark Twain: Letters from His Readers, Mark Twain was a "voracious pack rat." Among the abundance of artifacts he left behind are thousands of letters he received from people from all over the globe, of all ages and representing all facets of society. Lucky for us, Twain scholar R. Kent Rasmussen decided to take on the enormous task of sifting through all of them to compile this fascinating collection of never-before-published letters to the beloved and iconic writer.

Spanning more than 50 years—from 1863, the year Twain adopted his legendary pen name, until 1910, the year of his death—the 200 letters are all transcribed, some accompanied by facsimiles of the actual letters and any notes that Twain made on or about them. Further rounding out the completely satisfying experience of reading Dear Mark Twain are Rasmussen's thoroughly researched mini bios of the letter writers, which further illustrate the expanse and diversity of his readership. Twain acolytes, history buffs and anyone looking for a riveting read are sure to appreciate this literary gem. 

We asked Rasmussen—who lives in Thousand Oaks, California—a few questions about how he went about tackling the project and about some of the more memorable letters featured in the book. 

What inspired you to gather these letters into a collection? Why do you think it is that no one had published them before now?
I've long been interested in exploring little-known aspects of Mark Twain's life. In 2008, I was reading John Lauber's The Inventions of Mark Twain and was intrigued by a several-page discussion of letters that readers wrote to Mark Twain. The examples Lauber discussed were so fascinating, I wondered if it would be possible to assemble an entire volume of such letters. Lauber wasn't the first biographer to publish extracts from readers' letters, but apparently no one had even tried to put together a book of them. I thought I had found a golden opportunity to do something original. Why no one else had assembled such a book, I don't know. I can only surmise it was because no such collection of letters to any major writer had ever been published. A friend has suggested that Dear Mark Twain may be the first book in a new genre.

How many letters did you sift through? Did you originally have a checklist of sorts regarding the types of letters you wanted to include in the book?
The Mark Twain Papers in Berkeley hold more than 12,000 letters addressed to Mark Twain. I looked at all of them. However, because I decided early on to restrict my collection to letters from ordinary readers, I was able to skip over most letters from relatives, friends and business associates. I eventually determined that well over 1,000 of the letters in the files could be regarded as "reader" letters. I read all those letters carefully.

What was your process of narrowing them down to 200, and how long did it take?
Of the 1,000+ reader letters I examined, I pegged more than half as candidates for my book. I transcribed all those letters and did at least preliminary research on all of them. I may have fully annotated as many as 300 letters. When I realized that the space limitations imposed by the press would not provide room for anywhere near that number—along with Mark Twain's replies and my annotations—I set 200 letters as my target minimum and then went through the difficult and often painful process of deselecting letters. To make the process easier, I followed a few rigid guidelines—only one letter per correspondent, no letters that I knew had been previously published (I allowed a few special exceptions), as much variety in content as possible and as wide a geographical respresentation as possible. Deselecting letters became a little easier when I realized I was leaving out enough high-quality material to assemble a second book as large and as good as Dear Mark Twain. I don't recall how long the process took, but I do recall making several passes through the letters, making more ruthless cuts each time.

(Above: A reader ribs Twain on a recent—and very public—practical joke that had been played on him.)

The letters span from 1863 to 1910—50 years that saw great change in this country, including the expansion westward, the Industrial Revolution, and the emergence of the United States as a player in global affairs. Are these changes reflected in the letters? If so, how?
Most of the letters are concerned more with Mark Twain's writings and events in his life than they are with world developments. However, there is a significant change in the tone of many letters when Mark Twain began writing anti-imperialist essays around the turn of the 20th century. Those writings were probably his most overt attempts to comment on contemporary world events.

Tell us about one of the more outrageous letters. Is it one for which we know Twain’s response?
The most outrageous letter in the book is a long undated message from 1885 (no. 76, pp. 116-118) signed "Thomas Twain," an obvious pseudonym. It concerns a comparatively obscure article titled "On Training Children" that Mark Twain had published in the Christian Union, responding to someone else's earlier article on child rearing. In it, he had criticized the parental discipline of a man called "John Senior" (another pseudonym), while praising his own wife's methods of disciplining children. Thomas Twain's letter not only castigates Mark Twain for his comments, but also severely criticizes Mark Twain's wife. Moreover, it goes on to suggest how the author would like to sexually discipline Mark Twain's wife, When I first read the letter, I was stunned that Mark Twain had saved it. It struck me as something he would have wanted to destroy. I was also surprised by Mark Twain's evidently mild response to the letter, which he guessed had been written by the "John Senior" of the original Christian Union article. His attitude seemed to be that John Senior was within his rights to complain about what he (Mark Twain) had said about him. Moreover, he seemed to have allowed his wife to read the letter, and even his daughter Susy knew about it. I can't help but wonder if he didn't fully understand what the letter was suggesting. If he had understood the letter, I could imagine his having its author tracked down and horse-whipped.

What about one of the more touching ones? And, again, is there an indication of how Twain responded?
There are many touching letters in the book, but the one that moved me the most is Mary Keily's letter of Feb. 11, 1880 (no. 34, pp. 63-65). In fact, the letter moved me so strongly that I dedicated the book to Keily. It was one of at least 12 letters that Keily wrote to Mark Twain. I chose it over the others because it is only one of her letters to which Mark Twain is known to have replied, and it is also the most focused of her letters. Keily was a mental patient in Pennsylvania who felt she had a very intimate connection with Mark Twain. His reply to her letter is very touching. I regard the exchange as the heart of my book.

Is there an overarching tone to the letters? Are they mostly complimentary?
Most of the letters are complimentary, but they are not all sincere, and many letters are self-serving or dishonest. If there is a single overarching tone, it reflects the personal warmth and closeness many correspondents felt toward Mark Twain. It is hard to imagine many other authors receiving letters of similiar warmth.

Is there any one of Twain’s publications that seemed to elicit the largest response from his readers?
Huckleberry Finn is probably the subject of the most letters in the book, but this is partly due to my favoring letters about it because of its importance, as I explain in the introduction. There are also many letters about Tom Sawyer and the travel books. One of the things that surprised me in the letters (including those not in this volume) is how many are about Mark Twain's lesser-known works, such as his Christian Union letter.

Twain is one of the country’s most beloved writers and humorists. Is there something about him revealed in these letters—either in one or in the collection taken as a whole—that will surprise today’s readers?
Perhaps the biggest surprise to modern readers will be the sheer diversity of the letters. In addition to predictable letters about his published works, he received a wide variety of requests for help—including financial assistance—and suggestions for participating in bizarre schemes. People wrote such letters to him because they felt he was approachable. In the absence of similar collections of letters to other authors of his era, it's difficult to make confident comparisons, but it seems unlikely that other authors would have received similar letters.

(Below: This charming illustration is accompanied by a request for Twain to send $10.)

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