Wednesday, February 26, 2014
found in the footnotes
I came to the end of the printed volumes of Mark Twain's Letters (University of California Press) with reluctance and gratitude in equal measure. Reluctance because I am not looking forward to being forced *forced I say* to continue reading his correspondence online (I have not yet embarked on a lengthy reading project using a device of any kind other than the traditional codex), and gratitude because the printed volumes are so rich in detail, description, and editorial whiz-bang that it was a rare treat to be able to read them at all. The footnotes are beyond copious, as are the appendices, photographs, and extra matter. Sometimes they even overwhelm the letters themselves. With this in mind I turned to the reviews of this massive set of books to see what literary critics had to say, and came across this description from Jonathan Raban in the Times Literary Supplement:
"Few things, as Pudd'nhead observed, are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example, and this building collection of the letters is horribly, excruciatingly good. It sets standards of diligence that will cause future editors of writers' letters to weep."
Isn't that lovely! Well, that level of mind-boggling care and thought is evident throughout the footnotes, and in general, too. Thanks to the editors, we readers can trace Clemens and his life almost day by day during the years these volumes cover. One wonderful aside that the footnotes offer us is the chance to hear what Clemens's contemporaries thought of him. I choose here only a few of the positive comments, which gave me particular pleasure to read. (Otherwise I could go on all day.)
William Dean Howells writes about his visit to the Clemens family in Hartford (Letters Volume 6 p.86):
"...I saw a great deal of Twain, and he's a thoroughly good fellow. His wife is a delicate little beauty, the very flower and perfume of ladylikeness, who simply adores him - but this leaves no word to describe his love for her."
Moncure D. Conway writes to Clemens (ibid p.600):
"I have had a charming little visit at the Howellses in Cambridge. Said I to them, says I, 'Do you know and adore the Clemenses?' Says they 'We do!!' Then, says I, let us embrace! We did."
Moncure D. Conway writes to his son about visiting the Clemenses (ibid p.601):
"I never realized what I kind-hearted first-rate fellow he is until I have had this thoroughly delightful visit in his house. As to his wife - she is an angel."
As we can see, what the footnotes contain is far from being as dry as dust. Letters totally aside for a moment, there is so much contained in just the footnotes that they very nearly make up a lively social and literary history of the time period, all on their own. I deeply appreciate their thoroughness - that level of attention to detail is so calming.