In 1996 I attended my first American Literature Association Conference in Long Beach, California. I was a newly hired Assistant Professor—still enjoying the thrill of a steady paycheck and guaranteed dental coverage—and I had just finished giving my first conference paper on the riveting subject of Edith Wharton's strategic manipulation of post-feminist archetypes. There were, I think, eight very dignified, very savvy women in the room. And me.
While the audience strained, quite generously, to find some question–actually any question– to ask me, I privately wondered if I had chosen the right topic, or the right profession for that matter. I left the room feeling deflated and out of place, as if I had just overheard Edith Wharton herself snickering at me.
I’m sure what follows has been colored by the passing years, but I seem to remember wandering around the conference site looking for someplace or someone, and ending up–I think–on a boat, or a barge, or at a bar named after a boat or a barge. It's all very hazy. What I remember most distinctly, however, is what comes next. A door suddenly opened and I heard the sound of dozens of voices: some arguing, some laughing, some swearing, some telling jokes, and many ordering drinks. I had stumbled upon The Mark Twain Circle.
The attractions of the room were self-evident: the laughter, the liquor, the boat. I may not have fit in with the Wharton Society—a loss not mourned by Wharton scholars, I’m sure–but I knew instantly that I could navigate the waters of the Twain Circle pretty comfortably. At the time, I thought I had simply wandered into a good party; over the years I’ve come to realize what a fabulous party it's been. In that noisy, boozy, contentious, welcoming room, were gathered some of the most perceptive literary critics, the most insightful readers, and the most generous scholars I could ever hope to know.
As I’ve worked on this volume of The Mark Twain Annual, I’ve thought of that initial introduction to the world of Twain studies many times, and not simply because of the remarkably congenial atmosphere. The voices I heard that evening remind me of what I treasure about Mark Twain: his absolute, unqualified love of the sound of human speech. Mark Twain knew that he was what Cooper was not, a “word-musician.” And he discovered that music in the ebb and flow of everyday speech. Mark Twain loved the sound of people talking: miners, lovers, children, preachers, poets, church ladies, loafers, lawyers, braggarts, drunken fathers, slave mothers, true believers, lost souls, even college professors. In the quotidian talk of his fellow beings, Twain found the makings of great art.
In the “Centenary Reflections” gathered here, we invited prominent Twain scholars to talk about their own initiation into Twain scholarship, or to respond to the work of some writer whose ideas have inspired, and in some cases, provoked their own readings of Twain. John Bird, for example, highlights how current the work of Henry Nash Smith remains; Michael Kiskis traces the line from the scholarship of Judith Fetterly and John Gerber to his own; Larry Berkove trades insights with Pascal Covici Jr. and Leo Marx; Kerry Driscoll describes the “heretical” pleasures of Bruce Michelson's work; Laura Skandera Trombley relishes the bad-boy cool of Hamlin Hill, and the list goes on. In the critical essays and notes included in this year's Annual, we have invited graduate students, archivists, and new Twain scholars to contribute their insights. The result is a conversation– between generations, across literary divides, among colleagues, between friends–a conversation that yields insights into more than just the history of Twain scholarship. Many of the reflections contained in this year's Annual connect our lives as critics to our lives as mentors and students, to the deeply personal sources of our research, to our feelings about being—even in a very small way—a part of the literary history of Mark Twain.
Twain wanted his Autobiography to illuminate, to bring together the past and the present, like “flint with steel.” In this volume, we’ve made a similar attempt. We may never create a flame as bright as that of Mark Twain, but I think we’ve made some sparks. And to paraphrase Twain, we’ve learned at least this much: if we were to talk for two hours a day for a hundred years, we could never set down a tenth of a part of what has interested us about Mark Twain.