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Book is first to examine how information age affected Mark Twain

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor

Bruce Michelson
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Bruce Michelson, professor of English, has written a new book, “Printer’s Devil: Mark Twain and the American Publishing Revolution.”

Released 3/15/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — As many Americans know, Sam Clemens led a rich and complex life – sometimes as Mark Twain, sometimes not. He usually is remembered as a journalist, stand-up comic, world traveler, philosopher, and literary giant.

But even a resume like that doesn’t tell the whole story or catch the most interesting dimension for our moment in time: Sam Clemens was obsessed with media technology, exhilarated by it, and boggled by it. This previously untold story – now revealed in a new book – connects directly to our own experience.

In the new book, “Printer’s Devil: Mark Twain and the American Publishing Revolution,” we discover how profoundly the new information age of the 19th century and its maelstrom of technological changes affected the publishing industry and this backwoods boy from Missouri, who first learned the tricks of the trade as a teenage “printer’s devil,” an assistant in an old-fashioned print shop. Twain spent the rest of his life bedeviling printers and publishers, investors and readers, as he exploited and subverted these new technologies in the stories he wrote and the books he published with his own company.

According to its author, Bruce Michelson, “Printer’s Devil” is the first book to focus on the transformative consequences of the “radical reinvention of print” on the hellion from Hannibal, who as Mark Twain (1835-1910) became “America’s first true media icon, with a dream of power in every phase of the publishing industry.”

“There are biographies covering his early life as a printer and books about his entanglements with the Paige typesetters, but nothing until now that makes the connections between Mark Twain and publishing, identity, authorship, the function of books and the role of literature,” said Michelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois.

Making his case with such works as “The Innocents Abroad,” “A Tramp Abroad,” “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” Michelson argues that Mark Twain “shaped his artistic aspirations and writing strategies to exploit the new technologies in print.”

Samuel Clemens
Click photo to enlarge
Photo courtesy Mark Twain Papers
Samuel Clemens as a teenaged "printer's devil."

“Mark Twain thought deeply about the cultural and psychological impact of the industrializing media that began to overwhelm the United States as he was growing up,” Michelson wrote. “His writing is energized and informed by his response to a cataclysmic expansion and transformation of publishing, a turmoil of innovation. He wrote about the impact upon culture and public life and upon the nature of the American self.”

Throughout his book, Michelson rejects the cautionary tales of so many previous biographies – that Twain squandered his genius and sacrificed his writing to the pursuit of power, fortune and fame.

There is no question, said Michelson, that Twain’s “publishing business infatuations and disasters, his self-destructive episodes of expertise and prognostication with regard to the production and marketing of printed images and words could wreak havoc with his morale and pull him away, for long intervals, from his own writing.”

“But Mark Twain’s infatuation with the hardware and possibilities of print media deepens and complicates many important imaginative texts that he did manage to write.”

Indeed, his passionate attention to nearly every phase of designing, producing and selling books, newspapers and national magazines, “resonates in the structure of his narratives, the essence of the wit, the voices of the prose – and in themes that have established Mark Twain as a consummately American and ‘modern’ author.”

According to Michelson, at least 70 “decisive” inventions and patents related to American printing and publishing came along between 1830 and 1855, and five of them “loom large in expanding and reinventing the American publishing industry. Each of them attracted Clemens’ attention early and held it long; each permanently altered the economic and cultural power of the printed page.”

Those five inventions were stereotype and electrotype; the rapid development and deployment of powered type-revolving and automated bed-and-platen presses; the mechanized manufacture of low-cost paper; the rapid expansion of railroad and telegraph networks; and technical advances and cost-reductions in printing illustrations.

The massive dissemination of printed images in periodicals and books “transformed Mark Twain’s thinking about the books that he intended to write, the subjects he wrote about, his rhetorical style, and the tastes and values of the audience he was writing to.”

Published in 1869 with 234 illustrations, “The Innocents Abroad,” a travel book about Europe and the Holy Land, established Twain as a writer of “picture-laden books,” Michelson said. Twain “began to play a central role in designing books that followed, hiring his illustrators, vetting their pictures, doing images himself – and collaborating, now and then, in the piracy of other people’s work.”

“Huckleberry Finn” (1885) is a special moment in Mark Twain’s career, since the novel explores different technological eras in the history of the book in America: “In several dimensions, this novel is both an artifact of a new information age and a meditation on what it meant to be an author amid the expansion of American publishing.”

“Huck” also offers two books for the price of one: “a naïve personal history written or spoken by a boy in his teens, fresh from a perilous experience on the Mississippi River and telling it all essentially for his neighbors, and a performance by the most celebrated humorist of the Gilded Age, crafted as a mass-market corporate enterprise.”

As an illustrated novel with obtrusive pictures that Mark Twain selected and critiqued, “Huckleberry Finn” also plays with the fundamentals of storytelling. “With each new chapter, the reader negotiates an intervention by the artist, the compositor, the publisher, and implicitly also Mark Twain, rather than Huck. Each of these pictures asserts a parsing of Huck’s memoir by others, and each picture signals a way to imagine settings and characters even before Huck begins to describe them.”

Clemens also was a genius in the craft of media celebrity. When he invented Twain, he transformed his alter ego into “a brand and a trademark,” which he would use to become “the first American master of the international public image.”

But despite all the energy and the brilliance, neither the creator nor his avatar was faultless. “Clemens was notoriously jealous of his own intellectual and artistic property and careless about the rights of others. Dedicated at times to his art, he also churned out potboilers and collaborations and spin-offs, authorized package deals, tie-in sales, and mediocre stage productions based on his best sellers.

“He was a source of misery for nearly every partner and subordinate who worked with him directly. Unpredictable in his moods and his politics, he held fast to his rank as a front-page icon, complete with chemical dependencies, notorious friends, financial disasters, and toward the end a disturbing interest in populating his private house with other people’s little girls.”

Michelson concedes that his subject is “a messy writer, often contradictory and exasperating to work with,” but Michelson said he’ll never abandon him.

“Mark Twain is a touchstone in any serious conversation about American cultural history and values,” Michelson said.

But can the 19th-century writer remain relevant today as people struggle to come to terms with emerging technologies?

“We’re in a moment,” Michelson observes, “when we have to wonder seriously about the continued importance of imaginative literature – of any text that is older than the latest YouTube video.”

Yet for precisely that reason, Mark Twain, so fervent and thoughtful about the new media, continues to track well among digitally driven youth. “You don’t have to push him on students,” Michelson said. “He is thriving without the life-support of English professors. For a scholar and a teacher, that’s a very happy situation.”