Twainomania! Twain-o-rama! Mark Twain Revival! Get on board or you'll miss the Twain!
With a slight Porky Pig interpolation, that seems to be the noise Oxford's new Twain set wants to make--in unacknowledged opposition to the quiet hum of the University of California Press' ongoing Twain Project, which combines (ideally) definitive scholarly editions of both published and unpublished or uncollected work with briefly annotated versions for the general public. Oxford's approach is far more glamorous, and certainly Oxford's concept is immediately appealing.
What you get: Every book Twain published in his lifetime, from the 1867 "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches" to "Mark Twain's Speeches" in 1910, the year Twain died at 74, an unsatisfied legend; the books "as he knew them," reprinted as facsimiles of the first American editions, with all original illustrations--even reproductions of original bindings (no dust jackets in Twain's time; the art went right onto the boards); a sturdy, uniform hardcover format; a low price (no copyrights still in force, no royalties to pay); along with an extensive general foreword from series editor Shelley Fisher Fishkin (a professor of American studies at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the extremely well-argued 1993 study "Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African American Voices" and a self-named "Twainiac"), a 5,000- or 6,000-word introduction by a celebrity author (Kurt Vonnegut, George Plimpton, Cynthia Ozick, Arthur Miller, etc.) and a somewhat more extensive afterword by a professor; and, as a kind of handbook to the whole, Fishkin's own notably nonacademic rumination, "Lighting Out for the Territory." If by some chance you had awoken on Christmas morning to find the Oxford Twain under your tree, there would have been only one thing to do: Open a book, any book, and start reading. Sooner or later, someone would have found you.
Still, there's a reason the famous writers' introductions to the Oxford series tend to be as stiff and unconvincing as the reprints are so often charming and seductive--the same reason, I think, that Fishkin's "Lighting Out for the Territory," a book studded with blazing passages, is so scatterbrained. The reason is this: from E.L. Doctorow's all-but-self-parodying enshrinement of Tom Sawyer ("Clemens invoked from his past the boy his genius would descry as the carrier of our national soul") to Fishkin's schoolmarmish insistence that Twain is good for you ("Twain," she actually writes at one point, "is there for us"--Huck, Tom and Becky Thatcher meet "Friends"), the Oxford crew works to raise an ancestor who is not in any cultural sense dead.
There has never been a Mark Twain revival because Mark Twain has never gone away. A check of a good used-book store found 54 editions of Twain books, not counting Cliffs Notes. For that matter, Twain is not far away: There are undoubtedly people reading this newspaper who were alive when Twain was and probably some who remember the news of his death. Thanks to the likes of Hal Holbrook, staging his Twain impersonations down through the decades--and who can imagine a Henry James impersonator making a living?--Twain's public image, as Twain himself crafted it, his pop star image, remains plain. Unlike Tom Sawyer at his own funeral, Mark Twain has never turned up missing. Culturally, he has never even had a funeral.