Books are a forest and it’s hard to see the trees, except the tall ones or the old ones. But when you enter the forest, it’s the new growth that emits the sunlight....

Friday, June 16, 2017

Authors I Wish to Collect: Jane Austen & Mark Twain

Jane Austen? Why I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen.

I heard that quote from Mark Twain on MPR a few weeks ago. I thought, Twain and Austen have something in common. In more than twelve years of searching for collectible books, I have never found a copy of either of these authors from before 1900.  I’ve sold Twain in 1920’s editions but no Austen from before 1950. The conclusion is that if anyone has an old edition of Jane Austen, they are not letting go of it.

I scrolled through all of Austen’s editions from before 1900 on Abebooks. Yes, if I ever come across an edition from before 1920, the book is rare. An author I would like to collect just isn’t usually found. And Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn from before 1900?  Very few available.

Twain was an outspoken man about classic literature but his dislike of Jane Austen, which I don’t think is fair, reminded me of a feud in my college English department. I did student work there and heard a few of the frays. A professor that women warned was a misogynist believed that Austen had no place in a college English course. One of my favorite professors taught Austen, attended conferences on her, wrote papers on her, and avidly defended her place in the English department. My typical luck, I had been assigned to the chauvinist professor’s freshman composition course. Following advice, I took it as one of my few Pass/Fail's. I was to pass but after my final paper, he kept returning it to my mailbox with the note that if I didn't fix the errors, I would fail. I looked and looked, knowing it was probably the footnotes, until finally, I found a period missing there. I corrected it and passed the course. No kidding, he was hard on Jane Austen too.

My Jane Austen wishlist: (click on the book to see the listing)



Austen wrote a novel like no one else in her time, crafting her work with the elegance that was within her boundaries. Women then had to marry to have any kind of life, and she had a mission, wanting good matches for life. Her renewed popularity in the early 2000’s was at first puzzling. I thought it might be due to contemporary work situations and the enforced levels of communication between men and women. If there is interest in the modern workplaces, it usually has to occur within a careful framework.

I’ve relished stories about workplaces, from classics such as “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “The Catbird Seat” to our time. The workplace often has humor inherent which seems to be from personalities clicking and conflicting.

My adult novel Tug of the Wishbone has a number of scenes from work in it. I think they gave the book some balance from the relationship and interior sections. Maureen’s personal quest and her camera work led to many descriptive scenes. Finally, I had to do some cutting on the book. I had a goal after I researched women’s novels. I did not dare to sprawl like Charlotte Bronte. My goal was the length of an Austen novel which I accomplished, just about. In contemporary terms, I admired Penelope Fitzgerald’s well-crafted snug novels. Some of my cuts were offbeat scenarios and anecdotes about places and people of a region, part of a photographer’s viewpoint, but ideas for another kind of story, essay, or memoir.

Mark Twain might not have known of Jane Austen’s juvenilia.  I thought it hilarious and theorized that she was inspired by Henry Fielding. One of her characters planned an elopement during a wild carriage ride, another demanded a Blifel-like suitor to guarantee an extravagant floral conservatory and novelty carriage, another posed suggestively in acrobatics at a costume party where the rich host, dressed as the sun, sat a hallway away. The teenage Jane had the spirit of a Tom Sawyer. I imagined her clergyman father disciplining her to write an acceptable piece of fiction. I also thought that if she lived today, she might actually have become part of comedy team and never written a novel. After all, she went to a most popular social scene at Bath, and with freedom, might not have made it back to her father’s parsonage.

While I believe that Huckleberry Finn is an incredibly great book if only Twain didn’t write in dialect so much, I had to consider Twain’s female characters - Tom Sawyer’s aunt and the morbid female poet in Huck Finn, both satirized for their gullibility and sentimentality. In fact, American women poets of the nineteenth century often wrote memorial poems for funerals. Many American lives have been described in poetic form, I found in books by nineteenth century American women poets.

Maybe someday I will come across a collectible Jane Austen novel for my changing library. To think that Mark Twain would approve of my shelves because I haven’t run across Jane Austen much, and only editions like Barnes & Noble.

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