By Susanna Ashton
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Extra info for Collaborators in Literary America, 1870–1920
Since the problems with the stranger’s chapter had delayed the whole collective endeavor, the Weekly Occidental was forced to come out without its serial installment. The paper died with that issue and the serial was never completed. Twain’s version of events is, as always, suspect but what is telling about this chapter of Roughing It is the manner in which he recounts the story. For not only is there that troubling moment when he describes the chapter as impossible to describe, while then going on for several pages to do just that, but also there is the portrait of a troublesome author who preempted Twain’s own foray into collaborative writing.
1 Travel books, such as Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, had done extremely well via subscription 26 / collaborators in literary america, 1870–1920 publishing, as had nonfiction works such as encyclopedias and reference texts. Bibles, of course, had a long tradition of successful subscription sales. Yet, it wasn’t until The Gilded Age that a novel was constructed specifically for farmers and rural folks to purchase from door-to-door book agents upon a promise of later delivery. A novel that deeply criticized land speculation and the crassness of Western society was nonetheless designed for a largely rural and incipiently populist market.
While a fascination with satirizing sentimental clichés was constant in virtually all of his writings, the particular opportunities offered by collaborative composition to formally structure such satire are important to note. The burlesque he performs in Roughing It’s “literary chapter” prepared his audience to expect The Gilded Age to be a similar burlesque, likely to be filled with inter-authorial tensions and stock figures drowning under the weight of their clichés. Collaborative authorship was not uncommon in the early part of the nineteenth century, but it wasn’t frequently acknowledged or noticed.