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William Dean Howells once commented, on a suggestion that his letters from Mark Twain be published, “I think so too; they are wonderful; and if mine were printed with them, perhaps it would not hurt.” This first comprehensive collection of a correspondence between two brilliant stylists reflects the development of an American literary friendship of nearly unparalleled duration and significance. The letters augment and in some ways revise existing biographical estimates of these colorful personalities. The majority have never been published, and of the remainder many appear for the first time in full, unbowdlerized transcription.
The publishing practices and critical attitudes of the period are variously documented here; in particular, the formation during the Gilded Age of a characteristic vernacular tradition in American writing. Howells, as editor and critic, was architect of this tradition; but “it was Mark Twain who made the common speech into an instrument of narrative prose having lyric and epic as well as comic potentialities.” Full annotations make the collection an independent and integrated totality.