by Barbara Schmidt

A History of and Guide to

I conceived of the plan for the Oxford Mark Twain: facsimiles of the first American editions with introductions by contemporary writers, afterwords by Twain scholars, essays on the illustrations, and a note on the text in each book.
editor Shelley Fisher Fishkin, 2012

1996 sales brochure
1996 sales brochure for the Oxford Mark Twain courtesy of Kevin Bochynski

Chapter 39
The Oxford Mark Twain (1996, 2009)


Not since Helen Rosen Woodward developed Harper's 1916 advertising campaign for a uniform edition of Mark Twain's works has a publishing effort owed so much to the creativity of women. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, editor of the Oxford Mark Twain edition, recalls that in the spring of 1992 Laura Brown, vice president of Oxford University Press, invited her to propose a plan for a uniform edition of Mark Twain's works. Brown told Fishkin that if Oxford liked her proposal, she would be working with senior editor Elizabeth Maguire (b. 1958 - d. 2006). Fishkin, who had obtained her Ph.D. from Yale, was a professor at the University of Texas and had already published her first book From Fact to Fiction: Journalism and Imaginative Writing in America (1985). In addition, her research on Mark Twain was gaining international recognition. At the time Fishkin was recruited to spearhead the Oxford Mark Twain edition, Fishkin was quickly becoming one of America's leading authorities in Mark Twain studies. Her second book Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices would be released by Oxford University Press in 1993. Shelley Fisher Fishkin
Shelley Fisher Fishkin, editor Oxford Mark Twain, from the jacket photo of Was Huck Black? (1993)

Fishkin wanted to publish an edition of Mark Twain's works that would complement the authoritative edition that was and is still ongoing from the Mark Twain Project at the University of California at Berkeley.

I had long been intrigued by the first American editions of Twain's works, in part because Twain himself had played a role in their publication, and also because these were the volumes to which the earliest reviewers were responding, and on which Twain's early reputation was built. I was also fascinated by the illustrations, and by how relatively unfamiliar so many of them were to modern readers (Fishkin, 2012).

It had been over thirty years since the Modern Language Association in 1963 had expressed their concerns that the future studies of American literature was at risk because access to original manuscripts was frequently restricted and rare editions published during an author's lifetime were extremely difficult to locate. By 1992, only seven titles of Mark Twain's works featuring authoritative texts and original illustrations had been issued by the Mark Twain Project. First editions of many works were rare and in poor condition when they could be found. Fishkin had first hand experience as a Mark Twain scholar and researcher who had encountered difficulties finding scarce first editions. She had been forced to scour used books sales seeking out discarded and damaged volumes and treasuring them when they could be found.

Fishkin conceived of a plan for Oxford to publish facsimiles of the first editions of Mark Twain's works. She recalled reading Norman Mailer's "Huckleberry Finn, Alive at 100" which appeared in the New York Times book review section on December 9, 1984.

[Mailer] discussed the book as if it had just appeared on the scene. It was beautifully anachronistic but truly inspired. It gave me a taste of what could happen if contemporary writers engaged Twain freshly in terms that mattered to them. I also decided that it would be important to have Twain scholars contextualize the works in the set, giving a sense of their publication history, the response to them when they appeared and over time, and provide suggestions for further reading. And, finally, I recognized that essays on the illustrations would be extremely important to include, as well as brief notes on the physical text used for the facsimile (Fishkin, 2012).

Oxford University Press was delighted with Fishkin's proposal. The set would be the first uniform edition of Mark Twain's works since the 1922 Gabriel Wells Definitive Edition that would feature introductions and commentary by some of the most prominent authors of their time. In order to determine the authors who would be invited to contribute to the Oxford Mark Twain, Fishkin describes her efforts:

I immersed myself in more books by contemporary writers than I had ever read, seeking out resonances and points of connection with Twain. I saw this aspect of the project as creating a new body of commentary on Twain by contemporary writers that would dramatize his continuing impact on literature and the vitality of the ongoing cultural conversation in which his works played and continued to play a central role. I made a special effort to go beyond "the usual suspects," engaging writers who had never written about Twain before, but whose work resonated with his in some key ways (Fishkin, 2012).

Fishkin's vision for the contents of each volume in the Oxford Mark Twain uniform edition included:

Oxford originally planned an edition of 25 volumes. However, due to Fishkin's enthusiasm for the effort, the project grew to include 29 volumes. According to Fishkin, "I do know that when we hit 29 volumes Oxford said, in effect, this is it: no more" (Fishkin, 2013).

For the next several years Fishkin devoted herself to the enormously time-consuming details and logistics of putting together the Oxford Mark Twain including locating first edition copies suitable for photographic reproduction. The Mark Twain House museum and research center in Hartford, Connecticut provided many of the first American editions that were used. Oxford also contracted with Fishkin to write a book on Twain's place in American culture that could be released at about the same time as the uniform edition. That book would be titled Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture and was issued in 1997. In order to fulfill her commitments to Oxford, Fishkin took a leave without pay from teaching at the University of Texas for one semester.


Marketing Strategies and Reviews

Oxford Mark Twain binding in maroon cloth and boards and dust jacket

The Oxford Mark Twain was released in the fall of 1996. Oxford's introductory price for the trade set with maroon cloth spines and boards binding and dust jackets was $295; a special library edition in total maroon cloth binding was priced at $395. The 29 books which make up the set feature no volume numbers. Dust jackets are not identical and feature different colors and illustrations, most from the original texts, on the front cover. Oxford also offered a limited number of autographed sets with volumes signed by the contributors. This special autographed edition, limited to 300 sets, was offered at $1,500. Oxford recognized the fact that a wider customer base could likely be found if buyers were allowed to purchase one or two titles of the edition rather than an entire set. Individual volumes were offered in prices ranging from $15 to $25 each.

Reviewers were lavish in their praise for the edition. In a preliminary assessment for the Mark Twain Forum on January 20, 1997, Kent Rasmussen wrote:

Most of the book titles in the OMT have never been available before in facsimile editions (including, amazingly, the lavishly illustrated A Tramp Abroad and Life on the Mississippi); some of these books have not been available in any edition for over a century (e.g., The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches). Collectors should also be aware that the first editions of story and essay collections (such as Sketches New and Old) that share titles with later Harper uniform editions, do not have exactly the same contents as the later editions. In some cases the differences are substantial.

In June 1997, Max Saunders writing in the Literary Review stated:

The twenty-nine-volume Oxford Mark Twain is a major literary event. In addition to gathering together a superb collection of Twain's works, editor Shelley Fisher Fishkin has commissioned some of our most eminent living writers to introduce each volume with their personal insights and experiences of Twain. ... In effect, the set gathers together a literary who's who, all of whom reflect on what Mark Twain's work means to them as writers and scholars, and what he means to our literary history and to our culture as a whole. Taken together, these introductions and afterwords provide a major reevaluation of Twain, allowing readers to see his work in fresh ways.

In November 2009 Oxford released a paperback edition of the set at an introductory price of $199.

Oxford paperback Mark Twain edition
Advertising for the 2009 Oxford Mark Twain paperback edition


Volumes and Contributors

The Oxford Mark Twain set features no volume numbers. The 29 volumes are listed below in the approximate chronological order they were originally published.


Summary of Features



Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Personal correspondence. 9 and 10 August 2012.

"Kurt Vonnegut, Novelist Who Caught the Imagination of His Age, Is Dead at 84." New York Times, 12 April 2007.

Mailer, Norman. "Huckleberry Finn, Alive at 100," New York Times Book Review, 9 December 1984.

Severo, Richard. "George Plimpton, Urbane and Witty Writer, Dies at 76," New York Times, 26 September 2003.

"Willie Morris, a Pure Produce of Southern Soil," USA Today, 4 August 1999.

"Willie Morris, Writer on the Southern Experience, 64," San Diego Union Tribune, 6 August 1999.



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