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by William Dean Howells and Moncure D. Conway

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William Dean Howells’s Review

This review of the American edition of Tom Sawyer, written from proof sheets, appeared in the Atlantic Monthly for May 1876 (Howells 1876, 621–22), which was available by mid-April, nearly eight months before publication of the book. For the genesis of this embarrassing mistiming, see Clemens’s letter of 19 March 1876 to Elisha Bliss and his letters of 3 April and 26 April 1876 to Howells. The review begins with an allusion to Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Story of a Bad Boy, about the adventures of one Tom Bailey (Aldrich 1869). It concludes with a further reference to Aldrich’s book and with references to Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days (Hughes 1857) and to the fiction of William M. Baker (1825–83), a Presbyterian minister, novelist, and biographer.

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Recent Literature.

. . . .

—Mr. Aldrich has studied the life of A Bad Boy as the pleasant reprobate led it in a quiet old New England town twenty-five or thirty years ago, where in spite of the natural outlawry of boyhood he was more or less part of a settled order of things, and was hemmed in, to some measure, by the traditions of an established civilization. Mr. Clemens, on the contrary, has taken the boy of the Southwest for the hero of his new book, and has presented him with a fidelity to circumstance which loses no charm by being realistic in the highest degree, and which gives incomparably the best picture of life in that region as yet known to fiction. The town where Tom Sawyer was born and brought up is some such idle, shabby little Mississippi River town as Mr. Clemens has so well described in his piloting reminiscences, but Tom belongs to the better sort of people in it, and has been bred to fear God and dread the Sunday-school according to the strictest rite of the faiths that have characterized all the respectability of the West. His subjection in these respects does not so deeply affect his inherent tendencies but that he makes himself a beloved burden to the poor, tender-hearted old aunt who brings him up with his orphan brother and sister, and struggles vainly with his manifold sins, actual and imaginary. The limitations of his transgressions are nicely and artistically traced. He is mischievous, but not vicious; he is ready for almost any depredation that involves the danger and honor of adventure, but profanity he knows may provoke a thunderbolt upon the heart of the blasphemer, and he almost never swears; he resorts to any stratagem to keep out of school, but he is not a downright liar, except upon terms of after shame and remorse that make his falsehood bitter to him. He is cruel, as all children are, but chiefly because he is ignorant; he is not mean, but there are very definite bounds to his generosity; and his courage is the Indian sort, full of prudence and mindful of retreat as one of the conditions of prolonged hostilities. In a word, he is a boy, and merely and exactly an ordinary boy on the moral side. What makes him delightful to the reader is that on the imaginative side he is very much more, and though every boy has wild and fantastic dreams, this boy cannot rest till he has somehow realized them. Till he has actually run off with two other boys in the character of buccaneer, and lived for a week on an island in the Mississippi, he has lived in vain; and this passage is but the prelude to more thrilling adventures, in which he finds hidden treasures, traces the bandits to their cave, and is himself lost in its recesses. The local material and the incidents with which his career is worked up are excellent, and throughout there is scrupulous regard for the boy’s point of view in reference to his surroundings and himself, which shows how rapidly Mr. Clemens has grown as an artist. We do not remember anything in which this propriety is violated, and its preservation adds immensely to the grown-up reader’s satisfaction in the amusing and exciting story. There is a boy’s love-affair, but it is never treated otherwise than as a boy’s love-affair. When the half-breed has murdered the young doctor, Tom and his friend, Huckleberry Finn, are really, in their boyish terror and superstition, going to let the poor old town-drunkard be hanged for the crime, till the terror of that becomes unendurable. The story is a wonderful study of the boy-mind, which inhabits a world quite distinct from that in which he is bodily present with his elders, and in this lies its great charm and its universality, for boy-nature, however human-nature varies, is the same everywhere.

The tale is very dramatically wrought, and the subordinate characters are treated with the same graphic force that sets Tom alive before us. The worthless vagabond, Huck Finn, is entirely delightful throughout, and in his promised reform his identity is respected: he will lead a decent life in order that he may one day be thought worthy to become a member of that gang of robbers which Tom is to organize. Tom’s aunt is excellent, with her kind heart’s sorrow and secret pride in Tom; and so is his sister Mary, one of those good girls who are born to usefulness and charity and forbearance and unvarying rectitude. Many village people and local notables are introduced in well-conceived character; the whole little town lives in the reader’s sense, with its religiousness, its lawlessness, its droll social distinctions, its civilization qualified by its slave-holding, and its traditions of the wilder West which has passed away. The picture will be instructive to those who have fancied the whole Southwest a sort of vast Pike County, and have not conceived of a sober and serious and orderly contrast to the sort of life that has come to represent the Southwest in literature. Mr. William M. Baker gives a notion of this in his stories, and Mr. Clemens has again enforced the fact here, in a book full of entertaining character, and of the greatest artistic sincerity.

Tom Brown and Tom Bailey are, among boys in books, alone deserving to be named with Tom Sawyer.

. . . .

Moncure D. Conway’s Review

This review of the English edition of Tom Sawyer, dated one day after the book’s publication, appeared in the Cincinnati Commercial of 26 June 1876 (5) and was widely extracted and reprinted in other papers (see 24 July 76 to Conway, nn. 1, 9; Conway 1876). In the course of the review, Conway alludes to: Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881); English anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917); German poet and literary critic Heinrich Heine (1797–1856); Edwin Henry Landseer (1802–73), English artist famous for humorous or poignant paintings of animals with human attributes; Clemens’s “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut,” as published in London in June 1876 in Temple Bar magazine (see 6 July 76 to Bentley, n. 2; SLC 1876); William W. Belknap and Orville E. Babcock, President Ulysses S. Grant’s disgraced secretary of war and disgraced private secretary, respectively (see 16 Mar 76 to McCloud, nn. 3, 6); and Colonel Sellers’s catchphrase in the Gilded Age play (“There’s millions in it.”).

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Correspondence Cincinnati Commercial.

London, June 10, 1876.

Next week all England will be enjoying a new story by Mark Twain, with a piquant sauce supplied by the novelty of reading it before the Centennial land. Carlyle told me that the first bound book of his he ever saw came to him by mail from New England, and presently Mark Twain may say that the last bound book of his was sent him from Old England. By what means it happens that we are to have “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” before you I can not tell; all I know is that, through the kindness of Messrs. Chatto and Windus, who are its publishers by special arrangement with the author, I have before me early sheets of this story, and have good reason to believe that some notes concerning it will be “news” to the author’s countrymen.

It is, as I think, the most notable work which Mark Twain has yet written, and will signally add to his reputation for variety of powers. His dramatis personæ are mainly some boys and girls residing in the magnificently small village of St. Petersburg, somewhere on the Missouri, the Czar of which village is Tom Sawyer, who settles his Western questions more satisfactorily, I suspect, than the chief of the larger St. Petersburg is likely to settle his Eastern one. Under pretext of this boy-and-girl’s romance, Mark Twain has written a book which will not only charm elder readers—especially if they have that age which, as the Book of Wisdom says, “consisteth not in length of years, but in having made the most of them”—but will be of value to philosophers. I shouldn’t wonder if Mr. Edward Tylor in his next book on human evolution—and we are looking for one—should find reason to refer to the survivals of ancient Oriental and Greek myths and beliefs in the elaborate folklore of Tom Sawyer and his comrades. Heine, in his “Exiled Gods,” has traced a classic legend of some magnificent deity—Apollo, I believe—until he finds it investing as an anecdote an old miller in a German parish; and I think it would not be difficult to trace some of the attributes of Siva and Odin, and perhaps Eleusynian rites, in the notions of these children about their village witch, and the power of a dead cat thrown in a grave yard with precise rules, to remove warts, and sundry other superstitions. No doubt most of us remember such things in our early life—especially if we were born in remote Southern or Western villages, where the Semitic had not as in New England trampled out the Indo-Germanic varieties of superstition; but it was a “happy thought” in Mark Twain to recover them and twine them in with his story. It is a valuable bit of social embryology, for instance, when we find that those barefoot Western boys, who know nothing of Catholicism, have somehow got the belief that the devil can’t get at them if a cross is near by; and it reminds us of the fact that in the country districts of Europe the most determined Lutheran, if he thinks himself bewitched, will repair to the Catholic priest for the exorcism, and never to his Protestant pastor.

However, this is but a small part, however valuable to certain minds, of the interest of this work. Incidental, also—but very striking—are the indications in it of how, amid all the spars and fragments of a past that has gone to pieces and been washed up on the beach of a new moral continent, new tendencies are seen forming, and new themes, which are still harmonious with what is eternal in human nature. Children report the past and foreshadow the future. Here in England the boy repeats the history of his ancestors,—aye, and the girl, too. The boy is a savage, and then a Viking and a pirate in his tastes, a nomad in his love of adventure, and passing through the age of the huntsman, affects agricultural and mechanic art for a time, becomes a knight errant, and so advances to be an Englishman. These embryological stages of development are very marked at some points. Thus there is a phase in the life of English children of both sexes—and a phase which lasts inconveniently long—when they madly desire to run about in the garden naked. It requires the utmost vigilance to prevent them from doing this in all the little gardens of London. Many a boy and girl here will feel an agony of envy when they contemplate the scene of Mark Twain’s three boys painted with mud to look like Indians racing up and down the beach to their heart’s content. Many other scenes and notions, too, will correspond to the familiar feelings of the healthy British boy and girl. But now and then they will pause with some wonder, and it will be at some point where the village of Missouri has unfolded some unprescribed tendency in human nature, or, perhaps, recovering one that was lost. It will introduce a novel ethical problem in the young circles of England when they read about Tom Sawyer’s lie. Tom has been deeply offended by a little girl whom he had adored. She was soon after in great trouble, having torn a valuable book belonging to the teacher while surreptitiously examining it at his desk. The teacher is going down from boy to boy and girl to girl—switch in hand—asking each if he or she had done the dreadful deed. The guilty, terrified girl is reached at last, and the fearful question is being asked: “Becky Thatcher, did you”—em space Just here a boy’s voice sounded through the breathless school, “I done it.” It was Tom; he took his unmerciful flogging. The girl’s father, when he heard of this long after, declared “it was a noble, a generous, a magnanimous lie—a lie that was worthy to hold up its head and march down through history breast to breast with George Washington’s lauded truth about the hatchet.” Besides this perilous incident, there is an interest of an equally doubtful kind surrounding a unique and vigorously drawn character called Huckleberry Finn, the juvenile Pariah of the village, son of the town drunkard—thus described:

“Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town, because he was idle, and lawless, and vulgar, and bad, and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys, in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance. Huckleberry was always dressed in the cast-off clothes of full-grown men, and they were in perennial bloom and fluttering with rags. His hat was a vast ruin with a wide crescent lopped out of its brim; his coat, when he wore one, hung nearly to his heels, and had the rearward buttons far down the back; but one suspender supported his trousers; the seat of his trousers bagged low and contained nothing; the fringed legs dragged in the dirt when not rolled up. Huckleberry came and went at his own free will. He slept on door-steps in fine weather, and in empty hogsheads in wet; he did not have to go to school or to church, or call any being master, or obey anybody; he could go fishing or swimming when and where he chose, and stay as long as it suited him; nobody forbade him to fight; he could sit up as late as he pleased; he was always the first boy that went barefoot in the spring and the last to resume leather in the fall; he never had to wash, nor put on clean clothes; he could swear wonderfully. In a word, everything that goes to make life precious, that boy had. So thought every harassed, hampered, respectable boy in St. Petersburg.”

Huckleberry comes into fortune at last, or what respectable people think fortune, and is taken into a respectable home by kind people, who try to educate and civilize him, but he finds it irksome, can not bear it, disappears, and is found afterward sleeping in such quarters as tradition assigns to Diogenes, and begging Tom to take the wealth that has befallen him and allow him to continue in his old felicity of vagabondage.

There is in this work more that is dramatic than in any of Mark Twain’s previous works, and some scenes that are impressive and even weird. There is a thrilling murder scene, a graphic trial scene, and a solemn retribution scene—the murderer, a half-breed called “Injun Joe,” being barred up in a cavern where he was accustomed to hide the money got by robbery. He is entombed there accidentally, it having been thought necessary to close up the cave after Tom and Becky had been lost in it, and nearly perished. When “Injun Joe” is finally tracked to it, the villagers rush to the spot, and, opening the cave, find him there dead.

“The poor unfortunate had starved to death. In one place near at hand a stalagmite had been slowly growing up from the ground for ages, builded by the water-drip from a stalactite overhead. The captive had broken off the stalagmite, and upon the stump had placed a stone, wherein he had scooped a shallow hollow to catch the precious drop that fell once in every twenty minutes, with the dreary regularity of a clock-tick—a dessert-spoonful once in four-and-twenty hours. That drop was falling when the Pyramids were new; when Troy fell; when the foundations of Rome were laid; when Christ was crucified; when the Conqueror created the British Empire; when Columbus sailed; when the massacre at Lexington was “news.” It is falling now; it will still be falling when all these things shall have sunk down the afternoon of history and the twilight of tradition, and been swallowed up in the thick night of oblivion. Has everything a purpose and a mission? Did this drop fall patiently during five thousand years to be ready for this flitting human insect’s need, and has it another important object to accomplish ten thousand years to come? No matter. It is many and many a year since the hapless half-breed scooped out the stone to catch the priceless drops, but to this day the tourist stares longest at that pathetic stone and that slow dropping water, when he comes to see the wonders of McDougal’s Cave. Injun Joe’s cup stands first in the list of the cavern’s marvels; even ‘Aladdin’s Palace’ can not rival it.”

The humor of the book breaks out everywhere in little touches, and is, of course, the chief characteristic of many of the chapters. The showing-off day at a boarding school, when the young misses parade in their ribbons, is portrayed with exquisite drollery, and the poetical compositions recited on the occasion, are given with a realistic exactness which can not be surpassed. The author assures us that these compositions are genuine, and so I think I must quote some of the specimens:

“Then arose a slim, melancholy girl, whose face had an ‘interesting’ paleness that comes of pills and indigestion, and read a ‘poem.’ Two stanzas of it will do:

“ ‘a missouri maiden’s farewell to alabama.

“ ‘Alabama, good-bye! I love thee well;

But yet for a while do I leave thee now.

Sad, yes, sad thoughts of thee my heart doth swell,

And burning recollections throng my brow.

For I have wandered through thy flowery woods;

Have roamed and read near Tallapoosa’s stream;

Have listened to Talassee’s warring floods,

And wooed on Coosa’s side Aurora’s beam.

“ ‘Yet shame I not to bear an o’er-full heart,

Nor blush to turn behind my tearful eyes;

’Tis from no stranger land I now must part,

’Tis to no strangers left I yield these sighs.

Welcome and home were mine within this State,

Whose vales I leave, whose spires fade fast from me;

And cold must be mine eyes, and heart, and tete,

When, dear Alabama! they turn cold on [thee!]

“There were very few there who knew what tete meant, but the poem was very satisfactory, nevertheless.

“Next appeared a dark-complexioned, black-eyed, black-haired young lady, who paused an impressive moment, assumed a tragic expression, and began to read in a measured tone:

a vision.

“Dark and tempestuous was the night. Around the throne on high not a single star quivered; but the deep intonations of the heavy thunder constantly vibrated upon the ear; whilst the terrific lightning reveled in angry mood through the cloudy chambers of heaven, seeming to scorn the power exerted over its terrors by the illustrious Franklin. Even the boisterous winds unanimously came forth from their mystic homes, and blustered about as if to enhance by their aid the wildness of the scene. At such a time, so dark, so dreary, for human sympathy my very spirit sighed; but instead thereof—

“ ‘My dearest friend, my counselor, my comforter and guide,

My joy in grief, my second bliss in joy, came to my side.’

“She moved like one of those bright beings pictured in the sunny walks of fancy’s Eden by the romantic and young, a queen of beauty unadorned save by her own transcendent loveliness. So soft was her step, it failed to make even a sound, and but for the magical thrill imparted by her genial touch, as other unobtrusive beauties, she would have glided away unperceived—unsought. A strange sadness rested upon her features, like icy tears upon the robe of December, as she pointed to the contending elements without, and bade me contemplate the two beings presented.

“This nightmare occupied some ten pages of manuscript, and wound up in a sermon so destructive of all hope to non-Presbyterians, that is took the first prize. This composition was considered to be the very finest effort of the evening. The Mayor of the village, in delivering the prize to the author of it, made a warm speech, in which he said that it was by far the most ‘eloquent thing he had ever listened to, and that Daniel Webster himself might well be proud of it.’ ”

There are some respects in which Mark Twain excels any living humorist—if we can still so describe a writer who has shown such various powers (which is doubtful)—and one is his innate refinement and self-restraint. With perfect freedom in his style he is never coarse, and spontaneous as his fun is it never overpasses the temperance of all true art. And another unique feature of his is the stately and dignified way in which he deals with the seemingly small subject which has excited his sympathy. Landseer gave grandeur to a donkey, and Mark Twain paints a scene between a dog and a pinch-bug with such true perception of universal laws, that it is quite worthy to occur, as it does, in church, and to extinguish the parson’s sermon, which is not half so important. That Mark is a philosopher is amply proved by the following incident:

“Tom Sawyer, having offended his sole guardian, Aunt Polly, is by that sternly-affectionate dame punished, by being set to whitewash the fence in front of the garden. The world seemed a hollow mockery to Tom, who had planned fun for that day, and who knew that he would be the laughing-stock of all the boys as they came past and saw him, set to work like a ‘nigger.’ But a great inspiration burst upon him, and he went tranquilly to work. What that inspiration was will appear from what follows. One of the boys, Ben. Rogers, comes by and pauses, eating a particularly fine apple. Tom does not see him. Ben. stared a moment, and then said:

“ ‘Hi-yi! You’re up a stump, ain’t you?’

“No answer. Tom surveyed his last touch with the eye of an artist, then he gave another gentle sweep, and surveyed the result, as before. Ben. ranged up alongside of him. Tom’s mouth watered for the apple, but he stuck to his work. Ben. said:

“ ‘Hello, old chap; you got to work, hey?’

“ ‘Why, it’s you, Ben.; I wasn’t noticing.’

“ ‘Say, I’m going in a-swimming, I am. Don’t you wish you could? But, of course, you’d druther work, wouldn’t you? Course you would!’

“Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said:

“ ‘What do you call work?’

“ ‘Why, ain’t that work?’

“Tom resumed his whitewashing, and answered carelessly:

“ ‘Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know is, it suits Tom Sawyer.’

“ ‘Oh, come now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?’

“The brush continued to move.

“ ‘Like it? Well, I don’t see why I [oughtn’t] to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?’

“That put the thing in a new light. Ben. stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth—stepped back to note the effect—added a touch here and there—criticised the effect again, Ben. watching every move, and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:

“ ‘Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.’

“Tom considered; was about to consent; but he altered his mind: ‘No, no; I reckon it wouldn’t hardly do, Ben. You see, Aunt Polly’s awful particular about this fence—right here on the street, you know—but if it was the back fence I wouldn’t mind, and she wouldn’t. Yes, she’s awful particular about this fence; it’s got to be done very careful; I reckon there ain’t one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, that can do it in the way it’s got to be done.

“ ‘No—is that so? Oh, come now; lemme just try, only just a little. I’d let you, if you was me, Tom.’

[“ ‘Ben.,] I’d like to, honest injun; but Aunt Polly—well, Jim wanted to do it, but she wouldn’t let him. Sid wanted to do it, but she wouldn’t let Sid. Now, don’t you see how I am fixed? If you was to tackle this fence, and anything was to happen to it.’—

“ ‘Oh, shucks; I’ll be just as careful. Now lemme try. Say—I’ll give you the core of my apple.’

“ ‘Well, here. No, Ben.; now don’t; I’m afeard’—

“ ‘I’ll give you all of it!’

“Tom gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart. And while Ben. worked and sweated in the sun, the retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by, dangling his legs, munched his apple, and planned the slaughter of more innocents. There was no lack of material; boys happened along every little while; they came to jeer, but remained to whitewash. By the time Ben. was fagged out, Tom had traded the next chance to Billy Fisher for a kite in good repair; and when he played out, Johnny Miller bought in for a dead rat and a string to swing it with; and so on, and so on, hour after hour. And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth. He had, besides the things I have mentioned, twelve marbles, part of a jew’s harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool-cannon, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar—but no dog—the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window-sash. He had had a nice, good, idle time all the while—plenty of company—and the fence had three coats of whitewash on it! If he hadn’t run out of whitewash, he would have bankrupted every boy in the village.

“Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world after all. He had discovered a great law of human action without knowing it, namely, that, in order to make a man or boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers, or performing on a tread-mill, is work, whilst rolling nine-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work, and then they would resign.”

In a brief preface the author tells us that most of the adventures recorded in his book really occurred with himself or his school-mates; that Huck. Finn is drawn from life, and others are composite characters; that the odd superstitions touched upon are such as prevailed among children and slaves in the West thirty years ago. “Although,” he says, “my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try pleasantly to remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.” I feel quite sure that the book will be a favorite in England among grown-up folk, and also among the boys and girls if the fifty thousand governesses, enumerated in the new census, who guard the Hesperides of Youth, permit anything so fresh, and natural, and free from cant and pietism, to find its way into their little heads and hearts. But however this may be, Mark Twain has written a book which will cause all sensible people to love and honor him, and at the same time will inspire a doubt whether it be really true that, as he states in an article in Temple Bar, he has found perfect happiness in Connecticut by the simple plan of killing his conscience. Meanwhile, to Americans abroad, it will be a proud Centennial fact that if we have our Belknaps and Babcocks, we also have our Twain of a different stamp, and if Missouri is for the time represented in the White House by a Grant, Tom Sawyers, though at present in the rough, are growing up in the background, and may come to the front. Nay, as these things happened thirty years ago, Tom must be somewhere about, and I recommend the political conventions, in choosing our next President, to look out for him. No doubt information may be obtained in the neighborhood of Hartford. “There’s millions in it.” em spaceem spaceem space M. D. C.


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. By Mark Twain. Hartford: American Publishing Co. 1876.

Textual Commentary

glyphglyphCopy-text:glyph“Recent Literature,” Atlantic Monthly 37 (May 76): 621–22 (Howells 1876) is copy-text for William Dean Howells’s review. “London Letter,” Cincinnati Commercial, 26 June 76, 5 (Conway 1876), photocopy in the Mark Twain Papers, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley (CU-MARK), is copy-text for Moncure D. Conway’s review.

glyphglyphPrevious publication:glyphAnderson and Sanderson 1971, 59–61, for Howells’s review.

glyphglyphEmendations and textual notes:glyph

thee!’ • thee!

oughtn’t • oughn’t

“ ‘Ben., • “ ‘Ben,