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The following review appeared 4 March 2013 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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This book is a Twaint. No insult is intended by the use of this term, which admittedly sounds like a twangy Texian contraction of "it ain't." It's simply a keyword used when cataloging into my computer database any book that falls into that broad category of books that use Twain himself, or his writings, or his characters, as a touchstone. Some of these books are modern versions of Twain's stories, some are pasticci of one sort or another, some are parodies, some are cartoon or comic book or graphic novel renderings of his works, many are fiction that simply make use of Twain or one of his characters as a character but none of his themes or motifs. A few claim to be Twain himself speaking from the dead, a handful are sequels or "completions" of a Twain work, and a very few defy all description. The authors of these books run the gamut from award-winning authors to likely lunatics, and their various intentions run the gamut as well--from heartfelt homage to shameless exploitation. Many Twaints are wonderfully inventive and readable and insightful; others, well, not so much. But whoever their authors and whatever their intent they all share one common trait: whatever they might be, they just ain't Twain. Which makes them Twaints.
This Twaint is set on the eve of the American Civil War, and features Sam Clemens as the main character, together with historical places, people, and events from Twain's life skillfully woven into the tale, lending an authentic air to the narrative, even if the factual details are not always historically precise. Twainians will recognize the author as William Macnaughton, whose book, Mark Twain's Last Years as a Writer (1979) was one of the first books to rebut some of Hamlin Hill's influential thesis portraying Twain's last years as a period of decline, writer's block, rages, and depression. Macnaughton's previous book was a valuable and useful addition to Twainian scholarship, but this time Macnaughton aims to entertain and perhaps throw some light on a brief period in Twain's life that is sparsely documented. Macnaughton says his ultimate goal is to encourage the reader to read more works by Mark Twain himself (p. vi).
The story begins in 1910 at Bay House in Bermuda when Mark Twain, knowing his days are numbered, hands Albert Bigelow Paine a manuscript to read, explaining that "I've tried to be honest about a few things that maybe I've fudged in the past, like sexual behavior and the raw way men speak sometimes" (p. x). Paine then sits down to read Twain's autobiographical account of his activities on the eve of the Civil War. The next forty-two chapters are Twain's own story, followed by an epilogue in which Paine, having finished reading the manuscript, decides that the racial and sexual content would disappoint Twain's admirers, and returns to Twain's room to explain this and to ask Twain which parts of the narrative are fictional and which are factual. Twain understands why the work cannot be published, but ignores Paine's pleadings to separate the fact from fiction. Although Macnaughton structures his novel as a frame story, a form Twain frequently used to great effect, he fails to exploit the possibilities offered by this structure.
Twain's account begins on January 11, 1861 (p. 1) in the "political cauldron" (p. 7) of St. Louis, two years before Sam Clemens discovered Mark Twain. The second sentence of the story alludes to masturbation and a few pages later the masturbatory allusions return, sounding gratuitous the second time around. Sam Clemens, sympathetic to the South, soon meets a young woman, Miriam, who has Union sympathies, and who also has a "gratifying effect on Sam's wilted manhood" (p. 52). As Sam and Miriam converse, it becomes apparent that Macnaughton is having trouble recreating Clemens's personality--Clemens's dialogue is often stilted, and the reader wishes that some of the prose could be purpled up a bit to match the melodrama it describes. But Macnaughton does get some dialogue pitch-perfect, especially when Miriam and a badly beaten slave have a conversation in chapter 22.
The forty-two short chapters of Twain's story are crammed with events, some advancing the story line further than others. In chapter 16 Miriam performs oral sex on Sam, in chapter 18 Sam discovers gun-running being carried out on the Alonzo Child and a plan to attack the arsenal at St. Louis, and in chapter 21 Sam witnesses the brutal murder of a traitor to the southern cause. The passion between Sam and Miriam grows, and Miriam soon hatches a plan to help an old slave escape to freedom (Sam declines to help her), and Sam narrowly avoids being killed when shooting breaks out during a riot in St Louis. Miriam is soon being wooed by a courtly Confederate General, but returns to visit Sam, and the carnality resumes, but Sam soon leaves for Nevada and they never see each other again. The final chapter shifts abruptly to Quarry Farm in the early 1880s, about the time when Twain decides to take up the unfinished manuscript of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Sitting in his study one day, he opens a letter. It's from Miriam.
Macnaughton makes clear that he set out to contrast the racial
prejudice of young Sam Clemens and the mature views of an older Mark Twain
(p. v), and makes his case in this fictional account that the winds of change
in Sam's racial views began blowing in the early months of 1861, between the
time that his piloting days ended and the day in July, 1861 when he lit out
for the territories with his brother Orion. Perhaps they did, and those wishing
to know more of Mark Twain's thoughts about the Civil War can read David Rachels's
Mark Twain's Civil War (2007), a compilation of Twain's writings on
the subject. The truth of the matter is that the story of Twain's evolving
views on race is much longer and more complicated than the stirring events
of any one year, but whatever Sam Clemens witnessed in St. Louis in 1861,
whether or not it involved a lost love, are part of that story, and Macnaughton's
fictional speculation, if not entirely convincing on that score, is certainly
entertaining, and like all good Twaints it encourages a reader to seek out
the words of Mark Twain himself.