The following review appeared 15 November 2001 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Upon receiving my review copy of Mark Twain, An Illustrated Biography
I was surprised that it was such a slim volume, only about three quarters of
an inch thick. After reading Jim
Zwick's interview earlier this month with Dayton Duncan, one of the book's
co-writers and co-producer of the upcoming companion four-hour documentary (scheduled
to air January 14 and 15, 2002), I understood why this was not a thicker volume.
The original film ran over six hours. However, none of the other Ken Burns biographical
documentaries had exceeded four hours and they decided this one should be edited
down to the prescribed length. It does seem a shame that the film was abbreviated
but the producers certainly won't outstay their welcome this way. They're leaving
us begging for more.
Ashbel Green is credited as the editor of the text which was apparently expanded considerably from the narrative of the film and suggests that the book was indeed based, at least in part, on the longer version of the film. Reports from those who have seen the film in its entirety noted the absence or neglect of events and personalities such as Joseph Twichell, Bret Harte, William Dean Howells, and others who seem to be given more attention in the book.
Book designer Wendy Byrne worked with a wealth of marvelous images. Of the 275 illustrations about 180 of them are photographs coming from the files of the Mark Twain Papers at Berkeley (including the Isabel Lyon and Jean Clemens photo collections), Mark Twain House at Hartford, Mark Twain Museum at Hannibal, and private collections such as those of Nick Karanovich and Robert Slotta. Some of these photos I've never seen reproduced elsewhere; other have been, but never with such fidelity and clarity. They are truly worth the price of admission. Among the standouts are:
Two 1908 color photos by Alvin Langdon Coburn are reproduced as mirror images of the originals, by accident or perhaps for the sake of page layout. Clemens in his Oxford robes (p. 241) has appeared correctly in a catalogue for a 1979 National Portrait Gallery show called "People in Camera." A brilliant color photo of Clemens in his crimson bed robe with pipe and book was reproduced correctly as the frontispiece for Archibald Henderson's Mark Twain, (Duckworth & Co., 1911).
Among all the illustrations contemporary to Clemens' lifetime only seven stood out as anachronisms: five illustrations by Norman Rockwell for the 1936 Heritage press editions of Tom and Huck--three from Tom Sawyer and two from Huckleberry Finn. Two additional bits of whimsy appearing in the index pages include a 1913 advertisement for Cream of Wheat featuring Tom, Huck and Aunt Polly and a 1959 Polish movie poster for David O. Selznick's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
The prologue providing the springboard for the narrative unfolds during Clemens' 1902 visit to his boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri where, thanks to reporter Robertus Love, we know details of that final visit and the waves of aching nostalgia that washed over the celebrated Mark Twain at the scenes of his youth.
Through thirteen subsequent chapters Sammy Clemens evolves into Mark Twain and not surprisingly some of the chapters choose book titles to encompass their contents: Life on the Mississippi, Roughing It, The Innocents Abroad, The Gilded Age, A Connecticut Yankee and Following the Equator.
Four essays by Mark Twain scholars are distributed throughout the chapters:
The book finds its emotional center in the powerful story of Sam and Livy's relationship and the joys and sorrows of the couple and their daughters Susy, Clara and Jean. The sheer weight of the pathos of that real-life human drama gives it an emphasis that manages to eclipse even the history of Clemens' literary career in importance.
Scattered throughout the book are seventeen extended excerpts from Clemens' writings including "white town drowsing" and "the profession of piloting" from Life on the Mississippi. Other vignettes include the petrified man hoax, San Francisco earthquakes, Clemens' letter to his daughters as Santa Claus, quotations from the diaries of Adam and Eve, "The War Prayer" and part of Mark Twain's 70th birthday speech. There are also a series of "sidebars" or "asides" along the way addressing subjects such as Clemens' fascination with inventions, the treatment of the Negro in America, his love of cats and even a disclaimer "Mark Twain Didn't Say" which lists sayings attributed to him which are unverifiable.
An interview with Hal Holbrook delineates the differences between the actual platform style of Mark Twain and Holbrook's variations on that original format. Clemens dressed in black, Holbrook in white. Clemens did not smoke on stage during his career, Holbrook puffs up clouds of cigar smoke during his performance. Holbrook points out that the public image of the rather lazy, drawling "Mark Twain" concealed an extremely energetic man who admitted that "I was born excited (p. 182)." Holbrook also recognized that Clemens was "a soul seeking the truth...that's a lonely journey." Holbrook described his connection with Clemens: "It's like somebody reaching his hand out to you in comradeship, almost."
The style of the book, for the greater part, is to allow Clemens to tell his own story via his own words found in his books, personal letters and journals. As Dayton Duncan commented about the companion film, "Twain's voice nearly always prevailed." The same holds true for the book. The one disappointment for Twain scholars may be the lack of reference notes indicating sources of texts and quotes used for many passages.
Mark Twain, An Illustrated Biography is certainly the most handsomely
produced pictorial treatment thus far given to Samuel Clemens and should not
only please veteran aficionados as a feast for the eyes, but also bring a whole
new flock of converts into the fold and intrigue them to dive into his writings
as well as other specialized biographical studies which expand on topics that
are introduced here.