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The following review appeared 26 July 2010 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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The perennial popularity of Mark Twain as an author and the continuing fascination with Samuel Clemens, the man, by both scholars and fans fuels a burgeoning industry of academic and popular books about Clemens/Twain in the form of biographies, autobiographies, and scholarly critiques. The approach (and now arrival) of the 100th anniversary or his death in 1910 alone has sparked no less that ten new biographies and reissues of older ones--including the paperback reissue of Mark Twain's Own Autobiography by Michael Kiskis, Ron Powers's Mark Twain: A Life, Roy Morris's Lighting Out for the Territory: How Mark Twain Headed West and Became Mark Twain, and The Singular Mark Twain by Fred Kaplan to name a few. Given the mounting pile of pages devoted to one of America's favorite authors, both scholars and laymen must categorize the biographies creating niches that allow readers to choose based upon what interests them most. As one example, Justin Kaplan's historical approach to Clemens' life has been extremely useful to scholars in placing Twain's texts into the spirit of the times in which Clemens lived; however, for the Twain enthusiast it might be considered a bit dry. Ron Powers's biography, on the other hand, while still containing a great deal of information useful to scholars, is written in a highly readable style that can attract both groups of readers.
Jerome Loving's Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens likewise will offer fans interesting glimpses into Clemens' life in short, vignette chapters that seem perfectly designed for bedtime reading. Loving, Distinguished Professor of English at Texas A & M, has written three previous biographies: Emily Dickinson: The Poet on the Second Floor (1986), Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself (1999), and The Last Titan: A Life of Theodore Dreiser (2005).
Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens contains a chronology of Clemens's life and works; a prologue; fifty-two short chapters arranged chronologically; two appendices--a genealogy of the Clemens family and a list of books published by Charles L. Webster & Company; notes; an epilogue; and an index that can be extremely helpful to those interested in particular parts of Clemens's life or people he knew. The chapters are further divided into four sections: "Humorist in the West," "Writer in the East," "The Artist and the Businessman," and "The Mysterious Stranger." Loving states in his prologue that he intends the book to explore "Twain's interactions with such writers as James Fenimore Cooper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman" and "reexamine the life of this 'family man' to reveal the father of three daughters as not only overly protective but also possibly manipulative" with the unintended consequence of "finishing a trilogy of such major writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries" (p. 7).
The first section traces Clemens' early life--the move from Florida, Missouri to Hannibal; his youthful illnesses; his father's failures and obsessions; and his mother's sense of humor. While much of the information is not new to Mark Twain scholars, Loving draws some interesting parallels to other authors (for example, the fact that Benjamin Franklin wrote the Silence Dogood letters at almost the same age as Clemens's early newspaper stories written under his Snodgrass pseudonym). This section ends with Clemens's move East from Nevada. Section Two covers the earliest of Clemens's published work, his marriage to Livy, and ends with the publication of A Tramp Abroad. Section Three carries the reader through Clemens's financial troubles and into his friendship with Henry Huddleston Rogers. The last section, "The Mysterious Stranger," deals with the last part of his life, from about the turn of the century to his death in 1910. This section discusses his late, unpublished writing, the deaths of family members, and Clemens's own final days.
Each short chapters focuses on one part of Clemens' life, though they also often contain asides that add more contemporary material of interest. In Chapter 22, "Home in Hartford," Loving states:
Anyone who visits Hannibal will find a Mark Twain imitator or two either performing at bed-and-breakfasts or simply crossing the streets of a town whose economic life now depends almost solely on the memory of Mark Twain's boyhood and its dramatization in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Otherwise one may listen to a recording of Hal Holbrook performing in Mark Twain Tonight or, at this writing, even see the actor, now well over the age of Twain at his death, impersonate him. We have, however, something almost as close to the real thing as the Whitman recording: we can almost hear Mark Twain's 'voice' in a recording Will Gillette made before that speech class in the 1930s (p. 180).
Loving then goes on to add a short footnoted discussion of Gillette himself. Such asides offer enthusiasts a glimpse of the ways in which "Mark Twain" is still alive and well in portions of America even 100 years after his death.
While the text itself is amply footnoted throughout, it often contains material which may prove controversial. For example, Chapter 24, "A Book about England," chronicles the English book (which Clemens never wrote) and his first solo trip to England without Livy. On that trip, he hired Charles Warren Stoddard as his secretary--to collect newspaper reports of the Tichborne Claimant and according to Clemens, "to sit up nights with me & dissipate" (p. 198). Clemens, Stoddard, and George Dolby often made a party of three on these occasions. Loving then speculates:
Since Dolby probably wasn't always present during their drinking sessions, we might wonder whether Stoddard, when intoxicated, didn't broach an intimacy with his friend, perhaps confessing or hinting at his sexual attraction to men. Although Twain may have suspected that Stoddard was a homosexual, he was probably tolerant, perhaps because he, too, may have had a personal history of unconventional sexual behavior, albeit heterosexual, in Nevada and Hawaii (p. 199).
Loving offers no source citation for his theory. However, the number of "probablies" and "perhapses" and "may haves" in this short passage is representative of several such passages in the book, which will supply fodder for scholars' arguments in future books about Mark Twain, his works, and his life.
Clemens's final days receive shorter treatment than his early
life. Loving draws from William Gibson's excellent Mark Twain's Mysterious
Stranger Manuscripts (1969), and makes copious use of Clemens's letters
from various sources. Summaries of Mark Twain's most famous works such as
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King
Arthur's Court as well as his short stories and less famous texts, give
Mark Twain scholars and those new to his corpus a framework from which to
view the more speculative aspects of Loving's arguments. Loving's Mark
Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens adds to both our knowledge
of the man and our ability to read his work with a clearer picture of both
the times during which he wrote and the life that he lived.