The following review appeared 11 July 2000 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Larry Howe <email@example.com>
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Mark Twain has attracted an unusual share of biographical criticism. No doubt, the emphasis on the life of Sam Clemens is due to the charismatic and often puzzling quality of the man himself. Everett Emerson has now weighed in with his second biographical work in what would seem an already overcrowded field. So we might ask: is there a need for another biographical work on Twain? The stated "assumption behind this book is that one can understand virtually all of Mark Twain's works better if one can read them in their biographical context" (ix). Emerson pursues this assumption by dividing his narrative into twelve chapters that correspond to different phases of Twain's life. His method is somewhat different than other biographies which look for sources of narrative content in the experience of an author. Instead, Emerson is concerned with the influence of lived experience contemporaneous with the production of Twain's work. And so the answer to the above question--"is there a need for another biographical work on Twain?"--is, fortunately, yes; as long as a biography is constructed as Emerson has done so.
Emerson has accomplished a great deal in this book because he focuses consistently on the "Literary Life." That is, he doesn't speculate on or sensationalize incidents in the life of Samuel Clemens; rather, he exhaustively tracks the career of the writer Mark Twain in the body of work that composed that career. In this he is true to his explicit purpose: "to comprehend the literary feature [of Clemens's life], which requires a recognition of the constantly changing circumstances of his literary career.
Emerson includes some new revelations about lost work. And in light of how well covered this territory has been heretofore, any new revelation is a surprise. But what impressed me just as much if not more so was his ability to carefully unknot the tangled threads of Twain's literary productions. Emerson's narrative reveals that Twain's career was, by turns, both surprisingly haphazard and remarkably diligent. Such a careful job of mapping out Twain's complex career is the product of painstaking research, patience, intelligence, and a genuine commitment to the task. Emerson has combed the archives and introduces manuscript evidence along with excerpts from letters and notebook entries to provide comprehensive textual history.
Twain often portrayed himself as an accidental writer, and much of that side of his professional life comes through in Emerson's tracking of the various literary projects that he juggled--both serious and ephemeral--along with an impulsive business career. Given Twain's extremely active social life, as well as periodic travels and sojourns at home and abroad, it's hard to imagine how he produced as much writing as he did. To be sure, as Emerson notes, Twain was somewhat regretful in later years about having been distracted from writing by other interests and obligations. But the volume of material, both published and unpublished, that Emerson documents in this extremely thorough account is impressive.
No less impressive is the work of documenting it. Emerson coordinates the texts one to another, many of which were composed either simultaneously or during the frequent breaks in composing the more complex and, therefore, more frustrating compositions. The difficulty he experienced with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is common knowledge, in part because Twain openly admitted how he had struggled over the course of years to complete the narrative. Emerson reminds us that this was far more the rule than the exception, and that a considerable factor in his frustration stemmed from the need to produce work that would sustain the very costly lifestyle he fashioned for himself and his family. The emphasis that Emerson's account gives to the professional pressures, in addition to the artistic or critical ones, is crucial because it helps to counterbalance the inclination of academic critics to emphasize the discursive puzzles without fully regarding the economic influences that also contribute, directly or indirectly, to the shape and meaning of a work.
Critics have often noted that Twain left more unpublished than published work. The proportions have gradually shifted over the years as work unpublished during Twain's lifetime has been edited and released to the public, most notably by the Mark Twain Project at the University of California. Recently, Joseph McCullough and Janice McIntire-Strasburg edited a volume of Twain's writing as editor and publisher of the Buffalo Express. Emerson's account reveals that there are other treasures still to emerge and, therefore, much more critical work to be done. To be sure, the unfinished narratives raise considerable interpretive problems by virtue of having been left unfinished. But Emerson's descriptions of these writings and his account of their relations to other texts suggest a very fruitful future for the study of Mark Twain, much of which will no doubt draw on the strength of Emerson's clear-headed presentation of facts. At times Emerson subscribes to a narrower view of who Mark Twain is than is profitable. During several stretches of the account, he suggests that Mark Twain disappears from the writing that was produced under that name. By holding to a particular vision of what constitutes a Twain text, he appeals to a notion something like Foucault's "author function" that institutionalizes, and correspondingly depersonalizes the writer, which seems counter to the assumption that generated Emerson's project. In the end, though, Emerson's shrewd construction of a literary biography avoids the distractions that more conventional biographies indulge. Mark Twain: A Literary Life is, thus, all the stronger for it.