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The following review appeared 12 December 2004 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2004 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Oxford University Press has figured out that the Penguin Group did something
very shrewd when they developed their Penguin Lives series, now some 32 titles
of short biographies, published in hardcover, measuring less then six inches
by eight inches. Following a similar model, Oxford now boasts its own Lives
and Legacies series. At present, only two titles, Walt Whitman and Mark
Twain, have been released. The plans for the rest of the series seem to
be in flux because the flyleaf of the Twain volume lists a title on T. S. Eliot,
but the Oxford website does not mention this one, though it does list a title
on Winston Churchill due early in 2005. Like the Penguin series, Oxford's appears
targeted to a general audience interested in notable literary figures.
The Oxford series diverges somewhat from the Penguin model, which markets the series not on the strength of the subject alone but by commissioning high profile writers, many of whom are not biographers or scholars on their subjects. The Oxford Mark Twain Edition had done something similar by contracting with celebrity authors to write introductions to the reproductions of Twain first editions. But Shelley Fisher Fishkin, the general editor of the Oxford Mark Twain, recognized that an introduction by a celebrity authors should be complemented by an "Afterword" by a scholar (full disclosure: I contributed the "Afterword" to Life on the Mississippi). Still, an introduction to a particular text is a lesser order of magnitude than a biography, even a short biography. It could be argued that a concise biography might demand still greater knowledge of the subject in order to select the most appropriate elements for inclusion. Perhaps for this reason, Oxford has chosen to trust its Lives and Legacies series to elegant writers who have impeccable credentials as scholars in their subject areas. This decision may impact marketability, but the benefits of authority are arguably worth it.
Larzer Ziff, in particular, is an excellent choice for the Twain biography because he brings a deep knowledge of American literature, broadly, and the period of Twain's life and career, especially, to bear on the insights his book contains. Among his previous books, Literary Democracy, The American 1890s, and Return Passages: American Travel Writing, 1780-1910 establish his expertise for a book on Mark Twain. The book itself bears this out. The purpose of this slim volume is not to propound some new and controversial interpretation of Twain's life but to frame his complex life for an audience of readers whose prior knowledge of the subject may range from very little to quite a lot, and to do so in an engaging manner. Granted, Mark Twain enthusiasts or scholars may question the validity of distilling Twain's variegated life into a narrative of only 116 pages. But a writer of Twain's stature should be made available to a wide audience.
Ziff's book satisfies this objective because it presents details in a measured way, neither cursory nor laborious, and places Twain's life in the context of American literary traditions, both genteel and vernacular. Ziff's observation that Twain regarded Oliver Wendell Holmes's The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table "as the single best American work of comic art" (15) helps to explain how much Twain valued having his own work appear in the Atlantic Monthly, where Holmes's pieces had themselves debuted. This is the kind of thing that I admire most about Ziff's treatment of Twain's life: he amplifies and contextualizes the staple assessments of Twain scholarship. For example, in his account of Twain's emergence as a humorist with the "Jumping Frog" story, Ziff acknowledges how the tale exploits tensions between genteel society and the frontier, and he notes the fact that "it is the telling, not the tale, that counts; or, rather, the telling is the tale" (20), characteristic of the verbal energy that runs throughout the best work of Twain's career. But he does not simply allow this commonplace assessment of Twain's work to stand on its own; rather, he bolsters the point effectively by introducing the cultural wrangle that persisted between Matthew Arnold and Mark Twain from their first meeting and which emerges periodically in Twain's work from the middle career onward.
The condensed biographical narrative that Ziff constructs here pays considerable
dividends for the committed reader, but not without some expenditure of effort.
Ziff arranges the book in four chapters, each titled for an identity that makes
up the composite personality of Mark Twain--"Celebrity," "Tourist,"
"Novelist," "Humorist." This approach is rather unconventional
and could be viewed as an attempt to avoid the sense of determinism implicit
in most chronological biographies. But the decision to build the story in this
way raises some questions if not problems. First, why choose this order? Twain
attained the height of his celebrity later in his life, and resulted from a
writing career that began as a humorist, then as a tourist, and finally as a
novelist. So why lead with "Celebrity?" To be sure, it is a mistake
to think of these identities as a succession of discrete phases, and Ziff's
book makes plain that these identities coexist in varying proportions over the
course of his career. But by choosing to develop the story in this way, Ziff
has, in effect, composed four essays with different emphases. As chapters of
a single book, they challenge the reader by ranging rather widely back and forth
across time, and at times verging on repetition. The repetition may serve as
useful reinforcement for the uninitiated reader, but the absence of chronology
may unsettle one who is attempting to understand how this life unfolded. For
readers more familiar with the arc of Twain's life, the lack of chronology may
not pose a problem, but the repetition that results may try one's patience.
Nonetheless, there is still a lot of value in each of the chapters. My particular favorite is the "Tourist" chapter, and especially the section on Following the Equator. The world tour that generated the book was undertaken to defray the obligations of his disastrous financial status, and he complained to Howells about the ordeal later in life: "I wrote my last travel book in hell; but let on, the best I could, that it was an excursion through heaven. ... How I did loathe that journey round the world!--except the sea-part & India" (49). But Ziff notes that the narrative from this tour contains very revealing attitudes and reflections on racial difference, ones that cause him to consider his upbringing in a slaveholding society. Ziff writes:
When the German proprietor of Twain's Bombay hotel showed him to his room, a native was there working on his knees to adjust the glazed door that opened onto the balcony. The proprietor walked over to the workman and, before stating what he wanted done, gave him a brisk cuff on the face. "I had not seen the like of this for fifty years. It carried me back to my boyhood, and flashed upon me the forgotten fact that this was the usual way of explaining one's desire to a slave."
Thus transported to the past, Twain remembered his father, a kindly man who nevertheless treated Lewis, "our harmless slave boy," in such a fashion, and then relives the moment when at the age of ten he witnessed a man fling a lump of iron ore at a slave in anger killing him (53).
The correspondence between his boyhood recollections of America and the social
conditions he witnessed on this tour reminded him of "[t]he injustices
of the prewar South" and evoked in him "a sympathy, indeed an advocacy,
that was new to his travel writing" (54). Ziff credits these experiences
with contributing to Twain's sense of purpose in addressing the imperialist
culpability of the United States at the turn of the twentieth century.
Ziff's economical writing is perhaps best on display in the third chapter, "Novelist." Summarizing the plots of Twain's novels and assessing the relative merits and weaknesses of this range of work is a rather difficult task. Ziff manages this well, providing enough of an outline without becoming overburdened in too much summary. He balances well between a high profile masterpiece like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and lesser known works such as The Gilded Age or The American Claimant. And he tracks the trajectory of energy of these texts in ways that would elicit agreement from most scholars.
But given that scholars are sticklers for details, some will certainly object to a degree of inaccuracy, or inconsistency, with respect to dates. For example, the first mention of The American Claimant lists its date as 1882 (47), ten years before it was published. And though it is correctly dated later, in the inaccurate listing, it is placed chronologically among five novels between The Prince and Pauper (1882) and "The" Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). The suggestion here is that The American Claimant date of 1882 is not simply a typo, but a substantive, though minor, error by virtue of the order of its placement. Moreover, the dating of the other two texts creates some discrepancy since The Prince and the Pauper was published in 1882, but its copyright date is 1881, whereas Huckleberry Finn lists a copyright of 1884 but is typically dated 1885 corresponding with its American publication. Part of this confusion stems from Twain's practice of copyrighting and publishing his books in England prior to publication in the United States to afford him legal redress against book pirates in Canada. But even if we bracket these peculiarities as too arcane for inclusion in a condensed biography, Ziff's book still bears internal inconsistency by mentioning that Twain "in 1884, established his own publishing firm, Charles L. Webster and Company, which published Huckleberry Finn in the following year" (24). An attentive reader would become puzzled by all the other dated references to this famous book as published in "1884" when this reference implies publication in 1885. Still, in the scheme of things, these are somewhat small matters. And these few botched facts should not be allowed to overshadow an otherwise well written and qualitatively insightful account of the life of the most notable figures in United States culture, literary and otherwise.
Ziff's book will, I hope, be viewed as a suitable gift in this holiday season--and no doubt Oxford hopes so as well. Even for readers who know a considerable amount about Mark Twain, this nice little volume will make for informative and pleasurable reading. If the book succeeds as I think it should, we can look forward to a broader array of titles in the Lives and Legacies series.