In his notebooks, letters, and memoirs, America's greatest humorist left a tangled web of facts, exaggerations, sarcasms,...



In his notebooks, letters, and memoirs, America's greatest humorist left a tangled web of facts, exaggerations, sarcasms, and hoaxes. Through assiduous literary detective work, Lauber has sifted out the truths to provide a detailed biography of Twain's formative years, from his birth and childhood, through his checkered apprenticeships, ending with his first major literary success--The Innocents A broad--in 1869 and his marriage the following year. Lauber has the advantage of a peerlessly quotable subject, and he makes ample use of this blessing, spicing nearly every page with the humorist's recollections, observations, and snarls. There are also such tidbits as young Clemens' first known writing, an epigram on an aptly-named school teacher: ""Cross by name and cross by nature, Cross jumped over an Irish potato."" He has uncovered a plethora of facts and anecdotes about acquaintances, sweethearts, employers. Wherever Twain traveled--piloting on the Mississippi, mining in Nevada, living the bohemian life in San Francisco--Lauber's account is rich with details of the locale and era. He is skillful at re-creating the temper of these environments. However, the torrent of facts is eventually dizzying. Lauber leans too heavily on chronology to organize his writing, and the book loses focus. Interesting issues of Twain's character are raised, then lost in the rambling march of events: How and when did Twain shed his native racism? How did his youthful cycles of guilt and reform relate to his humor? What were the roots of his drive for commercial and ""highbrow"" success? These questions are answered in brief narrative asides that may satisfy the general reader, but without compelling arguments or evidence. Lauder certainly knows Twain's fascinating and divisive critical heritage, as when he takes issue with Van Wyck Brook's model of Twain as a fatally divided soul, but this argument is too brief to be anything but peripheral. In sum, Twain's world is successfully re-created, but without a critical focus, the man himself remains inscrutable. Moreover, one can't forget that the story has been better told before. Lauber is aware of the competition: ""At first there seems no need to retell the story of Sam Clemens' childhood--Mark Twain has told it so well."" At last, too, the historical truths seem only a pale sketch of the more eloquent--and in a sense, more truthful--exaggerations of Twain's own fiction.

Pub Date: Oct. 30, 1985


Page Count: -

Publisher: American Heritage--dist. by Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1985