The Lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens
Email this review


This brisk double profile ably traces the career of America's greatest literary celebrity, ark Twain, while drawing a full portrait of his progenitor, Samuel Clemens.

For novelist and scholar Hoffman, Clemens was an insecure if sympathetically brilliant narcissist, desperate to rewrite his past and secure his future. Thus he created the Mark Twain persona: a masterstroke of self-creation and self-promotion that Hoffman considers nothing less than the "inspired ad-hoc invention of fame.'' Hoffman seeks to reconstruct what Clemens actually experienced before he edited and capitalized on his life. Thus, the Mississippi is the tragic scene of Clemens's father's doomed struggle to support his family. Hoffman illuminates several years of Clemens's life about which he never wrote, when his teenage rebelliousness led him to leave home and become an itinerant typesetter and newspaper columnist. A career as a riverboat pilot was interrupted by the Civil War, which Clemens sat out reporting for newspapers in Nevada and California. Hoffman deftly explores the romantic relationships with men that Clemens conducted in his years out west, placing them in the contexts of both boomtown mining culture and also the literary bohemianism that Clemens increasingly came to embrace. Local fame in San Francisco led to successful lectures in the east; soon Mark Twain's brilliant travel writing was earning top dollar. But adroit as the narrative of these years is, Hoffman's account of the creation of the great novels, particularly The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is thin, and by the time he reaches the eventual wreck of Clemens's investments and the tragic deaths of two of his daughters, his commentary has become less insightful. Even Clemens's final years as a terrifying iconoclast come off muted.

While Hoffman doesn't capture the full spectrum of his subject's achievements and disasters, he does convincingly picture Samuel Clemens's personality: a character interesting not least for his powerful ambivalence towards his astoundingly successful public alter ego.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-688-12769-X
Page count: 608pp
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1997


NonfictionMARK TWAIN AND THE COLONEL by Philip McFarland
by Philip McFarland
by Mark Twain
NonfictionMARK TWAIN by Geoffrey C. Ward
by Geoffrey C. Ward
NonfictionTHE SINGULAR MARK TWAIN by Fred Kaplan
by Fred Kaplan