Kirkus Reviews QR Code


by Everett Emerson

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-8122-3516-9
Publisher: Univ. of Pennsylvania

Mark Twain considered his writing the key feature of his life; this new biography takes him at his word.

As one would expect, Emerson (English, Emeritus/North Carolina) tracks down Twain’s writings and relates them to the events of his life. While there is a natural tendency to concentrate on the best-known fiction—Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee—Emerson has also unearthed a wide variety of lesser-known work, including early journalism, a few works published anonymously (e.g., the scatological 1601), and various fragments published posthumously. There is ample citation of letters, notebooks, and other material that normally interests only Twain scholars. Emerson also draws effectively on such recent discoveries as the first part of the manuscript of Huckleberry Finn to illuminate the often complex process by which Twain’s work was put together. He argues that as Samuel L. Clemens became more affluent and yearned to become more respectable, the authentic voice of “Mark Twain”—the rowdy, iconoclastic frontier persona of his early work—was less frequently heard in his writings. Olivia Clemens (“Livy”), the author’s wife, did her best to steer him toward the kind of genteel literature that would sit well with the Eastern establishment she represented. Along with literary friends like William Dean Howells, she valued The Prince and the Pauper above Huck Finn. Much of the strength of Huck, according to Emerson, may arise from its embodiment of the author’s instinctive rebellion against the “civilizing” influence of Livy, who read, edited, and effectively censored all his mature work. Twain suppressed some of his best writing (e.g. “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven”) until after her death. Emerson’s treatment of his subject is sometimes dry, but he quotes Twain’s own work often enough to keep things lively.

A useful addition to Twain scholarship—one that may inspire many to reread the Inimitable himself.