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A Biography

by Fred Kaplan

Pub Date: Oct. 21st, 2003
ISBN: 0-385-47715-5
Publisher: Doubleday

An argument that the native adventurer and high Victorian author’s life was not “twain,” as it is sometimes presented, but unified by an unflagging belief in his own luck, a fierce social conscience, and a never-ending quest for money.

Wily, outspoken, socially insecure, and immensely talented, the man born Samuel Clemens set out to become the foremost humorous chronicler of American culture and character in the years between the Civil War and the end of the Gilded Age, a designation he invented. Kaplan (Gore Vidal, 1999, etc.; English Literature/Queens College) catalogues Clemens’s adventures on and off the Mississippi in prodigious if familiar detail. Leaving behind a far-from-idyllic boyhood in Hannibal, the future literary lion drifted from small-town newspaper jobs to riverboat piloting to prospecting in Nevada’s silver mines before lighting on his nom de plume and his great talent as a brilliant comic storyteller, cultural satirist, and wildly entertaining popular speaker. Twain’s novels and foreign correspondence brought him instant, enduring celebrity, his international lecture tours brought him affluence, and his charm and determination won him a wealthy Brahmin wife and a warm place in the literary society of Emerson, Beecher, James, and Howells. But a desire for a larger share of the period’s immense wealth and a gambler’s restlessness left him easy prey for flighty dreamers and con men. Though loved by friends and by a nation of admiring readers, Twain’s final years were haunted by illness, debt, the deaths of two of his three children and his wife, and his intense, growing bitterness toward those he felt had betrayed his trust. Kaplan reports that Twain’s last heir committed suicide in 1964. Yet his literary legacy remains more vital than that of any American writer, with the possible exception of his friend Henry James.

No real surprises here, but a welcome reminder of the contributions of a great American social critic.