The transformation of newspaperman Samuel Clemens into popular essayist and entertainer Mark Twain.
Although Twain (1835-1910) has been the subject of scores of biographies and studies, his life story has never been told, asserts Scharnhorst (Emeritus, English/Univ. of New Mexico; Owen Wister and the West, 2015, etc.), “from beginning to end from a single point of view on an expansive canvas.” The author brings considerable authority and astute analysis to the first volume of his planned multivolume biography, drawing on Twain’s writings, letters (more than 5,000 made available since Justin Kaplan’s acclaimed biography of Twain was published in 1966), memoirs by Twain’s contemporaries, and nearly everything—reviews, remarks, and scholarship—written about Twain. Although Scharnhorst admits that he has discovered no “bombshells” or “dark secrets,” he offers a cleareyed, balanced portrait of the restless, irreverent, hard-drinking writer and lecturer who, no matter how much money he earned, seemed perpetually in debt. Twain worked for several newspapers after he gave up piloting on the Mississippi, with varying success. He was not well-liked by his colleagues on Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise, for example, recalled for being “a notoriously lazy grinder” who, when he should have been cranking out copy, instead sat “drumming on a cracked guitar.” As a young man, he held decidedly racist views, which he “outgrew” after he moved to cosmopolitan San Francisco in 1865. As far as sex, “little is known,” Scharnhorst asserts, although judging from some ribald writings, Twain “seems to have been thoroughly familiar with western bordellos” and may have been treated for venereal disease. Twain was an enthusiastic world traveler whose jaunts were funded by newspapers to which he contributed “letters” from abroad. He supplemented his income by performing as a “literary comedian” in the manner of renowned Artemus Ward, to whom he was often favorably compared. Scharnhorst ends his first volume with the publication of Twain’s well-received The Innocents Abroad (1869), his marriage to the heiress Livy Langdon, and the birth of their son.
A lively, richly detailed, and sharply perceptive biography.