This latest addition to the overstuffed Twain library offers neither scholarly revelation nor literary insight, but instead provides a Civil War historian’s account of the author’s formative years during and after the war.
The editor of Military Heritage magazine and author of books on the Civil War and other topics from that era (The Long Pursuit: Abraham Lincoln’s Thirty-Year Struggle with Stephen Douglas for the Heart and Soul of America, 2008, etc.) might seem like an odd choice to tackle a subject who did his best to avoid that war. Yet Morris builds a solid case that it was the war that “ended Twain’s career as a riverboat pilot, occasioned his brief inglorious career as a Confederate guerilla, and (had) driven him westward across the continent.” The central theme of the book, stated more than once, is that “he had come west as Sam Clemens…He was returning east as Mark Twain—increasingly renowned journalist, lecturer, and short story writer.” The challenge for the author is that the period from 1861 to 1867 has, like the rest of Twain’s life, been exhaustively documented. Morris’s narrative relies heavily on the many books that have come before, including Twain’s autobiographical writings. Since Twain was never known to let the facts get in the way of a good yarn—even his journalism was marked by stretching the truth and outright invention—Morris attempts to set the record straight. He does a good job detailing the young man’s years in Nevada as a shareholder in ultimately worthless mines, San Francisco as a Wild West outpost and Hawaii, where Twain went surfing(!). For the reader willing to forgive the assessment that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is “in some ways (his) best book,” the Twain who emerges here is more human, less legend.
Nothing new or particularly compelling for Twain buffs, but an engaging account for the casual fan.