In which the great American author, aided by his scholarly editors, continues to spin out a great yarn covering his long life.
In the year of his birth, writes Twain, John Marshall, the noted jurist and chief justice of the Supreme Court, died. A collection was taken up among lawyers to erect a statue to him, but then “a prodigious new event of some kind or other suddenly absorbed the whole nation and drove the matter of the monument out of everybody’s mind.” The money sat in a bank account for half a century collecting interest, and suddenly, in 1883 or so, it was rediscovered and used to build the memorial that now stands in the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. The statue is a material fact, but it is Twain’s storytelling that makes it come alive. Having written despairingly of the human race, and especially of its more murderous representatives, such as Belgium’s King Leopold, he takes the rare fact of honest politicians and fiduciaries as a tonic: “It takes the bitter taste out of my mouth to recall that beautiful incident.” Twain emerges as an unflinching social critic with a long list of targets, including the robber barons of his day and imperialist militarists like Leonard Wood. Yet, in this most personal of works, Twain also reserves plenty of spite for miscreant publishers: “Webster kept back a book of mine, ‘A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur,’ as long as he could, and finally published it so surreptitiously that it took two or three years to find out that there was any such book.” Twain is, as ever, a sharply honed and contrarian wit, as quick to lampoon himself as anyone else. He is also capable of Whitmanesque flights: “I am,” he declares, “the entire human race compacted together”—for better and for worse.
Twain admirers will find this volume indispensable and will eagerly await the third volume.