Mark Twain: ‘the true father of all American literature’ ?

Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L Clemens, by Jerome Loving, University of California Press £24.95, 548 pages, FT Bookshop price: £19.96

The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on his Life and Works, edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, The Library of America $35, 493 pages

Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of his Final Years, by Laura Trombley, Knopf $28.95, 352 pages

Mark Twain: Man in White – The Grand Adventure of his Final Years, by Michael Shelden, Random House $30, 485 pages

Mark Twain: A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, Other Travels, edited by Roy Blount Jr, The Library of America $40, 1168 pages

I am not an American,” Mark Twain once proclaimed, “I am the American.” He had good warrant for saying so. Of all the nation’s writers he is still considered the greatest – it’s not merely literary distinction but something even bigger than that. From Theodore Roosevelt onwards, American presidents have routinely salted their oratory with down-home Twainisms.

Barack Obama, on the stump in Twain’s swing state in 2008, was careful to hail “our greatest American satirist and proud son of Missouri”. Harry Truman kept a framed Twain quotation on his desk: “Always do right. It will please some people and astonish the rest.” There is, in fact, something presidential about Twain himself in his venerable status. William Dean Howells, the author and critic, called him “The Lincoln of Literature”.

Great American writers elbow each other aside to aver Twain’s supreme greatness. “Mark Twain,” declared Eugene O’Neill, “is the true father of all American literature.” “Mark Twain is all of our grandfather,” concurred William Faulkner, with an awkward but sincerely felt turn of phrase. Norman Mailer turned it round neatly by noting that much of what Mark Twain wrote had clearly been lifted from Norman Mailer.

The centenary of the death of Samuel L Clemens, known to the world as Mark Twain, falls on April 21. Twain himself was very interested in the date of his future demise. He was born in 1835, he liked to recall as Halley’s comet blazed across the sky and he intended to exit when, in 1910, it returned. And as it turned out, he did. When ordinary writers die, as Shakespeare said, there are no comets seen. The extraordinary Twain is celebrated this centennial year by a flurry of biography and critical writing. It is true that little new, after all this time, can be expected. But provocative new angles and perspectives are thrown up, allowing us to see this great but notoriously elusive American perhaps more clearly than ever before.

In Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L Clemens, Jerome Loving follows the well-known story of Twain’s life with a nice edging of subversive wit and a focus on one large and troubling question. How, he asks, can a writer have achieved such eminence as Twain’s with such a small number of incontrovertibly great works?

Loving is surely correct in claiming that, much loved (and filmed) as the tale is, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is “possibly the most overrated work in American literature”. Hemingway proclaimed that “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn”. But even that one book was dropped, mid-composition, for five years and picked up to be hurried into concluding chapters, which fall well below the magnificent central narrative of Jim and Huck drifting down the Mississippi on a raft.

Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, the first American novel to deal unsentimentally or unbigotedly with race, was written, as Loving chronicles, during the turmoil of one of Twain’s recurrent financial insolvencies and is marred by that distraction. As for the rest, The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court are charming amusettes (to borrow Henry James’s term) but no one suggests they are in the Moby-Dick class.

Loving’s biography tactfully highlights this major Twainian paradox. Dickens published 12 novels, any one of which can be argued to vindicate his status as Britain’s greatest. But where are Twain’s dozen? What makes him the “father” of American fiction? What makes him what American essayist HL Mencken called “the archetype of Homo Americanus”?

Mencken’s question is the easier of the two to answer. Twain’s life is a parable of the American belief that anyone can make it in that country; any pauper can end up a prince. Loving tells the familiar rags-to-riches story briskly, with a sly refusal to be hagiographic. Born the son of an unlucky storekeeper, young Sam L Clemens was fortunate to make it through infancy – most of his siblings didn’t. His father’s insolvency and premature death meant that Sam left school at 11 to earn a pittance as a printer’s devil.

Fortunately for American literature, he was not good enough at that line of work to prosper. In his early teens, he struck out from Hannibal, Missouri – immortalised as St Petersburg in Huckleberry Finn – to make his fortune importing coca leaf from South America. He might have become the Pablo Escobar of his day, had he not met Horace Bixby, a legendary Mississippi pilot. The romance of the great river, its raffish paddleboat life and its eerie call occupied him for four years. He might have stayed a pilot all his working life but for two things: the civil war and the fact that he was chronically nervous at the helm.

A school dropout, Twain was also a draft dodger. War wasn’t for him, he decided, so he tried silver mining in Nevada. He struck it rich (“a millionaire for two days”) but his claim was “jumped” by other prospectors and he lost out. Finally he hit pay-dirt in San Francisco as a journalist, where he had his first great stroke of luck. His comic newspaper sketch, “Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog” became a nationwide hit.

After the fame of his frog tale, Twain considered himself to have the Midas touch: “It seems to me that whatever I touch turns to gold,” he later mused. But he also destroyed money faster than he could make it. He built houses the size of castles and had what Loving calls a “lifelong losing streak” as an investor. He invented self-adjusting suspenders (braces) and an early version of the Post-it. Both were costly failures. He sunk the equivalent of $4m today into a typesetting process that went nowhere.

Twain was always able to write his way out of financial misfortune. When funds ran low, he would hit the lecture circuit or board the steamship and record his impressions for Americans at home. His first bestselling book was a travelogue, The Innocents Abroad (1869). This account of Twain’s (un)grand tour to Europe and the east continued to outsell all his other titles for the whole of his life. As the concluding volume in the Library of America’s publication of Twain’s collected works testifies, he was still “tramping abroad” almost until the final year of his life.

This Library of America volume is the seventh devoted to Twain and completes the project of putting all the writer’s work into print. Like its predecessors, it is finely produced, tactfully edited, and a credit to the not-for-profit organisation that has made, handily and cheaply available, the whole corpus of American canonical literature.

The aforementioned O’Neill, Faulkner and Hemingway all won literature’s top prize. In his Nobel acceptance speech, in 1954, Hemingway observed: “I cannot but regret that the award was never given to Mark Twain.” And why wasn’t it? The answer is easy. Twain was a “humorist” and no comic writer has ever won the world’s major literary prize, nor ever will. Stockholm must have a poor sense of humour. But why did Twain, a writer with many voices, choose to be a humorist? Why did he decline to publish the most serious works he wrote, such as the late-life, deeply pessimistic, Letters to the Earth, or The Mysterious Stranger, or his scathing denunciation of racism, “The United States of Lyncherdom”? These works came into print only decades after the writer’s death, thanks to the Library of America.

Loving comes up with a convincing explanation for the comic mask. It goes back to that thorny issue for all Twainians: why their man conducted himself so ungallantly in the civil war. Why did this great “patriot” (as Obama calls him) cut and run to the West Coast? Loving argues that Twain saw the conflict as romantic futility, but couldn’t say so. “In the long shadow of the civil war,” a shadow that still darkens America, “he required the cover of the clown.” Twain, Loving suggests, could only say the most serious things about America to America in jest and in smart aphorisms such as “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so”.

Twain, who lived a long life (despite a heroic intake of 300 cigars a month) devoted his final decade to securing his legacy. He dictated his autobiography and recruited a tame biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine. But Twain didn’t script his final five years for posterity and that terminal period has, in recent years, become a biographical dogfight.

Until very recently, Twain was a man’s writer, and it was men who wrote about him. River steamers, saloons, smoke–filled billiard rooms were his world. Women entered planet Twain at their peril. Recently, however, women have begun examining him, enriching our awareness of his work in the process.

Laura Trombley’s Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of his Last Years takes issue with the principal contention of Karen Lystra’s book Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain’s Final Years (2004). Both writers start from the biographical fact that Twain was surrounded, not to say suffocated, by women and worries about women in his final years. He never recovered from the death of his favourite daughter, Susy, in 1896. The death of his beloved wife Livy, eight years later, was a second hammer blow. Of the two daughters that remained, Clara, the elder, was a second-rate singer, with a weakness for concert-room Lotharios. Jean was afflicted with epilepsy, a condition considered shameful at the time.

In these late years Twain came to rely on Isabel Lyon, his secretary-companion. According to Twain himself, in a private document penned in his final years, Lyon was a “drunken slut” who, failing to seduce him, conspired with his personal assistant, Ralph Ashcroft, to embezzle him.

Lystra followed Twain’s line about the Lyon-Ashcroft villainy. Trombley, after a close and more sympathetic examination of Lyon’s personal papers, comes up with a different interpretation. The Goneril to Twain’s Lear, she argues, was not Lyon (as Lystra maintained) but the vengeful, frustrated Clara.

Despite their different interpretation, Lystra and Trombley agree that Twain’s final years were wretched. However, Michael Shelden’s portrait of the writer as an old man, Mark Twain: Man in White pictures a wholly un-wretched Twain. Shelden takes his title and his theme from that moment in 1906 when Twain first dazzled America by appearing in public in his white cashmere suit. For the last four years of his life, Twain wore head to toe white: shirts, overcoats, socks, dressing gown. He was even buried in white.

Shelden reads this sartorial flamboyance as the aged Twain blazing into extinction. By then, he had become America’s first real literary celebrity. Diners in restaurants rose and applauded whenever he entered; the paparazzi of the day followed him everywhere.

While contradictory, Trombley’s image of Twain as melancholy and Shelden’s stellar portrait of the man in white are both fascinating and persuasive. The final conclusion is perhaps closer to a favourite paradox of Twain’s own: one can never know a man as he knows himself, the world simply would not stand for it.

John Sutherland is author of ‘Curiosities of Literature: A Book-Lover’s Anthology of Literary Erudition’ (Arrow Books)

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