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His Own Best Straight Man

Lest this catalog be mistaken for a list of “primitive” man’s qualities, he remarks that among the “many humorous things in the world” is “the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.” What saved Twain from misanthropy was his unsparing self-knowledge—what Howells called the “kind contempt to which he was driven by our follies and iniquities as he had observed them in himself as well as in others.”

In the double-anniversary year just passed (one-hundredth of his death, one-hundred-seventy-fifth of his birth), he has been the subject of many articles, symposia, exhibitions, and books, including a collection of contemporary views of him, an anthology of writers’ responses to his work, and an informative new biography.4 To my mind, however, the most sensitive portrait remains Howells’s little memoir My Mark Twain (1910), in which Howells recalls how his friend “was apt to smile into your face with a subtle but amiable perception, and yet with a sort of remote absence; you were all there for him, but he was not all there for you.” This first installment of Twain’s autobiography brings us closer to all of him than we have ever come before.

Letters

Twain on Twain April 7, 2011

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    Gary Scharnhorst, Twain in His Own Time (University of Iowa Press, 2010); The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works, edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin (Library of America, 2010); Jerome Loving, Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens (University of California Press, 2010). 

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