Mark Twain
Mark Twain; drawing by David Levine

One evening, so the story goes, when Mark Twain was in London he dined out in society with Whistler and Henry James, and the latter, broaching a subject that seemed innocently appropriate for the occasion, inquired: “Do you know Bret Harte?” “Yes,” Twain replied, “I know the son of a bitch.” Justin Kaplan in his new biography of Mark Twain regretfully acknowledges the story may be apocryphal; but even if it is, Twain and James achieve in the exchange that unity in dissimilarity that is often said to characterize the best images of metaphysical poetry.

It is well known that neither Twain nor James had any admiration for the other’s work. Nevertheless, there has been a persistent tendency on the part of critics to pause from time to time from more strenuous reflections and imagine the two in some kind of relation. One of the first to do so was Edmund Wilson, who, in “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” wrote: “It is curious to compare A Sense of the Past with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, with which it really has a good deal in common.” Wilson’s remark is more than a passing insight: It marks an important conjunction in the orbits of two major American writers who are moving in opposite directions. But even before Wilson, Constance Rourke in American Humor wrote of Christopher Newman in James’s The American: “He might have been in San Francisco or Virginia City with Mark Twain; he had the habits of the time and place.”

Such examples could be multiplied very easily. Later we shall glance at one of the reasons why critics are so disposed to associate two writers so unlike: but here one may simply observe that, in a curious way, Twain’s attitudes sometimes appear to be a kind of distorting mirror held up to James’s. “It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been more wonderful to miss it,” Twain caused Pudd’nhead wilson, who is a persona of himself, to write in his calendar. James never held a sentiment even remotely like that, but old-time critics sometimes thought he did, and Twain’s attitudes often conform with remarkable fidelity to the erroneous image of James that once circulated in this country among American literary patriots.

THE SO-CALLED DEFINITIVE EDITION of Twain’s work is in thirty-seven volumes. Probably the collected edition of no other major American writer contains so uneven a body of work, or work whose attitudes and point-of-view are so uncertain and wavering. Twain criticism has, for the most part, showed remarkable efficiency in recognizing the several masterpieces, and in sifting, among the remainder, the good from the indifferent and the inept. In what is probably the best critical book on the work itself, Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer, Henry Nash Smith writes: “The main line of his development lies in the long preoccupation with the Matter of Hannibal and the Matter of the River that is recorded in ‘Old Times’ and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and reaches a climax in his book about ‘Tom Sawyer’s Comrade. Scene: The Mississippi Valley. Time: Forty to Fifty Years Ago.’ “

“Old Times on the Mississippi” is the seven installments published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1875, to which Twain subsequently made the disappointing additions that rounded them out to book size under the title, Life on the Mississippi. The collected edition contains a good many titles of interest and importance beyond the three named above; but the point is that in the work of no other great American writer is the discrepancy between the best, the average, and the worst so great. It is rather as if Emily Brontë, having written Wuthering Heights, had gone on to write East Lynne, Lady Audley’s Secret, and Three Weeks. Perhaps one’s bewilderment arises not because the worst is so bad (which it isn’t, except in a few unimportant instances) but because the best is so superb that one is oppressed by a sense of grotesque incongruity.

This kind of discrepancy does not exist, for example, in the collected novels of Fenimore Cooper, about whom Twain was so unfairly insulting. A good deal of Cooper may be virtually unreadable today, but the thirty and some volumes that make up the collected edition are informed by political, social, and moral attitudes that are consistent and constant, and by a play of intelligence that is only dimmed because Cooper comes through as a genuine artist in only a handful of his novels. And certainly this discrepancy does not exist in The New York Edition of James where themes, attitudes, and technique are all the product of a creative sensibility intellectually and emotionally at ease with itself. This results from a seriousness of creative purpose that Twain seems only occasionally, and never consciously, to possess. Both Cooper and James are always in dead earnest when they write. Neither could be deflected from their purpose, whatever the cost to their personal popularity or prosperity. Refusing to compromise with the failures of their society as each understood them, they incorporated their insights and their dissatisfactions in their fiction in such a way that there is an organic connection between their art and their social values. The fiction of each is continuous with, not disjunct from, the social and political world in which he lives. For them writing was a form of practical action by which they tried to make their critical vision effectively operative, and so through their writing they achieved an integration of themselves as men and artists.


TWAIN WAS A GREATER ARTIST, if a less critically intelligent man, than Cooper; his native endowment of genius may even have approached James’s though this is a highly risky speculation. But he lacked—and lacked ruinously—the kind of integration, that continuity between the outer and the inner worlds, that characterized the other two novelists. Something like this interpretation of Twain as man and artist was first advanced in 1920 in Van Wyck Brooks’s The Ordeal of Mark Twain, Brooks’s best book, and one of the best interpretations of an American writer we have despite the disagreement and controversy it has provoked for more than forty years. Commenting on the sense of guilt, the pessimism, and the selfaccusations that steadily increased as Twain grew older, Brooks wrote:

It is an established fact, if I am not mistaken, that these morbid feelings of sin, which have no evident cause, are the results of having transgressed some inalienable life-demand peculiar to one’s nature. It is as old as Milton that there are talents which are “death to hide,” and I suggest that Mark Twain’s “talent” was just so hidden. That bitterness of his was the effect of a certain miscarriage in his creative life, a balked personality, an arrested development of which he was himself almost wholly unaware, but which for him destroyed the meaning of life.

In such a view any critical evaluation of Twain’s achievement in art must necessarily look for corroboration to the facts of biography. Brooks’s volume relied heavily on biographical background in making its case, but The Ordeal of Mark Twain remains essentially an interpretative criticism—an attempt to understand the limitations of Twain’s genius through the frustrating social and cultural conditions in which he passed his life. An interpretation of this kind is not a biography in any strict sense, and such biographies as we have possessed, beginning with Albert B. Paine’s authorized life, have in various ways been unsatisfactory. Justin Kaplan’s Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain is now not only the best life of Twain that we possess, but it is also one of the best among those long, detailed, and “definitive” biographies of American literary figures that have appeared with somewhat monotonous regularity from our presses over the past fifteen years or more.

Mr. Kaplan’s book is long—388 pages of actual text; but it is not as long as these “definitive” American biographies, which sometimes seem to have replaced the late Victorian vogue for the three-volume novel, usually are, and Mr. Kaplan’s discretion here has given him a strong advantage. His Twain is not buried under a plethora of information. Details are plentiful but handled with a discriminating sense of relevance and proportion. The result is that we have a finely rendered portrait of a man and a personality, not an anatomy chart. And it is a portrait in the true sense of the word that we are given. Mr. Kaplan appears to urge no particular interpretation of Twain on the reader, but to allow the days and the years of his life to speak for themselves. Nevertheless, behind this seemingly artless presentation there is a firm and controlling conception of what Twain was, and what made him so.

Although Mr. Kaplan mentions Van Wyck Brooks at no point, in important respects his Twain is very much the same divided and frustrated figure that we encounter in The Ordeal—in this strictly biographical context all the more convincing because Kaplan’s intentions appear to be so little polemical. There are differences in interpretative details of course. In Kaplan’s account, Twain’s wife Livy is much more attractive—not at all the restraining and defeating influence on his art she appeared to be to Brooks. And as Mr. Kaplan really begins his narrative only at the end of 1866 when Twain sailed from California for New York where he was to be the correspondent for the San Francisco Alta California during the next year, we are given no detailed account of his boyhood and youth. Hence, the disastrous influence of his mother Jane Clemens in laying the deadly hand of convention and conformity on her son, of which Brooks makes so much, is not treated at all.


We begin, in effect, with the young writer who, back from his trip to the Holy Land on the Quaker City, and having already written The Innocents Abroad, is about to marry the daughter of the coal and iron monopolist, Jervis Langdon. Although Twain was already a nationally known writer of humorous sketches with substantial expectations, the contrast between the young Westerner of modest origins and the coal tycoon of Elmira, New York, who embodied on a moderate scale (the Langdon household expenses ran to $40,000 a year) the opulent positives of what Twain would soon christen the Gilded Age, was dazzling to him. But it was even more frightening. Few of his contemporaries reacted more strongly against the business and financial corruption of the age than Twain did, and there is plenty of evidence that when he permitted himself he saw through his father-in-law (who wanted Twain to write a life of Christ) clearly enough. But if he deplored the age, it was quite a different thing when it came to deploring his father-in-law, who was one of its representatives. So Twain had to arrive at a workable modus vivendi with a great deal that he hated most, while ostensibly keeping his hands and his conscience clean.

“Mark Twain,” writes Mr. Kaplan, “all his life had plutocratic ambitions but at the same time believed that money was evil and created evil.” During most of his career he squandered many thousands of dollars promoting get-rich-quick schemes, usually in the form of some mechanical gadget—or sometimes a protein food supplement, or a self-pasting scrapbook of his own invention. When the fortune he had sunk in the Paige typesetting machine drew him into bankruptcy, his good angel turned out to be a man whom he hardly knew, Henry Huttleston Rogers (otherwise known as “Hell Hound” Rogers), one of the major figures in the Standard Oil trust and a symbol of all that was least attractive in American financial and business philosophy of the period. “We are not in business for our health, but are out for the dollars,” Mr. Kaplan quotes him as telling a governmental commission. Twain had every reason to be grateful to Rogers, whose kindness and help were his financial salvation, but the friendship serves to illuminate the conflict of motives that ravaged Twain to the end of his life, the ease with which sentiment blotted out critical intelligence. “He is not only the best friend I ever had,” Twain wrote of Rogers in 1902, “but is the best man I have ever known.” When Charles Dudley Warner suggested to Twain that he might profitably and appropriately become the publisher of Henry Demarest Lloyd’s Wealth Against Commonwealth, a book attacking the “Standard Oil fiends,” the co-author of The Gilded Age, according to Kaplan, “swallowed his rage and the temptation to tell Warner that it was one of those fiends who…was keeping him and his family out of the poorhouse.”

THIS AMBIVALENT ATTITUDE towards American wealth and the kind of society promoted by its pursuit amounts to a genuine confusion in Twain’s thinking and writing. And it is matched by a corresponding ambiguity of attitude towards Europe and England. The engaging old man who liked to entertain wearing the scarlet academic gown he had acquired when Oxford gave him an honorary degree felt an emotional affection for England that was extremely remote from the crass American cynicism mouthed by the narrator of The Innocents Abroad towards the past and everything European. When Twain went to England in 1872 to collect material for a satire on the English, he fell in love with the island and the people. “I would rather live in England than America—which is treason,” he wrote his wife; and he said that he felt like “a Prodigal Son getting back home again.” Mr. Kaplan gives an excellent analysis of Twain’s feelings for the English at this point in his life:

He…adored the English because their way of life offered him for the first time a baseline by which he could measure his discontent with his own country, and instead of a satire on the English he wrote The Gilded Age, an angry and reactionary book about Americans…. He saw about him stability, government by a responsible elite, the acceptance of a gentleman’s code. These were painful contrasts with the chicanery and cynicism, the demoralized public service, the abuse of universal suffrage and legislative power, and all the excesses and failures of American society in the 1870s going through the most dynamic but least governable phase of its growth.

Twain fell away from this earlier enthusiasm, but if A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published in 1886, is badly marred by Anglophobia, it is also a novel, as Henry Nash Smith has shown in his detailed discussion of it in The Development of a Writer, which is built upon unresolved ambiguities and confusions of attitude of which Twain is not even conscious. Hank Morgan, the Connecticut mechanic who undertakes to industrialize and republicanize sixth-century Britain, ends up with a desecrated country and twenty-five-thousand rotting corpses he has electrocuted, the stench from which threatens his own life. “So much for the ideals and achievements of nineteenth-century American civilization!” Twain might be saying. Of course he meant to say, and thought he was saying, something quite different, and so did the enthusiastic American audience for whom he wrote the book. But the unresolved ambiguity is there, a literary memorial to a lifelong personality split.

In his reactions to great wealth Twain never managed to achieve that purity of vision with which Henry James wrote The Ivory Tower—or that part of it which he finished. But the extraordinary thing is that so far as his hands and conscience went, Twain did manage to keep them reasonably clean. It was his art that ended up by being harmed because it was rarely able to bridge the gap between his sense of what was wrong with the times and his personal commitments to his family, friends, and society. Kaplan, like Van Wyck Brooks before him, recognizes Twain’s moral and emotional schizophrenia as the radical flaw in his creative temperament. Like Brooks, Kaplan finds in Twain’s story, “Those Extraordinary Twins,” which deals with the temperamental conflict of Siamese twins who share only one pair of legs between them, a symbol of the destructive tension in Twain’s own personality. On the subject of Twain’s split identity Mr. Kaplan writes:

Twinship was one of Mark Twain’s favorite subjects, often one of his fatal temptations. He could manipulate it into melodrama and farce by exploiting its possibilities and surprises and discoveries. Pudd’nhead Wilson became viable only after the débridement of a “comedy” called Those Extraordinary Twins. But twinship, along with the cognate subject of claimants of all sorts, also offered Clemens an enormously suggestive if misleadingly simple way of objectifying the steadily deepening sense of internal conflict and doubleness which is suggested by two sets of near homonyms: Twain/twins and Clemens/claimants. And soon he would begin to explore the doubleness of Samuel L. Clemens and Mark Twain through concepts of “dual personality,” “conscience,” and, toward the end of his life, a “dream self” that seemed to lead a separate life.

ONE BEGINS TO PERCEIVE at least one reason why, against all the evidence, critics have so often tended to associate the names of Twain and Henry James in the manner described earlier. The cultural polarity represented by Europe and America, which is at the center of James’s fiction, has its fragmentary counterpart in the double commitment of Twain to the integrity of his own creative conscience, and to the values represented by the age in which he lived. On the level at which James approached the problem of two ostensibly opposed sets of values, an imaginative synthesis could be realized in art, but for Twain each commitment was irrevocably opposed to the other, and so his double allegiance was destined to remain a pair of monstrous twins. It was only when he rejected the claims of the present altogether, and the responsibilities imposed by his society and family, and retreated to the past—to the Matter of Hannibal and the Matter of the River—that he was free at last to realize the full potential of his genius.

Towards the end of his life when he felt freer to speak out, to write as he would against the false values of his age, a synthesis between the two commitments was still impossible in his art; for he found that he was no longer committed to anything at all except, to use a phrase of his own, the Great Dark. Out of this Darkness came the most interesting of his second-rank novels, The Mysterious Stranger, and several fragments of nihilistic stories, interesting indeed but easily overestimated in an age like ours. The kind of mordant despair that Twain embraced in his last years was as little likely to produce the creative tensions essential to great work as that deflection of his satiric genius into “safe” channels of indignation that, through his prime, left his prosperity and popularity unchallenged.

The Twain whom Mr. Kaplan gives us shares a great deal with the Twain that Van Wyck Brooks gave us nearly half a century ago. In saying this one has no intention of suggesting that Kaplan has necessarily been influenced by Brooks. Kaplan’s Twain is before us as the solid and convincing result of many years of discriminating labor. Brooks’s Twain has often been under critical attack, and so it is good to have, in support of the only credible Twain, this authoritative and strongly corroborative study.

Biographers working on the scale of Mr. Kaplan are often inclined to scant their critical chores, and trace the genesis and reception of an author’s books, or their autobiographical content, rather than attempt an evaluation of them as art. But one cannot have a “literary” biography without the literature, and in his treatment of Twain’s work Kaplan shows himself to be a thoroughly reliable and astute critic. This indeed is one of the strong points of the biography. In a work of this nature a series of detailed critiques of the individual books and stories would be out of place; but it is clear that Mr. Kaplan has made them in the abbreviated critical comments he permits himself. It is his critical understanding of Twain’s books, his trained ability to measure either literary success or failure, that leads him by a direct and economical route to so firm and convincing a portrayal of so difficult and ambiguous a subject.

This Issue

September 8, 1966