The Lives and Loves of Samuel Clemens

Mark Twain
Mark Twain; drawing by David Levine


“My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water,” Mark Twain observed, in a note. Was he bragging or complaining? Did he realize that two of his books, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi, were among the richest word-wines ever vinted in America? Long before the nineteenth century ended Mark Twain was a world figure—in the field of letters our only world figure. His white suit and white hair were recognized everywhere. He traveled widely and even had an honorary degree from Oxford, not to mention Yale and the University of Missouri. His cranky, abstemious admirer George Bernard Shaw went so far as to say that it was Mark Twain who taught him that “telling the truth was the funniest joke in the world.” But did Twain’s enormous success have much to do with truth-telling, or did he, like Shaw, treat truth like a bicycle that could be abruptly kicked aside when the author couldn’t make it go as fast or far as he wanted it to go?

A huge herd of scholars, critics, and biographers have long been attempting to answer these and all other questions pertaining to Samuel Clemens/ Mark Twain. A walk past the Twain shelves in my bookshop or virtually any large bookshop is an experience likely to give even stout readers a sudden case of the languors: here’s W.D. Howells, Albert Bigelow Paine, Van Wyck Brooks, Bernard DeVoto, Dixon Wecter, Henry Nash Smith, Maxwell Geismar—all these from the rapidly dimming past—plus a new wave cresting, I guess, with Justin Kaplan’s Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (1968, Pulitzer) and surging on through many short studies, the Clemens family memoirs, Twain’s Letters (at last), monographs and critiques galore; and now the present bounty, which, besides Fred Kaplan’s big biography and Karen Lystra’s look at Twain’s last years, include a very welcome reprint of Twain’s Letters from the Earth,* an assemblage of diverse and sharply satirical odds and ends put together by Bernard DeVoto in the Thirties but withheld because of the objections of Clemens’s surviving daughter, Clara. It finally saw light in the Sixties. Miscellaneous gleanings from the great archive at Berkeley will no doubt still be appearing decades hence.

There is much of value, both in critical insight and biographical discovery, in these many books, but they raise in the mind of at least this reader an awkward conviction, which is that Mark Twain is one of those authors who is, invariably, more interesting to read than to read about, which is far from being the case with every writer.

Frankly, it’s day-to-day and touch-and-go whether I’d rather read Henry James or read about him. Ditto Joseph Conrad and, I fear, many other important writers—the drear fact is that many writers’ lives are more interesting than their work, but this is not the case with Mark Twain, whose…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.