American Radical

Mark Twain developed an enormous and subversive personality—but Fred Kaplan's new biography illuminates it only in flickers

There are four rules governing literary art in the domain of biography—some say five. In The Singular Mark Twain, Fred Kaplan violates all five of them. These five require:

1) That a biography shall cause us to wish we had known its subject in person, and inspire in us a desire to improve on such vicarious acquaintance as we possess. The Singular Mark Twain arouses in the reader an urgently fugitive instinct, as at the approach of an unpolished yet tenacious raconteur.

2) That the elements of biography make a distinction between the essential and the inessential, winnowing the quotidian and burnishing those moments of glory and elevation that place a human life in the first rank. The Singular Mark Twain puts all events and conversations on the same footing, and fails to enforce any distinction between wood and trees.

3) That a biographer furnish something by way of context, so that the place of the subject within history and society is illuminated, and his progress through life made intelligible by reference to his times. This condition is by no means met in The Singular Mark Twain.

4) That the private person be allowed to appear in all his idiosyncrasy, and not as a mere reflection of the correspondence or reminiscences of others, or as a subjective projection of the mind of the biographer. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in The Singular Mark Twain.

5) That a biographer have some conception of his subject, which he wishes to advance or defend against prevailing or even erroneous interpretations. This detail, too, has been overlooked in The Singular Mark Twain.

As can readily be seen from this attempt on my part at a pastiche of Twain's hatchet-wielding arraignment of James Fenimore Cooper (and of Cooper's anti-masterpiece The Deerslayer), the work of Samuel Langhorne Clemens is in the proper sense inimitable. But it owes this quality to certain irrepressible elements —many of them quite noir—in the makeup of the man himself. I reflect on Mark Twain and I see not just the man who gave us Judge Thatcher's fetching daughter but also the figure who wrote so cunningly about the charm of underage girls and so bluntly about defloration. The man who impaled the founder of Christian Science on a stake of contemptuous ridicule and who dismissed the Book of Mormon as "chloroform in print." The man who was so livid with anger at his country's arrogance abroad that he laid aside his work to inveigh against imperialism. The man who addressed an after-dinner gathering of the Stomach Club, in Paris, on the subject of masturbation, and demonstrated that he had done the hard thinking about hand jobs. Flickers of this enormous and subversive personality illumine Kaplan's narrative, but only rarely, and then in the manner of the lightning bug that Twain himself contrasted with the lightning.

Ernest Hemingway's much cited truism—to the effect that Huckleberry Finn hadn't been transcended by any subsequent American writer—understated, if anything, the extent to which Twain was not just a founding author but a founding American. Until his appearance, even writers as adventurous as Hawthorne and Melville would have been gratified to receive the praise of a comparison to Walter Scott. (A boat named the Walter Scott is sunk with some ignominy in Chapter 13 of Huckleberry Finn.) Twain originated in the riverine, slaveholding heartland; compromised almost as much as Missouri itself when it came to the Civil War; headed out to California ("the Lincoln of our literature" made a name in the state that Lincoln always hoped to see and never did); and conquered the eastern seaboard in his own sweet time. But though he had an unimpeachable claim to be from native ground, there was nothing provincial or crabbed about his declaration of independence for American letters. (His evisceration of Cooper can be read as an assault on any form of pseudo-native authenticity.) More than most of his countrymen, he voyaged around the world and pitted himself against non-American authors of equivalent contemporary weight.

What about his name? Kaplan's title and introduction imply a contradiction between the uniqueness of the man and the suggestion, in his selection of a nom de plume, of a divided self. When I was a lad, I am quite sure, I read of the young Clemens's listening to the incantation of a leadsman plumbing the shoals from the bow of a riverboat and calling out, "By the mark—twain!" as he indicated the deeps and shallows. This story, if true, would account for both the first and the second name, and it would also be apt in seeing both as derived from life on the Mississippi. But there's some profit (not all that much, but some) in doing as Kaplan does and speculating on other origins. In 1901 Twain told an audience at the Lotos Club, in New York, "When I was born, I was a member of a firm of twins. And one of them disappeared." This was not the case, but by 1901 Twain had been Twain for thirty-eight years (a decade longer than he had been Samuel Clemens), and had probably acquired a repertoire of means by which to answer a stale question from the audience. Twinship and impersonation come up in his stories, it is true. Pudd'nhead Wilson relies on the old fantasy of the changeling, and notebook scenarios for late Huck and Tom stories involve rapid switches of identity, with elements of racial as well as sexual cross-dressing. But then, how new is the discovery that Twain never lost his access to the marvels and memories of childhood?

Clearly, he meant to create a mild form of mystery if he could, because elsewhere he claimed to have annexed the name from "one Captain Isaiah Sellers who used to write river news over it for the New Orleans Picayune." But the Picayune never carried any such byline. And Twain was known all his life to be fond of hoaxes and spoofs in print, among them the "Petrified Man." So, absent any new or decisive information, this portentous search for the roots of an identity crisis may be somewhat pointless.

One of the difficulties confronting a Twain biographer is the sheer volume of ink the man expended on his own doings. One needs a persuasive reason for preferring a secondhand account of an episode that is already available in the original. Take, for instance, Twain's inglorious participation on the Confederate side in the Civil War. We already have his own hilarious but sour account of this interlude, in "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed," a sort of brief and memoiristic precursor of The Good Soldier Schweik. This melancholy, rueful, and slightly self-hating account of cowardice and bravado, with its awful culmination in the slaying of an innocent, clearly sets the tone for all Twain's later writings on the subject of war. Kaplan furnishes a brisk yet somehow trudging précis of the "Private History," adding that it is "undoubtedly partly fictional" but declining to say in what respect this is so or how he knows it.

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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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