Justin Kaplan's remarkable new biography of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (Simon and Schuster, $7.95), confronts us with the problem, once again, of defining Mark Twain's relationship to American literature and life. Not that such definition would appear Mr. Kaplan's primary purpose: his book is nonportentous and nonideological, concerned with telling Clemens' story rather than with making points about America. He has mastered the Mark Twain scholarship (even if he is something less than generous about acknowledging debts to those who went before) but has moved beyond the familiar Mark Twain controversies: one is no longer asked to decide whether Olivia Langdon Clemens or William Dean Howells or Clemens himself administered the psychic wound and the symbolic castration. Mark Twain's books are considered less for their own sake than for the light they throw on their author -which, in a way, is too bad, since Mr. Kaplan's literary comments are always perceptive and stimulating. Absorbing the best insights of his predecessors, Mr. Kaplan had deeply meditated the central issues of Clemens' career on his own and entered into the inner anguish with great tact and subtlety. His narrative is vivid, penetrating, and brilliantly distilled. His book will undoubtedly be the portrait of Mark Twain for this generation.
The title—Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain—signifies the dualities which dominated Clemens' life. It was not only that he was both man and pseudonym, or that he was a humorist steeped in pessimism, or that he was a Confederate who made a runaway slave the hero of his greatest novel, or that he was a Western vagabond who luxuriated in Connecticut gentility, or that he simultaneously condemned and embraced the acquisitive values of amaterialistiç age, or that he was a prude who told smoking-room stories and circulated scatological sketches among his friends, or that, the most American writer of his day, he spent a sixth of his life abroad, or that he believed that "every man is a moon and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody." It was more specific and obsessive than that. He was fascinated by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by the idea of men possessed by demons, by "my double, my partner in duality, the other and wholly independent personage who resides in me," by the comedy and tragedy of twins Siamese twins (Chang was a teetotaler, but when Eng had too much, Chang was drunk too), babies exchanged in cradles, the pauper who traded places with the prince—"ignorant as the unborn babe!" he wrote in Roughing It, "ignorant as unborn twins!" Twin? Twain.