Critical Mass

NBCC Featured Reviews: Jonah Raskin on The Mark Twain Anthology, by Shelley Fisher Fishkin

By Jonah Raskin

Critical Mass regularly highlights exemplary reviews by its members. Here, in a review originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Jonah Raskin writes on Shelley Fisher Fishkin's omnibus The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Work (Library of America)


It is hard to believe — because he looms so large in our national letters — that Mark Twain, born Samuel Clemens in 1835, died 100 years ago, on April 21. The anniversary of his death provides an occasion to reappraise his work and rethink his life. Fortunately, critics and biographers have been sifting through Twain's published writings and rummaging through his archives. A half dozen new books delve deeply and from nearly every possible angle into perhaps our most profoundly divided writer.

The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works offers a diverse body of work about Twain, with a perky introduction by Stanford Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin. The word American comes up repeatedly, as in William Faulkner's comment that Twain was “the first truly American writer.”

While Asians, Latin Americans and Europeans have praised Twain, his most ardent admirers have been white American men: H.L. Mencken, William Dean Howells and Leslie Fiedler, who pointed out in an essay included here that American novels like Huckleberry Finn are often about the bonds of love and friendship between males of different races. Toni Morrison tries hard in a 1996 essay to like Twain's classic about Huck, the poor, white teenager, and Jim, the escaped, black slave, but never resolves her ambivalence. Ralph Ellison wasn't the least bit conflicted. Of Twain, he said, “He made it possible for many of us to find our own voices.”

Of course, it's Huck's inimitable voice that animates the novel. “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory,” he declares as he flees all attempts to “sivilize” him.

In Lighting Out for the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain, the historian Roy Morris Jr. describes Samuel Clemens' adventures as a young man in Nevada and California, often with his older brother Orion. Morris focuses on the years 1861 to 1867; the story he tells is largely a prologue to the paramount drama of Twain's life. Still, there are pleasures in these pages; Morris has done his homework, and he showcases Twain's earliest literary gems.

Various pen names

Interestingly, before he fixed on Mark Twain, Clemens tried out more than a half dozen pen names, some very silly (Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass). Morris reprints the article in which the Mark Twain byline first appeared. “I feel very much as if I had just awakened out of a long sleep,” he wrote. That awakening altered his own life, and changed the course of American literature.

In Mark Twain: Man in White – The Grand Adventure of His Final Years, Michael Shelden focuses on the last 40 months of Twain's life, when he was an international celebrity who wore white suits in part to prepare for death. Shelden makes good on his claim that Twain was often “more alive” at the end of his life than at any other time. He recounts his last adventures as he takes on copyright law, befriends young girls, and doesn't lose his humor. Shelden has the wisdom to know when to back off and let Twain have the stage to himself. He assembles a supporting cast of characters: robber barons, Broadway actresses and literary celebrities.

Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is that it makes Twain feel contemporary, with wonderful quips along the way: “Dying man couldn't make up his mind which place to go – both have their advantages, 'heaven for climate, hell for company.' “

Final fling?

Laura Skandera Trombley focuses on the author's quirky relationship with his private secretary, Isabel Van Kleek Lyon, during the last phrase of his life, in Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years. Whether they consummated their relationship, Trombley doesn't say, though she insinuates. Her book assembles a mass of facts – Twain owned 17 white suits – and long quotations from Lyon's diaries. Trombley applies a Freudian framework and presents Twain as a misogynist.

She portrays the writer as an old man behaving badly, and with a foul mouth, as when he called Lyon “a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a filthy-minded and salacious slut pining for seduction.” Ungentlemanly and exaggerated, but even in eruption Twain was on target. Trombley takes Lyon's side in the battle between the “King,” as she called him, and the “Bitch,” as he called her, and tries to elevate a minor character into the co-star of the show.

Jerome Loving tackles Twain's whole life in Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens. This book is both funny and informative. Loving covers the author's relationship with his mother and his formative years in San Francisco, as well as success and sexual escapades. Each of the 52 chapters is a beautifully crafted mini-essay about a phase of Twain's life. Loving zeroes in on the paradoxes, too: Twain's natural affinity, as a boy in the South, for African Americans, at the same time that, as he explained, “in my school days I had no aversion to slavery.”

Twain's life is connected to his writings, and Loving shows that almost “all of Twain's works were travel books.” Never fawning or apologetic, he sees Twain whole, and as a child of the Gilded Age that he in turn memorialized in literature. Loving tells the sad end to the adventures with sensitivity and observes that Twain turned into a dark writer who condemned humankind and became a “stranger to himself.” The photographs of Twain – dressed in black as well as white – enhance the literary portrait, and the chronology of dates and events orients the reader. This could be the biography of the season.

Finally, a new Library of America volume brings together A Tramp Abroad (1880), Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World (1897) and 13 shorter pieces by Twain about his wanderlust. These works are less well-known than his popular novels, but Twain was a first-rate writer of nonfiction, and his first-person travel writings deserve to be better known. Behind his humor, he was deadly serious, whether writing about American tourists in Europe, the British Empire or his own desire not to become “Europeanized.”

Alas, no audio recording exists of Twain speaking or reading from his work, though there is a precious film clip. Still, one can't help but hear his unmistakable voice in A Tramp Abroad and Following the Equator – loudly, clearly, very contemporary and very American.

The review originally appeared on

Jonah Raskin is the author of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl' and the Making of the Beat Generation.