Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography review

Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography Geoffrey C. Ward & Dayton Duncan

Like the comet that heralded his arrival and, 74 years later, signaled his passing, Mark Twain was a man in nearly constant motion. Either his pen was racing across the page, or he was racing across the world, gathering the raw material of experience for his stories, essays, letters, novels, investments and inventions. He was a writing machine, turning out so much copy that we haven’t yet found the bottom to this gold mine.

mark-twain-biographyLast year, publishers brought out a second annotation of his classic Huckleberry Finn, as well as an unpublished novella. The University of California is years away from finishing its massive Mark Twain Project, an attempt to publish authoritative, annotated volumes of every line Twain wrote, down to the contents of his notebooks.

Part of his greatness, as outlined in “Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography” that accompanies Ken Burns documentary that aired in January, 2002, is that he was a man of enormous talent and energy who was in the right places at the right times. It was the perfect combination that made him a uniquely American artist. Talent without energy would not have given him the ability to write so much. Energy without talent would not have made him, as Russell Banks’ words, a wise guy who was wise. American letters is full of humorists who are now footnotes. In Twain’s time, there is P.V. Nasby, and Josh Billings, Bret Harte and Artemus Ward. What makes Twain so different?

First, Twain saw himself as more than a humorist. He was a moralist first. He was perfectly capable of writing funny without a point, whether it be about a trick played with a jumping frog, or the stories about Tom Sawyer. But he also used Huck Finn to rage against slavery. He berated Commodore Vanderbilt for not using his millions to help the poor (at the same time, he later hobnobbed with the rich, one of those contradictions that enriches his character). Later in life, embittered by the death of three of his four children, he abandoned humor to rail against imperialism, lynching and even God.

Written by Burns’ collaborators Dayton Duncan and Geoffrey C. Ward, “Mark Twain” is crammed full of telling stories that show us the man behind the penname. Twain boiled with mirth, resentment, anger and passion, both on and off the page. When a button was found missing from one of his freshly-laundered shirts, he cursed and threw the whole stack out of the window of his home.

On the lecture circuit, he gloried in leaving his audiences helpless with laughter. But his sorrow was equally powerful. When he lost the love of his life, his wife, Livy, he wrote, “There is no God and no universe; . . . there is only empty space, and in it a lost and homeless and wandering and companionless and indestructible Thought. And . . . I am that thought.”

But as Twain helped define the nation with his writings, the nation also defined him. During his life, he planted himself deep into the rich soil of the South, the West and the East, and drew upon all those sources for his work.

He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the stories told by whites and blacks. His became a riverboat pilot, intimately aware of the power and beauty of the Mississippi River. He avoided fighting in the Civil War — for which he was never chastised, partly because he was so willing to make fun of himself over it — and worked as a newspaperman and failed silver miner in Nevada and San Francisco. Seeking success as a writer, he went East where the publishers were, and settled in Hartford, Conn. As his fame grew and he traveled worldwide, he brought home more tales to tell, but they all had a source in common: humanity in all its rich glories and tawdry foibles.

“Mark Twain” briskly charts Twain’s incredible life, and includes essays by writers like Banks and Jocelyn Chadwick and an interview with Twain impersonator Hal Holbrook that are entertaining and illuminating. Interwoven in the text are Twain’s own words, so much so that he should have received co-author credit.

Then there are the photographs, many of them never published, that is the real reason any Twain fan should look at the book. It’s an incredible selection. Here he is at the breakfast table during his round-the-world lecture tour he took at age 60, looking like he just got out of bed (which he did). There, he’s on the stage, lending tone to a lecture by Booker T. Washington.

And one of the saddest approaches a work of art. It was taken in 1900, and after several deaths, the family is down to his daughters Jean, Clara and his wife, Livy. Jean was away, so the picture only shows Twain, Livy and Clara. They’re there, but they’re not part of the picture; they look in different directions as if they can’t bear to be there. He’s looking at the camera, in soft focus, unable to stand still for a moment. As if their grief had a physical presence, the glass photo is cracked. It is a portrait of a family slowly colliding with tragedy.

By the end of his life, Twain had had enough. He was ready to go out with the return of Haley’s Comet in 1910. At his funeral, his unique stature in literature was recognized by his good friend, Joe Twitchell, who called him, “the Lincoln of our literature.”

“I am not an American, I am the American,” Twain said, and “Mark Twain” shows how he became our most American writer.