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Christopher Felker <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 13 Apr 1997 00:26:32 +0200
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Hoffman Andrew.  _Inventing Mark Twain: The Lives of Samuel Langhorne
Clemens_.  New York: William Morrow and Company, 1997.  xviii + 564 pages.
Cloth, 6-1/8" x 9-1/4".  Index.  $30.00  ISBN 0-688-12769-X.

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:

Christopher D. Felker
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI

Copyright (c) Mark Twain Forum, 1997.  This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

Andrew Hoffman's book was written with the intention, in part, to provoke
and to sell many copies.  Evidence of provocation has already been present
in conversations between Twain scholars on the Mark Twain Forum, on
C-SPAN's Booknotes and will almost certainly be echoed in many subsequent
reviews of the book.  Hoffman's controversial stance in relation to
Clemens' life rests on several unsubstantiated claims that he may have
experimented in bohemian homosexual activities in his youth and, to a
somewhat lesser degree, that he was followed throughout his life by a
variety of psychic distresses.  In other words, Hoffman's book, coming as
it does rather late in the genealogy of Twain biographies, "invents" a host
of late 20th-century concerns to attach to Clemens' life story.

Even at this early stage of audience reception, critical opinion of
Hoffman's presentism and dubious scholarship is quite negative.  As the
author of a book with "invention" in the title, I am usually quite
sympathetic to revisionist critical stances, but as any Twain scholar can
attest, Clemens' life was extraordinarily varied and rich and such a life
needs little embellishment, particularly where the factual evidence of such
claims as homosexuality is absent.  For a biographer removed from his
subject by history and exclusive access to the original archive of
materials, it is a common ploy to "invent" eyebrow-raising claims in an
effort to secure one's book a place in a crowded field.

Having read the book, I must say in Hoffman's defense, that the sexuality
thread that formed the basis of his March 1995 article in _American
Literature_ is, in the completed biography a small and ultimately
insignificant concern of the larger narrative.

In fact, Hoffman's biography strikes out on three counts.  Many readers of
the book will feel cheated, on the basis of dubious scholarship and
methodology, by the claims about Clemens' psycho-sexuality.  But Twain
scholars should be at least as concerned by the fact that _Inventing Mark
Twain_ is a poor literary biography, one that does little to synthesize
recent critical opinions with a careful study of Clemens' work as a writer.
For a book of this magnitude, the fact that so many opportunities to
discuss the range and implications of Hoffman's research by re-reading
parts of Twain's own literary output is a stunning omission.  Finally,
Hoffman's introduction of a sequence of previously unpublished material
held by Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company (as trustee of the Mark Twain
Foundation) is often shallow and anecdotal.

Persons with a genuine interest in Twain will, naturally be drawn to this
book, and the publication of it by a trade publisher will ensure a wide
distribution;  but for students and scholars of Twain, Hoffman's biography
is a weak offering, not only because of his strained argument about
Clemens' sexuality, but also because it offers little new in the
interpretation of Twain's literary output.  Instead of a gripping tale of
one of America's most complicated personalities, Hoffman's account is a
cynical, awkward and unfocused effort.

To understand Hoffman's "take" on Clemens, it is important to note the
adjectives he uses in his Preface to describe the identity politics of
Samuel Clemens and his literary double, invented personality and alter-ego
Mark Twain.  On his first page, Hoffman says "Because he appears to be
alive, Twain grows and changes so frequently that writing a biography of
him is like writing a biography of a liar" (ix-x). [1]  Hoffman goes on to
argue a truism in Twain scholarship, that Twain/Clemens can be molded into
a variety of forms because he intentionally cultivated a confusing and
oftentimes contradictory identity.  Part of the undeniable fascination of
Clemens, I think is the possibility of reading this contrariness in ways
that are not as cynical as Hoffman suggests, but are instead, natural
consequences of the time in which the writer labored.

For Hoffman, "the unreality of Mark Twain is the primary reason this book
cannot be a biography of him. . . . Mark Twain had a biographical life, but
it is a life of a public image, not a flesh and blood man" (x).  Hoffman
therefore places Clemens, and not his double at the center of the book,
suggesting that this fact makes his text an improvement over Albert Bigelow
Paine's _Mark Twain: A Biography_ (1912) and Justin Kaplan's _Mr. Clemens
and Mark Twain_ (1966).  Hoffman calls Paine's book "more an autobiography
that a biography", a familiar charge leveled at "official" biographers by
others who follow in their wake.  Of Kaplan, Hoffman suggests that time has
eroded the value of _Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain_, the appearance of new
scholarship and the fact that "Kaplan missed the essence of Samuel
Langhorne Clemens" suggested that a new volume was necessary.

So then, with the "actual" person of Clemens as the focus, what opinion is
conveyed in the opening Preface?  Hoffman wants us to take Clemens as "a
pioneer of the American soul" (xviii) and that soul is portrayed as
"[making] it up as he went along, coping with a strange existence;" as an
"uncertain self" who "prefigures contemporary neuroses;" as a person
plagued by "ephemerality and inherent falseness;" and, most importantly, as
a hollow man at the core, resulting from "the odd configuration of his
childhood" reinforced later in life by experiences that showed that an
image of a person, "likely to be callow, cruel, frightened and selfish" was
more important than a man's essential identity (xiii, xvi-iii).  Hoffman's
Clemens is a man about to enter Dante's _Inferno_, with the aid of a
psychoanalyst.  Much of what Hoffman claims to be true of Clemens has in
fact, been applied to many of the canonical American authors.

Hoffman repeats the conclusions of many scholars that the appearance of new
print technologies (and in Twain's case the viability of a performative
lecture and dramatic culture) and ideologies in America enabled the
relatively easy production of fictional spectacles.  Often, in the case of
American Renaissance writers in particular, those older Atlantic Monthly
writers Twain would eagerly try and impress, the fictional spectacles
created brought the relative social formlessness to expression with new and
experimental forms.  New categories of readers (and audiences) interested
in "authenticity" were subjected to various episodes of "eventalization",
whereby artistic activity was transformed into proof of American
exceptionalism--a new ground where connections, encounters, plays of
forces, marketing and business strategies and discontinuity all were
essential aspects of cultural fame and audience reception.  Thus, for
Hoffman, "Twain was as much a cultural phenomenon as a writer" and reflects
the huge national ambitions of America as a collective (xiii, xvii).  If
Hoffman were to adopt this stance and use it to frame his discussion of
Clemens, we might have had an interesting, if somewhat derivative and
academic biography.  Instead, Hoffman chooses to adopt novelistic
strategies, not altogether unfamiliar ones at that, since his own brief
biography lists "novelist" along with "academic" and "visiting scholar" at
Brown University as parts of his own portfolio.  Hoffman, paving the way
for what many will feel is unlicensed speculation regarding homosexual
proclivities, says

Speculation is a necessity in biography.  As a biographer, I could blur the
facts to create a reason, or I can admit the uncertainty of knowledge--and
guess.  An interesting thing happened once I began to guess about the
uncertainties in Clemens' life  These surmises--not random choices, but
conclusions based on circumstantial evidence--began to form patterns.
Earlier guesses determined later ones, forcing certain conclusions.  If I
had continually guessed wrong--that is, misunderstood the state of Clemens'
mind at these crucial points--it would have become increasingly difficult
to make the guesses suit the known facts.  In fact, Clemens' habits of mind
became clearer as I went along.  I cannot say that I proved myself right; I
can only say it began to seem less and less likely that I was wrong (xii).

"Less and less likely that I was wrong," there is the phrase that will
separate this book's detractors and supporters.  Many practicing scholars
will be profoundly unsettled by this definition of literary and historical
method.  And they should be uncomfortable.  If one is prone to accept
speculation and hypothetical reality as an adequate substitute for kinds of
material typically expected of undergraduate and graduate essays in
American literature, then Hoffman's book will have been constructed on an
adequate premise.  Like Twain's eccentric neighbors in Nook Farm, Hoffman
needs a good dose of mesmerism to make his observations align.

Hoffman's most controversial speculations occur in chapters two, four  and
the center of the tempest, chapter seven.  The first 15 chapters, treating
Clemens' life before his marriage and publication of _Innocents Abroad_
form a fairly distinct division.  In chapter two, Hoffman describes John
Clemens, Samuel's father as a befuddled, beaten man facing bankruptcy and
addicted to the narcotics found in Cook's pills.  For the boisterous young
Samuel, Hoffman describes the passing of his father as "an impossible
weight, a burden that enraged Sam even more after he obtained a horrifying
glimpse, through a keyhole of Dr. Hugh Meredith opening his father's body
for an autopsy" (20).  To make this claim stick, Hoffman suggests in a
note, he took a comment from Sam's brother Orion on the back of a letter
sent in February 1861 suggesting that their father had doctored himself to
death, consulted with a pharmaceutical historian on the composition of
Cook's pills (which were known to include mercurous chloride and laxatives
but not, in their typical composition narcotics) and drew the conclusion
that because any pharmacist of the time could have added other drugs, "we
can guess what else the pills included" (n. 515).  Such convoluted
reasoning is necessary, because a chemically-dependent father whose
failures in finances and prestige make for a good psychological trauma.

In order to make chemical addiction a running theme, Hoffman repeats
exactly this theorem for Clemens' brother-in-law Charley Webster, his
financial representative in a variety of concerns (and one of several close
associates who embezzled from Clemens).  In chapter 35, Hoffman claims that
Webster took excessive quantities of Phenacetin laced with the narcotic
codeine, perhaps because he accidentally shot and killed a three-year -old
girl (333).  This legacy is combined with the apocryphal tale of the
existence of the corpse of Dr. Joseph Nash McDowell's (a founder of a St.
Louis medical school) 14-year-old daughter in a glass-lined copper cylinder
and Sam's inside journalistic knowledge of the pornographic adulterous
relationship behind the murder of Thomas Hart by John Wise, key elements in
Sam's psycho-social development.  The sordid reality of Hannibal as a
frontier and liminal community works well, if selectively, for Hoffman's
attitude that Samuel's youth contained the requisite combination of
repression and shock necessary for a latter blossoming of implicit
psychological maladies.

In chapter four, Hoffman finds it consequential that Sam's early, idealized
(and presumably platonic) love for Laura Wright ended abruptly when she
impulsively threw her arms around his neck and embraced him.
Circumstantial proof of this, reading the tale "Adam and Eve" as an
allegory with Eve standing in for Ms. Wright, is scattered allusively
throughout Hoffman's narrative.  In chapter five, recounting an 1861
meeting with the fortune-teller Madam Caprell, Hoffman recalls "The
fortune-teller astounded Sam by describing Laura Wright perfectly . . .
Madam Caprell touched a nerve when she said no matter whomever Sam courted,
he would always think of Laura Wright first" (59-60).  Much later, after
his marriage with Livy and on a trip to the Louvre in Paris, Clemens
supposedly "found himself appalled at Titian's "Venus," who stares frankly
back at the viewer while apparently masturbating " (267).  It is one of the
confounding qualities of Hoffman's argument that Clemens, apparently phobic
of feminine attention in some places, is in fact just as often guilty of
excessive passions.  How, for instance, could a scholar responsibly make
the following assertion, and more to the point, why would such an assertion
need to be made:  "Though Sam and Livy were devoted partners, they did not
communicate the kind of passion that might inspire an adolescent.  In all
probability, the sexual component of their relationship had dwindled with
Sam's unreliable [an ironic reference to Clement Rice, Clemens' journalist
and friend in Virginia City?] performance due to age and business worries"

Let's look at a few more examples of this fascination with sex that
permeates the book.  The episode sure to raise the most eyebrows is the
thesis put forward in chapter seven.  There Hoffman writes, "The exact
nature of sexuality in the American West will remain a mystery, but
behavior in Nevada took its cue from San Francisco, which even in its early
days showed a surprising acceptance of sexual bonds between men" (77).
Clearly at this point, we are not going to be told of bunk-house
experiments by 11-year olds at lakeside camps, we are instead bringing the
issue into a communitarian, even national context.  This year, I took a
year away from teaching in the US to teach students at the American
University in Cairo.  The fact that I was writing this review came up in
one of my classes.  Knowing I would have to account for Hoffman's
homosexual hypothesis, my students, many of whom are from Cairo where it is
a common sight to see men holding hands, walking arm in arm and kissing in
the most public of places like the subway (but nonetheless live in a
society where same-sex romantic relationships are considered targets of
some of the worst forms of official and cultural oppression) were
incredulous.  On the mere basis of anthropological misunderstanding, how
could Hoffman begin to construct such a hypothesis?, they asked.  Hoffman
continues his reasoning thus, "Though most western men appear to have
visited female prostitutes, they also typically lived in male pairs,
sharing resources and beds. . . . Many ties between men were strong and
loving. . .[and] often understood as metaphorical marriages. . . . There is
no simple way to define the sexual connection between two men who visit a
bordello together and then go home to sleep in the same bed.  Are there any
changes detectable between a relationship that moves from simultaneous
masturbation to mutual masturbation" (77)?  Yes indeed.

This is a novel and thorny issue for Twainians who must ask themselves
these questions in connection with Twain's associations with: Artemus Ward,
"[t]hrowing himself into a flash romantic attachment with Ward, Sam also
watched this traveling star carefully for clues to his success" (85);
Clement Rice, "the fact that they lived together in Virginia City, and the
fact that they escaped together for a week of revelry in Carson suggested a
deeper bond than that of just two friends on a lark" (76); Charles Stoddard
(after his marriage to Olivia), "His weeks in England with Sam left only
scant evidence as to the nature of the bond" (214) and "Whatever pleasure
Sam got from his companionship with Charley Stoddard, he found himself
craving Livy's company, too" (215); and Anson Burlingame (the US minister
in China who anointed Twain's literary genius) also helped expose Clemens
"to the lasciviousness surrounding the burial rites of Princess Victoria
[allowing] him to see that his own sexual and social choices had seemed
wild only in comparison with the restrictive morality of the American
Protestantism" (109-10); Isabel Lyon who "served Sam in more capacities
than as secretary and frequent card partner. . . .it is likely that for
more than two years. . .Lyon fulfilled many wifely duties for Sam, a
relationship known, though not endorsed by members of his circle" (461);
and, in a spasm of virility, Gertrude Natkin, "the fifteen-year-old girl he
had met outside Carneige Hall. . .his relationship with Gertrude was
personal and playful, almost romantic" (470).  In what has to be considered
as controversial chapter as the one in which he replays the homosexual
thesis, Hoffman writes in "Heaven is Populated with Angelfish,"  "Sam's
friendship with Gertrude Natkin whetted his appetite for further
association with young girls, who replaced his own children, no longer
young, and revived the scintillation of courtship that he had enjoyed with
Laura Wright, Emeline Beach and Livy.  He liked trim, well-educated virgins
in their teen years" (476).  Hoffman, in his chapter titled "Hostage to
Bohemia" implies that Clemens purposefully expunged the record of his two
years in San Francisco from the book _Roughing It_ perhaps in an effort to
cover up his true activities, "[t]his suppression leaves a tantalizing
vacuum, which the city itself fills with suggestive answers" (91).  The
critical backlash, even in a protean form, will be long and pronounced on
this point, and I think Hoffman should be held to a higher standard of
proof than the one he puts forward in this book.

One can see inconsistencies throughout the middle portion of the book
itself. Hoffman, whose bibliography lists Laura E. Skandera-Trombley's
_Mark Twain in the Company of Women_, appears to have been schizophrenic in
his contemplation of that book's conclusions.  In particular, Hoffman's
suggestions about Clemens' alleged homosexuality selectively ignore
Skandera-Trombley's very cogent assertion that  Twain was "an author so
dependent upon female interaction and influence that without it the
sublimity of his novels would have been lost" (xvi).  Interestingly, in
chapter 26, Hoffman begins a thread he will continue in chapter 53, noting
that one of Clemens' first acts in his Nook Farm community was the creation
of a Saturday Morning Club modeled on one in Boston.  Hoffman writes "Young
women had always appealed to Sam.  Livy's girlishness had attracted him as
much as her womanliness" (241).   Is Clemens to be considered bisexual?  Or
is it the fact that Hoffman has latched onto figurative, perhaps even
deceptive prose that implies one thing but, in fact, might camouflage
privately held concerns?

During the first week of April, there has been a significant exchange of
opinion based on Hoffman's comments to interviewers at C-SPAN. Glen
Johnson, one Twain Forum correspondent remarked, "For those who are
interested, there's a growing literature on same-sex affection or same-sex
sex during the 19th century and earlier.  The concept of "homosexuality" is
a late 19th century construction.  [The] Forum conversation has all the
marks . . . of the kind of presentism that we find everywhere in academia
today.  It seems to me that there's not a whole lot to be gained by
demanding that Mark Twain or any other person who lived before our time be
identified as, or protected from "slander" based on, what are obviously
hang ups of our time and (some of) our Twainians.  . .  Maybe
we could just skip over the struggle and admit that he didn't have
the (enlightened?) sexual attitudes of late 20th century academics
(homophile or homophobic) either" (8 April 1997).  No better example of
Clemens' own inconsistent opinion could be found than the assumed lesbian
relationship between Susy Clemens and Louise Brownell which Hoffman claims
began in Susy's freshman year at Bryn Mawr.  "Although it is not clear how
frank [Susy and Louise] were about the sexual nature of their
relationship," Hoffman writes, "Livy returned to Hartford exhausted and
unnerved enough to stay in bed two weeks. . . .[Sam and Livy] regarded her
homoerotic desires as an illness, one that distance and the right spas
might cure" (367-8).  Given Hoffman's evidence, we can assume Clemens gave
little thought to sending Susy to Carson Nevada for a restorative.

In a recent article in the _ Hartford Advocate_ (March 27, 1997), Kathy
O'Connell recalls a moment in 1993 at the Mark Twain Conference when
Hoffman dropped a "bomb" in Elmira by announcing his belief that while a
young man in the West, Clemens might have had a series of homosexual
affairs. As O'Connell notes "some of that lingers in _Inventing Mark
Twain_, but it's treated so tentatively it comes close to being
irrelevant".  Without doubt, the skies will be filled with puffery on this
issue, one only hopes that we don't succumb to the ill-effects of breathing
second-hand smoke.  Colleagues, whose opinion on matters pertaining to
Twain I deeply respect, have offered little support for the "low-rent,
few-bed" hypothesis.  Their opinion is not far from that expressed by my
Egyptian students:  "one shouldn't judge a book by its cover".  Hoffman's
comments about Clemens' sexual proclivities, meaning to sound sincere, are
rather irresponsible.

Twain's 1866 journey to Hawaii was a watershed moment in his career.
Hoffman's section has the requisite information on Clemens' meeting with
Anson Burlingame and the fortuitous coverage of the Hornet disaster, but it
was disappointingly thin.  Since the trip resulted in the culmination of
_Roughing It_, this chapter (9) points to a larger deficiency in the work
as a whole.  Hoffman's descriptions of Twain's writing is conveyed in a
matter of fact style with ample information regarding the publication
history of each work, but scant attention to interpretations (his own or
those of other critics) of that work.  Especially odd is the fact that many
of Hoffman's acute observations are frequently disengaged with the actual
content of Twain's narratives.  Invariably, Twain's works are given a
cursory and rather superficial reading in a few pages at most [2].  Such
glosses are, sad to say, typical of the book and raise the question of what
became of the copious observations listed in the many works cited in the
bibliography?  One excuse might be drastic editing on the part of Morrow,
but the avoidance of such discussions is a serious flaw.

In the end, Hoffman's text demands both that readers be very familiar with
most of the Twain oeuvre (since he does little explication of his own in
the book) and stresses too greatly the economic and chronological order of
Clemens' life.  So much material passes undigested that Clemens often looks
puckish, little more than a cartoon-figure routinely robbed by his friends,
uncertain whether he is solvent or hemorrhaging money, playing out a
bourgeois drama of language lessons, spas and clinics for his anemic
family, traveling out of urges to escape and, most curiously, germinating a
succession of pedophiliac, anti-imperialist and nostalgic roles.  This
apparent contradiction--of Clemens as a nuanced archetype for his age--and
as one buried in amalgamated business and personal correspondence and
itineraries, is most conspicuous (and annoying) in the last 19 chapters.
Hoffman does a good job of comprehensively rendering these later, chaotic
years of Clemens' life.  His account is truthful and meticulous, but lacks
the same thing as George Bush; the "vision thing" is absent from Hoffman's
text, leaving us with what seem paranoid and even "manufactured"
conclusions that might prove more dangerous to future interpretations than
helpful.  To cite just one of several examples of the bias Hoffman creates,
in chapter 53, "Heaven is Populated with Angelfish" he says of Clemens:

Schoolgirls represented more than grandchildren to Sam. . . .They
replicated both his platonic sweetheart, the dream ideal of romance first
embodied in Laura Wright and then realized in Livy until time had abrogated
her youth; and the lost girlhoods of his own children, which Sam missed
because of his dedication to writing, publishing, and the typesetter.  In
his old age, he could recapture a taste of girlishness, a chance to remake
opportunities he felt badly about having squandered (483).

Leaving aside the implications of Clemens as a sort of unbridled Lewis
Carroll, looking for children as something to be appropriated or fixed in
an adult's egoistic gaze, such a passage lends an emphasis to Clemens'
activities that seems off-color and unnatural given the pedantic details
that make up most of the chapters in the book.  Because of an unusually
strong bias in Hoffman's account, I would urge readers to consider also
looking at Randall Knoper's _Acting Naturally: Mark Twain in the Culture of
Performance_, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.  Knoper's
discussion of Twain's dramatic experience as a means of managing
status-anxiety gives better clues that Hoffman provides for Clemens'
journey eastward after the Civil War. "Twain's series of poses and
unveilings, Knoper asserts, came from an attempt by a white, middle-class
male to find his concept of self in the midst of gender, class, and racial
identities in a largely unstable social environment" (Britton, Wesley.
Review for Mark Twain Forum, 22 February 1996).  This approach is central
to understanding at least some of the forms of his relationship with
William Dean Howells and the Atlantic Literary circle and the propertied
world represented by Elmira and Jervis Langdon.

Richard S Lowry. _Littery Man: Mark Twain and Modern Authorship_.
(Commonwealth Center Studies in American Culture.)New York and Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1996, offers a more insightful view of Clemens'
strategies for manipulating the literary marketplace than Hoffman is able
to muster.  The American Publishing Company figures very prominently in the
central chapters of _Inventing Mark Twain_, but rarely does Hoffman's
discussion rise above a mere recollection of details to offer a systematic
explanation for the rivalry between subscription publishing and the trade
press.  Finally, Bruce Michelson's _Mark Twain on the Loose: A Comic Writer
and the American Self_ Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1995, gives a
far more substantial account of Twain's exhibitionism and its impact on his
literary output.

In an otherwise excellent bibliography (the index was omitted from my
review copy but I assume this is equally useful) Michelson's and Lowry's
books are unfortunate omissions.  Hoffman's notes are very good, though it
must be said many of his more controversial and risky interpretations are
explained in the fine-print.  There are no illustrations and, while I
heartily endorse Henry James's dictum that one should give an author the
latitude appropriate to his own subject, I found many of the chapter
epigraphs (many drawn from the more obscure Twain writings, especially
given the expected general readership of this volume) to offer little in
the way of clarity or to suggest a meaningful anticipation of topics
discussed within each chapter.  This is also true of Hoffman's use of
previously unpublished material held by Manufacturers Hanover Trust.  As
Hoffman notes near the book's conclusion, many of Twain's remaining
unpublished material lies in the hands of private collectors, and so one
surmises that his contract with Morrow helped free up some of this material
for _Inventing Mark Twain_.  Many of the several dozen quotations from the
Manufacturers Hanover Trust material are of peripheral interest.  Two I
found especially interesting: 1) the letter Clemens wrote to Charley
Stoddard after Stoddard's publication of _A Troubled Heart_ outlining
Clemens' "pragmatist's spiritual quest" (327) and; 2)  written instructions
for an after-dinner introduction where Clemens asks that the moniker Mr.
Mark Twain be used, "for my private name embarrasses me when used in
public" (350).

The book deals awkwardly with the important influences of Langdon family
wealth and the Nook Farm faux-progressivism on shaping Clemens' social and
aesthetic consciousness.  Hoffman realizes the titillating thrills shared
by Clemens' community in the Henry Ward Beecher adultery case and the faith
healers, but makes assumptions about Clemens that stretch belief.  A
typical Hoffman formulation oversimplifies as in the following example: the
Beecher trial "Sam thought, [might] reprise the illicit pleasures he had
found in Richard Blennerhasset's conduct of the Hart-Wise murder trial in
Palmyra, Missouri, two and a half decades before" (226-7).  25 years is a
long time for associating any idea, but the assumption that Clemens would
connect the dots between two local instances in the manner suggested by
Hoffman is awfully presumptuous.

The repetitive pattern of dysfunction--fratricidal jealousy, paternal
mimicry, sleepwalking, close encounters with chemically dependent relatives
and business associates, implied bisexuality, homosexuality,
pedophilia--all without reliable documentary or textual parallels, makes
for an unpalatable stew.  In his methodology, Hoffman has diminished and
made too prosaic Clemens' complicated relationship with William Dean
Howells.  Aside from communications coordinating advance reviews of Twain's
books, the two friends are more frequently spoken of at moments where they
share in family tragedy.  The distortion, which begins as I said earlier in
a limited way in the first 13 chapters, becomes progressively stronger
until, near the end, the reader shares in a disorienting alienation that
would surprise even Clemens' himself.

Although Hoffman claims to believe that Twain is the most familiar and
internationally recognized author since Shakespeare, those attracted to the
man and his work feel protective of him as one might of an uncle accused of
abusing neighborhood children.  There are highly important intersections
that could have been explored:  the Twain-Howells juncture, the admixture
of entrepreneurial judgment and inherited wealth, the cross-cultural
reversal of Anglo-American values Twain managed; but instead, the
psychological organization Hoffman insisted on was unfortunate.  I still
think, a decade after reading it, that John McAleer's literary biography of
Emerson, _Days of Encounter_ (1986), remains a paradigm for others to
follow.  Clemens' life was dominated by meaningful encounters, each one of
which, according to an inner dynamic, provides insights into the writer and
his interests.  Hoffman nearly achieves this style in his description of
his friendship and lecture tour with George Washington Cable, but in many
other instances (notoriously Clemens' friendship with Howells and Stoddard)
the reader is never fully informed as to the extent (or implication) of the

I hope the sales of Hoffman's book are encouraging enough to justify his
efforts; those interested in viewing the aspects of Clemens' life in
genuinely revealing new contexts will be better served waiting for the next
effort.  In this time of Hale-Bopp and Heaven's Gate it might be wise to
read Hoffman's concluding words with a highly cynical eye, "I revere Mark
Twain, as I have since I first began reading him seriously, but I love Sam
Clemens.  If he is gazing down on us from a comet somewhere, I hope he can
see that love in this book" (505).  Let us also hope Sam Clemens is
incapable of reading and communicating easily with the _New York Times
Review of Books_.  Hoffman, given his unique perspective on Clemens, might
hear a grumble or two from the great beyond.


[1]  My version of Hoffman's book was comprised of uncorrected bound
galleys.  Actual page references in the published edition may be different
from those I've noted here.  In addition, each chapter usually contains
between 12-25 footnotes, all of which were unnumbered in my edition.
References to Hoffman's notes are, therefore, somewhat incomplete.

[2]  Hoffman discusses the following major works "at length" in these
places in his text, _Innocents Abroad_ (159-160); _Tom Sawyer_ (242-44);
_Prince and the Pauper_ (291); _Huckleberry Finn_ (315-17); A Connecticut
Yankee in King Arthur's Court_ (345-46); _Pudd'nhead Wilson_ (387-88).

Christopher D. Felker

American University in Cairo    Department of American Thought & Language

113 Sharia Kasr El Aini         Michigan State University
PO Box 2511                     293 Ernst Bessey Hall
Cairo 11511 EGYPT               East Lansing, MI 48824-1033
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