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From: Michael Patrick Hearn <[log in to unmask]>
Date: Mon, 1 Dec 2003 21:50:24 -0800
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Christopher Hitchens offered quite a different
appraisal of the book in the November 2003 ATLANTIC

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

by Christopher Hitchens

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

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.

It is much the same when we come to the fabled voyage
of the good ship Quaker City to the Holy Land and
back. This wickedly close observation of the habits
and mentality of the common American pilgrim was a
huge sensation when first published, and it is easy to
see even today how scandalized the pious and the
respectable must have been. But how much fun is there
to be had in scanning a condensed and potted summary
of Innocents Abroad? Moreover, and as with the Civil
War passage, Kaplan almost bowdlerizes the tale by
omitting much of Twain's original pungency and
contempt, or by rendering it very indirectly.

One would be grateful for some idea of the root of
Twain's dislike for religiosity, and especially of his
revulsion from Christianity. In a somewhat oblique
earlier passage Kaplan suggests that it originated in
shock at the death of his brother Henry, in a ghastly
steamboat explosion in 1858. The randomness and
caprice of this event, we are told, persuaded Twain
that there was no such thing as a merciful Providence.
This seems a pardonable surmise. Similar tragic
events, however, have the effect of reinforcing faith
in many other people. What was it about Twain that
made him not just an agnostic or an atheist but a
probable sympathizer with the Devil's party? We are
not enlightened.

On lesser matters Kaplan can speculate until the cows
come home. What was the origin of the physical frailty
that afflicted Livy Langdon, Twain's future wife?

It may be that her condition was psychosomatic, an
instance of the widespread phenomenon of Victorian
young women withdrawing from the world for unspecified
emotional reasons with serious physical symptoms,
often referred to as neurasthenia. It may be that her
illness was organic. Perhaps she was indeed ill with a
disease of the spine, such as Pott's disease, which
has recently been suggested: an illness in which
chronic back pain and stiffness lead to partial
paralysis. Perhaps she had in fact injured her spine
in a fall. Without magnetic resonance imaging and cat
scans, the Victorians were even more helpless than
later generations to diagnose or cure back pain.

This is padding. (The same needless verbosity occurs
when Twain's daughter Jean dies in her bath, much
later on: "Perhaps Jean had had an epileptic attack
and blacked out. She may have drowned. Perhaps she had
had a heart attack. What exactly killed her is

Kaplan's prose is something less than an unalloyed joy
to read, and its faults are such that one can
sometimes not be certain when, or if, he is joking. A
little after the dull passage about Livy above we
learn of Langdon's regaining the ability to walk and
are informed that "Livy's recovery, along with their
continued prosperity, confirmed the family's strong
religious faith." After reading this aloud several
times, I concluded that it was meant as a plain
statement of fact. Later, in retelling a story in
which Finley Peter Dunne affected to think that he
himself was a greater celebrity than Twain, Kaplan
appears to exclude altogether the possibility that the
author of the "Mr. Dooley" columns might have been

Twain was often nettled by the contrary suggestion,
that he was playing the comic when in fact he was
attempting to be serious. This was especially the case
at the turn of the century, when he became outraged by
the McKinley-Roosevelt policy of expansionism in the
Philippines and Cuba, and also by the sanguinary
hypocrisy of America's Christian "missionaries" in
China. The articles and pamphlets he wrote in that
period, some of them too incendiary to see print at
the time, are an imperishable part both of his own
oeuvre and of the American radical journalistic
tradition. I would single out in particular his essay
on the massacre of the Moro Islanders—a piece of work
to stand comparison with Swift's "A Modest Proposal."
Nor did he confine himself to the printed word: with
William Dean Howells he helped to animate the
Anti-Imperialist League. This entire passage in his
career is all but skipped by Kaplan, who awards it a
few paragraphs, mentioning only that the New England
branch of the Anti-Imperialist League reprinted one of
the polemics, and confining himself to brief excerpts
from a couple of the better-known articles. This scant
treatment is redeemed only partially by an account of
the celebrated public exchange between Twain and the
young Winston Churchill in New York. Twain famously
teased and chided the youthful firebrand of Britain's
imperial war in South Africa. (One would like to have
been present at that meeting.) Kaplan does give us a
contemporary snippet from an anonymous attendee that
makes those remarks appear to have been even more
sulphurous than we had previously thought.

In general, though, this biography is terse when it
ought to be expansive, and expansive when it could
well do with being more terse. The student who will
benefit from it most is that student who wishes to
study the phenomenon of the author as businessman. The
record of Twain's battles over copyright and
royalties, and the story of his fluctuating success
and failure as an investor, are told with great
assiduity. Contemptuous as he may have been of the
Gilded Age and the acquisitive society, Twain was ever
ravenous for money, and his acumen was almost
inversely proportionate to his ambition. Usually a man
with a keen eye for fraud and imposture, he was lured
to invest in numerous improbable schemes, and the tale
of his won-and-lost fortunes is worth relating as a
great American example of thwarted but unquenchable
entrepreneurship. As a result of these exigencies he
wrote altogether too many words, and now his
biographer has cited too many of the mediocre ones and
not enough of the brilliant ones. I did eventually
come across a reference to the 1879 Stomach Club
lecture on "the Science of Onanism." This masterly
effort is only a few paragraphs long and screams aloud
for quotation but does not get it. Instead Kaplan
merely repeats the title of the talk and describes it

A brilliant, bawdy takeoff on the subject of
masturbation, it was, like "1601," an expression of
the subversive, anti-Victorian side of Twain that,
perforce, found some of its best moments in private
jokes. Stoically he accepted that he himself and
everything he did was determined by forces beyond his
control. Some were cultural. Some were genetic. All
were implacable.

The solemnity of this is near terminal. And the stone
of non sequitur is further laid upon the grave of the
joke. It is altogether wrong that a book about Mark
Twain should be boring.


Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The
Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. His latest
book, A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of
Iraq, has just been published.

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