The following review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Larry Howe.
_Mark Twain: Lives and Legacies Series_. Larzer Ziff. Oxford University
Press, 2004. Pp. 126. Hardcover. $17.95. ISBN 0-19-517019-9.
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Oxford University Press has figured out that the Penguin Group did
something very shrewd when they developed their Penguin Lives series, now
some 32 titles of short biographies, published in hardcover, measuring less
then six inches by eight inches. Following a similar model, Oxford now
boasts its own Lives and Legacies series. At present, only two titles,
_Walt Whitman_ and _Mark Twain_, have been released. The plans for the rest
of the series seem to be in flux because the flyleaf of the Twain volume
lists a title on T. S. Eliot, but the Oxford website does not mention this
one, though it does list a title on Winston Churchill due early in 2005.
Like the Penguin series, Oxford's appears targeted to a general audience
interested in notable literary figures.
The Oxford series diverges somewhat from the Penguin model, which markets
the series not on the strength of the subject alone but by commissioning
high profile writers, many of whom are not biographers or scholars on their
subjects. The Oxford Mark Twain Edition had done something similar by
contracting with celebrity authors to write introductions to the
reproductions of Twain first editions. But Shelley Fisher Fishkin, the
general editor of the Oxford Mark Twain, recognized that an introduction by
a celebrity authors should be complemented by an "Afterword" by a scholar
(full disclosure: I contributed the "Afterword" to _Life on the
Mississippi_). Still, an introduction to a particular text is a lesser
order of magnitude than a biography, even a short biography. It could be
argued that a concise biography might demand still greater knowledge of the
subject in order to select the most appropriate elements for inclusion.
Perhaps for this reason, Oxford has chosen to trust its Lives and Legacies
series to elegant writers who have impeccable credentials as scholars in
their subject areas. This decision may impact marketability, but the
benefits of authority are arguably worth it.
Larzer Ziff, in particular, is an excellent choice for the Twain biography
because he brings a deep knowledge of American literature, broadly, and the
period of Twain's life and career, especially, to bear on the insights his
book contains. Among his previous books, _Literary Democracy_, _The
American 1890s_, and _Return Passages: American Travel Writing, 1780-1910_
establish his expertise for a book on Mark Twain. The book itself bears
this out. The purpose of this slim volume is not to propound some new and
controversial interpretation of Twain's life but to frame his complex life
for an audience of readers whose prior knowledge of the subject may range
from very little to quite a lot, and to do so in an engaging manner.
Granted, Mark Twain enthusiasts or scholars may question the validity of
distilling Twain's variegated life into a narrative of only 116 pages. But
a writer of Twain's stature should be made available to a wide audience.
Ziff's book satisfies this objective because it presents details in a
measured way, neither cursory nor laborious, and places Twain's life in the
context of American literary traditions, both genteel and vernacular.
Ziff's observation that Twain regarded Oliver Wendell Holmes's _The
Autocrat of the Breakfast Table_" as the single best American work of comic
art" (15) helps to explain how much Twain valued having his own work appear
in the _Atlantic Monthly_, where Holmes's pieces had themselves debuted.
This is the kind of thing that I admire most about Ziff's treatment of
Twain's life: he amplifies and contextualizes the staple assessments of
Twain scholarship. For example, in his account of Twain's emergence as a
humorist with the "Jumping Frog" story, Ziff acknowledges how the tale
exploits tensions between genteel society and the frontier, and he notes
the fact that "it is the telling, not the tale, that counts; or, rather,
the telling is the tale" (20), characteristic of the verbal energy that
runs throughout the best work of Twain's career. But he does not simply
allow this commonplace assessment of Twain's work to stand on its own;
rather, he bolsters the point effectively by introducing the cultural
wrangle that persisted between Matthew Arnold and Mark Twain from their
first meeting and which emerges periodically in Twain's work from the
middle career onward.
The condensed biographical narrative that Ziff constructs here pays
considerable dividends for the committed reader, but not without some
expenditure of effort. Ziff arranges the book in four chapters, each titled
for an identity that makes up the composite personality of Mark
Twain--"Celebrity," "Tourist," "Novelist," "Humorist." This approach is
rather unconventional and could be viewed as an attempt to avoid the sense
of determinism implicit in most chronological biographies. But the decision
to build the story in this way raises some questions if not problems.
First, why choose this order? Twain attained the height of his celebrity
later in his life, and resulted from a writing career that began as a
humorist, then as a tourist, and finally as a novelist. So why lead with
"Celebrity?" To be sure, it is a mistake to think of these identities as a
succession of discrete phases, and Ziff's book makes plain that these
identities coexist in varying proportions over the course of his career.
But by choosing to develop the story in this way, Ziff has, in effect,
composed four essays with different emphases. As chapters of a single book,
they challenge the reader by ranging rather widely back and forth across
time, and at times verging on repetition. The repetition may serve as
useful reinforcement for the uninitiated reader, but the absence of
chronology may unsettle one who is attempting to understand how this life
unfolded. For readers more familiar with the arc of Twain's life, the lack
of chronology may not pose a problem, but the repetition that results may
try one's patience.
Nonetheless, there is still a lot of value in each of the chapters. My
particular favorite is the "Tourist" chapter, and especially the section on
_Following the Equator_. The world tour that generated the book was
undertaken to defray the obligations of his disastrous financial status,
and he complained to Howells about the ordeal later in life: "I wrote my
last travel book in hell; but let on, the best I could, that it was an
excursion through heaven. ... How I did loathe that journey round the
world!--except the sea-part & India" (49). But Ziff notes that the
narrative from this tour contains very revealing attitudes and reflections
on racial difference, ones that cause him to consider his upbringing in a
slaveholding society. Ziff writes:
When the German proprietor of Twain's Bombay hotel showed him to his room,
a native was there working on his knees to adjust the glazed door that
opened onto the balcony. The proprietor walked over to the workman and,
before stating what he wanted done, gave him a brisk cuff on the face. "I
had not seen the like of this for fifty years. It carried me back to my
boyhood, and flashed upon me the forgotten fact that this was the _usual_
way of explaining one's desire to a slave."
Thus transported to the past, Twain remembered his father, a kindly man who
nevertheless treated Lewis, "our harmless slave boy," in such a fashion,
and then relives the moment when at the age of ten he witnessed a man fling
a lump of iron ore at a slave in anger killing him (53).
The correspondence between his boyhood recollections of America and the
social conditions he witnessed on this tour reminded him of "[t]he
injustices of the prewar South "and evoked in him "a sympathy, indeed an
advocacy, that was new to his travel writing" (54). Ziff credits these
experiences with contributing to Twain's sense of purpose in addressing the
imperialist culpability of the United States at the turn of the twentieth
Ziff's economical writing is perhaps best on display in the third chapter,
"Novelist." Summarizing the plots of Twain's novels and assessing their
relative merits and weaknesses of this range of work is a rather difficult
task. Ziff manages this well, providing enough of an outline without
becoming overburdened in too much summary. He balances well between a high
profile masterpiece like _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_ and lesser known
works such as _The Gilded Age_ or _The American Claimant_. And he tracks
the trajectory of energy of these texts in ways that would elicit agreement
from most scholars.
But given that scholars are sticklers for details, some will certainly
object to a degree of inaccuracy, or inconsistency, with respect to dates.
For example, the first mention of _The American Claimant_ lists its date as
1882 (47), ten years before it was published. And though it is correctly
dated later, in the inaccurate listing, it is placed chronologically among
five novels between _The Prince and Pauper_ (1882) and _"The" Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn_ (1884). The suggestion here is that _The American
Claimant_ date of 1882 is not simply a typo, but a substantive, though
minor, error by virtue of the order of its placement. Moreover, the dating
of the other two texts creates some discrepancy since _The Prince and the
Pauper_ was published in 1882, but its copyright date is 1881, whereas
_Huckleberry Finn_ lists a copyright of 1884 but typically dated 1885
corresponding with its American publication. Part of this confusion stems
from Twain's practice of copyrighting and publishing his books in England
prior to publication in the United States to afford him legal redress
against book pirates in Canada. But even if we bracket these peculiarities
as too arcane for inclusion in a condensed biography, Ziff's book still
bears internal inconsistency by mentioning that Twain "in 1884, established
his own publishing firm, Charles L. Webster and Company, which published
_Huckleberry Finn_ in the following year" (24). An attentive reader would
become puzzled by all the other dated references to this famous book as
published in "1884" when this reference implies publication in 1885. Still,
in the scheme of things, these are somewhat small matters. And these few
botched facts should not be allowed to overshadow an otherwise well written
and qualitatively insightful account of the life of the most notable
figures in United States culture, literary and otherwise.
Ziff's book will, I hope, be viewed as a suitable gift in this holiday
season--and no doubt Oxford hopes so as well. Even for readers who know a
considerable amount about Mark Twain, this nice little volume will make for
informative and pleasurable reading. If the book succeeds as I think it
should, we can look forward to a broader array of titles in the Lives and