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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 21 Jan 2004 08:11:05 -0600
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The following response to the book review of _The Singular Mark Twain_ was
written for the Mark Twain Forum by Fred Kaplan:


I appreciate Kevin MacDonnell's effort to review my biography, _The
Singular Mark Twain_, fairly & fully. But I think it only fair to return
the kindness & to point out just a few of his many astounding errors.

MacDonnell is outraged or at least distressed by the insufficiency of the
bibliography. He makes much of this. I am as surprised as he is by its
insufficiency since there is NO bibliography in the book. In his hasty
reading, he has apparently mistaken the section (pp. 657-659) headed "Title
Abbreviations" for a bibliography. No where is the word "bibliography"
used. The section "Title Abbreviations" is a key to the abbreviations used
in the end notes for works which I cite two or more times. Apparently
MacDonnell so strongly believes that a biography for general readers should
have a bibliography that he insists that my book has one, though a
deficient one, even though it has none at all. Reasonable people can
disagree about whether a biography requires a bibliography. But how a
section called "Title Abbreviations" can be construed to be a
"Bibliography" I'm at a loss to say.

MacDonnell claims that "without naming him or even including his work in
his bibliography, Fred Kaplan takes time to dismiss Justin Kaplan's
portrayal of Twain.." On the contrary, I don't dismiss it--I give it high
praise. To quote myself: "A special word is due about Justin Kaplan: he and
his work have been a helpful presence over the years. With his wife, he was
my host at their home one gray Cambridge day when I was working on a
biography of James. I had then, as I have now, great admiration for _Mr.
Clemens and Mr. Twain_. Though my own emphasis in creating a portrait of
Twain is substantially different." (pp. 702-703). To say that I take "time"
to dismiss it in the "Introduction" is to mistake the obvious point. I
don't "dismiss" it at all. I simply emphasize that I take a different

Perhaps these two reading mistakes are connected to a motif that runs
throughout--my failure to make expository & bibliographical bows to modern
scholars. MacDonnell lists those whom he believes I've slighted or perhaps,
so he seems to be saying, not even read, though I can't be sure that he is
actually accusing me of the latter. Here too there is a principle at work,
which MacDonnell either has not glimpsed or chooses to ignore: any scholar
from whose work I quote is cited & acknowledged in the end notes. Numbers
of scholars on his list are indeed so cited, including the estimable Hamlin
Hill, whose fascinating book on Twain's last years I quote from. This seems
to me a reasonable principle, though I grant that there can be rational
disagreement about how best to acknowledge indebtedness. And I do also
acknowledge my indebtedness, in a collective bow & then in addition to some
by name, to Twain scholars not cited in the end notes but whose works
provided some of the deep background for the book: "One of the pleasures of
writing a biography of Mark Twain," I write on p. 702, "is to become aware
of and to share in the goodwill and comity that characterize professional
and nonprofessional Twainians. I am indebted to many of them for their
published work and for their private encouragement. Though I have met most
of them only through their publications, I do offer my celebratory
testimony to the high quality of so much that they have accomplished, and &
to the humane spirit that characterizes their discourse." MacDonnell's
claim to the contrary, I do indeed rely heavily on the work of modern Twain
scholars. MacDonnell seems to be accusing me of meanness of spirit in my
acknowledgments, unless he is also accusing me of scholarly negligence. I
only accuse him of being a poor reader.

MacDonnell seems to have four primary substantive complaints: 1) that in
this book of 726 pages I have left out incidents & specifics & discussions
of Twain works that he thinks ought to be there; 2) that I have not
discussed some of Twain's works fully enough & others not at all; 3) that
there are many errors of fact & proofreading; 4) that the thesis is not
sustained throughout.

The first two observations have some accuracy. An earlier draft of the
book, which was about 25% longer, might have satisfied more of MacDonnell's
desires along these lines, though far from entirely. Apparently MacDonnell
considers two lengthy chapters insufficient to narrate the last ten years
of Twain's life. That space seemed to me appropriate & proportionate, & a
reader especially interested in those years can go to Hill's book. But a
biographer of the life as whole must pick & choose within certain
constraints of length & form. And a balance needs to be maintained between
being representative & being comprehensive. As a reviewer, MacDonnell's eye
should be on why I've made the choices I've made. What he clearly does not
see (at least he gives no indication that he has in an attempt to assess
what I've done) is that my choices have been made in regard to which of
numbers of similar incidents or statements contributes best & most
economically to my overall portrait of Twain & to the structural balance of
the book.

Indeed there are errors, including the regrettable misspelling of "Kirch,"
though it seems ludicrous for a reviewer to be aghast at the misspelling
having occurred seven times in the exposition & also in the index. It's in
the nature of these things that if it's done once it's done
consistently--otherwise the many proof-readings would have caught the
inconsistency. In a book of this size especially & in books of every
length, as all writers, editors, & publishers recognize, there will be a
certain number of such gaffs, no matter how scrupulously those responsible
attempt to vet the proofs. I daresay that the number of such errors in _The
Singular Mark Twain_ falls on the short side for a book of such length &
detail. I regret every such error. But I don't think there's a writer or
editor alive who hasn't at some time been embarrassed in this way. I think
we ought, though, as experienced professionals, to take Twain's approach to
such matters: both furious expletives & stoic resignation, though of course
not at the same time, & corrections in the next printing.

MacDonnell's list of my alleged errors says more about himself as a
reader/reviewer than it does about the book, especially when his own
corrections of my errors are error filled. And his tend to be of an
especially damaging kind, since many of them reflect on his capacity as a
reader. For example, he states censoriously in his list of my sins that "at
page 284 a long-delayed Bret Harte novel is mentioned but not named
(_Gabriel Conroy, 1876)." But _Gabriel Conroy_ is named (& later indexed)
in a discussion (pp. 331-332) of Harte's fury at Twain & Bliss whom he
blames for the commercial failure of the novel. Since, at the time at issue
at p. 284 in the narrative, Harte's novel did not yet have a name & since
substantive discussion was being reserved for a later, more pertinent point
in the narrative, I chose not to provide the reader with a piece of
information the reader did not yet have any use for. How can MacDonnell not
know this?

Another example: MacDonnell writes that "the landscape of South Africa is
said to have reminded Twain of Texas (p. 528); maybe it reminded Twain of
what he'd heard or read about Texas, but Twain never stepped foot in Texas.
Kaplan does not cite his Texas reference and the reader is left to wonder."
What I did write (MacDonnell likes to change my words) is that "the
brown-green landscape made him think of Texas." Not "reminded." There's a
big difference. And the reference indeed is cited in an end note on p. 689
-- "NBK 38," an unpublished notebook from which the entire line of thought
& the direct quotations on the bottom of p. 528 are taken. Only a poor
reader would be "left to wonder." And what can one say about a reviewer who
entertains the possibility that the author of a biography of Twain would
not know that Twain had never been in Texas?

One more example & I will desist: in this same list, McDonnell states that
I am in error in claiming that Twain left Hartford for financial reasons.
But in the full sweep of my narrative about the Twain withdrawal from
Hartfordian paradise & his years abroad I stress that it became a
self-exile more for emotional & psychological than for financial reasons.
Twain quickly came to realize that his European life was very expensive.
There were multiple reasons, though, for extending the exile, & for
renewing it, the least of which was financial, though he dragged that
rationale out whenever it served a convenient purpose.

Now it's not a good thing to misspell "Kirch" but it's venal in comparison
to MacDonnell's misdeeds. Like the three cited above, many of what he calls
my "irritating errors" aren't errors at all, & though the book is far from
error free (for example, MacDonnell is correct that Twain's hair wasn't
"flowing white" in 1885) this is the kettle calling the pot black.
McDonnell's list of my putative errors is filled with his errors & his
careless inattention to what I've actually written. He messes up the
Charlotte Teller material, he misses the reason why Lily Foote & some
others aren't in the index, I do quote some of the erotic language in
Susy's letters to Louise Brownell, & there is some evidence to surmise that
there may have been an erotic element to the House/Kyoto relationship,
which is all that I claim, etc, etc.

What I take to be MacDonnell's central criticism, that the thesis is not
sustained throughout--MacDonnell refers to the "virtual abandonment of the
central theme of his original thesis"--seems to me unsustainable. If it is,
MacDonnell offers no evidence or substantive argument to support it. In
fact, he ignores the implicit dramatization throughout the narrative of the
underlying claim about Twain's personality & self-projection. And of course
the book does not attempt to "argue" a thesis. It attempts to show it, to
dramatize it, to narrate it. It is implicitly there throughout, in the
selection of the materials, in the shading & nuancing, in the overall
portraiture. I attempted to make my selection & arrangement of the
materials--complicated & complex & multi-leveled materials-speak
simultaneously for themselves & for me, & also speak for Twain's complex

I of course regret (in the impersonal sense) that I haven't conveyed Mark
Twain's "spirit" to Mr. MacDonnell. It surely was not for want of trying. I
felt Twain's spirit with me as I wrote. And I felt it in my final revisions
& final reading. But we are all flawed creatures & can only do our best.

And oddly, MacDonnell concludes that "for all of its many flaws, this story
of Twain's life is as good as any full-length biography to appear in the
last thirty years, but Kaplan's Twain is not singular, and his biography is
not definitive." What a bizarre left-handed compliment! Apparently
all--there aren't many, are there?--full-length biographies that have
appeared in the last 30 years are no better than this one. And why "last
thirty years?" What full length biography immediately prior to 1974 does he
have in mind? Surely not _Mr. Clemens and Mr. Twain_, since it's not a full
length biography. And where did he get the idea that I or anyone connected
with _The Singular Mark Twain_ thought or think it is "definitive." Not
even the publisher's jacket copy or publicity material says that. I
certainly have never said this in writing or in speech. This is the
reviewer's invention. In this case & in regard to many other accusations in
the review neither the author nor the publisher can be impeached. The
reviewer can be.

Fred Kaplan