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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 10 Jun 2010 15:10:56 -0500
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by
Larry Howe.



_Lighting Out for the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Headed West and
Became Mark Twain_. By Roy Morris, Jr. Simon & Schuster, 2010.
Hardcover. Pp. 304. ISBN: 978-1416598664. $26.00. 

Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted prices
from the TwainWeb Bookstore, and purchases from this site generate
commissions that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Larry Howe
Roosevelt University

Copyright (c) 2010 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published
or redistributed in any medium without permission.

As Roy Morris, Jr. admits in his "Note on Sources," "Mark Twain has
never lacked for biographers" (235). An Amazon search of "Mark Twain
biography" yields over 200 distinct entries. Moreover, Twain himself
wrote about quite a bit of his own life in a number of different
books. Yet despite Twain's own autobiographical writings and the
extensive list of titles by others, biographies continue to
proliferate. The degree to which Twain continues to fascinate, and to
which his life continues to present opportunities for new
biographical considerations, is a both a wonder and evidence that he
lived large. One is hard-pressed to think of another American author
who has attracted as much biographical attention. While the
biographical enterprise has churned on, different segments of Twain's
life have proven to be so full and complex that they warrant specific
study. Michael Shelden's and Laura Skandera-Trombley's recent books
offer differing examinations of Twain's last years, yielding
fascinating revelations that add fuel to the controversies of Mark
Twain studies. 

For the most part, the history that Morris focuses on in _Lighting
Out for the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark
Twain_ is covered extensively in _Roughing It_ prefaced with some
accounts of his early life as a printer and a Mississippi pilot, and
rounded out with his marriage to Olivia Langdon that stabilized his
previously rootless travels. Morris's decision to revisit this
portion of Mark Twain's life has obvious merit. It is, after all, the
period in which Sam Clemens made the transition from steamboat pilot
to writer, during which he invented the persona that evolved into the
most iconic literary figure in American culture. But this is a
segment of Twain's life that has been closely examined before. So one
might be inclined to wonder what Morris has to add. Unlike Shelden's
and Skandera-Trombley's books, _Lighting Out for the Territory_ does
not reveal any hidden secrets. But it does cast material previously
covered into a context of social history that has been relatively
under-examined. The distinctive accomplishment of Morris's book lies
in his ability to set Clemens's various wanderings in the tumultuous
context of the Civil War and its aftermath. Morris's own considerable
talents as a storyteller make this a highly enjoyable book. And
though this extremely engaging and illuminating narrative is clearly
aimed at a general audience, it will satisfy readers with more than a
casual interest in the subject as well. Morris has managed the
difficult task of having constructed a penetrating biography without
being ponderous. 

Morris's five previous books on nineteenth-century topics--from
Abraham Lincoln to Walt Whitman to Ambrose Bierce to the Hayes-Tilden
election--establish his historical bona fides in taking on the
context for Twain's life in these times. As editor of _Military
Heritage_ magazine, he also has a well-honed sense of how to present
the narrative he tackles. The book's subtitle, "How Samuel Clemens
Headed West and Became Mark Twain" clearly announces the focus and
purpose of the narrative. Quickly perusing the "Table of Contents,"
one finds an orderly and well-balanced series of chapters, each
focusing on a specific phase of the period under examination.

Morris knows that Twain's _Roughing It_ has provided readers with a
lot of information about this period of his life, and he admits that
"no one in his right mind would ever try to outdo Mark Twain on the
subject of Mark Twain" (3). So Morris's account balances Twain's own
narrative details with fascinating context about many of the figures
that populated the region and with whom Twain had various
relationships. This supplement to Twain's own story fills in some
details on figures like Artemus Ward and Dan DeQuille, as well as
some of Twain's lesser-known associates like Jim Gillis, whose own
storytelling gifts provided Twain with material that he would adapt
for his own purposes later. Indeed, as delightful as Twain's own
story is, one has the sense that he has withheld quite a lot of
personal details. For example, _Roughing It_ ignores the fact that he
acquired the moniker "the sagebrush bohemian" and provides hardly
_any_ evidence for why he acquired it. Morris, in contrast, places
Twain in the company of notorious, counterculture figures such as
Charles Warren Stoddard, Ina Coolbrith, Ada Clare, and Adah Isaacs
Menken, as well as the eccentric Lillie Hitchcock. By acknowledging
Twain's acquaintances with these members of San Francisco's bohemian
culture--and especially these exotic women--Morris offers a fuller
picture of Twain's days as the "wild humorist of the western slope"
than the almost exclusively male society described by the author

This attention to context may not satisfy everyone; some may object
to the space that Morris devotes to the fact that British explorer
Richard Francis Burton had written about a similar stagecoach trip
across the American West that he made about a year before Twain.
However, I find this an interesting juxtaposition that enables us to
see Twain's _Roughing It_ as part of a broader cultural enterprise.
To be sure, Twain writes in his distinctly idiosyncratic manner, but
the fact that others had taken up this topic of cross-country
stagecoach rides indicates that _Roughing It_ was not an isolated

Occasionally, Morris's use of material from _Roughing It_ raises some
critical questions such as when he recounts Gillis's story about the
cat Tom Quartz. Attributing the source to Gillis is one thing, but
claiming that the _Roughing It_ version, as told by the fictional
Dick Baker, was a verbatim retelling of Gillis's performance is
another matter altogether. Even if Twain believed that he had
accurately transcribed Gillis's tale in _Roughing It_, the effects of
memory certainly introduced some revision to the tale. The same is
true of Ben Coon's deadpan delivery of a story about a jumping frog
which Twain first published in 1865. While it is true that Twain
wrote in a letter to a friend that he hoped to "write that story as
Ben coon told it" (172), in this case Morris does not assume that
Twain's version was simply a transcription of Coon's, noting the
importance of the frame, the irony of an outsider outwitting Smiley,
and the inability of Simon Wheeler to tell the story straight. It is
all but certain that when Twain came to rely on material from Gillis,
he subjected it to a similar process of adaptation. 

Morris provides evidence of having conducted careful research,
relying on other notable biographies and the authoritative editions
of letters and notebooks produced by the Mark Twain Papers. But his
references to this source material acknowledge his awareness of the
separate audiences the book addresses. The bibliography contains more
than 80 sources, and the index includes more than 900 entries,
satisfying the scholarly curiosities and the targeted interests of an
academic reader. But rather than including footnotes or numbered
endnotes, sources for quotations are listed by page number in the
"Notes" section in the backmatter. So while a casual reader will not
be distracted by footnotes or endnote numbers in superscript, the
scholarly reader can still find citations listed by page number in
the "Notes" section. Still, the notes only provide sources for
quotations, not paraphrases or other inferences that Morris derived
from the wide range of other sources listed in the bibliography. 

In closing, I'll iterate my earlier notice of Morris's own talents in
prose. He does not attempt to channel his subject's linguistic gifts
but offers his own compelling account in well-tempered language that
engages respectfully with his subject and with his own readers. This
enables Morris to provide useful context, which Mark Twain
purposefully omitted from his own account, but without debunking what
Twain accomplished. This is much more difficult to pull off than it
might seem, and Morris deserves credit, and readers, for what he