TWAIN-L Archives

Mark Twain Forum


Options: Use Forum View

Use Monospaced Font
Show Text Part by Default
Show All Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 11 Jul 2000 15:32:04 -0600
text/plain (112 lines)
I am posting this review on behalf of Larry Howe who wrote it.



Emerson, Everett.  _Mark Twain: A Literary Life_. Philadelphia: University
of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. Pp. 386 + xiii. Indexed. Illustrations. Cloth,
6-1/2" x  9-1/2". $34.95. ISBN 0-8122-3516-9.

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 <[log in to unmask]>
Roosevelt University

Copyright (c) 2000 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

Mark Twain has attracted an unusual share of biographical criticism. No
doubt, the emphasis on the life of Sam Clemens is due to the charismatic
and often puzzling quality of the man himself.  Everett Emerson has now
weighed in with his second biographical work in what would seem an already
overcrowded field.  So we might ask: is there a need for another
biographical work on Twain?  The stated "assumption behind this book is
that one can understand virtually all of Mark Twain's works better if one
can read them in their biographical context" (ix).  Emerson pursues this
assumption by dividing his narrative into twelve chapters that correspond
to different phases of Twain's life.  His method is somewhat different than
other biographies which look for sources of narrative content in the
experience of an author.  Instead, Emerson is concerned with the influence
of lived experience contemporaneous with the production of Twain's work.
And so the answer to the above question--"is there a need for another
biographical work on Twain?"--is, fortunately, yes; as long as a biography
is constructed as Emerson has done so.

Emerson has accomplished a great deal in this book because he focuses
consistently on the "Literary Life."  That is, he doesn't speculate on or
sensationalize incidents in the life of Samuel Clemens; rather, he
exhaustively tracks the career of the writer Mark Twain in the body of work
that composed that career.  In this he is true to his explicit purpose: "to
comprehend the literary feature [of Clemens's life], which requires a
recognition of the constantly changing circumstances of his literary

Emerson includes some new revelations about lost work.  And in light of how
well covered this territory has been heretofore, any new revelation is a
surprise.  But what impressed me just as much if not more so was his
ability to carefully unknot the tangled threads of Twain's literary
productions.  Emerson's narrative reveals that Twain's career was, by
turns, both surprisingly haphazard and remarkably diligent.   Such a
careful job of mapping out Twain's complex career is the product of
painstaking research, patience, intelligence, and a genuine commitment to
the task.  Emerson has combed the archives and introduces manuscript
evidence along with excerpts from letters and notebook entries to provide a
comprehensive textual history.

Twain often portrayed himself as an accidental writer, and much of that
side of his professional life comes through in Emerson's tracking of the
various literary projects that he juggled--both serious and
ephemeral--along with an impulsive business career.  Given Twain's
extremely active social life, as well as periodic travels and sojourns at
home and abroad, it's hard to imagine how he produced as much writing as he
did.  To be sure, as Emerson notes, Twain was somewhat regretful in later
years about having been distracted from writing by other interests and
obligations.  But the volume of material, both published and unpublished,
that Emerson documents in this extremely thorough account is impressive.

No less impressive is the work of documenting it.  Emerson coordinates the
texts one to another, many of which were composed either simultaneously or
during the frequent breaks in composing the more complex and, therefore,
more frustrating compositions.  The difficulty he experienced with
_Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_ is common knowledge, in part because Twain
openly admitted how he had struggled over the course of years to complete
the narrative.  Emerson reminds us that this was far more the rule than the
exception, and that a considerable factor in his frustration stemmed from
the need to produce work that would sustain the very costly lifestyle he
fashioned for himself and his family.  The emphasis that Emerson's account
gives to the professional pressures, in addition to the artistic or
critical ones, is crucial because it helps to counterbalance the
inclination of academic critics to emphasize the discursive puzzles without
fully regarding the economic influences that also contribute, directly or
indirectly, to the shape and meaning of a work.

Critics have often noted that Twain left more unpublished than published
work.  The proportions have gradually shifted over the years as work
unpublished during Twain's lifetime has been edited and released to the
public, most notably by the Mark Twain Project at the University of
California.  Recently, Joseph McCullough and Janice McIntire-Strasburg
edited a volume of Twain's writing as editor and publisher of the Buffalo
_Express_.  Emerson's account reveals that there are other treasures still
to emerge and, therefore, much more critical work to be done.  To be sure,
the unfinished narratives raise considerable interpretive problems by
virtue of having been left unfinished.  But Emerson's descriptions of these
writings and his account of their relations to other texts suggest a very
fruitful future for the study of Mark Twain, much of which will no doubt
draw on the strength of Emerson's clear-headed presentation of facts.

At times Emerson subscribes to a narrower view of who Mark Twain is than is
profitable.  During several stretches of the account, he suggests that Mark
Twain disappears from the writing that was produced under that name.  By
holding to a particular vision of what constitutes a Twain text, he appeals
to a notion something like Foucault's "author function" that
institutionalizes, and correspondingly depersonalizes the writer, which
seems counter to the assumption that generated Emerson's project.  In the
end, though, Emerson's shrewd construction of a literary biography avoids
the distractions that more conventional biographies indulge.  _Mark Twain:
A Literary Life_ is, thus, all the stronger for it.