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Mon, 4 Mar 2013 18:28:17 -0500
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_Mark Twain's Civil War_. By Bill Macnaughton. RoseDog Books, 2012. Pp. 151.
Softcover. $17. ISBN 978-1-4349-7352-8.

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

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin Mac Donnell.

Copyright (c) 2013 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

This book is a Twaint. No insult is intended by the use of this term, which
admittedly sounds like a twangy Texian contraction of "it ain't." It's
simply a keyword used when cataloging into my computer database any book
that falls into that broad category of books that use Twain himself, or his
writings, or his characters, as a touchstone. Some of these books are modern
versions of Twain's stories, some are pasticci of one sort or another, some
are parodies, some are cartoon or comic book or graphic novel renderings of
his works, many are fiction that simply make use of Twain or one of his
characters as a character but none of his themes or motifs. A few claim to
be Twain himself speaking from the dead, a handful are sequels or
"completions" of a Twain work, and a very few defy all description. The
authors of these books run the gamut from award-winning authors to likely
lunatics, and their various intentions run the gamut as well--from heartfelt
homage to shameless exploitation. Many Twaints are wonderfully inventive and
readable and insightful; others, well, not so much. But whoever their
authors and whatever their intent they all share one common trait: whatever
they might be, they just ain't Twain. Which makes them Twaints.

This Twaint is set on the eve of the American Civil War, and features Sam
Clemens as the main character, together with historical places, people, and
events from Twain's life skillfully woven into the tale, lending an
authentic air to the narrative, even if the factual details are not always
historically precise. Twainians will recognize the author as William
Macnaughton, whose book, _Mark Twain's Last Years as a Writer_ (1979) was
one of the first books to rebut some of Hamlin Hill's influential thesis
portraying Twain's last years as a period of decline, writer's block, rages,
and depression. Macnaughton's previous book was a valuable and useful
addition to Twainian scholarship, but this time Macnaughton aims to
entertain and perhaps throw some light on a brief period in Twain's life
that is sparsely documented. Macnaughton says his ultimate goal is to
encourage the reader to read more works by Mark Twain himself (p. vi).

The story begins in 1910 at Bay House in Bermuda when Mark Twain, knowing
his days are numbered, hands Albert Bigelow Paine a manuscript to read,
explaining that "I've tried to be honest about a few things that maybe I've
fudged in the past, like sexual behavior and the raw way men speak
sometimes" (p. x). Paine then sits down to read Twain's autobiographical
account of his activities on the eve of the Civil War. The next forty-two
chapters are Twain's own story, followed by an epilogue in which Paine,
having finished reading the manuscript, decides that the racial and sexual
content would disappoint Twain's admirers, and returns to Twain's room to
explain this and to ask Twain which parts of the narrative are fictional and
which are factual. Twain understands why the work cannot be published, but
ignores Paine's pleadings to separate the fact from fiction. Although
Macnaughton structures his novel as a frame story, a form Twain frequently
used to great effect, he fails to exploit the possibilities offered by this

Twain's account begins on January 11, 1861 (p. 1) in the "political
cauldron" (p. 7) of St. Louis, two years before Sam Clemens discovered Mark
Twain. The second sentence of the story alludes to masturbation and a few
pages later the masturbatory allusions return, sounding gratuitous the
second time around. Sam Clemens, sympathetic to the South, soon meets a
young woman, Miriam, who has Union sympathies, and who also has a
"gratifying effect on Sam's wilted manhood" (p. 52). As Sam and Miriam
converse, it becomes apparent that Macnaughton is having trouble recreating
Clemens's personality--Clemens's dialogue is often stilted, and the reader
wishes that some of the prose could be purpled up a bit to match the
melodrama it describes. But Macnaughton does get some dialogue
pitch-perfect, especially when Miriam and a badly beaten slave have a
conversation in chapter 22.

The forty-two short chapters of Twain's story are crammed with events, some
advancing the story line further than others. In chapter 16 Miriam performs
oral sex on Sam, in chapter 18 Sam discovers gun-running being carried out
on the _Alonzo Child_ and a plan to attack the arsenal at St. Louis, and in
chapter 21 Sam witnesses the brutal murder of a traitor to the southern
cause. The passion between Sam and Miriam grows, and Miriam soon hatches a
plan to help an old slave escape to freedom (Sam declines to help her), and
Sam narrowly avoids being killed when shooting breaks out during a riot in
St Louis. Miriam is soon being wooed by a courtly Confederate General, but
returns to visit Sam, and the carnality resumes, but Sam soon leaves for
Nevada and they never see each other again. The final chapter shifts
abruptly to Quarry Farm in the early 1880s, about the time when Twain
decides to take up the unfinished manuscript of _Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn_. Sitting in his study one day, he opens a letter. It's from Miriam.

Macnaughton makes clear that he set out to contrast the racial prejudice of
young Sam Clemens and the mature views of an older Mark Twain (p. v), and
makes his case in this fictional account that the winds of change in Sam's
racial views began blowing in the early months of 1861, between the time
that his piloting days ended and the day in July, 1861 when he lit out for
the territories with his brother Orion. Perhaps they did, and those wishing
to know more of Mark Twain's thoughts about the Civil War can read David
Rachels's _Mark Twain's Civil War_ (2007), a compilation of Twain's writings
on the subject. The truth of the matter is that the story of Twain's
evolving views on race is much longer and more complicated than the stirring
events of any one year, but whatever Sam Clemens witnessed in St. Louis in
1861, whether or not it involved a lost love, are part of that story, and
Macnaughton's fictional speculation, if not entirely convincing on that
score, is certainly entertaining, and like all good Twaints it encourages a
reader to seek out the words of Mark Twain himself.