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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
"Kevin. Mac Donnell" <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 21 Jan 2004 12:28:05 -0600
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
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Oh my. I wrote just a single review of Fred Kaplan's big new biography of
Twain, but in light of his "impeachment" of me as a reader, I should perhaps
write another and inflict it on the Forum. But if I did, it would just
repeat pretty much what I said the first time, citing yet more specific
examples. In fact the original review I sent to the Forum was quite a bit
longer, and did indeed cite other evidence, some of which I'll draw on in my
response to Kaplan's rebuke.

To be fair to myself and Fred Kaplan, my original review did mention that
Kalpan's thesis had three parts, and I quoted from his introduction what
those three parts were. The first and third parts of his thesis were that
Twain was a large looming oft-quoted figure in American literature, and that
he was a cultural icon (read Kaplan's intro for the full details). But these
are hardly a "bold revisionist" view as promised on the dust jacket, and
seemed such well-worn cliches that they hardly needed comment. Kaplan's text
(and others before him) certainly supports these two parts of his thesis.
But they are just the salad and the dessert, and we've all tasted them
before. It's the main course that was hard to digest: that Twain had a
singular undivided sense of self.  By the time Kaplan concludes "There has
been none like him since" I can agree with that conclusion, but still found
the original thesis unproven.

Kaplan takes me to task for calling the key to abbreviations in his NOTES a
bibliography, but I was using the word in a broad sense and trying to be
kind. His excuse is that this is a biography for general readers and that a
formal bibliogarphy is therefore not needed. But he did include 38 pages of
notes for his general reader to study, and aren't many "general" readers
sometimes inspired to read further on a topic --something a modest
bibliography of, say, six or eight pages, might encourage? Those reading my
review can substitute "key to abbreviations used" whereever I said
"bibliography"  and I will otherwise stand by everything I said about his
lack of an adequate "bibliography" or "key to abbreviations" or whatever one
wishes to call it.

The fact that Kaplan has had dinner with the other Kaplan and found his book
helpful, and mentions this at pages 702-3 (following the index) hardly
refutes my statement that he "dismisses" the other Kaplan's premise about
Twain's "split personality" on page two of his introduction. I invite
everyone to read the other Kaplan's book and then read this Kaplan's
comments about it, and decide for themselves if this Kaplan is not
dismissing the other's approach.

Kaplan defends himself for his choices of what things he includes and says
my "eye should be on why [he's] made the choices he's made." That exactly
what I did. I questioned why some things were included and others were not,
but the fact that I describe in detail some of what was left out seems to
Kaplan to be unfair. I think discussing omissions is perfectly fair. I also
question the way he presented some material. In particular, my original
review mentioned his approach to the famous story of Twain being mugged by
his friends in Virginia City, their motivations behind the prank, Twain's
enraged reaction, and what that episode might say about Twain's sense of
self at that point in the evolution of his personality. Kaplan tells the
bare bones of the story in rather dull fashion. Others have told it in more
revealing detail, and with gusto.

Kaplan say he regrets misspelling a doctor's name seven times, but that he
was consistent in the misspelling. Well... ...OK. But my original review
also mentioned the fact that Joseph Ament's name gets spelled correctly on
two pages and then shows up as "Anent"  on page 407 (but still indexed as
"Ament" for that page!), or that Maguire and McGuire are the same person,
etc. I stand by my contention that the book needed better proofreading and
indexing. If it makes anybody feel better, Hamlin Hill misspelled Marguerite
Schmitt's name as "Schmidt" (Kaplan gets her first name wrong).

Kaplan says he left out information "the reader did not yet have any use
for." But how does he know what information each reader might need? If
Kaplan omits information in one context (the name of the Harte novel was
just one example I cited) but supplies it in another, how does he know the
reader does not need it at one point rather than another? For example, at
page 614 he quotes a passage about Livy by Twain that closely parallels the
text of EVE'S DIARY, but makes no mention of the connection. At page 623, he
quotes that parallel passage from the book (this time in Adam's voice), but
makes no mention of this earlier statement by Twain. This could lead some
general readers to miss the striking quality of the two parallel voices, and
it might leave any reader wondering if Kaplan saw it himself. Surely he did;
but he's treating the reader on a "need to know" basis.

Kaplan's comment that South African landscape made Twain "think of Texas"
(NOT "remind" him of Texas, as I think Kaplan reminds me) would lead most
"general readers" to think Twain had some memory of being in Texas to
"think" about when he saw South Africa. Kaplan now says that the `note' for
that passage is for Notebook 38, but the several citations to NB 38 for p.
528 all refer to specific quotes, and one refers to the similar landscapes
of New England, New York, and Iowa. I still don't know what NB 38 says about
Texas, or whether Twain's reference to Texas was to the state, the deck of a
steamboat, or some other context. Neither do other readers I'd guess.

Kaplan's point about Twain's reasons for not returning to Hartford were
indeed emotional (Susy's death) and financial and he makes that case well.
But he does not discuss the social aspect of Twain's financial problems, and
how his family's concern for their social status in Hartford may also have
played a role, and how these multiple concerns may have reflected social,
emotional, and financial divisions in Twain's mind.

Finally, I'm happy to extend my 30 year statute of limitations on Twain
biographies further back in time, but it does not change my conclusion.

Kevin Mac Donnell
Austin TX