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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 20 Jan 2004 21:01:15 -0600
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The following review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin Mac



_The Singular Mark Twain_. Fred Kaplan. Doubleday, 2003. 726 pages.
Hardcover. $35.00. ISBN 0-385-47715-5.

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  2004 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

Revisionism seems to be a firmly established ingredient of modern American
writing, especially when it comes to biographical cuisine, and the main
course being served up in this biography is Kaplan's assertion that Mark
Twain was singular: "The writer and the man, despite the two names, are a
unified personality" (p. 2). Unfortunately, Kaplan's main course is served
cold, in a bit of a rush, and without sufficient seasoning.

Without naming him or even including his work in his bibliography, Fred
Kaplan takes time to dismiss Justin Kaplan's portrayal of Twain (_Mr.
Clemens and Mark Twain_, 1966) as a "split personality" and says this
portrait "was a useful way to dramatize some of Twain's inconsistencies."
He goes even further: Twain's "pseudonym does not embody an attempt to
escape from his other self, or a fundamental internal division" (p. 2). To
prove this new theory, Kaplan might be expected to take a fresh approach to
the known facts of Twain's life, discovering aspects of Twain's public and
private personalities that biographers before him had missed. Because
Kaplan makes clear that he has relied on previously unpublished letters,
this approach indeed seems likely, and the reader hopes for a presentation
of previously unknown information that will bolster Kaplan's opposition to
the approach taken by that earlier unnamed biographer. A recital of bare
facts alone cannot expose anyone's psyche and true self, so the reader
looks forward to an exploration of Twain's inner life, with convincing
evidence of a singular self that would lay to rest all previous theories of
Twain's "internal division" or divided self. The facts of Twain's existence
are nearly all there, and the basic emotions are there in full measure and
often in their utmost extremes (grief, greed, anger, isolation, joy), as
well as Twain's reactions to events and his many public and private
pronouncements. But Twain once said every human being has a dark side, like
the moon, that they never reveal to others, and this hidden nonreflecting
side of Twain's self--whether dark or light--that portion of Twain's inner
life not directly announced in his letters, journals, speeches, and
writings is absent from Kaplan's narrative of his outer life. Whenever a
moment is reached in which the reader senses that the curtain of Twain's
outer life might be drawn to one side, Kaplan instead seems anxious to
present us with more facts, as if his pile of index cards needs reduction
to meet some secret deadline. The reader of this biography is always
present as the events of Twain's life unfold, but seldom at Twain's side.
Kaplan keeps us at a distance, so that we can watch Twain's reactions and
emotions without having to share them.

We have had glimpses of Twain's inner life before. Albert Bigelow Paine
approached Twain's biography with enthusiasm, and hardly a page of his work
does not resonate with his conviction that writing about Twain was a
privilege. Paine's fact-finding was sometimes constricted or confused by
Twain himself, and after Twain's death Paine's ability to tell the story
was constrained by Twain's business-minded publisher and overly-protective
surviving daughter, and yet he managed to tell the story of Twain's outer
life with a relish and sympathy that often brings the reader into close
proximity to Twain's inner life. Paine is factually flawed at times, but
the spirit is true. The truth of Twain's spirit can be felt in Justin
Kaplan's biography as well. While Justin Kaplan unwisely skipped the
telling of Twain's early life (feeling that biographers like Dixon Wecter
had already accomplished the task) and his chronological presentation is
not always maintained, the evolution of Twain's spirit unfolds on most of
his pages. Finally, Hamlin Hill's harrowing story of Twain's last years
(_God's Fool_, 1973) plunges into Twain's tortured psyche deeper than many
readers could comfortably tolerate, but many readers will always regret
that Twain's earlier life was never fully examined under Hill's unflinching
psychological microscope. Kaplan had these examples to follow (or refute)
but does neither, and does not even include either of the two books
authored by Hill in his bibliography.

Kaplan does succeed in presenting the facts of Twain's life in an easy
chronological sequence. As a result, his account of Twain's complicated
financial machinations is one of the clearest accounts of this difficult
subject any biographer has been able to achieve. He also displays a
pleasing facility for providing succinct summations of events, a skill
found lacking in too many biographies. For example, at the end of chapter
9, Twain's only son has died in infancy, triggering the self-blame that
Twain had experienced years earlier when his brother Henry died, a pattern
that would be repeated many more times in Twain's life. Kaplan aptly
concludes this chapter saying, "Blaming himself was always his best
comfort." At another point Kaplan artfully compares Twain's situation with
that of the hapless blue jay in Jim Baker's famous yarn: "Twain had many
unfilled holes, he was very short of acorns, and the house was huge." Still
later when Edward House incurs Twain's wrath, Kaplan observes that House
had now joined others, like Bret Harte, in Twain's "damnology." Many more
examples could be cited, most of them found at the ends of chapters or
longer paragraphs.

Regretfully, the pleasant elements of Kaplan's fluid writing style are
sometimes offset by his annoying habit of making vague allusions and not
taking the time to name names. In biographies, name-dropping is helpful,
even preferred. He establishes this pattern on the second page of his
introduction with his mention of Justin Kaplan's book only as "a deservedly
praised and influential biography of Mark Twain's adult years" but mentions
not the title, nor the author, nor the Pulitzer Prize it won. Later, at
page 336, Twain is inspired to write _The Prince and the Pauper_ by his
discovery of "a theme he had read about in a popular contemporary novel"
but we are never told what that profoundly influential novel might have
been. At page 284 a long-delayed Bret Harte novel is mentioned but not
named (_Gabriel Conroy_, 1876). At page 342 we are left to wonder who the
"friend" was who required four years of badgering to return the $23,000
Twain had given him for some investment. At page 627 he mentions Twain's
advising Charlotte Teller on one of her plays, but does not say which one,
and then confuses her play with her novel which Twain also helped her
prepare for publication, but does not tell us the title of this novel
either (_The Cage_, 1907). Even when somebody is named, we are not always
told who they are. At page 487 Lilly Foote is cited by Twain as proof of
the success of "mind-cure" by a practitioner who might be able to help
Susy, but Lilly is not in the index (which fails to include other people,
as well as places like Riverdale, Stormfield, and Quarry Farm) nor
otherwise identified--the reader is grateful that Lilly's feeling better,
but still curious to know who the heck she was. Livy's last doctor, Dr. G.
W. Kirch had his name misspelled "Kirsch" seven times, including the index.
Even Twain, as much as he ultimately despised Dr. Kirch, still spelled his
name right. Vagueness, misspellings, and typos are not fatal flaws by
themselves, but the examples given here could be expanded to a list thrice
this size, and a text this sloppy is in need of a life-saving infusion of

Omission is another way to commit murder on a text. Several of Twain's
books seem to be missing from this narrative: _The Stolen White Elephant_,
_How to Tell a Story_, and _Punch, Brothers, Punch!_. These and other minor
works are easily overlooked without hurting the narrative (so long as it's
not intended as a definitive narrative), but Kaplan, who usually describes
the events of Twain's life in reasonable detail, frequently abridges or
ignores revealing episodes and moments. He too briefly tells of Twain's
seeking the approval of Livy's father for her hand in marriage and the
hilariously hopeless letters of reference from his friends, and manages to
present this episode without a trace of the humor or telling details
displayed in nearly every previous account. He discusses the relationship
of Twain and Thomas Bailey Aldrich, and Twain's intense dislike for Mrs.
Aldrich, but never describes Twain's cruel joke on Aldrich's wife when he
complained at the breakfast-table about the Aldrichs' noisy love-making
when she and her husband were house-guests in Hartford. Likewise, he
describes the Twain-Cable relationship at length, subscribing to Twain's
opinion that Cable was a pious prig, but neglects to tell the story of
Cable's elaborate and successful April Fool's Day hoax on Twain in 1884. He
mentions the origins of the famous "Golden Arm" story and he also mentions
Joel Chandler Harris, but somehow avoids any mention of Joel Chandler
Harris's connection with Twain's writing of this story (a favorite of
Twain's), nor does he mention that Harris also published a version of this
folktale. He mentions that Twain dreamed up odd names for his many cats,
but never tells the story of how Jean and her father named cats by
combining the names of wildflowers with ancient philosophers, and then
attached name-tags to each cat before imposing them on sometimes unwilling
Quarry Farm neighbors when the family left Elmira at the end of each
summer. He mentions that Twain proposed dictating _A Connecticut Yankee_
onto wax cylinders, but never mentions that he actually attempted to follow
through with this experiment when he began _The American Claimant_, filling
more than 100 cylinders with his dictations. He mentions Susy's deep
attachment to Louise Brownell, dismissing the notion of a possible sexual
aspect to her affection, but does not quote the more explicit language from
the letters. Likewise he accepts the broad-brushed image of Jean as weak
and unstable during Twain's last years, but ignores a previously published
letter from Jean to a friend describing her typical daily activities that
reveal her to be an active, athletic, well-organized, and competent
individual (Kaplan does quote another letter from Jean to the same
recipient, Marguerite Schmitt, but mangles her name into "Mayverite" in his
notes). He describes Twain's last visit to Hannibal, but does not tell us
that Twain wept openly when he visited the Labinnah Club (a rare public
display of unrehearsed genuine emotion), enjoyed passing out diplomas (and
witty advice) to the local high school class, his visit to the black
families living in the old Blankenship home, or his stop in St. Louis where
he briefly piloted around the harbor a steamboat that had been renamed in
his honor (making an excuse to give up the wheel when he could no longer
read the water ahead). He tells of Twain caring for Clara's "splendid" cat
(Bambino) while Clara was at a sanitarium, but does not mention that this
duty fell to Twain only after Clara was caught trying to smuggle the cat
into her room. He tells of Twain's return to New York in 1900 and his
search for an apartment, but does not mention that Twain hastily moved into
an apartment found for him by Frank Doubleday before signing a lease and
without informing either Doubleday or the landlord, and then returned
Doubleday's kindness by sending him daily postcards griping about the
defects and problems he found in his new quarters. Some of these are
stories that would have enhanced Kaplan's story only slightly, but others
would have challenged or enlarged the perspective Kaplan provides. When
Kaplan quotes from Twain's overly defensive and sexually phrased attacks on
Isabel Lyon, but ignores Lyon's sometimes sexually charged diary entries
about Twain, the story of their relationship seems just half-expressed,
even suspect, and devoid of any sexual tension. Sometimes Kaplan tells a
story without connecting it to his narrative, and certainly not to Twain's
sense of self. This is glaringly apparent in Kaplan's dry telling of the
story "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime" at page 338, a
startling contrast with Justin Kaplan's more convincing but unsettling
account of the same story (_Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain_, pp. 194-5) and
what it reveals about Twain's fractured sense of self. After running across
enough untold or half-told stories, it begins to look as if evidence that
does not support the theory of a singular unified personality is being
suppressed, if only unconsciously.

Conscious and unconscious suppression does not just afflict biographers. It
also determines how and when an author makes use of the people and events
from his own life in his fiction. Although Kaplan does explore Twain's use
of Livy as a model for Eve, and does connect the dots between other people
and events in Twain's personal life and his public fictions, at other times
he does not, and it is unclear what Kaplan's criteria is for including one
and excluding another. Laura Hawkins and Tom Blankenship were well-known
models who were openly acknowledged by Twain, and Kaplan takes notice of
them. But when people like John T. Lewis (Jim), John RoBards (d'Unlap), or
Katharine Harrison (Eve) make an appearance in the text, Twain's use of
them as models for characters in his fiction is never mentioned, and
another opportunity is lost to explore the divisions, connections,
conflicts, and manipulations between Twain's outer and inner lives, as
revealed by his methods in transforming the people and events from his
private life into his public art.

When Kaplan does present new facts (and they are few and far between) they
seldom have any relation to his thesis of singularity. We may learn for the
first time the contents of Judge John Clemens' estate, that _The Prince and
the Pauper_'s binding was the only use ever made of the Kaolatype brass
plate process, that Clara studied violin (her piano and vocal talents are
well-known), that a con artist in New York with whom Twain had invested
burned his business down twice (it was known to have happened once, but
twice!?) rather than have Twain inspect his project, and that Twain re-used
his 1885 lecture program in 1895. None of these new bits of information
makes a case for singularity of any kind, and it is striking that Kaplan
could cite the use of so many previously unpublished letters in his
thirty-eight pages of double-columned notes without bringing more new
information to light.

What is found in greater abundance than new information are factual errors
and misleading statements, and while they don't focus directly on the issue
of singularity either, they are plentiful enough to disrupt the narrative's
flow for informed readers, and misinform readers not already familiar with
Twain's life. These factual errors, both large and small, also serve to
reinforce the hurried tone of the book, the tendency to toss out facts
without delving too deeply into their meanings, before moving on to the
next item on the agenda. When Kaplan describes the appearance of Twain's
jumping frog story in the _New York Saturday Press_ he reports that Twain
had mistakenly thought that this newspaper was about to go under, but that
it was actually "temporarily healthy" (p. 136). In fact, Twain's story
appeared in the very last issue of this doomed newspaper. Twain's first
appearance in _Harper's Monthly Magazine_ prompts Kaplan to call this
journal "an elite eastern magazine" (p. 159), but nothing could be further
from the truth; in the 1860s _Harper's_ was a popular national magazine
with a circulation of 200,000, filled with articles on a broad range of
subjects, and Twain's appearance in its pages exposed him to a vast
literate audience unlike any before. At the end of Twain's Mississippi
River tour in 1882, Kaplan has Twain arriving in New Orleans on the _Gold
Dust_, but Twain stepped off the _Gold Dust_ in Vicksburg, and arrived in
New Orleans on board the _Charles Morgan_. The latter was a larger vessel,
recently refurbished in a grand manner; the former exploded its boilers a
few months later with the loss of seventeen lives. Kaplan describes Twain's
"flowing white hair" in 1885 (p. 419), about ten years before it turned a
salt and pepper grey; it was not "flowing white" until nearly 1900. Twain,
we are told, "had at last accepted that the high noon of subscription
publishing had passed" in 1892 (p. 443) but we are also told that in 1897
he "still failed to appreciate that the subscription market was dying" (p.
501). The reasons for Twain not living in Hartford after 1891 are said to
be financial (p. 532), but the monthly maintenance of the Hartford home
($200 per month) plus the cost of travel and living abroad, make this
oft-repeated claim suspect. After Susy's death in 1896, the reason for not
returning to Hartford was enlarged to include the sadness of living in the
house where she died (p. 572), but the truth, all the way back to 1891, was
more likely the shame Twain felt over his financial failures and how
Hartford society would look askance at his reduced status. The publisher of
Twain's diatribe on King Leopold is said to be the "Congo Society" (p. 619)
but that pamphlet was published by W. R. Warren, a box-printer, for the
Congo Reform Association; yet a few pages later Kaplan correctly names this
group that Twain supported. When Kaplan mentions Twain's early thoughts
about suicide, he says Twain later "vaguely referred" to an actual attempt
(p. 127), but Twain's later reference to his 1866 suicide attempt is both
explicit and revealing, and quoted in full by Alan Gribben in his
well-known book _Mark Twain's Library: A Reconstruction_, a work not cited
at all by Kaplan even though he discusses Twain's reading tastes and
influences in detail at least seventeen times. Twice Kaplan questions the
relationship between Edward House and his Japanese ward Koto, and implies
it was sexual; but no evidence exists from which to draw such a conclusion,
and much evidence points to the contrary. A photo taken of Twain and a
kitten at Tuxedo Park is captioned as being taken at Stormfield; a comment
on _Huckleberry Finn_ by Booker T. Washington is erroneously cited as 1896
instead of 1910; 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. The first hint that
these irritating errors might surface is in the introduction when Jim is
once again incorrectly called "nigger Jim." A willingness to cite sources
contrary to his thesis, along with some proofreading and fact-checking
might have spared Kaplan these errors and omissions, and would have given
the reader more confidence to accept his conclusions.

By the time the reader reaches the last ten years of Twain's life, a period
previously covered in exquisite detail by Hamlin Hill, Paine, and others,
the pace of the narrative quickens, as if this period doesn't need as close
an inspection as Twain's first sixty-five years. Any reader of Hill,
whether agreeing with all of Hill's conclusions, knows the precise opposite
is true. As Kaplan gallops toward the finish line, the reader waits in vain
for a singular Twain to put in an appearance. By the time Kaplan concludes
his story with a bromide ("There has been no one like him since.") the
reader is glad Twain was not there to witness Kaplan's virtual abandonment
of the central theme of his original thesis.

Kaplan would also have served himself better if he had relied more on
recent Twain scholarship and published sources. Certainly, his heavy,
ostentatious use of unpublished letters netted surprisingly little that's
new. A glance at his bibliography (pp. 657-9) reveals a mere sixteen source
books first published after 1950. A few more books are cited in the notes
that are not cited in the bibliography, and some books (like _Mark Twain's
Rubaiyat_, 1983) were clearly used (p. 571) but not cited at all in the
notes or bibliography. Anyone familiar with the hundreds of books about
Twain since 1950 (not to mention articles, which Kaplan cites even less
often than books) will be astonished to see a "bold revisionist" biography
(so says the front flap of the dust jacket) written without so much as a
nod, much less a tip of the hat, to Twain scholars like Howard Baetzhold,
Walter Blair, Lou Budd, Guy Cardwell, James Cox, Shelley Fisher Fishkin,
John Gerber, William Gibson, Alan Gribben, Hamlin Hill, not to mention the
letters I through Z.

If there is a reader who has never read a Twain biography who wants to read
one loaded with facts (but not all of the relevant facts, and not all of
them accurate), and not be bothered with that pesky and perpetual conflict
of Twain's inner and outer lives, or the evolution of his soul, this
biography is palatable fare. 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