These three books—two thoroughly researched biographies and a collection of carefully selected interpretations of Huckleberry Finn—are designed for any interested reader, not just the specialist. It might be said that they are not really necessary books, for they cut new pathways into familiar territory rather than raid uncharted wilderness. But they are all good books—readable, well organized, and inviting. We might not need them, but we are lucky to have them, and there will be lots of students who make their second encounter with Twain (after reading Huckleberry Finn) in one of these handy packages.
I liked John Lauber's book best. It is written as a spare, fast-paced narrative, and the organizing principle of the story it tells works very well. Lauber emphasizes events and patterns in Twain's boyhood and early career that enrich our understanding of the plots, techniques, and themes of his later work. The character of the artist as a young man—the eclectic traveler, the journalist with an eye for absurd details and a stomach for violence—prefigures the development of the mature satirist. To Twain, the chaos and extravagance of Virginia City provided a "never-ending show": it was "life, excitement, avarice, lust, deviltry, and enterprise." What would shock a moralist was exhilarating to Sam Clemens.
Lauber reminds us that when experience provided too small a measure of "deviltry" and "enterprise," Twain's imagination always filled in the gap. He knew plenty of "shocking" stories about things that had really happened, but he made them up out of whole cloth, too. This is true even of his autobiographical stories. The killing of the unidentified rider in "Private History of a Campaign that Failed" or the loss through careless silliness of the rich Nevada silver claim in Roughing It are apparently Twain inventions, appropriate extensions of fact that transform the yarns into brilliant specimens of grim humor, laced with moral import. Thus Mark Twain built upon the vast potential in that great American institution founded by Benjamin Franklin, the Art of Creative Autobiography.
As biographer and critic, Lauber displays plenty of common sense. He shows how psychoanalysis of young Clemens is less likely to pay off than a simple, [End Page 595] straightforward investigation into the development of the tension between his belief in determinism and his painfully sustained hopes for the human race. No doubt Twain, like every artist, did suffer a conflict between guilt and creativity; but our understanding of his imagination actually begins in the study of his skeptical vision, his penetrating intelligence, and his enthusiastic reaction to the violent, crazy, and profoundly educative experiences of his boyhood and youth. In this respect, Lauber's story is irresistible.
Kenneth Eble's study of Twain and Howells is on the one hand a patient, exhaustive scholarly recounting of the details of their long and productive literary relationship; on the other hand, and almost more importantly, it is a story of that rarest of life's treasures, a true and lasting friendship. That they supported and admired one another's work is surprising enough, but Eble's revelations about the powerful connections of character underlying the friendship are truly amazing: "they were both humorists." Of course. And beneath the humor, the congeniality, the mutual understanding lay two powerfully moral sensibilities. Both were convinced that determinism, in outline, was a true doctrine, but both clung fiercely to the romanticist's faith that "spirit" is "superior to matter." We might be tempted to call them "realists"—whatever that hopelessly ambiguous term has come to mean—but neither man "would let life be so stripped to its mere physical terms as to limit the power of imagination and language."
The world will remember William Dean Howells not as a novelist...