restricted access The Authentic Mark Twain: A Literary Biography of Samuel L. Clemens (review)
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Reviewed by
Everett Emerson. The Authentic Mark Twain: A Literary Biography of Samuel L. Clemens. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1984. 342 pp. $29.95.

The Authentic Mark Twain deserves its title. Everett Emerson offers an informed, insightful reckoning of the major writings and a great many of the minor ones seen in the context of Mark Twain's life and creative endeavor. Necessarily, he has drawn upon the work of many others, and there is great value in the bringing together, in an up-to-date form, of so much that has had to be sought in so many places. Moreover, Emerson goes readily and masterfully beyond this inevitable indebtedness to give his own critical considerations. His criticism strikes me as generally sturdy: he is neither an idolater nor a jettisoner. Observing that "the Mark Twain devotee, even an unfanatical one, finds that in nearly everything that his author wrote, something attractive is to be found," he recognizes the unattractive as well: because "the author was of two minds about Christian Science, a reader does not know how to respond to Mark Twain's book"; "Which Was It? is embarrassing to anyone who has enjoyed the best of Mark Twain's writing, for the story is patently his—warts and all."

Commendably, Emerson takes each piece on its own terms, and there are few if any forced judgments in support of some favored theory. Because this is the case, it is all the more interesting that he nevertheless comes to something resembling, in part, the early thesis of Van Wyck Brooks concerning the repressive effects upon Mark Twain of the genteel society and of the influence of his wife, Olivia. The author succeeded in being authentic, one gathers, when he escaped these effects. His true self is seen as leading, much of the time, a fugitive existence, with occasional breakthroughs to freedom and to genuine expression. "Despite his status as a candidate for gentility, the author presents himself in Roughing It as a man of experience," and the reader can sense "the presence of the authentic Mark Twain." But in the late 1870s Emerson finds "a failure of creativity" and the "disappearance of Mark Twain," followed by a reappearance in Huckleberry Finn, the writing of which was "a liberating experience for its author." By the early 1890s he had lost his focus; in the later 1890s he could not often regain it in his stories but sometimes did so in his essays ("Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses"; "In Defense of Harriet Shelley"). In his last decade, Emerson believes, Twain achieved a return to "the celebration of freedom" in No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger. It may be worth noting that the later and more free-soaring part of the No. 44 story was written [End Page 395] in 1905, after the death of Olivia Clemens. Emerson does not, however, make a point of this consideration. Rather, he is inclined to suspect the presence of a continuing self-censorship, by this time, in Mark Twain: "In time he himself would recognize that he would always feel inhibited"; "Perhaps the spirit of his wife lived on."

But what we have in The Authentic Mark Twain is not altogether the Brooksian view. Emerson finds, for example, that in his courtship period "Samuel Clemens was working at looking respectable as Olivia's husband, but he was willing to share with old friends the fact that he was putting on an act," and that thereafter "Olivia Clemens edited the man far more drastically than she edited the author."

John S. Tuckey
Purdue University, Calumet
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