Samuel Langhorne Clemens became "Mark Twain" with the publication of his first newspaper column using his pseudonym on February 3, 1863. By that time, Clemens had experience as an apprentice typesetter, a visitor to metropolitan New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., a typesetter for newspapers throughout Missouri and Iowa, a "cub" riverboat pilot and later as a licensed Mississippi river pilot, a member of a Confederate militia, a traveler into the West by stagecoach, and an unsuccessful miner for and speculator in silver. Clemens found a true calling, however, when he began writing for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise during the summer of 1862. It took some time for him to adapt to the wild journalism of the territories, but by February 1863 he was certain enough of his abilities and of his position to lay claim to the pen name and begin to shape his literary reputation.
That is the story told by Roy Morris Jr. It is a fast-moving tale that brings readers close to the time period and to the variety of people who influenced Clemens. Morris's subtitle for this volume is: "How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain." The book is a detailed look at the experiences that shaped Mark Twain and offers an overview of the external and cultural influence of places, people, and events rather than a detailed look at the evolution of a literary persona. Along the way, readers are treated to various asides that expand the cultural context in which Clemens was immersed—for example, Clemens's embrace of bohemianism that linked the San Francisco literary community with that of New York. Morris's asides often help to complicate our understanding of Mark Twain, a welcomed addition to an otherwise conventional recreation of Clemens's first thirty-five years.
The first of Morris's seven chapters covers Clemens's Hannibal and Missouri life as prelude to Sam and his brother Orion's trip [End Page 147] West (Orion to become the secretary to the Nevada Territory; Sam to find a safe passage away from the growing tensions of the Civil War). The next six chapters cover the brothers' trip to Nevada and Sam's experience acting both as Orion's aid and then as a wildcat miner; Sam's attachment to the Territorial Enterprise both as a staff reporter and a local editor; Sam's adopting the pseudonym "Mark Twain" and Clemens's work as a reporter for the San Francisco newspapers and then as a correspondent during his trip to the Sandwich Islands. Clemens's experience as a lecturer is also covered, as are his early contributions to California literary magazines before his return to New York and his Quaker City steamship Mediterranean tour, which served as the basis for his first major book, The Innocents Abroad, published in 1869. Morris ends his story of Mark Twain fairly abruptly with the marriage of Sam Clemens to Olivia Langdon of Elmira, New York, in 1870.
Morris's account is most interesting when he departs from the conventional story of Mark Twain to look at the broader context for Sam Clemens's choices. But broad is often not deep. Too often, the western story is based on Clemens's own version from Roughing It (1862). That reliance on Clemens's account, a version that is influenced by an attempt to create story rather than accurate memoir, distracts from the biography. Morris is at times inconsistent when he warns of Clemens's creative approach to the past and then presents an image of the past based on Clemens's literary reconstruction. The use of letters and the examples of Clemens's journalism is more helpful. In the end, this biography is fluid and fast paced, but it foregoes deeper analysis. The Mark Twain we have here is truly a character, but his description deflects deeper analysis of the literary development of the persona that, once mature, supplants the identity of his creator. [End...