- Twain in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates
Gary Scharnhorst’s Twain in His Own Time offers a valuable resource for scholars and general readers seeking a handy anthology of first-person accounts of encounters with the great Mark Twain. Scharnhorst culls personal reflections, interviews, and second-hand remembrances of those who knew the man or merely sat through one of his lectures. Twain proves a worthwhile subject for University of Iowa Press’s series on “Writers in Their Own Time” because of the myth-making already in play during Twain’s lifetime (both by him and by others). Indeed, while the book promises to provide readers with a glimpse of the unvarnished Twain, its final effect is to revivify the awe and absorption Twain inspired in listeners through his physical presence and oral storytelling. This impression pervades the text, because the book offers hardly any insights into the writing of Twain’s fiction. The anthology, therefore, becomes a testament to Twain as live entertainer and neatly counters more recent scholarship that focuses on his role as purveyor of print culture.
The volume features a robust collection of reminiscences from family members, slight acquaintances, childhood friends, and literary rivals and friends who met Samuel Clemens. Because it excludes Twain’s own writing, the anthology operates as a patchwork biography; for Scharnhorst, this allows the book to evade Twain’s usual control over his public image. Featuring ample coverage of his time as a newspaper man in the West, his various lecture tours within the US and abroad, and his work on the posthumous autobiography that consumed his last years, the book also highlights key turns in Twain’s life, such as the publication of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and its mass distribution, the ill-advised speech at Whittier’s birthday celebration, and the death of his son. It includes some selections sure to delight aficionados of Twain, in particular the first reprint of an interview with Twain’s mother that appeared in an 1885 newspaper. Readers get some juicy details about Twain’s dealings with other writers from Frank Harris, such as his intense antipathy toward Bret Harte. It also includes some familiar sketches of Twain, such as William Dean Howells’s reflections on their friendship. Readers will even find firsthand accounts from the “angelfish”—little girls who caught his fancy and became his companions— Twain gathered toward the end of his life. At times the volume seems too exhaustive, as [End Page 120] when it features descriptions of brief encounters with Twain—from a single paragraph from Winston Churchill to anyone who published an account describing a Twain lecture or befriending him on an ocean liner. The exhaustive coverage of multiple perspectives on Twain pits the anthology as a cross between Citizen Kane and a fan club scrapbook of news clippings about celebrity sightings.
Less hefty and more readable than the recently published autobiography, the book at times benefits from only light editorial touches. Scharnhorst promises to give readers “unsanitized glimpses of Twain, warts and all, with the public mask or façade stripped away” (xvii). Still, Scharnhorst vows not to detract from Twain’s reputation. Indeed, he concedes that “Twain exhibited a normal number of foibles and contradictions” (xviii); we should all be so lucky to reach and not exceed that “normal number.” Yet the book gives us one-sided accounts without much editorial input on the veracity or authority of the speakers. At times, past and present collide so that early friends of Twain end up filtering their remembrances through the public figure Twain later crafted. For instance, the real “Becky Thatcher” recalls: “We went to school, we had picnics, we explored the big cave—they call it the Mark Twain Cave now, you know” (5). Her recollections, like so many, are refracted by the rise of the...