The Impossibility of Knowing Mark Twain



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Over a century and a half ago, a columnist for the San Francisco Daily Dramatic Chronicle predicted that Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, was “bound to have a biographer one of these days—may it be a hundred years hence!” Albert Bigelow Paine’s official biography of the author was published less than fifty years later. It is an indispensable source for the legend of Saint Mark. Paine portrayed his subject as “the zealous champion of justice and liberty” who was “never less than fearless and sincere. Invariably he was for the oppressed. He had a natural instinct for the right, but, right or wrong, he was for the underdog.” As recently as 2002, Robert E. Weir echoed the dubious claim: Sam “was an indefatigable foe of anything that stood in the way of human progress and individual potential,” as if to suggest that the world would be a better place if only everyone emulated him. Sam Clemens’s most honest comments about his life, or so he asserted, appear in his autobiography, most of which appeared posthumously. “A book that is not to be published for a century gives the writer a freedom which he could secure in no other way,” he explained in 1899. “In these conditions you can draw a man without prejudice exactly as you knew him and yet have no fear of hurting his feelings or those of his sons or grandsons.” “I speak from the grave rather than with my living tongue, for a good reason,” he declared. “I can speak thence freely.” In a March 1904 letter to his friend W. D. Howells, Sam described his autobiography as

the truest of all books; for while it inevitably consists mainly in extinctions of the truth, shirkings of the truth, partial revealments of the truth, with hardly an instance of plain straight truth, the remorseless truth is there, between the lines, where the author-cat is raking dust upon it which hides from the disinterested spectator neither it nor its smell … the result being that the reader knows the author in spite of his wily diligences.

Howells replied skeptically, “Even you won’t tell the black heart’s-truth. The man who could do it would be famed to the last day.”

Howells was correct. In the end, Sam failed to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth about his life in his memoirs. From the beginning, he was reticent to discuss sex, for example. “There were the Rousseau confessions,” he acknowledged, “but I am going to leave that kind alone.” He eventually conceded to Howells that “as to veracity,” the entire autobiography “was a failure; he had begun to lie, and that if no man ever yet told the truth about himself it was because no man ever could.” Sam elsewhere declared that “no man dares tell the truth until after he is dead.” His autobiography is so rife with inaccuracies, embellishments, exaggerations, and utter untruths that a cottage industry of naysayers has developed to debunk it. Many parts contain not so much a remembrance of things past but a remembrance of things that did not happen. As Louis J. Budd remarks, scholars who try “to separate truth from yarn-spinning in his autobiographical dictation” have discovered it is “a mountain of funny putty.” Sam Clemens’s biographers must consult the autobiography with caution in reconstructing the events of his life. He never allowed the facts to interfere with a good story, such as the discovery of a blind lead in Roughing It (1872) or his complicity in the death of a stranger in “The Private History of a Campaign that Failed” (1885). Even the apologetic Paine admitted that Sam’s autobiographical dictations bear “only an atmospheric relation to history.” Bernard DeVoto agreed that though he was one “of the most autobiographical of writers,” he was “least autobiographical” when he tried to chronicle his life. Howard Baetzhold describes Sam’s memory as “faulty” and “convenient,” and Hamlin Hill calls it “immensely selective.” James M. Cox refers tactfully to “the magnifying lens of his imagination.”

The first task of Sam Clemens’s biographers, in short, should be to sort facts from factoids or truth from truthiness, a process akin to stripping lacquer from a painting to reveal the original pigments or removing carpet to expose the grain in a hardwood floor. As Sam famously joked, when he was young, “I could remember anything, whether it happened or not,” but as he grew older his memories began to fade, “and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the latter.” To arrive at some reliable account of various events, such as Sam’s first lecture engagement in San Francisco in early October 1866 or his putative visit to the czar’s dacha in Yalta in 1867, I have had to triangulate or quadrangulate sources. He seems to have been a yarn spinner from an early age. As his mother once allowed, “he is the wellspring of truth, but you can’t bring up the whole well with one bucket … I discount him 30 per cent for embroidery, and what is left is perfect and priceless truth.”

In an Enterprise column in January 1863, the month before adopting the Mark Twain pseudonym, he conceded that he had “a sort of talent for posturing.” As Ron Powers remarks, “he was forever revising his life to make it even more interesting and melodramatic than it had been.” Many Clemens scholars note the extent to which he crafted his own reputation or, as Jeffrey Steinbrink has observed, “anybody who attempts a biography” of Sam collaborates with him, since he “was in the process of constructing himself … throughout his career.” Hill similarly observes that “if art is a mode of dissembling, the Samuel Clemens hidden beneath his own disguise was an artist of a magnitude as yet not completely defined and barely explored.” Not even Sam’s travel books—The Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), A Tramp Abroad (1880), Life on the Mississippi (1883), and Following the Equator (1897)—are entirely reliable sources about his life, despite his insistence that if “the incidents were dated, they could be strung together in their due order, & the result would be an autobiography.” On the contrary: Hill refers, for example, to Twain’s “enormous violation of the facts of his biography” in the construction of his narrative persona in Roughing It. Put another way, virtually all of his major works, including his autobiography, are semiautobiographical. The statement underscores the pressing need for a complete and reliable biography of the author for what it tells us about the alchemy of his imagination. “I never deliberately sat down and ‘created’ a character in my life,” as he told an interviewer in 1907. “I begin to write incidents out of real life.”

Sam Clemens enjoys a reputation unrivaled in American literary history and he was in large part the architect of that reputation. From the start of his career, he tried to control his public image. As early as 1871, a columnist in the Phrenological Journal commended Sam’s marketing genius: he “is shrewd, and not only understands how to write and name a book, but also how to advertise it.” He understood intuitively the advantages of favorable publicity and he was adept at “dramatizing his celebrity,” as Budd adds. In “both a literary and psychological sense, the shambling but perceptive humorist remembered as Mark Twain is a mask,” according to Louis Leary, a “posturing and flamboyant figure” created by Clemens, who over the years sculpted his public persona and fiercely protected it. Budd has explained that Sam “did not just welcome publicity: he eagerly sought it for almost fifty years.” He readily sat for interviews when they were to his advantage, as when they served to promote a book or lecture, but otherwise he was largely inaccessible. He praised his butler for learning to lie when turning away “the newspaper correspondent or the visitor at the front door.” He often admonished interviewers not to publish his exact words because he could sell them for up to thirty cents apiece rather than give them away. “Don’t print a word of what I have said,” he ordered a stringer for the New York World in November 1900. “It is my trade to gaggle, and if I talk to reporters for nothing where’s my bread and butter coming in?” “To ask a man who writes for his livelihood to talk for publication without recompense is an injustice,” he added in 1903. He never employed a publicist because he didn’t need one or, more correctly, he saw one in the mirror. He sometimes urged his correspondents to destroy his private letters rather than jeopardize his public image, as in a postscript he sent his brother Orion and his sister-in-law, Mollie, as early as October 1865, a month before his thirtieth birthday, even before his comic sketch “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” appeared in the New York Saturday Press: “You had best shove this in the stove” because “I don’t want any absurd ‘literary remains’ & ‘unpublished letters of Mark Twain’ published after I am planted.” Similarly, he admonished his mother and sister in January 1868, over two years later and some sixteen months before the publication of The Innocents Abroad, his first great literary and commercial success, to read his letter “only to the family, & then burn it—I do hate to have anybody know anything about my business.” Ironically, these letters not only survive but the texts have been published, not that Sam would have been surprised. Shortly after the birth of his youngest daughter, in 1880, he interrupted a note to his friend Joseph Twichell to admonish the future reader of his private correspondence:

Somebody may be reading this letter 80 years hence. And so, my friend (you pitying snob, I mean, who are holding this yellow paper in your hand in 1960,) save yourself the trouble of looking further; I know how pathetically trivial our small concerns would seem to you, & I will not let your eye profane them. No, I keep my news; you keep your compassion. Suffice it you to know, scoffer & ribald, that the little child is old & blind, now, & once more toothless; & the rest of us are shadows, these many, many years.

This pattern of massaging the message and spin-doctoring holds throughout his life. Late in his career, he hired a clipping service, and today the files of the Mark Twain Papers at the University of California, Berkeley, are filled with the articles he was sent. Most of his interviews in Australasia and South Africa in 1895 through 1896 are known to scholarship only because newspaper clippings of them survive in his scrapbooks.

In the course of his long career, Sam Clemens lost as many friends as he made. He did not suffer fools or rivals gladly, especially if they wore crinoline. He targeted them indiscriminately—from religious leaders (e.g., Mary Baker Eddy, John Alexander Dowie, De Witt Talmage), politicians (William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Tim Sullivan), fellow writers and lecturers (Bret Harte, Kate Field), to literary pirates (John Camden Hotten) and military leaders (Frederick Funston). If Sam was often loved in public, he was sometimes loathed in private. He feuded for years with C. C. Duncan, the captain of the Quaker City, the ship that carried him and the other “innocents” to Europe and the Holy Land in 1867. Though he and James were both friends with Howells, neither of them could abide the other’s work. If Henry James was “the Master,” a careful craftsman who considered Sam’s writings vulgar, then Sam was the anti-James, an improvisational artist who, as he said, “would rather be damned to John Bunyan’s heaven than read” The Bostonians.

Particularly early in his career, he systematically burlesqued all types of fiction and journalism (e.g., temperance literature, French novels, gothic and ghost stories, dime and detective novels, fairy tales, success stories, joke books, almanacs, theatrical reviews, sentimental romances, travel narratives, biography and autobiography, pornography, fashion articles, obituaries, interviews, medicinal and lovelorn advice columns, news reports, social columns, sportswriting, and celebrity features) as well as popular plays, operatic librettos, and Shakespearean comedies and tragedies. His hoaxes and parodies gradually evolved into social and political satire. But everything he wrote did not turn to gold, nor was every speech he delivered touched with genius. He readily violated the classical unities and ignored the standards of the well-made novel. Or as Howells remarked,

He was not enslaved to the consecutiveness in writing which the rest of us try to keep chained to. That is, he wrote as he thought, and as all men think, without sequence, without an eye to what went before or should come after. If something beyond or beside what he was saying occurred to him, he invited it into his page, and made it as much at home there as the nature of it would suffer him.

While Huck Finn is generally hailed as a great American novel, Sam also suffered his share of reverses and disasters. He was hardly exempt from the slings and arrows of outraged critics. He published his share of flops and potboilers, such as Merry Tales (1892), The American Claimant (1892), and Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894), all written when he was in the throes of financial exigency and imminent bankruptcy. All of these books clearly fall below the mark of his best writing. A consummate performer in his own right, he nevertheless cowrote with Bret Harte the play Ah Sin (1877), the most disastrous collaboration in the history of American letters. Ambitious to succeed, he was notoriously unwise in his investments, thinking the telephone a wildcat speculation while backing such inventions as a steam pulley, a carpet-pattern machine, and a powdered food supplement made from the albumin of eggs called plasmon. In short, he exhibited his share of human foibles, despite his modern reputation.

Over the decades, the field of Samuel Clemens biography has often resembled a bloody battleground. The most famous critical war occurred in the late 1920s and 1930s, between the first two curators of the Mark Twain Papers, Paine and DeVoto, with Clemens’s surviving daughter and heir, Clara, a self-interested spectator. In 1906, Clemens commissioned Paine, a young sycophant without a pedigree, to write his official biography. After Clemens’s death in 1910, Paine managed the papers with the goal of maximizing their profitability to the Mark Twain Company and the Estate by churning out a steady stream of Twain-related books and magazine articles based on materials in the archive: e.g., the hagiographical Mark Twain: A Biography (1912) and bowdlerized editions of Mark Twain’s Letters (1917), Mark Twain’s Speeches (1923), Mark Twain’s Autobiography (1924), and Mark Twain’s Notebook (1935). Thomas Sergeant Perry once disparaged the archival method of compiling such magisterial works. “The biographer,” he wrote, “gets a dustcart into which he shovels diaries, reminiscences, old letters, until the cart is full. Then he dumps the load in front of your door. That is Vol. I. Then he goes forth again on the same errand. And there is Vol. II. Out of this rubbish the reader constructs a biography.” Paine tightly controlled access to the manuscripts; that is, Paine’s proprietary interest in Mark Twain was at least as pronounced as Leon Edel’s in Henry James a couple of generations later. He was a gatekeeper, and among those he denied entry was DeVoto, a young Harvard graduate who believed that Van Wyck Brooks had distorted the record by contending in the thesis-ridden The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920) that Sam’s native genius had been repressed and his writings censored by his genteel wife, editors, and friends. As Brooks suggested most succinctly, “the making of the humorist was the undoing of the artist.” Without rehearsing this controversy or his conflict with Paine in detail, DeVoto needed to examine the original manuscripts in order to dispute Brooks’s thesis, but Paine colluded with Harper & Bros., Sam’s last publisher, to refuse DeVoto access to the papers. As he advised the editors at the House of Harper,

On general principles it is a mistake to let anyone else write about Mark Twain, as long as we can prevent it … As soon as this is begun (writing about him at all, I mean) the Mark Twain that we have ‘preserved’—the Mark Twain that we knew, the traditional Mark Twain—will begin to fade and change, and with that process the Harper Mark Twain property will depreciate.

In his introduction to a 1980 reprinting of the authorized biography, James M. Cox concludes unequivocally that Paine “acted as censor and custodian, doing all he could to preserve the life he had written and unhesitatingly denying would-be interpreters like DeVoto access to the papers.” Ironically, Paine appropriated some of Sam’s manuscripts for his personal use without permission and carelessly lost other documents, including the manuscript of his brother Orion’s autobiography. In the foreword to Mark Twain’s America (1932), DeVoto expressed scorn for Paine’s motives and methods. When he was starting to research his book, according to DeVoto, Paine “informed me that nothing more need ever be written about Mark Twain. The canon was established, and whatever biography or criticism had to say could be found in the six pounds of letterpress that composed Mr. Paine’s official Life.” DeVoto observed that the furor caused by Brooks’s thesis “rested on one marginal note quoted by Mr. Paine which accused [the primary scapegoat, Olivia Langdon Clemens] of steadily weakening the English language.” DeVoto eventually concluded, too, that Sam—not Livy or Howells or his other ostensible censors—“was responsible for many of the euphemisms and avoidances” in his writings. Paine delivered his patronizing reply in the preface to the Centenary Edition of Mark Twain: A Biography (1935): DeVoto seemed “a young man … more talented than exact” and “not always pleased with the facts as he finds them … The young man plainly was not pleased with Mark Twain’s choice of those to whom he trusted his literary effects—his daughter, Clara, and the writer of these lines.” Ironically, in 1935 DeVoto also began to contribute a popular column, “The Easy Chair,” to Harper’s Monthly, and in 1938, the year after Paine’s death, he was selected to succeed him as curator of the Mark Twain Papers. He remained in this office until 1946, and before his own death in 1955 he had received both a Pulitzer Prize for History and a National Book Award for Nonfiction.

Nevertheless, Brooks’s contention that Sam had been crippled artistically by the censors who surrounded him, including his wife, editor Howells, and his friend Mary Mason Fairbanks, had the effect of fostering the false notion that “Mark Twain” was his alter ego or that he suffered from a multiple personality disorder like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Twain biography became and has remained a fertile field for psychoanalytically-inclined critics. In Freudian terms, if “the Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope” (Twain) was the id, then the bourgeois family man who resided in a Victorian mansion (Clemens) was the superego. “The solution for critics … at least since Brooks,” according to Richard S. Lowry, has been to resolve the contradictions in his character “by literally dividing him in two.” Arthur G. Pettit alludes darkly to his “multiple personality.” Even DeVoto, Brooks’s most vocal opponent, conceded that “for a time” after the death of his wife and favorite daughter Sam “lived perilously close to the indefinable line between sanity and madness.” Paul Fatout epitomized this tendency toward armchair psychoanalysis when he tried to gauge precisely the “vague and shifting” line “where Clemens yields to Twain and vice versa,” as if there were “two persons occupying the same body,” which is exactly what Andrew Hoffman asserted in his biography Inventing Mark Twain as recently as 1997. Forrest G. Robinson flirts with the same notion by claiming that “the line separating Clemens from Twain was far from clear” even “to the man who bore those names,” though Robinson immediately qualifies his point by affirming the more conventional view: “Clemens was a historical person of many and complex dimensions, but there was only one of him. Mark Twain was a fiction of many and complex dimensions—not the least of them his relationship to his maker—but he was a fiction.” That is, his ego was more intact than many critics have been willing to grant.

For decades after the publication of The Ordeal of Mark Twain, in short, Brooks’s thesis skewed the field of Clemens studies. In his 1930 Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Stockholm, Sinclair Lewis betrayed Brooks’s influence when he declared that Howells “was actually able to tame Mark Twain, perhaps the greatest of our writers, and to put that fiery old savage into an intellectual frock coat and top hat.” According to Justin Kaplan, he was “a double creature”: “The Hartford literary gentleman lived inside the sagebrush bohemian.” The very title of Kaplan’s Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (1966), a play on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, nods in Brooks’s direction, as does the milder common critical judgment that Sam was a welter of “contradictions” or “inconsistencies” sometimes verging on the pathological. To cite only a few examples: Gladys Bellamy (“Mark Twain seethed with contradictions”), Edward Wagenknecht (“There are contradictions in Mark Twain’s attitude about himself, as in everything else about him”), J. Stanley Mattson (“the contradictions in Mark Twain’s character were legion”), Fred Kaplan (“a man of many inconsistencies”), Joseph F. Goeke (“chronic vacillation, impulsiveness, and self-contradiction”), and Peter Krass (“a complex man who was almost schizophrenic”). Gregg Camfield avers that Sam’s “attitudes toward the world of commerce seem confused and contradictory,” particularly “the contradiction between his support of labor and his investment in a labor-supplanting machine.” He was an unabashedly countercultural figure—except when he was not. He also affirmed the standards of the social status quo—except when he did not. While he sometimes spoke truth to power, as when he condemned the depredations of the American military in Cuba and the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, he almost as often spoke what he considered truth to powerlessness, as when he sued a poor hack driver for overcharging his maid on a fare and justified his action on the ground of “civic duty.” He scorned hypocrisy, but he was vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy in his own right. By the end of his life he had become both king and court jester, both Lear and the Fool.


This essay is excerpted from The Life of Mark Twain: The Early Years. Published with permission of University of Missouri Press. 

Gary Scharnhorst is distinguished professor emeritus of English at the University of New Mexico. He is the author and editor of nearly fifty books, including Mark Twain on Potholes and Politics: Letters to the Editor. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.