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The following review appeared 8 January 2014 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Editor Gary Scharnhorst and many other Twain scholars have pointed out that Mark Twain controlled his public image as tightly as possible, dramatizing the events of his life that did take place and making up other events that, well, didn't. Without the benefit of a public relations consultant he learned over time to manage his reputation and manipulate the public's perception, granting interviews when it was to his advantage and declining them when it wasn't. He engaged in damage control when things went wrong like his bankruptcy, subscribed to a clipping service to monitor the effectiveness of his public relations efforts, trademarked his nom de plume, and allowed it to be used to brand a variety of products. His efforts did not end with his death; to provide post-mortem protection of his brand he bequeathed his daughter Clara the "Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript" to wield as a weapon against two people he thought might try to harm the market value of his reputation. He formed the Mark Twain Company and for decades his last publisher and his "official" biographer carried on the task of shaping his public image. Sam Clemens did everything he could to create the legend of Mark Twain and then perpetuate it, but who was the man behind that carefully crafted public persona?
This anthology of ninety-six excerpts from writings by those who knew or met Mark Twain gives us some valuable clues. Scharnhorst notes that these accounts are "largely immune from Twain's spin-doctoring and image-making. By the same token, it is not a debunking account of his life. Rather it offers an alternative, anecdotal version of Twain's life over which he had virtually no control" (xvii). The same year that this collection was first published, a collection of sixty-one writings about Twain by other authors was compiled by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Her collection, The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works (Library of America, 2010) provides a broad overview of Twain's influence on his fellow authors from around the world over a span of 140 years. Scharnhorst's collection is confined to Twain's lifetime, and while it includes recollections by some of the same authors included in Fishkin's anthology, it focuses more on others who encountered Twain and left behind unvarnished accounts of the man--his own mother and two of his daughters, one of his childhood sweethearts along with other childhood friends, his rowdy fellow western journalists and his not-so-rowdy Nook Farm neighbors, two of his book illustrators, some of his fellow celebrities, two of his angelfish, one of his secretaries, one of his publishers, his lecture agent, and others who recorded facets of Twain's personality that Twain's public never saw. Sitting side by side on the shelf, Scharnhorst's and Fishkin's two volumes comprise a handy resource that documents Twain's life and art as effectively as some Twain biographies.
Arranged in chronological order, these eye-witness testimonies contained in Twain in His Own Time present a behind-the-scenes tour of Sam Clemens's childhood, tracing his rise to fame as Mark Twain, documenting his success as a writer, illuminating the creative process of his most famous literary works, tracking his broadening cultural influence, and following his final years as an American icon. The lengthy subtitle sums it up well: "a biographical chronicle of his life, drawn from recollections, interviews, and memoirs by family, friends, and associates." Each account is introduced with a bit of background on the author of each account and their relationship to Twain, and followed by ample footnotes. A list of the works cited and a handy index round out the text. The succession of different voices resonates with a ring of authenticity that is sometimes absent from the solitary narration of a formal biographer. Katy Leary and Mary Howden tell what it was like to work in the household away from the public glare; Helen Keller tells what it was like to sit by the fireside and be read a story by Twain himself; Dorothy Quick, Dorothy Sturgis, and Elizabeth Wallace describe what it was like to feel the full force of Twain's charms in his last years; George Bernard Shaw describes Twain inscribing a book to him while explaining that he always inscribes the inside cover instead of a flyleaf to prevent the recipient from ripping out the signature and selling it (we assume Shaw could take a hint); Jane Clemens reveals Sam Clemens the boy while Susy and Clara draw portraits of Sam Clemens the father. Others describe Twain's mannerisms, his daily habits, his speech, his writing, his wraths, his sadnesses, his smoking, his drinking, his illnesses, and what it was like to argue with him or how he appeared to a child. Describing Twain at different points in his life and in a variety of situations, viewed at times through the savvy eyes of older adults and at other times through the innocent eyes of children, the complicated mosaic of Twain's protean personality begins to assemble before the reader's eyes. Some accounts, like Frank Harris's distinctly negative reaction, may not gain the reader's full acceptance (many of Harris's accounts of his own life have been debunked) while the words of William Dean Howells seem like confidences shared by a trusted friend. But true Twainians will find nearly all of them mesmerizing, and the volume itself a page-turner.
Many of these accounts will be already be familiar to Twain scholars who will recognize them from previous biographies about Twain, or from brief quotes in scholarly articles. However, for many readers it may be the first time they have been able to read extended accounts of Twain by his steamboat mentor Horace Bixby, or stories by his western friends like Joe Goodman, Tom Fitch, Dan De Quille, George Barnes, or Steve Gillis. Twainians are familiar with Twain's letters to `Mother' Fairbanks, but how many have read her account of Twain during the voyage of the Quaker City in her very own words? Many Twainians have read William Dean Howells's My Mark Twain cover to cover, but how many have read the memoirs of Senator William Stewart (briefly Twain's boss in Washington DC), Moncure Conway (fellow author and a minister), Henry Watterson (editor, and very distant relative), Lillian Aldrich (Twain detested Lillian, the wife of author Thomas Bailey Aldrich), Annie Fields (author, and widow of publisher James T. Fields), Charles Warren Stoddard (author, and Twain's private secretary during a visit to England), and dozens like them. Twainians have read about Mark Twain's illustrators, but how many have read accounts of Twain in the words of those illustrators themselves, like Dan Beard and E. W. Kemble? Twainians have probably read Susy Clemens's biography of her father and Clara Clemens's My Father Mark Twain, but how many have read Jane Clemens's 1885 unguarded interview about Mark Twain's boyhood, or Laura Hawkins Frazier's 1918 testimony about her childhood "romance" with Sam Clemens?
Obtaining the original texts of these accounts would entail
hours of tedious online searching, more hours of interlibrary loaning, and
more than a little cash-strapping, so having them in this useful well-edited
single volume is a welcome achievement. These factors probably account for
the success of the series in which this volume was published--other authors
who have been similarly treated include Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Fuller,
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edgar Allan
Poe, and Walt Whitman. We don't know what took them so long to get around
to Mark Twain, but we're glad they did.