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The following review appeared 23 April 2018 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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The Life of Mark Twain: The Early Years, 1835-1871 is the first volume in a planned 3-volume edition from Gary Scharnhorst, university professor, editor, and noted Mark Twain scholar. It is a well-written and well-documented attempt to untangle the facts from the myths and legends that surround the early life of Samuel Clemens. Much of the information that has been published about Clemens's early life originated with Clemens himself who embellished, embroidered, and misremembered facts in his own writings and autobiography. His hand-picked biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, who lived nearby him during his last years and assumed the role of a surrogate son, exercised a rigid determination to please the Clemens family and protect their reputation. Paine's 1912 biography has been rightly criticized for being less than objective.
Scharnhorst supports his arguments for a new multi-volume biography of Clemens with unflinching disdain for Paine. He refers to Paine as "a young sycophant without a pedigree" (xviii), a man who had a "lack of professional training" (xxiii), and a "hagiographer" (439). Scharnhorst judges Paine using twenty-first century standards. It is a common attitude displayed by many of today's scholars who overlook nineteenth century realities. Such treatment of Paine was recently discussed by Mary Eden in her excellent article in the Mark Twain Journal (Spring 2018).
Scharnhorst states his goal is to provide a multi-volume biography of Clemens from his personal and "single point of view on an expansive canvas" (xxvi). While some scholars such as Greg Camfield have suggested that specialized, tightly focused, single-volume biographies are the best way to capture the complexity of Clemens's life, Scharnhorst disagrees and feels such coverage only leads to "wildly different conclusions." He compares the wide array of current biographies written by a multitude of scholars to constructing a "grotesque Cadillac from spare parts from different models" (xxvi). However, Scharnhorst makes clear in his preface that readers should expect "no bombshells" or "dark secrets" in this first volume. He is correct--the material should be familiar ground to many scholars.
Scharnhorst's preface also makes clear that his point of view is contrary to those of many scholars today--such as Shelley Fisher Fishkin who feels that Clemens and his works are still relevant and that he is "more a creature of our time than of his" (xxvii). Scharnhorst disdains the Mark Twain impersonators in white linen suits and fright wigs who mimic "a middle-aged bankrupt" and he has no love to share for "coffee-table compilations of his maxims" (xxviii). Scharnhorst's approach prompted one early reader of an advance reading copy of the book to comment, "As I read parts of his book I could not shake the feeling that GS doesn't like Twain."
Examining Clemens's life up to 1871, the book's eighteen chapters cover his ancestry, childhood, journeyman printing work, steamboat piloting, the Civil War experiences, life in Nevada and California, Sandwich Islands trip, Holy Land excursion, platform lecturing, his courtship and marriage, and newspaper work in Buffalo, New York. Among Scharnhorst's strengths are his flair for providing interesting historical context and his keen awareness of who has written what in the past, whether it be major works on Mark Twain or obscure journal articles written decades in the past. He frequently challenges both past and present scholars when their views differ from his own.
Early in his book, Scharnhorst declares that there is enough circumstantial evidence to label Samuel Clemens a "latent pedophile, obsessed with prepubescent lasses" (105). It is a psychoanalytic theory advanced as early as 1977 by John Seelye in Mark Twain in the Movies and in 1991 by Guy Cardwell in The Man Who Was Mark Twain. Some readers will likely conclude that Scharnhorst overreaches in his search for convincing evidence by citing Clemens's affectionate letter to his sister-in-law Mollie Clemens asking her to kiss his six-year-old niece Jennie for him. Scharnhorst characterizes the letter as "creepy" (105). To further his argument he labels the compliment Clemens gave his wife Livy calling her "slender and beautiful and girlish" as "most unusual" (106). In a further observation he states that Clemens's pet names for his wife seemed to "infantilize her" (610). In the end, however, Scharnhorst concludes "no solid evidence of any actual improper behavior toward young girls has ever surfaced" (107). In further efforts at psychoanalysis, Scharnhorst theorizes that both Clemens and his brother Orion may have suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He quotes Clemens's statement, "I was born excited" as well as a long passage from a memoir written by Clemens's fellow journalist and roommate Dan De Quille who described Clemens as "nervously overstrung." To further support this argument Scharnhorst points out "As is common for children with ADHD, many of Sam's early friends were younger than he was" (40).
Livy fares rather well under Scharnhorst's scrutiny with one minor exception. Livy once told her daughter Susy that the letters Clemens sent her during their courtship were "the loveliest love letters that were ever written." Scharnhorst calls that "a hyperbolic statement that demonstrates her own facility for fiction" (474).
Scharnhorst challenges and often corrects other biographers on a variety of subjects. Among them are: Robert E. Weir and Andrew Levy regarding Clemens's progressive thinking; Shelley Fisher Fishkin regarding what Scharnhorst defines as a mistake of "presentism"--"reinventing him as if he was our contemporary"; Andrew Hoffman regarding "silly speculation" related to possible homosexual behavior; James C. Austin and Albert E. Stone, Jr. regarding Clemens's early publications appearing on the East Coast; Donnelyn Curtis and Lawrence Berkove regarding Clemens's defense of the Chinese workers in California; Jim Zwick regarding Clemens's views on Hawaiian annexation; Albert Bigelow Paine regarding advice Clemens received from Anson Burlingame--which Scharnhorst feels rings hollow; Effie Mona Mack, Albert E. Stone, Jr., Andrew Hoffman, Joseph B. McCullough, Janice McIntire-Strasberg, Joe Jackson, and Ron Powers regarding Mark Twain's early newspaper report of the Hornet disaster and its importance to his career; Franklin Walker, G. Ezra Dane, Charles Webster, and James Caron regarding their misidentification of an Albert Bierstadt painting at Yosemite that Clemens wrote about; Richard S. Lowry, Robert Regan, and Dewey Ganzel regarding their "tolerating" Clemens's plagiarism in reports from the Quaker City tour of the Holy Land.
One scholar Scharnhorst does not openly challenge--if only through omission--is Kevin Mac Donnell, who has advanced the theory that Clemens took his pen name "Mark Twain" from a cartoonish character in a sketch in Vanity Fair. When Mac Donnell published his theory in the Mark Twain Journal (Spring/Fall 2012) it received national media attention that lasted through 2014. Ignoring the theory entirely, Scharnhorst sticks to his own theory that the "Mark Twain" pseudonym originated when Clemens charged his Nevada bar tabs--two marks for two drinks. That theory, however, has been discredited. In January 2015 James Caron reported to the Mark Twain Forum his discovery of a newspaper report that divulged the bar-tab story originated with the Nevada journalist Alfred Doten who told it for entertainment purposes to other reporters who never knew Clemens.
Much misinformation regarding Clemens originated from the "social media" of the nineteenth century in the form of "news" written by local reporters across Nevada and California who baited, hoaxed, bullied, and practiced character assassination with one another with accusations of alcohol abusing, fornicating, and suffering from venereal diseases. Such reports are at the heart of Scharnhorst's theory that a sexually active Clemens contracted venereal disease. When a rival newspaper reporter for the San Francisco Bulletin scolded Clemens for coming from the Chinatown district, Scharnhorst declares "There was no good reason for a white male to frequent Chinatown except to patronize a bar or brothel" (206). Scharnhorst concedes that evidence for Clemens's having contracted a venereal disease is circumstantial. However, he reminds readers of that possibility several times throughout the book whenever Clemens reported he suffered from a cold or other ailment (207, 302, 369).
Other subjects on which Scharnhorst differs from previous scholars include one regarding Clemens's father, John Marshall Clemens. Both Paine and Clemens himself told the story of how the family's misfortunes required the elder Clemens to sell a slave named Charley in January 1842. Scharnhorst repeats the story as have other recent biographers. However, in 1989 Mark Twain Project editors Dahlia Armon and Walter Blair cautioned that a close reading of Clemens's letter to his wife Jane suggested that Charley was not a slave, but a horse (Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians, pp. 277-78.)
Another event that has inspired differing interpretations surrounds the trip Clemens made in 1854 to Muscatine, Iowa, carrying a pistol to his brother Orion's home. Scharnhorst again follows Paine's interpretation that Sam carried the pistol without any real intent to harm Orion. However, in Mark Twain and Orion Clemens (2003) Philip Fanning believes Clemens's intent was homicidal and supports his theory with a 1901 letter Clemens wrote to his friend Joseph Twichell wherein he confessed, "I bought a revolver once and travelled twelve hundred miles to kill a man" (Fanning, p. 37).
While a number of Scharnhorst's theories are open to lively debate, small errors do creep in. For example, a photo of Clemens holding a typestick is described as Clemens holding a "typecase," which is a piece of furniture (47); Clemens contributed only one article to American Courier in 1852, not "a pair," (64); The Celebrated Jumping Frog sold only about 4,000 copies in two years, not 14,000 (386). A number of photos are credited to the author's collection when originals of these photos are owned by archives elsewhere. One major error is the statement that during the Quaker City excursion and Clemens's visit to Spain in the company of fellow passengers Julia Newell and Reeves Jackson, "he recorded almost nothing about this week" (434). Scharnhorst coyly observes that Clemens did not mention sleeping arrangements and speculates that "Sam preferred discretion to disclosure" because fellow travelers Newell and Jackson, a married man, had fallen in love. Clemens, in fact, did write a chapter on Spain that was eventually edited out of The Innocents Abroad. The forty-three page manuscript is in the Vassar College Special Collections. It is a lively account of some Spanish misadventures and perhaps will be included in a University of California Works edition of The Innocents Abroad at some future date.
Much of the welcome new material presented in this volume has been unearthed from historical newspaper files that continue to flood into internet databases. The availability of new data serves to supplement, confirm and revise what has been previously written or theorized, and Scharnhorst makes much use of it by quoting newspaper reviews of Clemens's books and lectures. The book features extensive reference notes, a massive bibliography of print sources and a comprehensive index. Although Scharnhorst comments, "I cannot overstate the importance of the new technology in revolutionizing literary studies" (xxvii), he lists no internet resources in his bibliography. Whether or not one agrees with Scharnhorst's points of view, scholars and libraries will do well to add this one to their bookshelves as a well-written challenge to previous scholarship that should not be overlooked.