The following review appeared 5 September 2001 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Susan Bivin Aller's biography Mark Twain is one of thirty-five books in a series of A&E publications covering the lives of politicians, athletes, show business luminaries, and famous authors including Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott and Maya Angelou. Aller's contribution to this series is a biography of Mark Twain aimed at young readers in grades 6 through 12. Aller's treatment of the life of Samuel Clemens follows a Horatio Alger theme of the rags to riches success story. Mark Twain: A & E Biography consists of seven chapters, a bibliography, index, numerous photos and illustrations. Also included are four single page excerpts from Roughing It (the Pony Express sequence); The Celebrated Jumping Frog; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (the introduction of Huck Finn); and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (the "kings is mostly rapscallions.")
Aller introduces her reader to Sam Clemens with a Dickensian approach of young Sam, the printer's devil, living under deprived circumstances in the office of Joseph Ament's Missouri Courier in 1848 Hannibal. And in one of the first failings at historical accuracy, Aller's caption under the daguerreotype of young Sam, the printer's devil, incorrectly identifies the compositor's stick containing the letters SAM as a "belt buckle (p. 6)." The error of misidentification of the picture is not uncommon but it serves as a warning sign that Aller's book will lack a measure of credibility.
Aller documents Clemens' career as a steamboat pilot in a Chapter titled "Pilot on the Proud Mississippi." Aller tells her readers that when the Paul Jones left Cincinnati, Horace Bixby was nursing a sore foot and that is why Sam spelled him as steersman during much of the trip to New Orleans. Bixby is characterized as having "an explosive temper and expected perfection" from his cubs (p. 35) adding that he was "a hard taskmaster, furious when his cub made mistakes (p. 37)."
Aller chronicles Clemens' trip in 1866 to the Sandwich Islands and his meeting with U.S. minister to China Anson Burlingame who advises the young journalist to "Seek companionship among men of superior intellect and character... Never affiliate with inferiors; always climb (p. 51)."
Continuing to follow the Burlingame lead, Aller follows the 1867 voyage of the Quaker City across the Atlantic wherein Sam meets cultivated matron Mary Fairbanks and a young heir to a prosperous coal business named Charles Langdon whose miniature portrait of his sister Olivia attracts Sam's attention.
In this rags to riches portrait, Aller describes Clemens' 1870 marriage to Livy and the building of their Hartford home financed "in large part with (her) inherited fortune" which brings a "gilded life" to the boy "who had grown up in poverty. The boy who had never seem a display of affection in his family had become a young father, sharing embraces with his wife and daughters... The rough Westerner with only a grade-school education was an honored member of the literary and cultural elite of the East Coast (p. 73)."
Clemens' 1882 visit to Hannibal is chronicled but Aller fails to mention that it was one of many stops on a steamboat tour of the length of the Mississippi River to stimulate memories and gather fresh material for writing Life on the Mississippi. His ruinous investment in the Paige typesetter is underplayed while the stock market crash of 1893 and subsequent financial crisis is blamed for his bankruptcy. Clemens' last visit to Hannibal in 1902 is not mentioned. The deaths of Susy and Livy are briefly chronicled in a chapter titled "Thunder-Strokes." Jean's death is included in the last chapter "Final Harvest" six paragraphs prior to Clemens' own death.
Aller's major errors in Mark Twain: A & E Biography stem from her inability to distinguish between fact and fiction in Mark Twain's works--particularly in the adventures of fictional characters Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Aller's unsubstantiated claims gleaned from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer include:
One of the attractions of Mark Twain: A & E Biography are the twenty-eight illustrations and photos; several of them sharp, clear black and white reproductions of photos I have never seen before including one of Clemens with Josh Billings and Petroleum V. Nasby in an alternate pose that is superior to the one that is commonly published. Thirteen photos are credited to the Mark Twain House in Hartford; six are from the Mark Twain Papers; and the remainder from various sources. Illustrations range from bird's eye views of Hannibal and Virginia City to a Currier and Ives steamboat race.
The front cover photo of the soft cover book is a mirror image of the seated Twain in his white suit with his fingers interlaced. Whether the reversal of the photo was accidental or intentional remains in question. The back cover has a striking small portrait of Twain at Saranac Lake from 1901.
Aller's mini-biography states she lives in West Hartford and is active in programs at the Mark Twain House. Her previous writing efforts have included a young adult biography of J. M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan. Aller has done a creditable job in condensing the complex and eventful life of Samuel Clemens into a brief introduction which one hopes would stimulate young readers to explore further the life and writings of Mark Twain.
A&E's fifty minute Mark Twain television biography produced in 1995 does not appear to have been the basis for the content of this book.