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The following review appeared 13 March 2003 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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The book is well written in a style that will appeal both to the general and academic audiences. Each chapter is accompanied by extensive reference notes. A comprehensive bibliography and an index are also provided. Fanning has drawn from contemporary newspaper accounts, family letters -- both previously published and unpublished, scrapbooks from the archives at the Mark Twain Papers, biographies written by Albert Bigelow Paine and Dixon Wecter, and journal articles written by Effie Mona Mack and Fred Lorch. Drawing from early Nevada government documents, Fanning reconstructs the role Orion played in guiding the territory to statehood. Some events and major theories have been reconstructed "on the basis of incomplete evidence (p. xvi)," something which Twain scholars and researchers may find controversial. Fanning, however, is quick to point out where evidence is lacking and sometimes plays devil's advocate with his own theories.
Fanning's book follows the rise and fall of the family fortunes which were significantly affected by the death of patriarch John Marshall Clemens. Fanning documents the struggles of Orion and Sam to support the family through journalism and newspaper publishing. Orion was ten years older than Sam and more of a domineering father figure than a brother. Sam's piloting career on the Mississippi provided his escape from Orion's shadow. The outbreak of the Civil War abruptly took his piloting profession away. Fanning discusses the brothers' diverging political loyalties and attitudes toward slavery. Orion's marriage and his political appointment as secretary for the Nevada territory, stemming from his support of President Abraham Lincoln, restored his position as primary financial supporter for the Clemens family. Sam accompanied Orion to Nevada and labored in failed mining ventures financed by his older brother. Sam once again turned to journalism for his living. Frequently acting in his capacity as a temporary governor, Orion avoided a "Sagebrush War" with California over disputed state boundary lines and enjoyed political popularity.
Fanning pinpoints the death of Orion's only child, Jennie, in early 1864 as a turning point in Orion's life. As Sam rose to national prominence as a writer, Orion spiraled downward from politics to failed journalistic endeavors. He finally became dependent on this younger brother for financial support. Orion's last years ended in excommunication from his church and a mental deterioration that was recognized by his family.
Throughout this "painful domestic drama stretching from the 1850s to the 1890s" (p. x), much of the brothers' story is drawn from the letters exchanged between family members. One poignant letter from Jane Clemens in 1881 to her son Sam summarizes her concern, "...my trouble is my only two sons are not like brothers" (p. 193). Additional insight is gleaned from the newspaper articles, penned by both brothers, in which they apparently take verbal shots at each other. Sam's "Miscegenation Society" letter to the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise on May 17, 1864, resulted in embarrassment to both Orion and his wife and may have hindered their social standing. The article caused much controversy and ultimately Sam's leaving Nevada for California. Fanning theorizes the story may have been the result of Sam's ambivalent attitude to the Union that Orion had sworn to support as well as his attitude toward Orion himself. Fanning brings to light a number of writings that Orion contributed to various newspapers. In one piece, Orion's jabs at Sam seem evident. Writing for the San Francisco Times in 1867, he referred to "the wretched reptiles who slunk through the war, trailing their slimy tracks in crooked lines through the edges of both parties--at first giving hearty assistance to the rebel side, then deserting it to render lukewarm aid to the Government..." (p. 117).
For the historical record, Fanning corrects instances where Sam may have purposely muddied the water regarding Orion. One example regards Orion's possible election as secretary of the state of Nevada in September, 1864. Sam had written of the list of nominees, "His name was not in it. He had not received a vote" (p. 99). Fanning finds, "Of the total of sixty-one ballots cast, Orion received thirteen, second only to [Chauncey] Noteware's forty-four" (p. 99).
In attempting to clarify the reasons behind the dysfunctional fraternal relationship, Fanning presents a number of theories that lack strong evidence. Some are controversial. Early in the book Fanning discusses his research to identify the drug John Marshall Clemens was using at the time of his death and speculates that an autopsy was performed on him in order for Jane Clemens to determine whether or not he had syphilis. The results of the autopsy are unknown, but Fanning contends that Orion witnessed the procedure and the experience was a psychological burden that Orion related in his autobiography, portions of which Sam destroyed.
One of Fanning's most controversial theories was one he presented at the State of Mark Twain Studies International Conference in Elmira, New York in 1997. Fanning posited that at one time Sam Clemens had bought a gun and intended to murder his brother Orion. This theory is based on a 1901 letter that Sam wrote to his friend and pastor Joseph Twichell, "I bought a revolver once and travelled twelve hundred miles to kill a man" (p. 37). Fanning theorizes that Sam harbored an urge to kill his brother due to the abuse he received from him while working as his apprentice in the Hannibal newspaper office and Orion's refusal to let him purchase a gun. The resentment caused Sam to leave Hannibal in 1853 and the newspaper failed in his absence. The family relocated from slave state Missouri to Muscatine, Iowa (a free state) without contacting Sam. Harboring resentment against his brother, Fanning believes Sam traveled with a gun from New York to confront his family. Fanning also maintains that the situation was apparently diffused by their mother Jane Clemens and later incorporated into Twain's story, "Simon Wheeler, Detective" in which one cousin has traveled a long distance to confront and kill another cousin.
A third theory that examines the lingering rift between the brothers is traced to the family's "Tennessee Land." Fanning contends that a now lost telegram from land speculator Herman Camp sent on approximately January 12, 1866, contained an offer to buy the property. Sam was desperate for funds and when Orion apparently refused the offer, because he was concerned the land would be used for wine production, Sam ultimately considered suicide. Although Clemens's consideration of suicide is well known to researchers, Fanning is one of the first to attempt to tie it directly to a decision made by Orion. A second attempt by Sam to sell the land was foiled when Orion refused to consider selling to Sam's father-in-law Jervis Langdon. The continuing struggle to realize the family's monetary wealth from the sale of the land seemed to be blocked at every opportunity by Orion who continually took the moral high road over possible fortune.
The most compelling unsolved mystery surrounding Orion Clemens is the whereabouts of his autobiography manuscript. At Sam's urging, Orion labored from March 1880 to January 1882 to write 2,523 pages of manuscript. At the time, he was fighting mental depression and limited finances and hoped that writing a publishable book would help bring him additional income. Sam was not pleased with what he read and later wrote that he burned portions of it. The fact that the manuscript existed at the time that Albert Bigelow Paine wrote Mark Twain: A Biography is evident because Paine relied on it for some of his early chapters. Sam's personal secretary Isabel Lyon recorded in her daily journal that Paine confessed to losing Orion's "letters" in his briefcase in Grand Central Station. Fanning bases his theory that Orion's "manuscript" was burned on the fact that Lyon penned the word "letters" and not "manuscript" in her journal. Paine, in his capacity as custodian of Mark Twain's papers, later responded to researcher Fred Lorch in 1927 that most of the autobiography had been burned. It is not clear whether or not Fanning was aware of marginalia Lyon later wrote in her copy of Paine's biography. Lyon underlined the word "lost" beside Paine's discussion of Orion's manuscript. According to Kevin Mac Donnell, current owner of Lyon's copy of Paine's Mark Twain: A Biography, Lyon wrote on page 676,
"Lost. For Paine had a quantity of it in his suitcase, when on his way to Elmira, summer of 1907. In the Grand Central Station he put down his suitcase to ask a question at the Information Booth, & when he turned to pick it up it was gone, & no advertising found it again."
It is important to note that Lyon underlined the word "lost" both in Paine's text and in her own note in the margin. Fanning also omits any discussion of Paine's successor Bernard DeVoto and his attempts to locate Orion's autobiography through an appeal in the Twainian newsletter in February 1940. For now, Mark Twain scholars can only hope that Fanning's belief that Orion's manuscript was destroyed will be proven incorrect.
Fanning's knowledge of both Orion's and Mark Twain's writings enables him to recognize what he believes are numerous instances of Orion's influences on his brother's work. He points to Orion's story about a young slave titled "Jim" that appeared in American Publisher in July 1871, as a seed in Sam's imagination that was "a germ that over the next few years would take root and grow" (p. 144). In addition to "Simon Wheeler, Detective," Fanning finds Orion's influence in "Mark Twain's Kearny Street Ghost Story" which contains a passage about dead and bloody kittens. Fanning theorizes that Orion's delegating the duty of killing unwanted kittens to young Sam was another deep seated grievance. Fanning alludes to Franklin R. Rogers's Satires and Burlesques as a work that identified a number of minor characters built around Orion but he does not name these by name nor expand upon Rogers's work. Instead, he maintains that Orion's influence goes deeper than minor characters in lesser known works and can be found in The Gilded Age, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, Those Extraordinary Twins, Pudd'nhead Wilson, "Which Was It?", and "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger."
It is a disappointment that the publisher included no photos or visual enhancements for the book. Photos of Orion, his wife Mollie, daughter Jennie, the places in which he lived, maps of his travel or residences, the seal of the territory of Nevada that Orion designed, samples of Orion's handwriting or manuscripts are lacking. The only photos of Orion and Sam are a separate photo of each on the dust jacket. If the two brothers were ever photographed together, Fanning does not mention it.
Throughout the book, Fanning's treatment of Orion Clemens is sympathetic. As
to Sam, Fanning concedes "virtually every wrong he did Orion was matched
with a compensating act of charity" (p. 220). Orion was portrayed by his
brother Sam in numerous letters and writings as a buffoon, fool, and ultimate
life failure whom he loved and supported financially during his last decades.
Fanning's work provides a much clearer picture of Orion Clemens than the one
his brother Mark Twain offered.