Tw(a)in lives

Inventing Mark Twain - The Courtship of Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain
December 26, 1997

In his new biography, Andrew Hoffman writes that "the truth was that Sam Clemens lived in an uneasy alliance with Mark Twain, the alternate persona who occupied his very bones". The problem of writing a biography of Mark Twain, the invented persona - best-selling author, public performer, and American icon - whose identity partly overlaps with that of his creator, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, both structures and provides the title for Hoffman's book. The size and difficulty of his project brings him finally only qualified success. Susan K. Harris, in her book, studies the courtship years of Twain (as I generally call him) and his wife, Livy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the narrower ground covered, she provides sharper insight into what, in terms of his personal life and the values that informed it, made Twain tick.

Hoffman is sympathetic to his subject, and has researched his life and career with some thoroughness. He tells the story of Twain's life and, for the most part, tells it well, occasionally coming up with lines wittily reminiscent of Twain himself: thus "when San Francisco could no longer afford desperadoes, it provided the money to build Virginia City for them". His critical comments can be shrewd, as when he discusses one of Twain's "remarkable talents: the ability to displace his own psychological dissonance and then reproduce it as humor". But there are problems with his book, many of which stem from the size of his task. It is impossible in 500 pages to do justice to a life that lasted from 1835 to 1910, took in so many different activities (including river boating, silver mining, journalism, lecturing, writing, travelling, publishing and other entrepreneurial activity), was lived on such a broad geographical scale, and participated in an immense variety of private and public relationships of varying intensity. Consequently, there is a recurrent sense in this biography of rather a scratching of surfaces. Moreover, where other recent critics have started to question long-held versions of stories about Twain, his life, and the sources for his books, Hoffman sometimes tends to repeat them. Shelley Fisher Fishkin's careful historical research, for instance, has recently shown that the "actual Injun Joe" (from Tom Sawyer) was far from being the "wild drunk" Hoffman describes. My criticism of the author, however, is minor. For Twain biography is a minefield for any critic. Twain told so many stories about himself, and so many stories have been told about him that, on any broad canvas, it becomes difficult to tell factual wood for mythic trees.

Hoffman's central project is to separate out and identify Twain's various personas (the "uncertain ... boy-man", Sam Clemens; the "Victorian literary gentleman", S. L. Clemens; the "invented self-named Mark Twain"). To my mind, this construction of a narrative based on the varying boundaries between one "identity" and the other does not entirely work. For if Hoffman refines the argument of Justin Kaplan's earlier biography with its exploration of the two-dimensional Mr Clemens/Mark Twain divide, he still does not allow the rifts and tensions that mark the full variety of subject positions Clemens/Twain took up in the course of his private and professional life full or adequate representation.

Hoffman tells us a lot we did not know about Twain's life, especially and intriguingly about its financial circumstances and the vast amounts of money he managed to get through. He also gives a fuller picture of Twain's relationship with his nephew, and one-time business manager and publisher, Charles L. Webster, than has been generally available (though questions have been raised since publication about the accuracy of his representation of Webster). Effective use, too, is made of many previously unpublished extracts from Twain and his family's correspondence. The biography has achieved some notoriety because of Hoffman's claims concerning same-sex "romantic relationships" Twain conducted during his "bohemian" period in Virginia City in the far west. I would, following British critic Peter Stoneley, be wary of projecting a modern sexualised consciousness on Twain and his western contemporaries. But this, it must be said, is only a minor argument in what is a substantial book. I was more interested in what Hoffman said about Twain's daughter, Susy, and her relationship with "her lover Louise (Brownell)", and wondered what the source was for the statement that Susy was determined to "establish a same-sex marriage" with her. The excerpts from Susy's letters quoted certainly speak of passion, but this may reveal the rather different limits attached to female friendships in Victorian America rather than firm "homosexual attachment". Susy's story, and her tragic, and possibly unnecessary death from meningitis in her early twenties, threaten as the biography proceeds, to lure Hoffman away from his primary subject. But despite this interest, Twain's private family life still remains almost as much of a closed book as in previous biographies. While it may be prurient to want to know more, the details we do get about Twain's difficult relationships with his daughters, and the refusal of his wife's doctors to allow Twain to see her more than briefly during her final illness, speak of a fascinating story of the Victorian family, the forms of authority exercised within it, and the unhappinesses and tensions it contained, which constantly shadows the more public narrative Hoffman tells.

In The Courtship of Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain, Susan K. Harris takes Twain's domestic life as her specific subject, examining his developing relationship with is wife, Langdon (as Harris, for ideological reasons, calls her, rather than Livy; I respect her use of this convention here despite its awkwardnesses). Using biographical detail and Langdon's family history, diaries, letters and commonplace book, and analysing the "cultural assumptions" to be deduced from the types of reading she shared with her husband-to-be, Harris draws a convincing picture of the dynamics of their early years together, from 1868 to 1873. This book, as much social and intellectual history as biography, adds greatly, despite its limited time-scale, to our knowledge of the Clemenses, and of cultural life in the period.

Harris begins with work that complements that recently done by Laura E. Skandera-Trombley: with the Langdon Elmira family history and a description of the "vibrant and intellectually engaged community" of which they, and their daughter, were a part. She uses Langdon's commonplace book ("a quasi-public document that linked her, through the passages she chose to record, to her culture's aesthetic, ideological, and intellectual discourses") to show how her reading illustrates her developing sense of selfhood and way of interpreting her world, and how that background marked her off from her husband-to-be. Throughout, Harris uses Twain and Langdon's reading projects as a crucial indicator both of their concerns, and of the similarities and differences between them. Chapter 4, "Conning books", is especially fascinating in this respect, as their joint responses to Dickens and Shakespeare (among others) are convincingly analysed to illustrate both their gender positioning and, relatedly, how their responses to Victorian cultural norms differed. Harris shifts skilfully between their shared reading, Twain's own literary texts, and her own use of theoretical frames, to present her reader with a detailed picture of Langdon and Twain's relationship, and the types of negotiations that went on between them. If this acts to confirm the former's commitment to the concept of duty and communal need and the latter's challenges to the known, safe, and culturally acceptable, it also offers a picture of Langdon which considerably undermines conventional accounts of her as a tame, passive, and intellectually unadventurous figure.

In terms of its time scheme, the book moves from showing how Twain's courtship letters convinced Langdon's family that he would make her a suitable husband, to a description of the early years of the marriage and its trials, and especially the different responses of both partners to their first-born son's death. Stressing how Twain shared with his contemporaries the "intense materiality of Victorian culture", Harris charts the transformation on Langdon's part "from being a possession over which others contended - the jewel that Clemens sought to steal from her parents - tobecoming emotionally self-possessed". She goes on to describe Langdon's move away from religion, the nature of her sense of community, the development of her literary interests, and the part she began to play in her husband's career. We see in some detail the processes by which Langdon and Clemens "began learning how to be married" and what constituted both the separate boundaries and common concerns of their lives together. Hoffman, in describing the gulf that grew between Twain and Langdon in her last years quotes one of the former's notebook entries: "Men and women - even man and wife are foreigners. Each has reserves that the other cannot enter into, nor understand. These have the effect of frontiers."

If Harris shows such frontiers being established even at an early stage of their marriage, her general story is one of mutual care and accommodation, one which appears to have been the prevalent pattern for most of their lives together. At some point we may find out exactly what went wrong at the last.

Peter Messent is reader in modern American literature, University of Nottingham.

Inventing Mark Twain: The Lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens

Author - Andrew Hoffman
ISBN - 0 297 81536 9
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £25.00
Pages - 572

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