Getting to Be Mark Twain

Professor and Chair of the English department at Franklin and Marshall College, Jeffrey Steinbrink offers a well researched and expertly constructed biography drawn almost entirely from Clemens’ extensive correspondence with friends, family, and business associates and from Twain’s signature masterworks and newspaper columns. Steinbrink achieves his stated goal of telling the history of this two-faced cultural icon in Clemens/Twain’s own words.

When Clemens first wrote under the pseudonym Mark Twain, he and Twain had much in common: wanderlust, humor, raucousness, and brilliance. From 1868 on, however, Clemens underwent a major transformation that threatened the vitality of Twain. Clemens hoped to settle down with a lifelong companion, and after he met Olivia Langdon in December, 1867, he was determined to reform his character and reputation to conform with the standards of high society in order to be accepted by Olivia’s family. Clemens needed to prove that he could be settled, serious, and responsible—conditions that would lead to instant death for the character of Twain. Indeed, bachelorhood and Twain were synonymous.

Steinbrink follows Clemens through three cities: Elmira, New York, where he courted Olivia and came under the strong influence of her business-minded father; Buffalo, New York, where he attempted, for the first time to settle down permanently as a newlywed bound by a home and a constraining job as an editor of the Buffalo EXPRESS; and Hartford, Connecticut, where he worked closely with the publishers of his books and found pleasure in marriage and family. All along, Clemens wrestled with Twain, attempting to give each persona the license it so desired.

By focusing on slightly more than four decisive years in Samuel Clemens’ life, Steinbrink adds further depth to the already rich pool of works dedicated to the study of Clemens/Twain. Photographs, an index, notes, an extensive bibliography, and Steinbrink’s eloquent use of language contribute to the book’s accessibility.