Mark Twain and Orion Clemens

A fascinating but little-known aspect of the complex life of Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) is his close but often troubled relationship with his brother Orion. Ten years older than Sam, Orion became the titular head of the Clemens family after their father died, when Sam was only eleven. Over the next decade, Orion was both brother and father figure to Sam, but their relationship was rarely an easy one. During several periods, as Orion ran hand-to-mouth newspaper operations, Sam did printing work for him and wrote occasional stories but chafed under Orion’s dictatorial supervision and priggish policies. Eventually, Sam left to become a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi. With the prestige and generous income this work gave him, he soon supplanted his brother as head of the family. However, their roles were again reversed when the Civil War ended Mississippi steamboat traffic and led to Orion’s receiving an important government job in the newly created territory of Nevada. When Orion went west, Sam paid his stagecoach fare and tagged along as his private secretary.

It was in the West that Sam became “Mark Twain” and Orion’s own career reached its pinnacle. Afterward, as Sam achieved international fame as a writer, Orion slid into obscurity, saved from poverty only by his younger brother’s subsidies until he died quietly in 1897. Meanwhile, Sam gave Orion literary immortality by using him as the model for a string of comic characters, including the famous Colonel Sellers.

Philip Ashley Fanning’s study of the Clemens brothers’ relationship is not only the first book on the subject but also the first study to call attention to Orion’s strengths and very real achievements. Until now Orion’s life has been known mostly through Sam’s letters, autobiographical writings, and fictional characters. In telling Orion’s side of the story, Fanning not only helps to correct the unfair picture drawn by Mark Twain but reveals a new dimension of the latter’s private life. Not everyone will buy all of Fanning’s theories on the brothers’ relationship, but his book is as engrossing a biography as can be found.