The Making of Mark Twain

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Perhaps no other American writer represents so much a mixture of fact and legend as Mark Twain. His popularity, his flamboyant style, and his own storytelling combined to form the myth that most people accept as the genuine person involved in actual events. As a professional humorist, particularly in the lecture hall, Twain himself delighted in making poor stories good and good stories better, thus creating and perpetuating the myths he so enjoyed. John Lauber suggests that, having repeated tales over decades, even Twain forgot the actual incidents. Other than the author himself, the greatest single source of the myth-fact blend which formed the legend of Mark Twain is probably Albert Bigelow Paine, Twain’s companion-secretary during the final traumatic and cynical years, when one of Twain’s primary escapes was nostalgia. He dictated his autobiography to Paine, an almost worshipful admirer who would not have believed anything negative and who would have cheerfully altered whatever he thought the public might construe to be negative. Those who are familiar with Twain’s canon may recall that it was Paine along with Frederick Duneka, an editor from Harper’s Magazine, who emendated The Mysterious Stranger (1916), creating a new character out of whole cloth and generally cleaning up, something on the order of what Alfred, Lord Tennyson did with Sir Thomas Malory’s work to make it more palatable to British Victorian sensibilities. Lauber’s two main thrusts in The Making of Mark Twain are to delineate the very human individual who was Sam Clemens and to separate him from the myths that abound regarding him.

The Making of Mark Twain is a lively, well-researched, clearly documented biography of Samuel Clemens from his birth in Florida, Missouri, to his marriage to Olivia Langdon at age thirty-four. Lauber arranges his book into fifteen chapters ranging from five to thirty-five pages, with a brief epilogue. The chapter titles designate the time period, such as “Little Sam,” “Pilot,” “Correspondent,” and “Pilgrim.” The length of the chapters is determined not so much by the actual time elapsed but rather by the significance of the events occurring. Thus, Twain’s very brief and even less important military career, “Rebel,” comprises only five pages; while “Lover,” his courtship of and marriage to Olivia Langdon—a union much debated and central to Van Wyck Brooks’s thesis in The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920)—receives thirty-five pages.

In most Americans’ minds, Mark Twain was a sophisticated and wealthy world traveler who smoked cigars, entertained audiences, and gazed with happy amusement at his fellow beings. The Samuel Clemens who became Mark Twain did smoke cigars, but he learned to delight audiences in an attempt to find the security and acceptance denied him in childhood. His father, John Marshall Clemens, was a hapless man with little business sense and even less luck, whose schemes and ineptitude took the family steadily downward. As a result, Sam Clemens knew both poverty and neglect as a child. There were several moves to less and less desirable homes, culminating in 1846, “when even the furniture was lost and the Clemenses were reduced to sharing quarters with another family for whom Mrs. Clemens cooked.” Lauber maintains that these circumstances left Sam with “a lifelong horror of debt [and a desire for] absolute security,” associations that later led him into ruinous speculation.

The Clemens family had moved from Jamestown, Tennessee, to Florida, Missouri, during Jane Clemens’ pregnancy. Samuel was born two months premature on November 30, 1835. Before his fourth birthday, the family moved again—to Hannibal, Missouri, where he encountered the Mississippi River, a meeting of natural phenomenon and vivid imagination that would result, some forty-five years later, in the publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

Having shown the family settled in Hannibal, Lauber carefully deals with “Tom Sawyer Days,” those mythically idyllic but often painful times varying between joy and fear wherein the boy first began to comprehend the relationships among individuals and, particularly, between races and classes. Here Lauber establishes those major threads which would weave into the fabric of Mark Twain’s later life and works—boyhood escapades, constraints of school, the death of John Clemens, avid reading, religious fundamentalism, and the institution of slavery.

Lauber’s remaining chapters proceed in much the same fashion, as he continues to separate fact from legend and to anticipate Twain’s future, pointing out how particular elements in Sam Clemens’ formative years affected the later choices and writings. Lauber establishes Twain’s knowledge of printing and his seemingly natural style by showing how Sam Clemens...

(The entire section is 1999 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Booklist. LXXXII, November 15, 1985, p. 461.

Choice. XXIII, February, 1986, p. 870.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVIII, November 29, 1985, p. 38.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, September 15, 1985, p. 1016.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, November 24, 1985, p. 30.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, September 27, 1985, p. 90.