No reader of THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER, THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, and LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI needs to be persuaded of the significance of Mark Twain’s early years in the formation of his distinctively American genius. Nevertheless, Justin Kaplan’s prizewinning biography MR. CLEMENS AND MARK TWAIN (1966), the most recent full-scale scholarly biography of Twain, essentially omits the first thirty years of Twain’s life. John Lauber’s THE MAKING OF MARK TWAIN: A BIOGRAPHY (1985) remedied this omission, concentrating on Twain’s life from his birth in 1835 to his marriage, at the age of thirty-four, to Olivia “Livy” Langdon. In 1990, Lauber followed with THE INVENTIONS OF MARK TWAIN, a strange book which, while broader in coverage than the earlier volume, offers very little that is new either factually or interpretively. Thus, Margaret Sanborn’s MARK TWAIN: THE BACHELOR YEARS enters a crowded field. Since the time-span of her book is exactly that of THE MAKING OF MARK TWAIN, the key question is, what does her account offer that Lauber’s does not? The most significant difference is that Sanborn quotes very heavily from Twain’s letters and journals. (A multivolume edition of Twain’s letters, including many previously unpublished, is in progress from the University of California Press, the second volume having just been issued.) As a result, her book is much longer than Lauber’s.
While Twain’s youth and early adulthood are potentially rich material for a biographer, Sanborn’s narrative is plodding, and her quotes from and paraphrases of Twain, initially adding vividness and authenticity, become intrusive in the course of several hundred pages. Sanborn, who has published a well-received two-volume biography of Robert E. Lee, appears to be scrupulously accurate in matters of historical detain and treatment of sources, and her portrait of Twain is balanced, paying heed to the demons that drove him yet not scanting his vitality of charm. The text is supplemented by notes, a bibliography, and an index; oddly, except for a few small photographs reproduced on the dust jacket, there are no illustrations.