Mark Twain Essays and Criticism (Nonfiction Classics for Students)

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Essays and Criticism (Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Illustration by E. W. Kemble Published by Gale Cengage

Our understanding of Mark Twain's creative process continues to be obscured by the complex myth that he, his heirs (literary and legal), and his critics have suggested and reinforced. It is a myth that has been fostered by Twain's own descriptions of his work habits, descriptions that have been too quickly accepted by critics as well as Twain enthusiasts. The myth suggests that Twain avoided work, that he was not interested in the mechanics of composing beyond the accumulation of words and pages, and, perhaps most importantly, that his use of various editors (Mary Fairbanks, Olivia Langdon Clemens, William Dean Howells, Albert Bigelow Paine) was based on a basic and one-way relationship. Twain composed, and then editors excised. Despite the work that Bernard DeVoto, Henry Nash Smith, Walter Blair, James Cox, Alan Gribben, and Everett Emerson have given us, the myth persists. We are notoriously accepting of the Mark Twain persona that Samuel Clemens projected—the lazy and uninterested writer, the"jack-leg'' writer who felt chained to the pen when he would much rather lounge and speculate on new business dealings. Samuel Clemens, however, the man behind the persona, promoted the image of the lazy and disinterested writer as part of his performance as Mark Twain. Clemens' s often stated reliance on his imaginative "well'' has become legendary. He is dismissed as incapable of disciplined thought, and his seemingly passive acceptance of editorial advice is presented as a conscious attempt to use others to support his composing process.

Recent critical work (especially that of Victor Doyno in Writing Huck Finn and Laura Skandera-Trombley in Mark Twain in the Company of Women, an examination of Clemens' s reliance on the women in his circle) introduces us not to a passive and submissive Clemens but to a writer who courted intense personal and primary relationships in order to give tone and substance to his storytelling, both fiction and non-fiction. While Clemens' s sensitivity to his audience has long been accepted, this new work demonstrates how Clemens remained tuned to the needs of real readers throughout his creative process and how he adjusted his prose so that it would more effectively approach reader expectations. Most importantly, it demonstrates how he understood and made constant use of collaborative relationships and how he invited a range of opinion and a chorus of voices into his creative process as he struggled to give shape to his creations. A primary critical focus on his relationships with various editors, censors, and advisors has been directed toward his fiction; however, collaboration also played a vital role in Clemens' s approach to autobiography. An examination of Clemens' s collaborative efforts at autobiography offers us a new and valuable insight into the creative approaches Clemens adopted early on and then reclaimed during the final years of his life. It also offers us an important insight into his reliance on a variety of "editors'' and the specific roles that succeeding editors would play in extending the life of the tales and manuscripts that Clemens bundled together as his autobiography.

Clemens began to compose autobiography as early as 1870, but he did not fully engage in the process of recollecting his past until late in 1905 when he was approached by Albert Bigelow Paine who proposed a formal and authorized biography. During those thirty-five years, Clemens made brief and long-separated attempts at writing and dictating portions of autobiography which he would then set aside, feeling only an occasional impulse to return to the project but with no firm plan for an extended effort. Some of these fragments, it would appear, helped him to rehearse settings and tales for his fiction. The early manuscripts written between 1870 and 1876 conform to the conventional approach to reflective writing in which the writer attempts to build a bridge to his past by examining episodes out of his...

(The entire section is 5,936 words.)