The well-told story of a bad businessman and a gifted author.
By Robert Regan
INVENTING MARK TWAIN: The Lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens
By Andrew Hoffman, C’78
New York: William Morrow and Company, 1997.
572 pp. $30.00.
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Andrew Hoffman’s Inventing Mark Twain is a major publishing event, a biography of our most quoted — and misquoted — writer that is an odds-on favorite for next year’s literary prizes. The Greeks have Homer, the Italians Dante, the British Shakespeare. We have Mark Twain. If he is not quite on their exalted level, he is as representative — I have Emerson’s Representative Men in mind — as any of them: he at once reflects our culture and defines it. “Dante’s praise,” Emerson said, “is that he dared to write his autobiography in colossal cipher, or into universality. We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials, and saw, in the barbarism and materialism of the times, another carnival of the same gods whose pictures he so admires in Homerä” A quarter century later that genius would burst upon the American scene. Samuel L. Clemens possessed Emerson’s “tyrannous eye”; and without making an issue of the adjective “colossal,” we can surely claim that he wrote his autobiography in fascinating cipher in virtually every book he published.
And in some he never published. What he thought his greatest work, the autobiography that he dictated to a secretary in his last dozen years, was to be mined by his first biographer, the pedestrian Albert Bigelow Paine, for Mark Twain’s Autobiography in 1924 and by Bernard DeVoto for Mark Twain in Eruption in 1940. In 1959 Charles Neider added some previously unpublished material and arranged the dictations in chronological order (a decision that would have enraged the author) for The Autobiography of Mark Twain. Today nearly half of the autobiography remains unpublished, but the Mark Twain Project at the University of California at Berkeley will remedy that in a year or two.
Belated? Not as belated as Mark Twain imagined the publication would be. In the bizarre dystopian fantasy The Secret History of Eddypus he began in 1901 and wisely left unfinished, he imagined the rediscovery of his autobiographical typescripts in the year 2901. The Dark Ages have returned. Books are forbidden things. But a rebellious antiquary has unearthed an ancient book that has the power to enlighten the world. It is called “Old Comrades”; its author is his Grace Mark Twain, Bishop of New Jersey, who had been hanged in 1914. It is Mark Twain’s autobiography.
The autobiography will delight its readers when it at last becomes available. It may eclipse Inventing Mark Twain for a time, but, far from rendering it obsolete, it will give it a new use as an introduction to and commentary on Mark Twain’s own account of his life and times. The autobiography’s organization, if it can be said to have one, is associational, not chronological, and its focus is less on the author than on his “Old Comrades”-and old nemeses. It is full of rollicking tales, some of them true, and the eruptions of rage that gave DeVoto his title, but it is even more reticent about the facts of the life than is the other major autobiography of the period, The Education of Henry Adams. Like Adams, Mark Twain reserved the confessional mode, so popular today, for his fiction.
His having himself dubbed the Bishop of New Jersey calls to mind the requirements for that office. A bishop “must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach,” the First Epistle to Timothy tells us. Sober? Well, perhaps Mark Twain took another injunction of the same Epistle, “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake, and thy often infirmities” a bit-just a bit-too seriously, but on all the other counts he passes muster.
And that, paradoxically, poses a problem for any biographer. No liaisons dangereuses: Dickens is a more inviting subject. Few binges: Poe is more promising. Again like Adams, Mark Twain’s autobiography tells us nothing about his “one wife,” the most important person in his life. But what there was to tell is anything but sensational. The simple truth about Mark Twain is that his life makes a dull story. It is predominantly the story of a businessman, a bad businessman.
Andrew Hoffman, a novelist and visiting scholar at Brown University, is undeterred by that actuality and, armed with the gifts of the novelist as well as of the meticulous scholar, he gives us a life of Clemens that is a delight to read and a definitive presentation of what can be known of the man. First, style. Describing the crime and violence that were rampant in the Nevada town of 40,000 where Clemens worked as a journalist in 1862, Hoffman asserts that Virginia City’s untamed quality came straight from San Francisco, which had established a vigilance committee in 1856 to force its brigands out of town.
By 1860, San Francisco had shipped its dark and violent recklessness inland and rebuilt itself as a cosmopolitan city of 100,000 people; when San Francisco could no longer afford desperadoes, it provided the money to build Virginia City for them.
Literal truth? Perhaps not, but the passage sketches the social reality
of the West with economy and arresting elegance. Virtually every page of
Inventing Mark Twain affords such pleasures of language and insight.
The facts are all here. Considering their number, that in itself is no mean accomplishment. Connecting them, making sense of them, drawing inferences from them: that is the real challenge, and Hoffman rises to it admirably. We don’t need liaisons dangereuses; we don’t need binges: Andrew Hoffman has made Mark Twain-Mark Twain, S. L. Clemens, and Sam, their inventor-come to life for us.
With Gregg Camfield, Dr. Robert Regan, who teaches American literature at Penn, is preparing an edition of “London Notes” and other shorter travel writings of Mark Twain.
A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or of interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from information supplied by the authors and publishers.
THE JPS TORAH COMMENTARY ON DUTEERONOMY
By Jeffrey Tigay, Faculty.
Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1996.
548 pp., $60.00.
This book is the fifth and final volume of the JPS Commentary on the Torah series, a 25-year project that was edited by Nahum M. Sarna, with Chaim Potok serving as literary editor. Tigay, who is Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures and chairman of the Jewish Studies program at Penn, maintains that the fifth book of the Torah was written in the eighth-seventh centuries B.C.E., to combat trends toward assimilation fostered by Israel’s government and upper classes, and in order to preserve monotheism for the future. The author links the final book of the Torah to the previous ones, particularly Exodus and Numbers. As with all volumes of the series, each page presents the Masoretic (traditional Hebrew) text alongside the English translation and Tigay’s commentary, which draws on literary analysis, comparative Semitics, citations from earlier commentators, and modern archaeological discoveries
THE SCOUTING REPORT: 1997
Edited by Doug Myers, WG’92, and David Srinivasan.
New York: HarperPerennial, 1997.
450 pp., $18.95.
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This reference book covers all aspects of the game-and business-of baseball, including a comprehensive review of the 1996 season; team forecasts for 1997; analyses of 1,300 major and minor league players; and commentary on issues ranging from corporate ownership of teams to the American obsession with winning. Myers is vice president and director of strategic services for a consulting firm in Princeton, N.J., that serves independent schools
REMAKING THE WORLD: Modeling in Human Experience
By James Roy King, Gr’52.
Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1996.
287 pp., $39.95 (cloth); $17.95 (paper).
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King, a professor emeritus of English at Wittenburg University, writes about modeling-building, operating, and collecting models of all kinds-as an important means of self-expression and of contact with and understanding of the world. He uses the concept of activity sets-relatively stable combinations of activities that characterize every large-scale human enterprise-to explain how modeling can help people make sense of the world around them. He also looks at working with small sizes and dealing with a variety of technical details, problems related to collecting and displaying models, and their commercial and aesthetic aspects
MY TURN: Women’s Search for Self After the Children Leave
By Patricia Gottlieb Shapiro, SW’68.
Princeton, N.J.: Peterson’s, 1996.
230 pp., $21.95.
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My Turn challenges the stereotype that women must suffer from the “empty-nest syndrome” when their children grow up and leave home. Based on interviews with 45 women and the author’s own experiences, this book focuses on how and why children’s departure can become an opportunity for personal growth and discovery. Shapiro, the author of three other non-fiction books, weaves the personal stories with research findings and expert analysis on how women struggle to balance loving and letting go; how and why fathers respond differently to their children leaving home; whether work, paid or volunteer, makes a difference; and other topics
A FEMALE FOCUS: Great Women Photographers
By Margot F. Horwitz, CW’58, ASC’62.
New York: Franklin Watts, 1996.
127 pp., $9.95.
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Horwitz, a writer and public relations consultant, provides a rich history of celebrated and less renowned women who have opened the lens on their view of the world. Drawing upon interviews with Dorothy Norman, Mary Ellen Mark, and Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, she also gives an inside look at contemporary women photographers at work. While most early female photographers helped their families run portrait businesses, by the end of the nineteenth century, women began earning livings as photojournalists, portrait photographers, and artists. A Female Focus reveals the depth and range of artistic expression by women photographers, from Frances Benjamin Johnston to Annie Leibovitz
By Philip Rawson.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
176 pp., $34.95.
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Rawson describes the underlying principles and structural techniques of the art of sculpture, discussing sculptures from many places and periods, including Africa, Asia, Greece, Medieval and Renaissance Europe, and 20th-century Europe and America. But Sculpture is not a history as such. Rather, it is an original analysis of sculpture as a fundamental and integral form of human “language” capable of conveying a wealth of cultural and symbolic meaning. Rawson, who died in 1995, was dean of the School of Art and Design, Goldsmith’s College, University of London, and a Fellow of the Royal College of Art. This book completes a trilogy that began with the works Drawing and Ceramics.