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The following review appeared 10 June 2010 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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As Roy Morris, Jr. admits in his "Note on Sources," "Mark Twain has never lacked for biographers" (235). An Amazon search of "Mark Twain biography" yields over 200 distinct entries. Moreover, Twain himself wrote about quite a bit of his own life in a number of different books. Yet despite Twain's own autobiographical writings and the extensive list of titles by others, biographies continue to proliferate. The degree to which Twain continues to fascinate, and to which his life continues to present opportunities for new biographical considerations, is a both a wonder and evidence that he lived large. One is hard-pressed to think of another American author who has attracted as much biographical attention. While the biographical enterprise has churned on, different segments of Twain's life have proven to be so full and complex that they warrant specific study. Michael Shelden's and Laura Skandera-Trombley's recent books offer differing examinations of Twain's last years, yielding fascinating revelations that add fuel to the controversies of Mark Twain studies.
For the most part, the history that Morris focuses on in Lighting Out for the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain is covered extensively in Roughing It prefaced with some accounts of his early life as a printer and a Mississippi pilot, and rounded out with his marriage to Olivia Langdon that stabilized his previously rootless travels. Morris's decision to revisit this portion of Mark Twain's life has obvious merit. It is, after all, the period in which Sam Clemens made the transition from steamboat pilot to writer, during which he invented the persona that evolved into the most iconic literary figure in American culture. But this is a segment of Twain's life that has been closely examined before. So one might be inclined to wonder what Morris has to add. Unlike Shelden's and Skandera-Trombley's books, Lighting Out for the Territory does not reveal any hidden secrets. But it does cast material previously covered into a context of social history that has been relatively under-examined. The distinctive accomplishment of Morris's book lies in his ability to set Clemens's various wanderings in the tumultuous context of the Civil War and its aftermath. Morris's own considerable talents as a storyteller make this a highly enjoyable book. And though this extremely engaging and illuminating narrative is clearly aimed at a general audience, it will satisfy readers with more than a casual interest in the subject as well. Morris has managed the difficult task of having constructed a penetrating biography without being ponderous.
Morris's five previous books on nineteenth-century topics--from Abraham Lincoln to Walt Whitman to Ambrose Bierce to the Hayes-Tilden election--establish his historical bona fides in taking on the context for Twain's life in these times. As editor of Military Heritage magazine, he also has a well-honed sense of how to present the narrative he tackles. The book's subtitle, "How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain" clearly announces the focus and purpose of the narrative. Quickly perusing the "Table of Contents," one finds an orderly and well-balanced series of chapters, each focusing on a specific phase of the period under examination.
Morris knows that Twain's Roughing It has provided readers with a lot of information about this period of his life, and he admits that "no one in his right mind would ever try to outdo Mark Twain on the subject of Mark Twain" (3). So Morris's account balances Twain's own narrative details with fascinating context about many of the figures that populated the region and with whom Twain had various relationships. This supplement to Twain's own story fills in some details on figures like Artemus Ward and Dan DeQuille, as well as some of Twain's lesser-known associates like Jim Gillis, whose own storytelling gifts provided Twain with material that he would adapt for his own purposes later. Indeed, as delightful as Twain's own story is, one has the sense that he has withheld quite a lot of personal details. For example, Roughing It ignores the fact that he acquired the moniker "the sagebrush bohemian" and provides hardly any evidence for why he acquired it. Morris, in contrast, places Twain in the company of notorious, counterculture figures such as Charles Warren Stoddard, Ina Coolbrith, Ada Clare, and Adah Isaacs Menken, as well as the eccentric Lillie Hitchcock. By acknowledging Twain's acquaintances with these members of San Francisco's bohemian culture--and especially these exotic women--Morris offers a fuller picture of Twain's days as the "wild humorist of the western slope" than the almost exclusively male society described by the author himself.
This attention to context may not satisfy everyone; some may object to the space that Morris devotes to the fact that British explorer Richard Francis Burton had written about a similar stagecoach trip across the American West that he made about a year before Twain. However, I find this an interesting juxtaposition that enables us to see Twain's Roughing It as part of a broader cultural enterprise. To be sure, Twain writes in his distinctly idiosyncratic manner, but the fact that others had taken up this topic of cross-country stagecoach rides indicates that Roughing It was not an isolated exercise.
Occasionally, Morris's use of material from Roughing It raises some critical questions such as when he recounts Gillis's story about the cat Tom Quartz. Attributing the source to Gillis is one thing, but claiming that the Roughing It version, as told by the fictional Dick Baker, was a verbatim retelling of Gillis's performance is another matter altogether. Even if Twain believed that he had accurately transcribed Gillis's tale in Roughing It, the effects of memory certainly introduced some revision to the tale. The same is true of Ben Coon's deadpan delivery of a story about a jumping frog which Twain first published in 1865. While it is true that Twain wrote in a letter to a friend that he hoped to "write that story as Ben coon told it" (172), in this case Morris does not assume that Twain's version was simply a transcription of Coon's, noting the importance of the frame, the irony of an outsider outwitting Smiley, and the inability of Simon Wheeler to tell the story straight. It is all but certain that when Twain came to rely on material from Gillis, he subjected it to a similar process of adaptation.
Morris provides evidence of having conducted careful research, relying on other notable biographies and the authoritative editions of letters and notebooks produced by the Mark Twain Papers. But his references to this source material acknowledge his awareness of the separate audiences the book addresses. The bibliography contains more than 80 sources, and the index includes more than 900 entries, satisfying the scholarly curiosities and the targeted interests of an academic reader. But rather than including footnotes or numbered endnotes, sources for quotations are listed by page number in the "Notes" section in the backmatter. So while a casual reader will not be distracted by footnotes or endnote numbers in superscript, the scholarly reader can still find citations listed by page number in the "Notes" section. Still, the notes only provide sources for quotations, not paraphrases or other inferences that Morris derived from the wide range of other sources listed in the bibliography.
In closing, I'll iterate my earlier notice of Morris's own talents
in prose. He does not attempt to channel his subject's linguistic gifts but
offers his own compelling account in well-tempered language that engages respectfully
with his subject and with his own readers. This enables Morris to provide
useful context, which Mark Twain purposefully omitted from his own account,
but without debunking what Twain accomplished. This is much more difficult
to pull off than it might seem, and Morris deserves credit, and readers, for
what he achieves.