The Singular Mark Twain. Fred Kaplan. Doubleday, 2003. 726 pages. Hardcover. $35.00. ISBN 0-385-47715-5.

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The following review appeared 20 January 2004 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed by
Kevin Mac Donnell

Revisionism seems to be a firmly established ingredient of modern American writing, especially when it comes to biographical cuisine, and the main course being served up in this biography is Kaplan's assertion that Mark Twain was singular: "The writer and the man, despite the two names, are a unified personality" (p. 2). Unfortunately, Kaplan's main course is served cold, in a bit of a rush, and without sufficient seasoning.

Without naming him or even including his work in his bibliography, Fred Kaplan takes time to dismiss Justin Kaplan's portrayal of Twain (Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, 1966) as a "split personality" and says this portrait "was a useful way to dramatize some of Twain's inconsistencies." He goes even further: Twain's "pseudonym does not embody an attempt to escape from his other self, or a fundamental internal division" (p. 2). To prove this new theory, Kaplan might be expected to take a fresh approach to the known facts of Twain's life, discovering aspects of Twain's public and private personalities that biographers before him had missed. Because Kaplan makes clear that he has relied on previously unpublished letters, this approach indeed seems likely, and the reader hopes for a presentation of previously unknown information that will bolster Kaplan's opposition to the approach taken by that earlier unnamed biographer. A recital of bare facts alone cannot expose anyone's psyche and true self, so the reader looks forward to an exploration of Twain's inner life, with convincing evidence of a singular self that would lay to rest all previous theories of Twain's "internal division" or divided self. The facts of Twain's existence are nearly all there, and the basic emotions are there in full measure and often in their utmost extremes (grief, greed, anger, isolation, joy), as well as Twain's reactions to events and his many public and private pronouncements. But Twain once said every human being has a dark side, like the moon, that they never reveal to others, and this hidden nonreflecting side of Twain's self --whether dark or light--that portion of Twain's inner life not directly announced in his letters, journals, speeches, and writings is absent from Kaplan's narrative of his outer life. Whenever a moment is reached in which the reader senses that the curtain of Twain's outer life might be drawn to one side, Kaplan instead seems anxious to present us with more facts, as if his pile of index cards needs reduction to meet some secret deadline. The reader of this biography is always present as the events of Twain's life unfold, but seldom at Twain's side. Kaplan keeps us at a distance, so that we can watch Twain's reactions and emotions without having to share them.

We have had glimpses of Twain's inner life before. Albert Bigelow Paine approached Twain's biography with enthusiasm, and hardly a page of his work does not resonate with his conviction that writing about Twain was a privilege. Paine's fact-finding was sometimes constricted or confused by Twain himself, and after Twain's death Paine's ability to tell the story was constrained by Twain's business-minded publisher and overly-protective surviving daughter, and yet he managed to tell the story of Twain's outer life with a relish and sympathy that often brings the reader into close proximity to Twain's inner life. Paine is factually flawed at times, but the spirit is true. The truth of Twain's spirit can be felt in Justin Kaplan's biography as well. While Justin Kaplan unwisely skipped the telling of Twain's early life (feeling that biographers like Dixon Wecter had already accomplished the task) and his chronological presentation is not always maintained, the evolution of Twain's spirit unfolds on most of his pages. Finally, Hamlin Hill's harrowing story of Twain's last years (God's Fool, 1973) plunges into Twain's tortured psyche deeper than many readers could comfortably tolerate, but many readers will always regret that Twain's earlier life was never fully examined under Hill's unflinching psychological microscope. Kaplan had these examples to follow (or refute) but does neither, and does not even include either of the two books authored by Hill in his bibliography.

Kaplan does succeed in presenting the facts of Twain's life in an easy chronological sequence. As a result, his account of Twain's complicated financial machinations is one of the clearest accounts of this difficult subject any biographer has been able to achieve. He also displays a pleasing facility for providing succinct summations of events, a skill found lacking in too many biographies. For example, at the end of chapter 9, Twain's only son has died in infancy, triggering the self-blame that Twain had experienced years earlier when his brother Henry died, a pattern that would be repeated many more times in Twain's life. Kaplan aptly concludes this chapter saying, "Blaming himself was always his best comfort." At another point Kaplan artfully compares Twain's situation with that of the hapless blue jay in Jim Baker's famous yarn: "Twain had many unfilled holes, he was very short of acorns, and the house was huge." Still later when Edward House incurs Twain's wrath, Kaplan observes that House had now joined others, like Bret Harte, in Twain's "damnology." Many more examples could be cited, most of them found at the ends of chapters or longer paragraphs.

Regretfully, the pleasant elements of Kaplan's fluid writing style are sometimes offset by his annoying habit of making vague allusions and not taking the time to name names. In biographies, name-dropping is helpful, even preferred. He establishes this pattern on the second page of his introduction with his mention of Justin Kaplan's book only as "a deservedly praised and influential biography of Mark Twain's adult years" but mentions not the title, nor the author, nor the Pulitzer Prize it won. Later, at page 336, Twain is inspired to write The Prince and the Pauper by his discovery of "a theme he had read about in a popular contemporary novel" but we are never told what that profoundly influential novel might have been. At page 284 a long-delayed Bret Harte novel is mentioned but not named (Gabriel Conroy, 1876). At page 342 we are left to wonder who the "friend" was who required four years of badgering to return the $23,000 Twain had given him for some investment. At page 627 he mentions Twain's advising Charlotte Teller on one of her plays, but does not say which one, and then confuses her play with her novel which Twain also helped her prepare for publication, but does not tell us the title of this novel either (The Cage, 1907). Even when somebody is named, we are not always told who they are. At page 487 Lilly Foote is cited by Twain as proof of the success of "mind-cure" by a practitioner who might be able to help Susy, but Lilly is not in the index (which fails to include other people, as well as places like Riverdale, Stormfield, and Quarry Farm) nor otherwise identified--the reader is grateful that Lilly's feeling better, but still curious to know who the heck she was. Livy's last doctor, Dr. G. W. Kirch had his name misspelled "Kirsch" seven times, including the index. Even Twain, as much as he ultimately despised Dr. Kirch, still spelled his name right. Vagueness, misspellings, and typos are not fatal flaws by themselves, but the examples given here could be expanded to a list thrice this size, and a text this sloppy is in need of a life-saving infusion of proofreading.

Omission is another way to commit murder on a text. Several of Twain's books seem to be missing from this narrative: The Stolen White Elephant, How to Tell a Story, and Punch, Brothers, Punch!. These and other minor works are easily overlooked without hurting the narrative (so long as it's not intended as a definitive narrative), but Kaplan, who usually describes the events of Twain's life in reasonable detail, frequently abridges or ignores revealing episodes and moments. He too briefly tells of Twain's seeking the approval of Livy's father for her hand in marriage and the hilariously hopeless letters of reference from his friends, and manages to present this episode without a trace of the humor or telling details displayed in nearly every previous account. He discusses the relationship of Twain and Thomas Bailey Aldrich, and Twain's intense dislike for Mrs. Aldrich, but never describes Twain's cruel joke on Aldrich's wife when he complained at the breakfast-table about the Aldrichs' noisy love-making when she and her husband were house-guests in Hartford. Likewise, he describes the Twain-Cable relationship at length, subscribing to Twain's opinion that Cable was a pious prig, but neglects to tell the story of Cable's elaborate and successful April Fool's Day hoax on Twain in 1884. He mentions the origins of the famous "Golden Arm" story and he also mentions Joel Chandler Harris, but somehow avoids any mention of Joel Chandler Harris's connection with Twain's writing of this story (a favorite of Twain's), nor does he mention that Harris also published a version of this folktale. He mentions that Twain dreamed up odd names for his many cats, but never tells the story of how Jean and her father named cats by combining the names of wildflowers with ancient philosophers, and then attached name-tags to each cat before imposing them on sometimes unwilling Quarry Farm neighbors when the family left Elmira at the end of each summer. He mentions that Twain proposed dictating A Connecticut Yankee onto wax cylinders, but never mentions that he actually attempted to follow through with this experiment when he began The American Claimant, filling more than 100 cylinders with his dictations. He mentions Susy's deep attachment to Louise Brownell, dismissing the notion of a possible sexual aspect to her affection, but does not quote the more explicit language from the letters. Likewise he accepts the broad-brushed image of Jean as weak and unstable during Twain's last years, but ignores a previously published letter from Jean to a friend describing her typical daily activities that reveal her to be an active, athletic, well-organized, and competent individual (Kaplan does quote another letter from Jean to the same recipient, Marguerite Schmitt, but mangles her name into "Mayverite" in his notes). He describes Twain's last visit to Hannibal, but does not tell us that Twain wept openly when he visited the Labinnah Club (a rare public display of unrehearsed genuine emotion), enjoyed passing out diplomas (and witty advice) to the local high school class, his visit to the black families living in the old Blankenship home, or his stop in St. Louis where he briefly piloted around the harbor a steamboat that had been renamed in his honor (making an excuse to give up the wheel when he could no longer read the water ahead). He tells of Twain caring for Clara's "splendid" cat (Bambino) while Clara was at a sanitarium, but does not mention that this duty fell to Twain only after Clara was caught trying to smuggle the cat into her room. He tells of Twain's return to New York in 1900 and his search for an apartment, but does not mention that Twain hastily moved into an apartment found for him by Frank Doubleday before signing a lease and without informing either Doubleday or the landlord, and then returned Doubleday's kindness by sending him daily postcards griping about the defects and problems he found in his new quarters. Some of these are stories that would have enhanced Kaplan's story only slightly, but others would have challenged or enlarged the perspective Kaplan provides. When Kaplan quotes from Twain's overly defensive and sexually phrased attacks on Isabel Lyon, but ignores Lyon's sometimes sexually charged diary entries about Twain, the story of their relationship seems just half-expressed, even suspect, and devoid of any sexual tension. Sometimes Kaplan tells a story without connecting it to his narrative, and certainly not to Twain's sense of self. This is glaringly apparent in Kaplan's dry telling of the story "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime" at page 338, a startling contrast with Justin Kaplan's more convincing but unsettling account of the same story (Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, pp. 194-5) and what it reveals about Twain's fractured sense of self. After running across enough untold or half-told stories, it begins to look as if evidence that does not support the theory of a singular unified personality is being suppressed, if only unconsciously.

Conscious and unconscious suppression does not just afflict biographers. It also determines how and when an author makes use of the people and events from his own life in his fiction. Although Kaplan does explore Twain's use of Livy as a model for Eve, and does connect the dots between other people and events in Twain's personal life and his public fictions, at other times he does not, and it is unclear what Kaplan's criteria is for including one and excluding another. Laura Hawkins and Tom Blankenship were well-known models who were openly acknowledged by Twain, and Kaplan takes notice of them. But when people like John T. Lewis (Jim), John RoBards (d'Unlap), or Katharine Harrison (Eve) make an appearance in the text, Twain's use of them as models for characters in his fiction is never mentioned, and another opportunity is lost to explore the divisions, connections, conflicts, and manipulations between Twain's outer and inner lives, as revealed by his methods in transforming the people and events from his private life into his public art.

When Kaplan does present new facts (and they are few and far between) they seldom have any relation to his thesis of singularity. We may learn for the first time the contents of Judge John Clemens' estate, that The Prince and the Pauper's binding was the only use ever made of the Kaolatype brass plate process, that Clara studied violin (her piano and vocal talents are well-known), that a con artist in New York with whom Twain had invested burned his business down twice (it was known to have happened once, but twice!?) rather than have Twain inspect his project, and that Twain re-used his 1885 lecture program in 1895. None of these new bits of information makes a case for singularity of any kind, and it is striking that Kaplan could cite the use of so many previously unpublished letters in his thirty-eight pages of double-columned notes without bringing more new information to light.

What is found in greater abundance than new information are factual errors and misleading statements, and while they don't focus directly on the issue of singularity either, they are plentiful enough to disrupt the narrative's flow for informed readers, and misinform readers not already familiar with Twain's life. These factual errors, both large and small, also serve to reinforce the hurried tone of the book, the tendency to toss out facts without delving too deeply into their meanings, before moving on to the next item on the agenda. When Kaplan describes the appearance of Twain's jumping frog story in the New York Saturday Press he reports that Twain had mistakenly thought that this newspaper was about to go under, but that it was actually "temporarily healthy" (p. 136). In fact, Twain's story appeared in the very last issue of this doomed newspaper. Twain's first appearance in Harper's Monthly Magazine prompts Kaplan to call this journal "an elite eastern magazine" (p. 159), but nothing could be further from the truth; in the 1860s Harper's was a popular national magazine with a circulation of 200,000, filled with articles on a broad range of subjects, and Twain's appearance in its pages exposed him to a vast literate audience unlike any before. At the end of Twain's Mississippi River tour in 1882, Kaplan has Twain arriving in New Orleans on the Gold Dust, but Twain stepped off the Gold Dust in Vicksburg, and arrived in New Orleans on board the Charles Morgan. The latter was a larger vessel, recently refurbished in a grand manner; the former exploded its boilers a few months later with the loss of seventeen lives. Kaplan describes Twain's "flowing white hair" in 1885 (p. 419), about ten years before it turned a salt and pepper grey; it was not "flowing white" until nearly 1900. Twain, we are told, "had at last accepted that the high noon of subscription publishing had passed" in 1892 (p. 443) but we are also told that in 1897 he "still failed to appreciate that the subscription market was dying" (p. 501). The reasons for Twain not living in Hartford after 1891 are said to be financial (p. 532), but the monthly maintenance of the Hartford home ($200 per month) plus the cost of travel and living abroad, make this oft-repeated claim suspect. After Susy's death in 1896, the reason for not returning to Hartford was enlarged to include the sadness of living in the house where she died (p. 572), but the truth, all the way back to 1891, was more likely the shame Twain felt over his financial failures and how Hartford society would look askance at his reduced status. The publisher of Twain's diatribe on King Leopold is said to be the "Congo Society" (p. 619) but that pamphlet was published by W. R. Warren, a box-printer, for the Congo Reform Association; yet a few pages later Kaplan correctly names this group that Twain supported. When Kaplan mentions Twain's early thoughts about suicide, he says Twain later "vaguely referred" to an actual attempt (p. 127), but Twain's later reference to his 1866 suicide attempt is both explicit and revealing, and quoted in full by Alan Gribben in his well-known book Mark Twain's Library: A Reconstruction, a work not cited at all by Kaplan even though he discusses Twain's reading tastes and influences in detail at least seventeen times. Twice Kaplan questions the relationship between Edward House and his Japanese ward Koto, and implies it was sexual; but no evidence exists from which to draw such a conclusion, and much evidence points to the contrary. A photo taken of Twain and a kitten at Tuxedo Park is captioned as being taken at Stormfield; a comment on Huckleberry Finn by Booker T. Washington is erroneously cited as 1896 instead of 1910; the landscape of South Africa is said to have reminded Twain of Texas (p. 528); maybe it reminded Twain of what he'd heard or read about Texas, but Twain never stepped foot in Texas. Kaplan does not cite his Texas reference and the reader is left to wonder. The first hint that these irritating errors might surface is in the introduction when Jim is once again incorrectly called "nigger Jim." A willingness to cite sources contrary to his thesis, along with some proofreading and fact-checking might have spared Kaplan these errors and omissions, and would have given the reader more confidence to accept his conclusions.

By the time the reader reaches the last ten years of Twain's life, a period previously covered in exquisite detail by Hamlin Hill, Paine, and others, the pace of the narrative quickens, as if this period doesn't need as close an inspection as Twain's first sixty-five years. Any reader of Hill, whether agreeing with all of Hill's conclusions, knows the precise opposite is true. As Kaplan gallops toward the finish line, the reader waits in vain for a singular Twain to put in an appearance. By the time Kaplan concludes his story with a bromide ("There has been no one like him since.") the reader is glad Twain was not there to witness Kaplan's virtual abandonment of the central theme of his original thesis.

Kaplan would also have served himself better if he had relied more on recent Twain scholarship and published sources. Certainly, his heavy, ostentatious use of unpublished letters netted surprisingly little that's new. A glance at his bibliography (pp. 657-9) reveals a mere sixteen source books first published after 1950. A few more books are cited in the notes that are not cited in the bibliography, and some books (like Mark Twain's Rubaiyat, 1983) were clearly used (p. 571) but not cited at all in the notes or bibliography. Anyone familiar with the hundreds of books about Twain since 1950 (not to mention articles, which Kaplan cites even less often than books) will be astonished to see a "bold revisionist" biography (so says the front flap of the dust jacket) written without so much as a nod, much less a tip of the hat, to Twain scholars like Howard Baetzhold, Walter Blair, Lou Budd, Guy Cardwell, James Cox, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, John Gerber, William Gibson, Alan Gribben, Hamlin Hill, not to mention the letters I through Z.

If there is a reader who has never read a Twain biography who wants to read one loaded with facts (but not all of the relevant facts, and not all of them accurate), and not be bothered with that pesky and perpetual conflict of Twain's inner and outer lives, or the evolution of his soul, this biography is palatable fare. For all of its many flaws, this story of Twain's life is as good as any full-length biography to appear in the last thirty years, but Kaplan's Twain is not singular, and his biography is not definitive.