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The Reputations of Mark Twain

By Peter Stoneley


The last couple of years have been an up-and-down period for the reputation of Mark Twain (1835-1910). It started well with a special issue of Time Magazine in 2008 which reminded readers of Twain’s goodness, and of the fact that the “buddy story of Huck and Jim was not only a model of American adventure and literature but also of deep friendship and loyalty.” This was followed in 2010 by many celebrations to mark the centenary of his death, including a volume in the prestigious Library of America series. Headlining Twain as the most “beloved” and “cherished” author from “around the world,” the Library of America volume was an anthology of “Great Writers on His Life and Work.”

But there has been another Twain waiting for his turn in the public eye. Laura Skandera-Trombley brought this Twain into view with her book of 2010 on “the hidden story of his final years”, revealing just how vain, bad-tempered and vengeful he could be. Far from the world of children and their buddies, a key fact about the revealed Twain was that his secretary had presented him with a sex toy. Then earlier this month the University of California Press published the first volume of their three-volume edition of Twain’s autobiography. This made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. The autobiography had supposedly gone unpublished because it was so full of harsh truths about Twain’s contemporaries, his nation, and life generally that he himself had ordered that it not be published until 100 years after his death. Here Twain is in full spate, calling his secretary a “salacious slut,” settling many scores with business-partners who he thought had fleeced him, and referring to United States soldiers involved in imperial wars as “uniformed assassins.”

How can we go on seeing Twain as “the quintessential American” once we know that he had echoed Johnson’s comment that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”? How can we see him as about “deep friendship and loyalty” when he conceived intense enmities for so many of his closest associates? It turns out that the Twain we had known was, as the New York Times put it, a “scrubbed and sanitized version,” and here in the autobiography was the truth. Similarly the Daily Telegraph assured its readers that the autobiography was “likely to shatter the myth that America’s great writer and humorist was a cheerful old man.”

We might seek to temper the coverage of the publication of the autobiography, as the outstanding editors responsible for the California volume have themselves done. Although it is a great event in Twain scholarship to have a full and reliable edition, substantial parts of the autobiography had been published before, including most of the truly interesting parts. The parts dealing with the “salacious” secretary were not part of the autobiography, but are to be published as an appendix to the California edition, and the material had been discussed in some detail in earlier scholarship. And the sex toy? As an editor at the Mark Twain Project, Benjamin Griffin, has pointed out on the University of California Press website, this was a “massager” that was marketed to men and women as treatment for “rheumatism, headaches, neuralgia, and other ailments,” and Twain recommended the device to friends with seemingly no awareness that it might also serve as “a masturbation aid for women.”

Now, with the 175th anniversary of Twain’s birth on 30th November 2010, I have no further revelations to add. Nor do I wish to try to adjudicate between the “good Twain” and the “bad Twain.” What strikes me is how these fluctuations and polarizations in the image of Twain in the past year or so are but one more renewal of an often-repeated pattern. To disagree with Skandera-Trombley, very little about Twain’s life has been “hidden” at all, and the idea that he has for the past hundred years been seen as a man who was “undeterred by life’s sorrows and challenges” is questionable. After his death, his surviving daughter and his literary executor tried to promote a safe Twain, while others pushed for a fuller and more honest sense of the man. In this seemingly endless push and pull, the “good Twain” has been exploded repeatedly, though perhaps most notably by Bernard DeVoto with Mark Twain in Eruption in 1940, and by Hamlin Hill with Mark Twain: God’s Fool in 1972.

The point might be that the “bad Twain” has to be continually rediscovered because there is a continued investment in the “good Twain.” For as long as there are such intense desires to make a champion out of him, there will be the finding out once more that his feet were made of clay. And this is to leave to one side the attempt to make the idea of America cohere with one identity that is “quintessentially American.”

Peter Stoneley is a Professor in the Department of English and American Literature at the University of Reading. He is the editor of the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

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