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The Singular Mark Twain: A Biography

The Singular Mark Twain: A Biography

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by Fred Kaplan

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In this magisterial full-scale biography of America’s greatest storyteller and satirist, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist Fred Kaplan refashions our image of Mark Twain and etches a vibrant portrait of a singular personality who created some of the most memorable literary characters of our culture. He coined the phrase “the Gilded Age,”


In this magisterial full-scale biography of America’s greatest storyteller and satirist, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist Fred Kaplan refashions our image of Mark Twain and etches a vibrant portrait of a singular personality who created some of the most memorable literary characters of our culture. He coined the phrase “the Gilded Age,” spoke out vigorously against racism and imperialism, and in his multifaceted singularity as writer, businessman, polemicist, investor, inventor, and self-promoter became the most widely extolled and most dominant icon of American literature. As Kaplan writes, “There has been no one like him since.”

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
The value of a new Twain biography -- particularly one that weighs in at 726 pages -- would seem to lie either in its use of new primary materials or in its fresh evocation of how the parts cohered into a whole and how that whole evolved. Kaplan doesn't pretend to have uncovered some unmined archival cache, so the test of whether there is something new here rests on his ability to offer new insight into his "singular" subject. His decision to complicate the overly schematic models of the divided psyche of Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain that characterized earlier biographies is to be applauded. And his willingness to let compelling scholarship of the last decade on the subject of Twain and race suffuse his book (even though that scholarship is largely unattributed) is also welcome. — Shelley Fisher Fishkin
Publishers Weekly
Biographers have always found plenty to say about the life of Samuel Clemens (1835-1910). Kaplan's well-drawn life of America's beloved humorist and closet misanthrope is the latest in that regular flow, which began almost immediately after his death. Dictating the autobiography that was published only posthumously, Clemens observed, "I think we never become really & genuinely our entire & honest selves until we are dead-and not then until we have been dead years & years." With this perspective, Kaplan does not impose a path or goal on Clemens's picaresque and opportunistic career, merely noting his belief in luck throughout. If Clemens had not failed to find regular employment as a typesetter in Philadelphia, establish himself as a river pilot on the Mississippi before the Civil War or strike it rich as a prospector in Nevada, Mark Twain would not have emerged as the pen name for humorous articles in newspapers out west or a stage name for comic lectures back east. The surprising, reputation-making successes of The Celebrated Jumping Frog and Innocents Abroad was later matched by the failures of his publishing and printing ventures and the deaths of two of his daughters and his wife. Although Mark Twain would always be viewed popularly as a humorist, Kaplan highlights Clemens's all-American skepticism and his late-developing progressive attitudes on race relations and imperialism. Kaplan's readable and sympathetic work celebrates Sam Clemens (and the inspiring minor personages in his life) over the celebrity figure of Mark Twain, even as he asserts their ultimate unity. (On sale Oct. 21) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Kaplan (English, Queens Coll.), biographer of Dickens and other literary giants, presents a vividly detailed account of the life of Samuel L. Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, by drawing on his family history, esteemed friends, and world travels. Each chapter is broken down into a specific span of years, making the book an easy point of reference for research. Kaplan relies on primary and secondary resources, including family letters and correspondence, to come to distinct conclusions about Twain. He emphasizes Twain's estranged relationship with his father, his enjoyable years as a bachelor and steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River, and his desire to succeed financially as a journalist and then a novelist. He looks closely at what may have led Twain to criticize slavery and other social customs of the day, and how his early comic writing not only allowed him to get away with such criticism but also to form a foundation of admirable readers. Throughout this dense tome, Kaplan clearly shows the connection between Twain's writing and the people and events that surrounded his life. However, the book's strength is also its weakness: in-depth descriptions and analysis of financial transactions, conversations, business trips, sicknesses, family dramas, and other normal life events will hold the attention of only serious Twain enthusiasts. Still, as Kaplan points out, the name Mark Twain conjures up images of a particular piece of American culture and history that interests a great number of people. Recommended for large academic libraries.-Jaime Anderson, Cty. of Henrico P.L., VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An argument that the native adventurer and high Victorian author's life was not "twain," as it is sometimes presented, but unified by an unflagging belief in his own luck, a fierce social conscience, and a never-ending quest for money. Wily, outspoken, socially insecure, and immensely talented, the man born Samuel Clemens set out to become the foremost humorous chronicler of American culture and character in the years between the Civil War and the end of the Gilded Age, a designation he invented. Kaplan (Gore Vidal, 1999, etc.; English Literature/Queens College) catalogues Clemens's adventures on and off the Mississippi in prodigious if familiar detail. Leaving behind a far-from-idyllic boyhood in Hannibal, the future literary lion drifted from small-town newspaper jobs to riverboat piloting to prospecting in Nevada's silver mines before lighting on his nom de plume and his great talent as a brilliant comic storyteller, cultural satirist, and wildly entertaining popular speaker. Twain's novels and foreign correspondence brought him instant, enduring celebrity, his international lecture tours brought him affluence, and his charm and determination won him a wealthy Brahmin wife and a warm place in the literary society of Emerson, Beecher, James, and Howells. But a desire for a larger share of the period's immense wealth and a gambler's restlessness left him easy prey for flighty dreamers and con men. Though loved by friends and by a nation of admiring readers, Twain's final years were haunted by illness, debt, the deaths of two of his three children and his wife, and his intense, growing bitterness toward those he felt had betrayed his trust. Kaplan reports that Twain's last heir committedsuicide in 1964. Yet his literary legacy remains more vital than that of any American writer, with the possible exception of his friend Henry James. No real surprises here, but a welcome reminder of the contributions of a great American social critic.
From the Publisher
“The clearest, most comprehensive portrait yet. . . . It is almost unprecedented for a truly definitive biography of a writer of Mark Twain’s stature to appear after so many years, but here it is.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer“A singularly excellent biography.” –The New York Sun“A real contribution to what we know of the writer who made the American language safe for literature. . . . A great glory of information.” –The Atlanta Journal-Constitution“ ‘Singular’ Twain is doubly good reading.” –Fort Worth Star-Telegram“An even-handed narrative, fully aware of all the biographical and critical currents at work . . . but owing allegiance to no particular theoretical or psychological school of criticism.” –Richmond Times-Dispatch“A delightful read and a storehouse of information and ideas that will be consulted for generations.” –Portland Sunday Telegram“Refreshing. . . . Full of new material.” –St. Louis Post-Dispatch“Lively. . . . Clemens feels whole because Kaplan takes the time to show him in so many different settings and situations.” –The Oregonian“Comprehensive. . . . Thoroughly researched. . . . Highly readable.” –Fort Worth Star-Telegram“A vividly detailed account. . . . Kaplan clearly shows the connection between Twain’s writing and the people and events that surrounded his life.” –Library Journal“Utimately, Kaplan’s major contribution may be in what he has taken out of the Twain mythology. No longer will Twain be referred to as an inspired primitive.” –Houston Chronicle“[Kaplan] has researched more fully and completely than any other has been able to do before. . . . Deeply detailed . . . rich with anecdote, facts and the humor that filled the man we have come to know as Mark Twain.” –Wichita Falls Times Record News

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Two people dominated the early years of Samuel Clemens, one a warm presence, the other a cold absence. His mother, Jane Lampton Clemens, bore her burdens with cheerful lightheartedness and energetic imagination. She loved Fourth of July parades as much as she enjoyed funeral processions. Apparently she had a sense of fun but, according to her son, no sense of humor at all. She had a mincing, sharp tongue. She was incapable of recognizing wit or irony. His father, John Marshall Clemens, bore his burdens in melancholy and silence; he said very little to any of his children, and what he said reinforced his austere manner. He was not in favor of mischief, even childish mischief. He seemed not to find it easy to laugh, and neither parent was physically affectionate. Their eldest son recalled that at the death of one of their children they had kissed, a singular memory. The only time Sam Clemens ever saw any member of his family touch another, let alone embrace, was when John Marshall Clemens, on his deathbed, called his daughter to his side and put his arms around her. And though of course he and the family could not know it, when Samuel Clemens was born, John Marshall Clemens had most of his life behind him. He died at the age of almost forty-nine, when Sam was eleven years old. As a small boy, Sam had learned to keep out of his father's way. Now his father stayed permanently out of his.

When Mark Twain's paternal grandfather's family came to America from England is unclear, though probably no later than the mid-eighteenth century. His grandfather, Samuel B. Clemens, makes his first appearance in the historical record in Virginia in October 1797, in preparation for his marriage to Pamela Goggin. Nothing certain is known about him or his family before that date. The family believed that Clemens and Clements were the same family in England and that a Clements ancestor had served on the tribunal condemning Charles I to death. It was a trump card that the anti-aristocratic Mark Twain liked to throw down on the table of other people's pretensions, especially since his riposte had a radical and humorously bloody edge to it.

Jane Clemens, at least privately, enjoyed boasting that her family had aristocratic lineage. Many of the American Lamptons came to believe, without evidence except a similarity in name, that they were related to the English Earls of Durham. For many of the Lamptons it was not a tentative belief. At best, the main use the Clemens ancestry had in a boasting contest, once one put aside the king killer, was that a spurious argument could be made that the Virginia Clemenses were FFV (belonged to the First Families of Virginia), and thus the nineteenth-century Clemenses were akin to colonial royalty. "My mother knew all about the Clemenses of Virginia, and loved to aggrandize them to me," Twain recalled. But the record is clear that they were nothing of the sort. In fact, the longest and most distinguished lineage can be traced on Samuel Clemens' grandmother's side. The Goggin family, whose ancestors were tradespeople in England in the sixteenth century, came to Virginia in the seventeenth century and married into a Quaker family, the Moormans. The Moormans rose from farmers to wealthy planters. In 1775 Charles Moorman manumitted thirty-three of his slaves. In 1773, his daughter, Rachel Moorman, Twain's great-grandmother, married a non-Quaker, Stephen Goggin, Jr., whose father, an Anglican, had emigrated from Queen's County, Ireland. Their daughter, Pamela Goggin, born in 1775, married Samuel B. Clemens in Bedford County in 1797, the first recorded appearance of any Virginia Clemens. Of their five children, John Marshall Clemens was the first.

In 1802, Samuel B. Clemens paid $1,000 for four hundred acres in Bedford County, Virginia. In the summer of 1804, he sold all the land, part of it to his friend Samuel Hancock, and settled in the newly formed Mason County of West Virginia, where he bought a 199-acre farm. The next year, as he was taking part in a house-raising, a log being pushed up an incline slipped backward and crushed him to death against a tree stump. John Marshall was five years old. His mother moved her five children to Kentucky, where she had been invited to keep house for her brother, though she had been left some land in West Virginia and about a half-dozen slaves. In 1809 she married Simon Hancock, nephew of the friend who had bought some of Samuel Clemens' Virginia land, who had been her suitor before she had married.

Young John Marshall, born August 11, 1798, apparently did not have a warm relationship with his stepfather, who required that his wife's children by her first marriage repay him for his costs in raising them. At eleven years of age he began work as a clerk. In 1821, court commissioners liquidated Samuel Clemens' remaining estate, consisting mostly of ten slaves. Pamela renounced her share in favor of her children. John Marshall paid his stepfather $884.33 out of his share and shortly afterward liquidated the rest of his indebtedness. Soon he began to study law under a Columbia, Kentucky, attorney, and he was licensed to practice in 1822.

An attractive, fun-loving belle of the ball in Columbia, Jane Lampton was proud of her family and happy with life. On the maternal side, her ancestors were Montgomerys and Caseys, Protestants from Queen's County, Ireland, who migrated to Virginia and then to Kentucky. Her mother, Jane Montgomery, was the daughter of a distinguished Revolutionary War colonel. Her father, Benjamin Lampton, brought the Earls of Durham distinction to the marriage.

In 1818, when Jane Lampton was fifteen, her mother died. Her father remarried the next year. Jane's Columbia life continued to have its social pleasures, including recreation on the party and dancing circuit to as far away as Lexington. In 1823, according to a story she told her son, she fell in love with a shy young man who lived in a nearby town. He seemed to be in love with her, and everyone they knew, she thought, was aware of the relationship. The mores of the time, though, made it difficult for them to be alone together. Jane hoped for the opportunity. When her uncle tried to arrange that they be alone, she rejected his clumsy attempt as embarrassing. Soon after, her suitor, convinced that Jane had rejected him, so she thought, left Kentucky. Eager to show the world that she was not disappointed by his departure, and apparently in a pique, she accepted a proposal of marriage from John Marshall Clemens.

That they had known each other for some time is clear. The lawyer under whom John Marshall clerked was her cousin. Jane's uncle headed the Columbia volunteer fire department to which John Marshall belonged. Her father and uncle employed young Mr. Clemens to act as their agent in selling property in Tennessee. It is not clear, though, that they were anything more than acquaintances, and the austere, gaunt-looking, hard-working John Marshall Clemens was not likely to have flirted with Jane, nor she with him. She later claimed that she did not love him in the least. But, with or without love, the marriage proceeded, and with the usual consequences.

Married in May 1823, she gave birth, in July 1825, to their first son, Orion. Soon after, the young lawyer, with wife and baby, moved to the town of Gainsboro in undeveloped Jackson County in north-central Tennessee's Cumberland Mountains, just south of the Kentucky border, where Jane's cousin, Dr. Nathan Montgomery, lived. Perhaps they went for John Marshall's health; he may have been tubercular. There he struggled unsuccessfully to earn a living as a lawyer and had only modest success as the owner of a general goods store. In 1827, Jane gave birth to a daughter, Pamela, in Jamestown, Fentress County, Tennessee, a little east of Gainsboro. In 1831 they moved to nearby Pall Mall, almost on the Kentucky border. It was a far cry from Columbia, let alone the civility and culture of Lexington, and Jane Clemens was to do very little more dancing in her life. In late 1828 she gave birth to a son, Pleasant Hannibal, who lived for three months; in 1830 a daughter, Margaret; in 1832 a son, Benjamin.

The topic of entitlement now began to have even added cogency in the Clemens-Lampton household. In the late 1820s and early 1830s, John Marshall bought for about $400 approximately seventy thousand acres of land in Fentress County, south of Jamestown. The cost and the amount of land are estimates based on family oral history. The soil was poor and the terrain hilly; access was limited to dirt paths. John Marshall, though, envisioned the press of heavy immigration one day making the land valuable. Probably some of the initial purchase was made with the last of his inheritance from his father; additional parcels were purchased over many years. Apparently John Marshall expended with each purchase all the cash he had and bought again when he had accumulated more. At his death, he put his hope in the future value of the land to his descendants. He died "house poor," scraping for dollars, but his descendants, he expected, would be rich. His children lived, more or less, under his injunction never to sell. At different times the Tennessee land became for them, especially for Sam, a bitter joke, a psychological albatross, and an unheeded reminder of the destructiveness of unrealistic and uncontrollable dreams of wealth.

The Clemens family had a hardscrabble existence in Tennessee. Times were hard, and America was in transition. Industry and foreign trade were beginning to become profitable, and manufacturers in New England and owners of fertile land in Virginia did well. But people at the edge of the wilderness, earning their living by farming in rocky, soil-poor country or by providing goods and services to their rural communities, usually lived poorly. Cash was scarce. The barter system prevailed, if one had something to barter. And President Andrew Jackson's successful attempt to close the Bank of the United States, the most stable bank in the country, dried up credit and drained cash from the national economy. In 1834 there was a nationwide financial crash. Small loans became almost impossible to get. Twain believed that before the crash his father was worth not less than $3,500 separate from the value of the land, afterward "less than one-fourth of that amount." With most of John Marshall's cash tied up in non-income-producing land, the family lived at a level far below what it considered its due. There was no legal business, and the grocery and general goods store barely managed, so they took in boarders. What to do? Where to go? John Marshall was "a proud man, a silent, austere man, and not a person likely to abide among the scenes of his vanished grandeur and be the target for public commiseration."

In the late 1820s, Jane's father, Benjamin Lampton, a successful farmer and storekeeper in Columbia, had visited Missouri, which, in 1821, had become the twenty-fourth state as one of the conditions of the Missouri Compromise: Missouri had been admitted as a slave state, Maine as a free state. John Marshall Clemens had inherited eight slaves, seven of whom he had sold for economic reasons. One slave girl remained to help in the household. Jane Lampton's family had of course owned slaves, and Jane was used to household and field slaves, though slavery was not the economic basis of farming in Kentucky to the extent it was further south. But it was an integral part of the lives and minds of Samuel Clemens' parents; the Lamptons, like most visitors and migrants from southern states, found Missouri's slave-state status familiar and congenial. One of Benjamin's brothers had settled in Boone County, Missouri, about five years before. John Quarles, married to Jane's favorite sister, a shopkeeper, a farmer, and also an ex-Virginian, decided to strike out for Missouri also.

Four hundred miles northwestward from north-central Tennessee to St. Louis, one went on foot or horseback or by wagon to the Ohio River on the Kentucky-Ohio border, and from there by flatboat to St. Louis. And that was, by and large, far enough. Beyond Missouri were the territories, the prairies, vast emptiness, huge deserts, high mountains, Indian country and Mexican possessions, Texas and California. Few travelers and fewer migrants went that far, because there was little economic motivation to do so. Missouri, which was far enough away, had good soil and ample water.

With his wife and ten children, John Quarles made the journey. So too did Benjamin Lampton, with his second wife and their children. Both families settled in the small town of Florida, Missouri, in Monroe County, eighty-five miles northwest of St. Louis, about forty-five miles from the Mississippi River, where they opened a grocery and general goods store. Florida had been laid out in 1831 on high ground between the forks of Salt River. Like thousands of new towns, it was more hope than reality: the settler's desire for community, the real estate agent's dream of wealth. Population, about one hundred people. There were a few sawmills on the unnavigable river, the houses were made of logs, the few streets unpaved. America west of the Mississippi was still on paper, so to speak, diagrams and drawings on entrepreneurial maps. Settlers and profiteers bought and sold promises and hope. Each new town imagined itself a great metropolis of the future. Land scams abounded. Settlers who bought property sight unseen often found something very different from what they thought they had purchased.

In early 1834, when Quarles arrived, Florida looked promising. There was the expectation that the Fork River would be made navigable. There was fine "straight-grained" timber. The land was fertile, much of it government owned and cheap. Unlike John Marshall, Quarles was outgoing, good-humored, and optimistic. A Mason and free-thinker, as was his brother-in-law, he carried his unconventionality lightly, with jokes, hearty hospitality, and humorous tall tales. The store he founded was successful, a popular gathering place for residents and travelers. Soon he wrote to his Tennessee relatives about the attractions of Missouri. He urged his brother-in-law to make a new start. Life in north-central Tennessee was flat, stale, certainly unprofitable. Jane probably was eager to be reunited with her favorite sister. Soon John Marshall Clemens sold everything but the seventy thousand acres and whatever of use they could take with them. He may have had as much as a thousand dollars in cash. In spring of 1835, with the three youngest children in a small carriage drawn by two horses, and the others, including the slave girl, on foot, they set out northward to Columbia, Kentucky, where they visited family and old friends. Then to the Ohio River, where they took a steamboat to St. Louis. With a cholera epidemic devastating the city, they decided to go on immediately. At the beginning of June, they arrived in Florida, Missouri. The Quarleses welcomed them with open arms. Jane Clemens probably was not aware that she was about one month pregnant; the infant had been conceived in transit. Six months later, on November 30, 1835, she gave birth to a son, whom they named Samuel Langhorne Clemens.

Meet the Author

Fred Kaplan is Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of the critically acclaimed biographies Gore Vidal, Henry James, Dickens, and Thomas Carlyle, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize. He has held Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and was a Fellow of the National Humanities Center. He lives in Boothbay, Maine.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Singular Mark Twain: A Biography 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Fred Kaplan¿s perceptive and entertaining biography of America¿s premier writer brings to life not only the familiar Mark Twain the humorist and man of letters, but all of his other manifold aspects (or ¿selves,¿ as the author liked to call them) as well: the devoted family man who (like all successful men, according to Dwight Eisenhower) had married above his station and remained faithful and passionately affectionate to a loving, responsive woman who joined him in defying Victorian strictures to the extent of occasionally holding hands in public, and who, like Abigail Adams, shared his professional life, reading and vetting everything he wrote, and also raised and disciplined their daughters, managed his household, tolerated and sometimes even enjoyed his profanity, and to a degree came to share his indifference to religion; the self-made writer who won acceptance into the highest ranks of the nation¿s literary, cultural, political, and professional life; the world traveler who became widely venerated abroad; the impulsive, chronically unsuccessful businessman who lost a fortune investing in printing ¿compositors¿ and hairpins but rebuffed an invitation to purchase shares in the nascent telecommunications industry; the political liberal, who loved ¿Negro¿ culture and often sang ¿Swing Low, Sweet Chariot¿ and, in bereft moments, Stephen Foster¿s ¿Why Do The Beautiful Die,¿ and who deplored slavery and suppression of the lower classes not only in America but also in the Congo and Russia; the sensualist who admired the unselfconscious naturalness of uninhibited peoples in Hawaii, Fiji, and Nicaragua; the iconoclast who believed that Jesus was born but not raised and would never return to a randomly cruel world in which one incarnation was sufficient for anyone, and who agreed with an overheard slave¿s prayer, ¿Come yo¿self, Lord, an¿ doan be sendin¿ yo¿ son, ¿cause this ain¿t no time fo¿ chillun¿; and the survivor, who saw his infant son and eventually his fragile wife succumb to heart disease, a daughter to meningitis, and a second daughter to epilepsy, leaving only a third daughter to survive him ¿ and, even more sadly, although unknown to him, one whose own daughter was to commit suicide at age fifty-four, ending the line.