by Mark Twain



208pp/$19.99/April 2009

Who is Mark Twain?
Cover by Mary Schuck

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Mark Twain is one of those authors who most people seem to know more by reputation than by his actual literary production, which is too bad.  When his name is mentioned, people think of what they remember from reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school or a general idea of a humorist.  However, Twain was often a curmudgeon, irascible, and at times could show a misanthropy at odds with the public perception of him.  Who Is Mark Twain?, a collection of previously unavailable essays (and fragments) is well-titled, for, although it doesn't answer the question, it does provide the pieces necessary to form an opinion in response.

One of the key things is that the two dozen pieces are often unfinished, which adds to their value. Pieces such as “Frank Fuller and My First New York Lecture” are interesting not for what they say, but rather for what they don’t say. This piece is clearly a draft, littered with notes from Twain to himself regarding what he intended to eventually include in the piece. Other parts of it ramble on, almost a stream-of-consciousness exercise, which, one would hope, Twain intended to edit down as work progressed on the piece. However, as it stands, “My First New York Lecture” shows the manner in which Twain worked from an outline to create his essays.

Other pieces just seem to peter out.  Twain published a wonderful essay during his lifetime, "The Literary Crimes of Fennimore Cooper." Apparently, the author of the Leatherstocking Tales was not the only author Twain saw and felt needed to be taken down a peg. He began to turn his attention to "Jane Austen," although like so many of the writings in Who Is Mark Twain?, the article was never finished. While Fennimore Cooper's crimes were legion, according to Twain, Austen only suffered from one that Twain got around to discussing. Austen's characters, without exception, were odious to Twain.

Many of the pieces ramble, which may be Twain's reason for not finishing them.  "Conversations with Satan" starts out promising, as a discussion between the author and the Prince of Darkness in Vienna, but, unfortunately, gets derailed by a discussion of cigar smoking.  Both parts are well-written and entertaining, but clearly should have been separate essays.  Some pieces are just not memorable, such as "The Devil's Gate," which may have been at home in Twain's Roughing It, but apparently was written for A Tramp Abroad, in which it did not actually fit.

Who Is Mark Twain? is an enjoyable book for the Twainophile, but for someone who is not familiar with him already, it is a poor introduction.  His more famous novels, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, or his travelogues, Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi, or An Innocent Abroad, would be a better place to start.  Even then, the three collections edited by Charles Neider of The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain, The Complete Humorous Sketches and Tales of Mark Twain, and The Complete Essays of Mark Twain offer tremendous insight into the author, with the added benefit of the works themselves also being complete.  Once those are exhausted, however, Who Is Mark Twain? does the splendid job of providing new and unfamiliar works by the author that also shed light on his writing technique.


Whenever I Am About to Publish a Book The Undertaker's Tale
Frank Fuller and My First New York Lecture The Music Box
Conversations with Satan The Grand Prix
Jane Austin The Devil's Gate
The Force of "Suggestion" The Snow-Shovelers
The Privilege of the Grave Professor Mahaffy on Equality
A Group of Servants Interviewing the Interviewer
The Quarrel in the Strong Box An Incident
Happy Memories of the Dental Chair The Jungle Discusses Man
Dr. Van Dyke as a Man and as a Fisherman I Rise to a Question of Privilege
On Postage Rates on Authors' Manuscripts Telegraph Dog
The Missionary in World-Politics The American Press

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