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INVENTING MARK TWAIN: The Lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens
By Andrew Hoffman
Morrow. 572 pp. $30

Go to the first chapter of "Inventing Mark Twain"

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Two Fathoms Deep

By David Laskin

Sunday, March 9, 1997; Page X06

More than a pseudonym or a persona, Mark Twain was really an invention, a trademarked product that generated astonishing amounts of cash during the first flush of rampant American capitalism, and still does. Literature was only one of the Mark Twain "lines" -- he was also available for lectures, comic performances, newspaper articles, interviews and plays. But perhaps his most successful product was his own image: Twain pioneered media-driven celebrity, eventually becoming more famous for who he was than what he did.

Mark Twain's real name, of course, was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, but as Andrew Hoffman argues in this useful, eminently readable new biography, it is a terrible mistake to blur or confuse the two. Mark Twain was, writes Hoffman, a "brilliant, though acerbic, public man of letters," a fount of homespun philosophy, shrewd humor, and bottomless generosity, whereas Sam Clemens was a "cowed, uncertain, and underdeveloped boy-man . . . an emotionally unstable, hopelessly insecure narcissist with a remarkable knack for public performance and a dazzling control of the English language." Hoffman sees Twain and Clemens as "two people occupying the same body," distinct not only in psychology but in temperament, moral outlook and politics. Whereas Twain was a progressive, populist visionary, Clemens was a bitter, sometimes reactionary cynic who "judged human nature to be somewhere between pitiful and despicable."

Hoffman's is an intriguing, if not very startling, thesis -- but unfortunately it ends up being more of a blind alley than an avenue to insight. Every 20 pages or so we hear about how Sam Clemens wants to bury, escape from, milk, revise, reposition, resurrect, or merge with Mark Twain, as if imaginative identity is something one puts on and takes off like a suit of clothes. Hoffman's belaboring of his thesis also engenders misreadings, as when he claims that Tom Sawyer's jarring appearance at the end of Huckleberry Finn represents Clemens's covert attempt to "secure recognition for himself." This is at once too schematic and too pat.

Hoffman is far more successful, and entertaining, when he sticks to the events of Clemens's "real" life -- and what a life it was. Born puny and premature in 1835 on the Missouri frontier, Clemens watched his glum, humorless father sink deeper and deeper into debt and finally die broke at 48 (the boy was 11). The wild, and ultimately famous, boyhood in the Mississippi River town of Hannibal, Mo., ended before his 15th birthday, when Sam went to work as a printer's apprentice.

Boyhood was over, but Sam Clemens's real adventures were just beginning. For three decades he whirled around North America, picking up debts, bad habits, a bad reputation and invaluable experience. He worked his way east as an itinerant typesetter, piloted steamboats along the Mississippi for a couple of glorious and prosperous years, dodged service in the Civil War (out of cowardice, divided loyalties, or both), lit out for Nevada Territory, dabbled in mining, and eventually drifted into newspaper reporting under the name Mark Twain (river slang for "two fathoms deep"). Writing was the sole occupation that stuck, and Twain got his first recognition in the series of "letters" he filed during a swing through the Hawaiian Islands.

Marriage to the wealthy, delicate, long-suffering Olivia (Livy) Langdon put an end to Clemens's bohemian roistering, but if anything it spurred Mark Twain to even more frenzied activity. In the course of 20 years he wrote his greatest and most successful books -- The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Clemens made a fortune and squandered all of it and then some through disastrous investment in the Paige typesetter, an automated typesetting machine that never got off the ground. Bankrupt, the Clemenses retreated to Europe for a decade during which Twain repaired his finances by cranking out prose and lecturing. Solvency only ushered in personal tragedy: Susy, the beloved oldest daughter, died of spinal meningitis in 1896, Livy died in 1904 at the age of 59, and Jean, the youngest daughter, drowned during an epileptic seizure. The lion passed away in 1910 at the age of 74, a hero in his own country and a celebrity the world over.

Hoffman's Inventing Mark Twain will not supplant Justin Kaplan's stately Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966, but it certainly deserves a place on the Twain bookshelf. Kaplan probes deeper than Hoffman into literary sources and social background, and he has a finer rapport with his irascible subject; but Hoffman's narrative is both brisker and more complete (Kaplan omitted the first 30 years). It's also good, fast and suspenseful. The only bomb Hoffman drops is the claim that Clemens had several homosexual relationships during his bohemian days in Nevada and San Francisco, but he wisely refrains from making too much of this.

Even with the sexual revelations, Inventing Mark Twain does not radically alter the standard views of either Twain or Clemens. But it does provide the considerable pleasure of seeing this impossible titan in the round and in full, a man of his place, time, inner demons, and heartbreaking family. This is no small accomplishment in 500 pages.

David Laskin is the author of "A Common Life: Four Generations of American Literary Friendship and Influence."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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