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A New Look at the Life and Work of Mark Twain

April 21, 2000, is the 90th anniversary of the death of Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain (1835-1910). A new young person's biography of Mark Twain by Stewart Ross examines the life and writings of one of America's favorite humorists.

Book Cover Image Young Sam Clemens had two childhoods. As the son of Judge John Marshall Clemens, a leading citizen of Hannibal, Missouri, Sam attended church regularly, if reluctantly, and did well enough in school when he applied himself. However, he also ran barefoot around the open countryside with the sons of local drunkards and passed several summer days listening intently to the riveting stories of "Uncle Dan'l," his uncle's kindly slave.

Stewart Ross's new biography of Mark Twain, Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn, nicely captures the duality of the popular writer. Twain was an accomplished humorist, yet he often suffered bouts of moodiness and depression. His fortunes ranged from wealth to bankruptcy and back again in the course of his lifetime. He was the quintessential American author, in the eyes of the world, who lived abroad for nine years at the height of his fame. He wrote scathingly of the contrivances and hypocrisy of genteel society, but he longed to be accepted by the same society that he was so quick to lampoon.

Before becoming a writer, young Samuel Clemens tried his hand at a variety of careers: printer, prospector, newspaper reporter, and, of course, riverboat pilot. His pseudonym of Mark Twain was inspired by his time spent on the Mississippi River. ("Mark Twain" was the cry of a deckhand calling out the depth of the water.) During one of Clemens's last stints as a journalist, writing reports as a passenger of a long cruise of the Mediterranean and the Holy Land, he met a fellow passenger named Charley Langdon, who showed Clemens an ivory miniature of his young sister Olivia. Clemens claimed to have fallen in love with Olivia at that moment.

Clemens later met Olivia in person, who was as opposite from him as possible: The innocent girl was a devout Christian and in delicate health. "Livy's" father, wealthy businessman Jervis Langdon, would not allow the two to marry until he was satisfied as to Clemens's character. The Langdons asked Clemens to provide personal references. As Ross reports:

"[Clemens] gave a list of people they could write to, but included no close friends. There was no point in asking them, he said later, because he knew they would lie for him. The replies were hardly flattering. 'Clemens is a humbug,' said one. He 'would fill a drunkard's grave,' predicted another. Startled, Jervis Langdon asked Sam whether he had any friends at all. 'Apparently not,' came the reply. Langdon liked the man's honesty and said he would be his friend. As a result, in February 1869, Sam Clemens and Livy Langdon were formally engaged to be married."

Apparently, the saying about opposites attracting applied in their case; they were happily married for 34 years, until Olivia's death in 1904.

Ross writes about Twain's novels and other writings without much detail except The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ross devotes three chapters to Huck Finn, which, he notes, Clemens began in 1876 and published for the first time in 1885. Ross provides a little background on the groundbreaking book, noting that the character Huck Finn was based on Clemens's old childhood friend Tom Blankenship and that Jim, the runaway slave, was inspired by "Uncle Dan'l."

In his discussion of the book, Ross touches upon three areas of criticism that have surrounded Huck Finn since it was published:

"(1) Its language is crude and its tone morally dubious; (2) it promotes a racially prejudiced view of African-Americans; (3) the triumph of the masterly central chapters is spoiled by a weak ending."

Ross dismisses the first objection, noting that over time "the book's language came to be recognized as its greatest strength." The third point, regarding the book's perceived weak ending, is given a little more credence by Ross, saying "The final chapters of Sam Clemens's finest work may be intellectually sound, but that does not make them artistically successful."

Although he does not devote a lot of space to the discussion of the racism charges in the book, Ross does touch on both sides of the issue briefly and completely. Ross argues that the apparent use of racial stereotypes is an accurate rendering of the type of African Americans Clemens would have known during his childhood in Missouri: lifelong slaves. Ross defends Huck's use of the "n" word as realistic, the type of word that would have been used by a boy like Huck during the early decades of the 19th century.

Although Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn is primarily a biography, it reads more like a story than a scholarly study. However, Ross does not provide sources for the quotes that are spread throughout the book. The book is attractively illustrated by Ronald Himler with paintings and black-and-white sketches that help evoke images of Clemens and the times and places of his life.

Ross's bias in favor of Mark Twain is very evident. However, as an introduction to the study of the works of Mark Twain, in particular the reading of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this book would be very helpful. Ross's treatment of the issue of racial stereotyping in Huck Finn can help stimulate classroom discussion on the topic. Ross provides a useful chronology of Clemens's life at the end of the book and a bibliography of selected materials for those who wish to learn more about a writer whose life is as interesting as any of his books.

Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn can be purchased at most bookstores. If you are unable to locate the book, ask your bookseller to order it for you or contact the publisher directly: Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 345 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014.