The Life of Mark Twain: The Early Years, 1835-1871. By Gary Scharnhorst. University of Missouri Press, 2018. Pp. 686. Hardcover. ISBN 978-0-8262-2144-5. $36.95.
The Life of Mark Twain: The Early Years, 1835-1871 is the first volume in a planned 3-volume edition from Gary Scharnhorst, university professor, editor, and noted Mark Twain scholar. It is a well-written and well-documented attempt to untangle the facts from the myths and legends that surround the early life of Samuel Clemens. Much of the information that has been published about Clemens’s early life originated with Clemens himself who embellished, embroidered, and misremembered facts in his own writings and autobiography. His hand-picked biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, who lived nearby him during his last years and assumed the role of a surrogate son, exercised a rigid determination to please the Clemens family and protect their reputation. Paine’s 1912 biography has been rightly criticized for being less than objective.
Scharnhorst supports his arguments for a new multi-volume biography of Clemens with unflinching disdain for Paine. He refers to Paine as “a young sycophant without a pedigree” (xviii), a man who had a “lack of professional training” (xxiii), and a “hagiographer” (439). Scharnhorst judges Paine using twenty-first century standards. It is a common attitude displayed by many of today’s scholars who overlook nineteenth century realities. Such treatment of Paine was recently discussed by Mary Eden in her excellent article in the Mark Twain Journal (Spring 2018).
Scharnhorst states his goal is to provide a multi-volume biography of Clemens from his personal and “single point of view on an expansive canvas” (xxvi). While some scholars such as Greg Camfield have suggested that specialized, tightly focused, single-volume biographies are the best way to capture the complexity of Clemens’s life, Scharnhorst disagrees and feels such coverage only leads to “wildly different conclusions.” He compares the wide array of current biographies written by a multitude of scholars to constructing a “grotesque Cadillac from spare parts from different models” (xxvi). However, Scharnhorst makes clear in his preface that readers should expect “no bombshells” or “dark secrets” in this first volume. He is correct–the material should be familiar ground to many scholars.
Scharnhorst’s preface also makes clear that his point of view is contrary to those of many scholars today–such as Shelley Fisher Fishkin who feels that Clemens and his works are still relevant and that he is “more a creature of our time than of his” (xxvii). Scharnhorst disdains the Mark Twain impersonators in white linen suits and fright wigs who mimic “a middle-aged bankrupt” and he has no love to share for “coffee-table compilations of his maxims” (xxviii). Scharnhorst’s approach prompted one early reader of an advance reading copy of the book to comment, “As I read parts of his book I could not shake the feeling that GS doesn’t like Twain”…
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