MARK TWAIN FORUM BOOK REVIEWS: “Mark Twain’s Civil War” edited by Benjamin Griffin

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Mark Twain’s Civil War: “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed”. Edited by Benjamin Griffin. Heyday and The Bancroft Library, 2019. Pp. 177. CAD $32.99. Hardcover $25.00. ISBN 9781597144780.

In the early months of 1861, the lives of most Americans abruptly changed. The change imposed on Sam Clemens was as disruptive as any: The Civil War closed down traffic on the Mississippi River, ending his career as a steamboat pilot. He briefly joined a rag-tag company of the state guard in his home state of Missouri, whose mission it was to protect Missouri from an impending Union “invasion.” But by July young Sam clicked “opt out” on the American Civil War and headed west with his brother Orion, the freshly appointed Secretary for the Nevada Territory. Mark Twain biographers have explained Sam Clemens’s attitudes toward the war and his motivations for opting out in various ways, and virtually every biographer begins with an examination of Twain’s own account in “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed.” Of course, the problem with Twain’s account is that it blends historical facts with dramatic fictions, and omits key events along the way. Most of the confusion about Twain’s account has centered on the question of whether he actually joined the Confederate Army and whether he really killed a stranger. He did neither.

Mark Twain’s Civil War years have been discussed in many books, among them Joe Fulton’s The Reconstruction of Mark Twain: How a Confederate Bushwhacker Became the Lincoln of Our Literature (2010), Jerome Loving’s Confederate Bushwhacker: Mark Twain in the Shadow of the Civil War (2013), and Steve Courtney and Peter Messent’s The Civil War Letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell (2006). Ben Griffin’s book is not even the first book with the title Mark Twain’s Civil War; two books have been published with this same title. The first was a 2007 compilation of Twain’s Civil War writings by David Rachel that curiously classified Twain’s own account as “nonfiction.” The second, published in 2012, was a sometimes racy modern novel by William R. Macnaughton, best-known for his Mark Twain’s Last Years as a Writer (1979), that chronicled Sam Clemens’s close brush with the Civil War before he headed west with his views on race in flux. All but the first of these books have been reviewed in the Mark Twain Forum.

Griffin’s new book certainly does not classify Twain’s account as nonfiction, and the only racy moment perhaps occurs when Sam Clemens beats a hasty retreat walking backwards from an angry woman wielding a hickory stick in order to protect a painful boil on his behind from getting thwacked. This incident, by the way, can be confidently classified in the nonfiction column; Twain left it out when he published “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed” at the behest of editor Robert Underwood Johnson in The Century Magazine in December 1885 as part of a series of memoirs the magazine was then publishing, “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.”

That was only one of several significant omissions in Twain’s account, which brings us to the valuable service Griffin has performed in editing Twain’s narrative. He sorts out the facts and the fictions in Twain’s account, a problem common to much of Twain’s biography, especially his autobiographical writings. Griffin begins with a 76 page “Introduction” that provides the background on how Twain came to write his heavily fictionalized memoir, and documents its early reception. This is followed with a comparison of Twain’s account with various sources, including a recently discovered lengthy letter Twain wrote from New Orleans on January 27, 1861, comments Twain made in a speech at Hartford in 1877, and a response to Twain’s account from Twain’s fellow steamboat pilot and state guardsman, Absalom Grimes (1834-1911), that appeared in a newspaper in 1886.

Griffin doesn’t just edit and comment; his documentation is fastidious, and he conveniently provides complete texts of his key sources. Here we have Twain’s text as it was first published in 1885 (79-110), explanatory notes (113-128), Twain’s 1877 speech (129-133), Grimes’s 1886 account (135-152), a textual apparatus (153-157), and references (159-175). The paginations are given here to emphasize the abundance of material presented, all of which deserves close reading.

As often happened during Twain’s lifetime, his writings and celebrity attracted ridiculous testimonials and rumor-mongering from attention-seekers and those with an ax to grind. This tribe of false claimants is as large and varied as the aphorisms falsely attributed to Twain. Sure enough, soon after Twain’s account appeared in 1885, two such men stepped forward with outlandish stories. The first was a western newspaperman, John I. Ginn, who published a narrative in which he garbled a few facts with a fanciful tale that was picked up by other papers (63-66). The second was from a fellow who had known Clemens in Nevada, Thomas Fitch, who in 1910 published what Griffin calls an “apocryphal tale” featuring a resignation letter that has been relied upon by several Twain biographers over the years, “not all of whom note its uncertain status,” most recently, Gary Scharnhorst (67-68). Griffin carefully separates the facts and fictions in both of these responses to Twain’s story.

Adding to the confusion created by the false accounts are Twain’s own comments on the Civil War that may seem contradictory to modern readers. At times he praised those who fought for the south and engaged in “lost cause” rhetoric, but he also praised Abraham Lincoln. He edited and published Grant’s memoirs, and his publishing company published the memoirs of several other Union generals. Griffin unravels the complexity of Twain’s views, suggesting that “Clemens’s attitude toward the war was less informed by his brief military experience than by the long era that followed” (72).

The real fun begins when Griffin compares what Twain wrote about his experiences with Absalom Grimes’s 1886 response……

…finish reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review at the Mark Twain Forum.

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