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'The Singular Mark Twain' Review

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The Singular Mark Twain

The Singular Mark Twain

Mark Twain is one of the most popular names in American literature, even as the name was a product of his imagination. With The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain created one of the most controversial works in literary history, which is spiced with humor and resonating with tragedy. Ernest Hemingway once said, "All modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called "Huckleberry Finn."
With The Singular Mark Twain, Fred Kaplan offers a new perspective to the oft-told tales of Mark Twain's life and works. Although biographers have long navigated the ambiguous and misleading labyrinth of Twain's life and works, Kaplan draws from new research and previously unavailable source materials to create a ground-breaking critical biography.

The Singularity of Genius

He was born Samuel Clemens, though he took on the name of Mark Twain, assuming with the name another identity. Kaplan explains, "Gradually, he himself began to elide the distinction between, even to merge, the two identities." Far from experiencing split personalities, he became the singular Mark Twain to the public, and even to his closest friends. "Though the name suggests division," Kaplan says, "the reality tended toward unity."

Inspired by his archetypal childhood in Hannibal, Missouri, he re-created the story of his life, with characters reminiscent from the past. Whenever controversy or morally reprehensible elements entered into his fiction or essays, he always had Livy there to reign in his savage pen. Livy was his wife and his soul-mate the one who was always there to censor his works.

Tragedy of Life and Death

Even with his wife as a censor to stave off some of the most-pronounced criticisms, and with the world beginning to recognize his genius, Mark Twain was overcome by his own hubris. Although he saw himself as a lucky man, he experienced tragic, consistently un-lucky events, including the deaths of all but one of his children, the never-ending illnesses and eventual death of his wife, the failure of his publishing house, his exile to Europe for debts, and the failure of many of the other ventures with which he had linked himself.

As a consistent thread through Twain's life, tragedy gives Kaplan's biography a poignant, almost bitter-sweet, edge. Through the death of his beloved daughter, Suzy, and even through his financial distress, Twain used his pen to write his way out of his darkest moods. Twain wrote, "I bear it as I bear all heavy hardships that befall me--with a heart bursting with rebellion."

Twain was then much preoccupied with dreams, as myth and unreality haunted his waking moments. Through the last years of his life, Twain increasingly mused about "the nasty underside of American and of human life in general: its brevity, selfishness, and meaninglessness, its hypocritical religiosity, and its devotion to mammon."

The End of Days

Twain lived a life that often seemed larger than life. He traveled around the world, lecturing and writing about his adventures in America and abroad. He dined with royalty, and was a sought-after celebrity. Kaplan says, "He felt himself fading into history. Despite regular self-exaltation and claims of pleasure, happiness was increasingly compromised by difficulties and deaths that preoccupied him."

Twain died on April 21, 1910 in Redding, Connecticut. At the memorial, William Dean Howells said: "We may confess that he had faults, while we deny that he tried to make them pass for merits. He disowned his errors by owning them; in the very defects of his qualities he triumphed, and he could make us glad with him at his escape from them."

Kaplan says, "No other American writer has shown us ourselves so vividly and enduringly." At the end, we can look back and see: "There has been no one like him since."

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