A review of Jerome Loving's "Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens." The new biography sticks to the facts of the life of the author of the great 19th-century novel, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

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‘Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens’

by Jerome Loving

University of California Press,

550 pp., $34.95

April marks 100 years since the death of Samuel L. Clemens, a writer whose literary stock rose fast, beginning in the mid-1860s, when he re-christened himself Mark Twain, and has remained blue chip ever since. Yet if not for one indisputably great book, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” he would be just another of dozens of once-popular but now nearly forgotten writers of his time — Brett Harte, Ambrose Bierce, even the colossal William Dean Howells. All wrote works that can still be engaging; none left anything approaching the social and literary touchstone of “Huck Finn.”

While “Roughing It” has long, wonderful passages, and “Pudd’nhead Wilson,” “Tom Sawyer” and “Life on the Mississippi” are near-classics, many of Twain’s other books are almost unreadable today. “The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc”? “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” and “The Prince and the Pauper,” famous for their stories, will defeat any but the most dedicated Mark Twain fan. So the general reader who picks up a biography of Mark Twain is likely to be searching for insight into that one watershed novel.

Jerome Loving, who has written influential biographies of Walt Whitman and Theodore Dreiser, puts the focus of “Mark Twain: the Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens” exactly where it belongs. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” set on the Mississippi River, is itself the Mississippi River of American literature, a force that continues to carve our literary landscape and nourish our literary soil even after a century and a quarter. When Loving discusses Twain’s earlier works, it is almost always as tributaries to that great novel. The later works are, quite accurately in most cases, discussed as its branches or side streams.

Born in 1835, the man who would become Mark Twain saw America’s great march toward wealth and technological mastery. As Loving makes abundantly clear, he also strove to grab a piece of that wealth by investing in technology, pouring a fortune into various inventions that returned him nothing. Along the way he grew more and more cynical about the way moral progress lagged, especially regarding race. He himself, however, did grow from a Southern boy who casually accepted slavery, to a Westerner who reveled in the rough democracy of the frontier, to a Northern gentleman who funded the college education of talented black people. Like Huck Finn, Twain had to rebel against his received moral code in order to put his own conscience to rest, but the result was an often painful alienation from the world around him; more than once in his later years he referred to the “damned human race.”

In the last few decades we have had sensationalistic Twain biographies that purported to reveal his secret homosexual tendencies, his lifelong guilt over the death of a boyhood friend, his late-life manipulation by opportunistic friends and family. Loving sticks to the verifiable facts and to what he can reasonably infer from them. The result ably serves any reader who wants to understand the man behind Huck Finn.