BlogTHE LIFE OF MARK TWAIN

THE LIFE OF MARK TWAIN

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Scharnhorst completes his commodious life of Twain with a densely detailed chronology of personal trauma and professional triumph, including the publication of The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Following the Equator, and chapters of his rambling autobiography. Always needing money, Sam, as Scharnhorst calls him, worked tirelessly — writing, lecturing, performing — to compensate for bad business dealings and several economic depressions. In 1891, he carted his wife, daughters, and maid to Europe, hoping they could live more cheaply than at home. Besides financial pressures, he faced family stresses. In 1896, his beloved daughter Susy died of spinal meningitis, for which he blamed himself. If he had not been “forced by financial exigency to lecture around the world to pay his debts,” he could have kept the family in America; instead, Susy died “a pauper & an exile.” Jean, another daughter, had epilepsy, a condition that deteriorated into violent outbursts, especially against her father; she died in 1909. Clara, pursuing a singing career, was rebellious and, because Sam supported her, expensive. His wife, Livy, suffered from a heart condition for which she futilely sought a cure; she died in 1904. Scharnhorst recounts all of Sam’s writing output and its critical reception; the events in his packed social calendar; his many public appearances before crowds that numbered in the thousands; and his evolution from social satirist and man of letters to “cultural critic, public intellectual, and political sage.” Among the issues against which he railed were racism; antisemitism; Christian Science and Christian missionaries; imperialism; and “the rapacity and materialism of twentieth-century America, which he blamed on such post-Civil War fat cats as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Jay Gould.” Generous but never apologetic, Scharnhorst ably reveals a complex man: irascible, vain, and hungry for adulation.

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