Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rising in the West

In Lighting Out for the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Became Mark Twain, Roy Morris, Jr. provides a lively chronicle of the early years of an American legend

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

Most of us understand Mark Twain as a Western writer -- whether "West" is defined in terms of his Missouri provenance (certainly the frontier at the time of his birth in 1835) or his crucial sojourn in the mining camps of Nevada or saloons of San Francisco. Twain chronicled this phase of his life in Roughing It (1872), a rollicking account that remains readable almost a century and a half later. But given the heft of that book, its avowedly questionable reliability, and the relatively thin biographical record of this period relative to the rest of Twain's life, there is a lacunae that popular historian Roy Morris, Jr. has filled in this brief, entertaining volume, just issued in paperback as part of Simon & Schuster's shrewdly packaged "America Collection."

As one might expect, Roughing It, which chronicles the six years following Twain's departure for Nevada in 1861, remains the core of Lighting Out for the Territory, whose title alludes to the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). But Morris deftly packs a lot of context around it. This includes other Twain writings, like his letters, autobiography, and newspaper reportage, as well as accounts, both contemporary to his time and contemporary to ours, of people who had similar experiences as he did or who have their own angles of vision on the stories he tells (like irritated rivals at competing publications). Morris quotes liberally from Twain himself -- the humor continues to leap of the page and make you laugh -- as well as provides analysis of his deadpan lecture style and the narrative strategy of his short story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," Twain's first big literary hit.

In the popular imagination, the frontier west is typically viewed as a post-Civil War phenomenon, though recent scholarship by historians like Elliot West have emphasized the degree to which the core dynamics of the trans-Mississippi empire were in motion by the 1840s. They're certainly on vivid display here, whether in terms of Morris's description of Nevada's governance under his brother Orion, Lincoln-appointed de facto governor of the territory in the early 1860s, or the scene of the mining camps where Twain worked so hard to avoid exerting himself. As is well known, Twain was a vocal opponent of empire in the early twentieth century. But he noted imperialist currents that were already apparent in a journey the Hawaiian islands he took before coming back east in 1867.

One of the more striking dimensions to this story is that so much of it takes place against the backdrop of the Civil War. In one sense, the war is a world away -- or at least it seems to be once Twain escapes the truly wild (and, at times personally dangerous) scene in Missouri, where his steamboat piloting skills left him in danger of impressment by Union and Confederate armies. And yet even after he was well over a thousand miles away the conflict loomed large, whether in barroom brawls or journalistic fights that sometimes got Twain into trouble, as when he falsely claimed a rival paper had reneged on a donation to the U.S. Sanitary Commission. As far as his ideology and loyalty go, Twain comes across here as a plastic figure bent in a Unionist direction. But the ambiguity at the heart of his profile appears to be part and parcel of the artistic sensibility he would deploy to great effect in the coming decades.

One thing is for certain: by the time the 31 year-old Twain headed back to New York and then on to Europe for adventures that would lead to his breakthrough book, The Innocents Abroad (1869), he had a accumulated a lifetime's worth of experience. As he would learn and report over the course of his career, fortunes come and go. But Twain was wise enough to know that a good story is priceless. So is Morris.