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The Sagebrush Bohemian: Mark Twain in California.

Without strirring from our base, we can now read all the currently available (188) letters that Mark Twain wrote between January 1 and December 28, 1869, mostly published for the first time, though "published" is too shopworn a term for this edition. As far as type makes it possible (and the Mark Twain Project had added new dimensions to the possible), all recoverable details - paper and color of ink of course, revisions and cancellations, the archival history of each letter - are laid out so functionally that the user virtually gets the feel of these documents. Yet the chief effect is user-friendly; the primary texts are pleasantly readable because the editorial expertise is kept subordinate to that purpose and to their content. Likewise the edition is user-generous in its notes, its appendices, and its illustrations that present not only photographs but also any clippings that a letter may have included. Not so incidentally, it supplies by far the most authoritative bibliography of Twain's published and even unpublished writings during 1869. (One starts daydreaming of still another Proposition for California voters - this one to exempt the Mark Twain Project from the cuts in the state budget.) Only Twain's dazzling personality saves him from being upstaged by the eclat of editing.

As always, that personality can turn irrepressibly playful in spite of his conscious goals. For instance, he yarns to his fiancee, who lacked confidence in her own spelling, about his sister: "You'll like her, Livy - she don't seem to spell worth a cent. You see she spells cow with a k. And she has spelled |tripped' with only one p. & and she puts only one t in |delighted,' & only two s's in |expression.' I can stand those little blunders well enough, but I do hate to see anybody spell John with a G" (p. 145). More important, we get to watch The Innocents Abroad being assembled, furnished with illustrations, proofread, and packaged for marketing. But the heart of the matter here is Twain's courtship of Olivia Langdon and his crucial interplay with her parents and friends while managing to stay loyal to his past and to his mother and sister, who will look provincial against the leading family of Elmira, New York. Long before deconstruction came and went, some of us conceded that we see through a glass but darkly. Still, anybody who absorbs this rich volume will surely understand Twain better and may dare to think that reconstructing the past is feasible if built on enough documentary fact.

Those who have absorbed Dixon Wecter's selected edition of the love-letters may find no surprises. But sensitized by having already read Steinbrink, I ended up freshly gauging the fervor beneath the ornate rhetoric rather than smiling forgivingly or even cynically. Three new biographical insights emerged for me. First, at no other period did Twain drive himself so helplessly toward an infinite regress of self-questioning, typified in his letter of February 13 to his fiancee's mother and then his commentary about it to the daughter. Exalted through courtship, he wanted to purge his conscience by confessing all his bohemian sins but quailed before the consequences of spelling out the most offensive details (probably sexual, furthermore). Second, for a while I took as Victorian cliche his confessions of wavering on the brink of futility before meeting the woman-redeemer, but his insistence on that narrative brought back the persuasiveness of Stephen Fender's argument that Twain had agonized during his later Western years that he was sliding toward a failure more abject than brother Orion's. Third, by pp. 58-59 (or just January 21) I realized that Twain kept preaching the idea that Olivia and he would grow old together, tottering into Christian immortality. He persisted (pp. 71, 153, 252, 263, 344, 348, and 404) so long beyond lip-service that biographers have to conclude that he somehow spoke sincerely - though penetrating beyond that "somehow" will come hard.

More generally, his courtship letters glow with such idealizing that the hypnotized reader, forgetting well-known facts, starts feeling a reasonable suspense: Can the notoriously mercurial as well as irreverent Twain personality hold this intensity through a long engagement? Will he mess up eventually, as he often did and claimed invariably to do? By the end of 1869 he's more relaxed at times or else more practical but still primarily as much exalted as exultant. When remembering the biography, the reader enjoys major ironies. Against the odds, human as well as individual, Twain, who struck some as incipiently manicdepressive, turned out the steadily devoted husband he vowed to be; during the first year of marriage he unflinchingly bore up under one heavy problem after another and sometimes on top of another. As a still more pleasant irony, Olivia emerged into an emotionally and intellectually mature wife and mother rather than the toy-goddess he thought he wanted. His abnormally empathetic marriage may help explain why his fiction never managed to present a husband and wife who interact realistically.

Steinbrink himself would agree, I'm sure, that Mark Twain Letters 3 rated star-billing here. Of course he had already visited the Mark Twain Project to use the encompassing files for his probe into Twain's personality as it developed from late 1867 to 1871. Not committed to any voguish metacritic-psychologist, Steinbrink depends on his accumulated experience and learning to sense delicate shades of motives. The next scholar - nobody has seriously dared for more than fifty years - to try a full-length biography will adopt much from Steinbrink, who plots the arc from Twain's "comic" phase during the tutorship of Mary Mason Fairbanks through the "melodramatic" phase with his fiancee to a regained inner-direction as a writer. Because Twain especially had to discipline himself around Olivia's father, a genial yet shrewd entrepreneur, Steinbrink has the opportunity for original, intriguing speculations about their psychic interplay. Pushing beyond the fairy-tale glitter of the Langdons' wedding present, Steinbrink elicits the insecurities that must have gnawed at the newlyweds dropped into managing and supporting a plush household with three servants. Because such a setting clashed with Twain's previous habits and immediate plans, he surely felt misplaced at times or miscast. Steinbrink makes us ponder why Twain, soon struggling for ideas to meet weekly and monthly deadlines, did not develop a cycle of name-brand sketches about housekeeping like the three later sketches about the McWilliamses.

Though we now chuckle at Twain's certainty that his wanderings had ended, he did try to fit into the workaday routine of a newspaper again. Beyond analyzing his columns for the Buffalo Express, Steinbrink sensitizes us to their disjunctures as well as links with the parallel, national-scaled career that started to surge. Next, he adds rich resonances to Twain's projected "editing" for the Galaxy magazine a "department, which increasingly presented a moralizing humorist instead of a newspaper comedian. Hard-pan Twainians will stay fascinated as Steinbrink compares the mood of each month's Galaxy "Memoranda" with Twain's private life and particularly the ups and downs of his father-in-law's terminal illness. Overall, for the Express-Galaxy columns Steinbrink demonstrates that Twain's growing public somehow accepted - whether from a latter-day Davy Crockett or a genius making his own rules - the shifting mix of his actual career and his evolving persona. As the terminus ad quem, Getting to Be Mark Twain establishes a new level of insight into the emotional and literary dynamics during the composition of Roughing It.

Steinbrink's concisely eloquent "Afterword" stands on proven grounds: The writing, that is, the shaping of Roughing It at Quarry Farm in Elmira and then the Clemenses' move into the Nook Farm community of Hartford completed - insofar as finality could apply - the Mark Twain persona that would succeed more and more ebulliently during the next twenty years.

To match Nigey Lennon's boldness against Steinbrink's deliberateness would be unfair. Her "Preface" stakes out her broad mining-claim. Twain "was a Westerner first and last, having spent his formative years in Nevada and California"; "as a man" he "had his failings, but as a writer, he had no peer - in his time or in ours" and used that genius to teach a "universal, and thus completely dangerous, sort of political radicalism" that scholar-critics have owlishly overlooked. If USA Today wanted, a review, it could stop here, particularly for quick-hit readers who still believe - probably without knowing so - in Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier. Or, having radiated enthusiasm myself about Steinbrink and Mark Twain Letters 3, I could go on to prove my toughness by turning into a hanging judge, all the more unexpected because Lennon would surely consider me a tenderfoot. But the archetypical Twainian is like Nevada's Colonel Jack (Roughing It, chapter 46), who mounts an omnibus in Manhattan believing he has hired a "carriage"; as various people get on uninvited, Jack booms, "On, there's plenty of room. Walk right in, and make yourselves at home." It's pleasant to predict that The Sagebrush Bohemian will sell like plastic Stetsons at tourist watering holes.

Lennon doesn't assay each yarn about Twain's Western years for real silver and gold; instead she polishes it up where she can (as Twain did). When a chunk from Roughing It or even the late autobiographical dictation will serve as fact for the years 1862-67, she is grateful, not pedantic. When dialogue would brighten an episode, she invents (or, she would say, reconstructs) it. When she discovers further texts that Twain composed at Angel's Camp, she doesn't slow down the pace with land-office entries; she has invited readers for a canter, not a surveyor's. measured tread. Those who stay with her will get a close, lively, appreciative tour of Twain's California locales. Now and then recombining familiar materials into fresh patterns, she speculates challengingly about his relationships with Ina Coolbrith and Adah Isaacs Menken. Effectively, she reraises the point that the Quaker City letters aimed mostly at a West Coast public and that Twain's changes for The Innocents Abroad signaled his emotional migration to the East. Without meaning to she has revitalized the question of why Twain not only settled down thousands of miles from the manly if bleak terrain of Roughing It but never visited Nevada and California after 1868, not even in 1895 when he started his world lecture-tour by heading west from Elmira and Cleveland.
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Author:Budd, Louis J.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Previous Article:Getting to Be Mark Twain.
Next Article:Classics of Civil War Fiction.

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