The Man Who Was Mark Twain


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Images and Ideologies

Guy Cardwell

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“Americans have cherished and magnified versions of an idealized Mark Twain. We admire and are amused by the celebrity, who sold his pseudonym and his carefully composed face to advertise pipe tobacco, cigarettes, whiskey, and postcards. The extent to which the received images are authentic or inauthentic is, however, in doubt. Common images must be modified when we examine the thoughts and emotions important to the mind and heart of Samuel L. Clemens, the private man.”—from the Introduction


No writer has been more frequently identified with America than Mark Twain, an emblematic figure often supposed to represent the essential qualities that make America most admirably American. In a fresh appraisal, supported by evidence from both the life and the writings, Guy Cardwell convincingly revises our images of this cultural icon. He portrays an exceptionally complex man who experienced debilitating tensions and neuroses.


Caldwell finds that even before the comedian from the West met and married Olivia Langdon, the heiress from Elmira, New York, he was ambitious to join and conquer the world of Eastern affluence and gentility. Yet Clemens’s jokes (in his private notebooks) aggressing against women and blacks suggest that his acculturation to gentility was never complete. This book throws new light on Clemens’s relations with his wife and her family and on his attitudes toward business, money, art, sex, and the little girls whose company he sought compulsively during his later years. It argues persuasively that in the end Twain was hardly the robust and genial representative of America’s mythic frontier past. Alienated from society and from his own writings, he was much more the prototype of the overstrung, exploitatively individualistic modern American.

"Cardwell draws on a wide range of Twain's writing (some of it newly available) to give us . . . a wide-ranging, fresh psychoanalysis of a neurotic who was a compulsive speculator, sexist, pedophile, and even in Huckleberry Finn, . . . a racist from first to last. . . . Fresh and intriguing."—Library Journal

"This study examines the disparity between the great man's two sides."—Washington Post Book World

"In 11 well-crafted essays, Cardwell presents Mark Twain as a 'gravely flawed American talent'. . . . Caldwell brings to his subject a range of competence in psychology, anthropology, art, literary history, and biographical analysis—as well as a lifetime's store of knowledge about Twain—that allows him to expand on and refine all previous revisionist studies. This is an indispensable book for Twain scholars and, arguably, all students of modern American culture."—Choice

"Cardwell's biography not only redraws the diverging portraits of public figure and private man but also attempts to understand the ideological bases that have shaped the iconographic estimations of Twain as an American eidolon."—Lawrence Howe, American Literature

"Cardwell . . . focuses on elements of Clemens's inner life to which he believes even previous revisionist biographers . . . have given insufficient attention. . . . Cardwell's Clemens is a sexual neurotic, obsessed with the purity of his wife and daughters, infatuated with young girls, and probably impotent after the age of fifty. . . . Cardwell marshals evidence from Clemens's notebooks, letters, and other unpublished writings to suggest that his private views of blacks and women were even less enlightened than those he expressed in public. This is an impressive work by a distinguished Mark Twain scholar. Cardwell makes a convincing case that if there is anything representative about Samuel Clemens it is not his identity, but his identity crisis."—Richard J. Maiman, Literature and History

"The most aggressively revisionist study to date of Clemens's personality and thought, . . . it poses provocative questions for Twain scholarship."—Earl F. Briden, ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews

ISBN: 9780300049503
Publication Date: April 24, 1991