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The Singular Mark Twain: A Biography Hardcover – October 21, 2003
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Kaplan begins his biographical assault on received wisdom about America's most famous novelist with the wordplay implicit in his title: Mark Twain was not only a singular writer (uniquely gifted and unsurpassed in his influence), but he was also a singular personality (not multiple or divided), his pen name signifying no deep psychic split of the sort critics have posited. Real contradictions do emerge in the life of a man who could, for instance, ridicule religion as foolish superstition and yet jump at the chance to publish the pope's authorized biography. But in these contradictions, Kaplan sees no more than the inconsistencies typical of a sophisticated mind, not deep fissures separating the artist Twain from the commercialist Clemens. Kaplan does limn a remarkably complex evolution in Twain's metamorphosis from a lightweight humorist with a flair for travel journalism into the probing author of a landmark novel on race relations, Huckleberry Finn. Yet Kaplan also highlights personal weaknesses that stubbornly resisted change: Twain's self-lacerating sense of guilt after every family tragedy; his foolish penchant for investing in unproven technologies; his vulnerability to personal and literary criticism. Never obtrusive, Kaplan's aesthetic and psychological insights inhere naturally in a lucid narrative. Like Kaplan's acclaimed biographies of Carlyle, Dickens, and James, this book will enlighten specialists and delight general readers. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
PRAISE FOR GORE VIDAL: A BIOGRAPHY
“Kaplan must be commended....a splendid job.”
--San Francisco Chronicle
“Intimate, rewarding….[Fred Kaplan] leads us back, with insight, to the works of this audacious American master.”
--Los Angeles Times
“It is in Kaplan that all the pieces of the puzzle are at last assembled….It is Kaplan who lets us see the seeds and the shoots, the leaves and the flowers—and alas, the weeds.”
PRAISE FOR DICKENS: A BIOGRAPHY
“Kaplan has spent ten years preparing and writing this book; his achievement is as rare, as wonderful, as the Dickens he brings to life. We are all the beneficiaries of this exceptional biography.”
--Los Angeles Times
“Anyone who has not read a life of Dickens is going to prefer Fred Kaplan’s long, solid, and illuminating biography furnished with new facts and theories, to any previous one they might encounter. The novelist who emerges from his study—dynamic, mercurial, self-deluding, with a big heart for the masses and a small one for his ego, makes fascinating reading.”
PRAISE FOR THOMAS CARLYLE: A BIOGRAPHY
“Mr. Kaplan illuminates the Victorian era by bringing us into what we feel is the very presence of one of its idols.”
--The New Yorker
“Fred Kaplan has performed a labor of love and a commendatory service. His Thomas Carlyle, which draws on unpublished letters, gives us our most complete picture of Carlyle in the context of his age…An achievement of much merit and a gift to students of the word.”
--Washington Post Book World
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Top customer reviews
Included a lot more information about the man than I expected.
Pseudonyms were common among 19th Century journalists, Clemens' starting point in his writing career. Kaplan demonstrates that the detachment Clemens enjoyed as a "reporter" was transformed into a strong, unified character in his later writing. Factual works outlining his travel experiences later took second place to his fiction. While these books still carried the "Twain" banner, Kaplan shows it as an enlargement of his image, not a branching off. Fiction also enabled Twain to incorporate his linguistic attainments to a degree unmatched in his day. His portrayal of Mississippi Valley patois often led to critics labeling him "common", but Kaplan counters that Twain had a more comprehensive view of his fellow Americans than did most of his contemporaries.
Most contemporary readers of Twain were captivated by his humour, which was innovative and spirited. Kaplan, while recognising Twain's the appeal to his audience, gives little further acknowledgement to this aspect. Why, we wonder, did Twain, whose life was long beset by tragedies and the struggle for financial stability, continue to write with his unique form of wit. Even the latest works Twain produced were lively presentations, often heavy with irony. Kaplan relates this, but offers no explanation for its tenacity. Even Twain's inspired soliloquy of Belgium's King Leopold was laced with Mississippi Valley expressions. Reading any of the writings from Twain's long career, the light touch is always present, but it seems to slip by Kaplan with but scant notice.
Kaplan deals well, however, with Twain's serious side. Finances, in almost overwhelming detail, dominate the book. The problems with family - illness stalked the Clemens clan for decades - are thoroughly related. How many of these ills might be related to their economic plight? Twain saw firm links, described fully, but the biographer declines to judge their validity. Kaplan is stronger in description than in analysis. While this keeps him detached, the reader is offered few insights. No diagnosis of any of the family's illnesses intrude on the narrative. Kaplan also follows Twain's travels in detail, but the background panorama remains subtly hidden. A thorough knowledge of world events is a clear prerequisite for reading this life in context. The result is a straightforward relation of Twain's life, readable, thorough in personal details, but fails to place those intimacies within a broader scene.
The book will be welcomed by academics and those already well versed in Twain's life. Kaplan successfully refutes the claim that Clemens and Twain were separate personas, Twain shedding the intrusions of Clemens' financial worries or family illness when taking up his pen. Beyond that, Kaplan offers only descriptions of that background to Twain's successful writing career. A fine book, but limited in scope.
[stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]