Samuel Clemens was, in all respects, a complicated man. Known publically for his vibrant personality, his attention-grabbing “rolling gait (like a sailor)”, and repeated works of genius satire and humorist writings, he was seen during his time as a writer as the man with everything (Kaplan 228-9). But there is a strong hypocrisy in the way that Clemens (Twain) acts and portrays his persona that is betrayed by the way he narrates his work. Twain’s writings are often from the point of view of a narrator of wit and insight, who culturally analyses social context in a measured and logical way, a contradiction to the antics and spontaneous habits the writer himself shows throughout his lifetime. Underneath this celebrity persona lied a flawed man with a “celebrated temper” known by his family, a vindictive streak towards the people close to him, and fits of unpredictable and compulsive behavior that led him to the brink of bankruptcy several times (and, eventually, to bankruptcy in the spring of 1894). Twain’s hubris was no secret—he reveled in celebrity attention almost as much as he hated it, and would do so no matter what life he would have ended up leading (Twain wrote, in a letter to a student admirer who said he would trade his boyish childhood for Twain’s lavish wealth, “jolly” demeanor, and the “millions” the child thought he was worth, that even if he were to have the life of a boy again, he would want to be known as “the celebrated ‘Master Pilot of the Mississippi’”) (Kaplan 231). He spent wildly, well above his means (his many renovations and entertaining in Farmington Avenue home “cost about as much as he earned in royalties and investments”), valued opulence to the point of materialistic consumerism, and had proclivity towards outrageous tantrums—one of his more well-known displays of anger is when, screaming, he threw his shirts out of his bathroom window after finding there was a button missing (Kaplan 230, 235). A far-cry from the simple living, rustic-loving image his many stories portray. Tom Sawyer, for example, retains a sense of childlike wonder towards his small town environment throughout the novel, and even celebrates it as the boys (Tom, Huck, and Joe) take to the seas on their own pirate adventure. Unlike his characters and his personality in his travel writings, where the narrators give off an air of confidence and sureness about themselves, he would “wallow in attention one moment, and in the next becoming snappish and resentful and feeling sorry for himself” (Kaplan 230). The duality of Twain—the man we get through writings and dinners parties, versus the man we get through his outbursts and personal letters to his brother and close friends—seems to be not only influential, but essential to his work as a humorist. His ability to look at situations through more than one lens leads itself well to revealing the underlining irony of a moment, something that a more myopic observer would surely miss, and is why his writings are rich with satirical cultural subversion and a “punch line” that weaves itself throughout his tales in a way that both captivates and charms those who read them. Though the man was tortured by it much of his life, I believe his contradicting nature was the source of his most rich, complex, and dynamic works (such as Huckleberry Finn—a novel universally known and whose controversy remains to this day).
Kaplan, Justin. Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography. Paperback ed., New York, Simon & Schuster, 2006, pp. 228-37.