As historian Roy Morris Jr. says in his new book, Lighting Out for the Territory, Twain’s name “is as much a trademark, in its way, as Coke or McDonald’s, or Mickey Mouse. He’s that big.”
Known for his red, bushy hair, humor, and exaggerations—“he rarely let the facts get in the way of the story,” says Morris—Twain’s tall tales helped make Twain famous, and like the stories of his arguably equally famous character Huck Finn, are to be taken with a healthy dose of salt.
Even Roughing It, Twain’s personal account of his 1861 stagecoach trip from Missouri to the then Nevada Territory, at age twenty-five, and ensuing adventures in the American West, does not escape the “stretchers” he deemed necessary to a good story. And thus the aim of Morris’s book is to tell the true tale of that trip, and in so doing reveal how in six years Samuel Clemens was transformed from a bit of a lazy-doer seeking to get rich quick into the writer we now regard as one of our country’s best. In other words, how he became Mark Twain.
Yet by playing detective, searching for and presenting evidence either to corroborate or debunk Twain’s stories, Morris in many ways takes out of the book what makes Twain, Twain—begging the question: where’s the fun in that? Because Morris does exactly what he sets out to do—replaces amusing, inaccurate elements with correct but less interesting historical record—there actually isn’t much broadly accessible amusement to be had.
Morris painstakingly tracks what really happened to Twain, to the extent it’s knowable from research, down to Twain’s own lists of what he packed on which trip, and even debunking quotes such as remarking that “there’s no hard evidence that he ever made the famous quip: ‘The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.’” But because Morris is so removed from immediate events—he wasn’t there, as Twain was, and is forced to read between the lines and recreate situations from texts—their recounting often falls flat.
The narrative does stir, somewhat, when Morris provides perhaps more interesting context about Twain’s life in the American West or more engaging locales like Honolulu and San Francisco. In the section on Twain’s visit to Hawai’i, for instance, Morris provides an encapsulated Hawaiian history lesson about Captain Cook, and dynamic figures like Ka’ahumanu. And true, larger than life characters populating the streets and encountered on Twain’s journeys, and famous people he meets along his rise to fame add some welcome flavor.
In the end, it comes down to whether you believe Morris’s endeavor dampens the pleasure of as Morris calls them, Twain’s “flavorful but not particularly accurate account[s],”of this period of his life, or that it provides delicious insight into the real man and developing writer.
In the preface to Roughing It, Twain himself calls the book “merely a personal narrative, and not a pretentious history or a philosophical dissertation.” Whether Twain would view Morris’s history to be pretentious regrettably can’t be known, but for those addicted to Twain in all shapes and forms, that this book unearths new elements of the “real” Mark Twain may be all that matters.
REVIEWED BY CHRISTINE THOMAS
Originally published 4/4/10 in the Honolulu Advertiser