LIGHTING OUT FOR THE TERRITORY: How Samuel Clemens Became Mark Twain, by Roy Morris Jr. Simon
& Schuster, 304 pp., $26.
MARK TWAIN: MAN IN WHITE - The Grand Adventure of His Final Years,
by Michael Shelden. Random House, 528 pp., $30.
MARK TWAIN'S OTHER WOMAN: The Hidden Story of His Final Years, by Laura Trombley. Alfred A. Knopf,
352 pp., $28.95
THE MARK TWAIN ANTHOLOGY:Great Writers on His Life and Works, edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. The Library of America, 518 pp., $35.
On April 21, 1910, reports of Mark Twain's death were not exaggerated.
And a shelf of new biographies and appreciations is coming out to coincide with the centennial of his exit.
Twain remains the essential American writer. But keep reading about Samuel Langhorne Clemens and you're apt to find more whitewash applied to history than to Tom Sawyer's fence.
Toward the end of his life, the creator of Huckleberry Finn came up with an even greater character: himself. Twain, from white suit to puffy mane, mastered keeping the image intact. It superseded literature as his final work.
Two new books, Laura Trombley's "Mark Twain's Other Woman" and Michael Shelden's "Mark Twain: Man in White," examine his later years; a third, Roy Morris Jr.'s "Lighting Out for the Territory," explores the time before he became America's first great author and humorist.
Morris, editor of Military Heritage magazine and a Civil War historian, delivers an expansive narrative, with enough colorful characters for a short novel.
Clemens went west in 1861. He expected to make a fortune in silver, but instead struck gold: his literary career. Before that he was a miner, stock trader, mill worker and newspaper reporter.
Wild West journalism, of course, had enough fiction to outweigh the occasional fact. Clemens reveled. He told tales, toyed with truth, savored satire.
And the first "Mark Twain" byline appeared in a piece about the local legislature. The evocative pen name stemmed from Clemens' working life on the Mississippi, echoing the leadsman's call for two fathoms, the point from shallow to safe water.
Twain's first published story was about a wiseguy foiled by a woodsman. But he'd gain fame from another, based on something he'd heard about a jumping frog.
Morris' easygoing storytelling leads to Twain's deadpan, profitable, onstage lectures about his adventures and travels - performances that led to Hal Holbrook's "Mark Twain Tonight!"
Holbrook's brilliant one-man show, first performed in the 1950s, was shaped in part from conversations the actor had with Isabel Van Kleek Lyon, who had been Twain's secretary and confidante.
Lyon is the "other woman" in Laura Trombley's compelling look at Twain's twilight. Lyon lived with Twain for six years.
Trombley, president of Pitzer College and author of "Mark Twain in the Company of Women," spent 16 years researching Lyon, who managed the Twain household, including the writer's schedule and checkbook.
It's a saga suitable for reality TV, seasoned with bitter conflicts and family secrets, greed and betrayal. Trombley studied Lyon's journals and letters. Her book goes beyond Twain's carefully constructed versions of events. It has a refreshing, fill-in-the-blanks effect.
The Twain that emerges from Trombley's meticulously researched work is obsessed with image, a leonine legend intent on managing how he'd be remembered.
One thing not often discussed is his fondness for little girls. In addition to his company, he'd give the adoring young ladies enamel angelfish pins. There's another book waiting here about Twain and tweens.
Lyon, complex and vulnerable, adored the man she dubbed "King." She'd be cast away and savagely caricatured by a vindictive Twain, in part because of a poisonous clash over money and more between Lyon and Twain's daughters, Clara and Jean.
Trombly offers a generally sympathetic portrait of the troubled Lyon. But it's exceedingly evenhanded compared with Michael Shelden's uncritical "Mark Twain: Man in White."
Shelden, a biographer of George Orwell, begins his leisurely, detailed account of Twain's closing act with the writer's first garbed-in-white appearance, at the Library of Congress. Twain stays spotless. Even the angelfish episodes are treated casually. Biography becomes stenography.
Finally, however, return to Twain's pure fiction. And open "The Mark Twain Anthology," a special publication of The Library of America, expertly edited by Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin. It's insightful, invaluable commentary, from 60 contributors around the world over 150 years.
Everyone has the last laugh.