For a writer who died in 1910, the last decade has brought with it a host of (more or less) new books by Mark Twain. This has included his three-volume Autobiography of Mark Twain, which was (at its author’s request) published for the first time a century after his death.
This also includes a previously-unpublished story for children, The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine, coming to bookshelves September of this year. A recent article by Alexandra Alter in the New York Times details the genesis of the project: notes for it were found in Twain’s papers, and the then-unfinished work was finished by the artist and writer Philip and Erin Stead.
Alter’s article also gets at a further narrative modification to Twain’s original story, saying that “while the original work has a timeless quality, the Steads added a postmodern twist: Twain himself makes an appearance in the book, to argue with the author, Philip Stead, about the direction the story takes.” This also gets at another critical point about Twain: the fact that he himself has become as iconic a figure as some of the characters he created. (Not bad for one of the most notable pseudonyms in literary history.) One recent apex of this tendency can be found in the graphic novel The Five Fists of Science, in which Twain teams up with Nikola Tesla to battle an occult conspiracy, save the world, and create a giant robot. It’s incredibly fun.
Twain’s writings remain widely read (and widely debated) today. The works he’s created are also iconic enough for a series of talented writers to revisit and re-interpret. One recent example is John Keene’s story “Rivers,” from the collection Counternarratives. With previously-unread work from him seeing the light of day later this year, here’s a look at some of the best Mark Twain books — by him, about him, and ones which use his work as a starting point.
Here we have Twain’s most enduring book, no matter how you skin it: whether you’re approaching it in childhood as an adventure story, later in life as one of satire, or perhaps as a tale of the emergence of conscience in defiance of a nation’s political realities. It’s frequently paired with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but it’s telling that contemporary writers who have revisited Twain’s characters tend to cast Sawyer in a less glowing role. And nearly any novel where, more than a century after its release, still prompts heated arguments over its meaning is likely doing something right.
While Twain’s fiction is somewhat more widely read than his nonfiction, his observations of life in the United States and abroad is also well worth revisiting. A Tramp Abroad was his followup to a previous travel narrative, The Innocents Abroad. It chronicles a trip Twain made to Europe, and juxtaposes Twain’s wry humor with affecting passages about the landscape through which he ventured.
The Mississippi River was a constant in Twain’s life: he grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, which borders it, and went on to use it as an element in much of his writing. This collection of writings about his early life and his connection to the river is considered one of his best works; it chronicles both Twain’s own experiences working on the Mississippi and the lives and stories he encountered there, some humorous and some tragic.
Upon his death, Twain requested that his memoirs not be published for a hundred years. “Some believe it was because he wanted to talk freely about issues such as religion and politics,” wrote Guy Adams in an article on their eventual release. “Others argue that the time lag prevented him from having to worry about offending friends.” What’s a loss to Twain’s contemporaries is our gain, however, and this memoir offers a candid look at one of America’s most storied writers.
Harry L. Katz and the Library of Congress
The nation around Mark Twain helped shape some of his best-known works in both fiction and nonfiction. This book places both Twain himself and Twain’s writing into a larger historical context, showing both how he shaped American society of the time and how it shaped him. For readers looking to get a sense of the world in which Twain lived, this is an ideal place to start.
Roy Jr. Morris
There are an abundance of notable biographies of Mark Twain out there. Some take a general overview of his life while others zero in on one particular aspect of it. Roy Morris, Jr.’s Lighting Out for the Territory takes its title from an oft-quoted line from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, exploring how Twain’s time in the western United States (including San Francisco and Nevada) helped to shape him as a writer. Morris has also written about Twain later in life in 2015’s American Vandal: Mark Twain Abroad.
In recent years, Twain’s fiction has been revisited by a host of American writers looking to experiment with the world he built. Norman Lock’s The Boy in His Winter is one of the resulting works, taking Huck and Jim down the Mississippi River, but also accelerating the passage of time, so that they’re able to take in decades of changes and societal turmoil, to a wrenching and powerful effect.
Another postmodernist who’s taken a crack at Twain’s work is Robert Coover, whose work frequently ventures into questions of history, obsession, and the limits of style. (All of which suggests a kinship with Twain from the outset.) In this novel, he follows Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer as they seek their fortune in the Old West as the Civil War begins, leading to bold and unsettling questions about community, violence, and adventure.