Mark Twain’s America (Review)

I didn’t hesitate for a moment when I spotted the new book about Mark Twain in the Norfolk (Nebraska) Public Library. I didn’t even open the covers to skim it.  All I knew was that the book was coming home with me.  Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ life and works fascinate me to no end.

Twain-coverThe latest Twain book is an offering of love from Harry L. Katz and the Library of Congress. Mark Twain’s America is an exercise in nostalgic indulgence. If you love Twain as much as I do, you may wish to investigate a copy, to judge for yourself. Here is the life of Samuel Clemens from a whole new point of view.  The book puts Twain in context with his contemporaries and events of his day.

Katz is a former head curator of the Prints and Photographs division of the U.S. Library of Congress.  Katz’s book provides an outline of Clemen’s life, not an exhaustive biography.  Other writers have done that, been there, including Clemens.

We already know that Clemens, in the guise of Twain, was a very unorthodox man.  His opinions and writing were many years ahead of their time.  Even his domestic life was progressive.  Until I read Katz’ book, I didn’t realize that Clemens encouraged his servants to be at the front of his Hartford, Connecticut home.  He wanted them to be able to view everyday activity and parades while they worked.  His neighbors didn’t approve of such a thing, because servants were customarily relegated to the back rooms of houses.

We know that Twain’s writing and speaking was a bridge from a rural, backward America to the imperialist, industrial nation that the United States was becoming.  He used his skills to address politics, religion, and race problems. Twain-portrait

Katz’s book showcases the years from 1850 to 1910. We find Clemens in his famous roles as a riverboat pilot, gold prospector, small town journalist, novelist, commentator and popular public speaker.  The reader will encounter photographs, political cartoons, and illustrations by Twain’s contemporaries. The life of Twain becomes more three-dimensional when placed within the current events of which he witnessed.

The concept of the book is good, but it is incomplete in that it lacks the latest information that was presented in Mark Twain’s two volume autobiography.  Katz’s book would have been far more engrossing if there would have been a more accurate understanding of the context of Clemens’ literary output. I was disappointed that Twain’s life was presented within the framework of the sanitized version that was popular before the release of the autobiography’s first volume in 2010.


If you really want to know the life and times of Samuel L. Clemens, you would be best served by reading other accounts of his life.  If you want a visual overview of society that existed during Clemens’ life, Katz’s book will be a good introduction.  I was able to overlook the shortcomings in the text so I could enjoy studying the numerous rare images that fill the pages of this book.

Mark Twain’s America seems to be targeted to readers of popular literature and not so much towards those of us who have spent a lot of time studying the man and his works. I recommend this book with the caveat that a better book of this sort remains to be published.

{ Mark Twain’s America by Harry L. Katz and The Library of Congress; Hardcover: 256 pages; Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (October 21, 2014); ISBN: 978-0-316-20939-7 }

mini-moiThe Blue Jay of Happiness loves Mark Twain quotes like this one: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

About swabby429

An eclectic guy who likes to observe the world around him and comment about those observations.
This entry was posted in Books, cultural highlights, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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