Our Mark Twain: The Making of His Public Personality, by Louis J. Budd
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983): 266

Reviewed by Ben Guider


Louis J. Budd's Our Mark Twain: The Making of His Public Personality does as its title implies; it attempts to define how Samuel Clemens created Mark Twain as well as how outside events and influences shaped the perception of that character. Therefore, the book primarily confines itself to the later part of Mark Twain's life, from the 1860s and 70s onward, when the character Mark Twain entered a state of prominence in American and even world culture. Budd's book is replete with cartoons, photographs, and replicas of posters that portray Twain as he was and Twain as he was perceived by the media at the time. As any book tackling this subject is obligated to do, Our Mark Twain goes beyond defining and exploring Twain's literary career and goes on to address the personal events in his life that shaped his behavior, the very courses of action his contemporaries used to evaluate him. Budd quotes extensively from newspaper articles and letters of Twain's time in order to give his readers an accurate representation of how the media, and in turn Americans, viewed Mark Twain over the course of his career, and the result is an informative book that accomplishes its task of conveying how Samuel Clemens and the environment and events of the time created Mark Twain.
In Chapter 1 Budd refers to the "shifting triangle formed by the effects of [Twain's] writings, the personae he tried to create in his other activities, and the image of him haphazardly constructed by the public" (10). This is the overriding pattern that would define Mark Twain in Samuel Clemens's lifetime and into the future. Budd's first chapter examines Twain's death and its subsequent effects on America so that in the remaining chapters Budd can explain how Clemens created the man who could have such a profound effect.
Samuel Clemens's primary ingredient for the construction of Mark Twain is that he "made his life a public spectacle, indeed a melodrama" (16); surely, if Mark Twain had been a very private man, we would have a far different perception of him today. Budd relates how Twain's lying, posturing, and irreverence helped establish him as a comic hero and even a public hero whose liberating humor broke both precedent and monotony. In Chapters 3 and 4, Budd provides some background on Twain's work on Innocents Abroad and Roughing It and talks about the critical reception of those two books, but he dwells more extensively on Mark Twain as a lecturer whose irreverent humor and sarcasm angered some and pleased others. Budd illustrates this point with the image of Twain as a dancer: "As a show dancer Twain was expected to go too far occasionally, to slip and disgrace himself. Exhilarated by the lively tempo, he could be excused for sometimes leaping over the inhibitions that restrained an orderly, well-disciplined adult, for barging into humor that might strike second thoughts as crude or cruel. Furthermore, he varied his steps so quickly that the public had too little time to sort out the causes for offense or to decide what outraged it the most (74)." Budd goes on to describe Twain's continued success on the lecture circuit, his gradual acceptance by the literary establishment, and his financial prosperity.
Twain's life was not without its pitfalls, however. In Chapter 7 Budd examines how Twain dealt with bankruptcy and the death of his oldest daughter in the 1890s. While a degree of criticism fell on Twain for his financial woes, Budd points out that due to his nearly lifelong ties with journalism and Twain's friends in that profession, Twain was able to indirectly put together a sympathetic view of his troubles through the press and in turn a sympathetic view of his situation back in the United States while he traveled in Europe. Twain tried to pay off the debts to his creditors and in so doing became a domestic hero by averting utter tragedy.
Affinity for the press is part of the reason that there are more than three hundred published interviews with Mark Twain; indeed, he seems to be the most interviewed American at that time in history. Budd cogently argues that it was Twain's unpredictability in the interview scenario that made it such a prominent facet of his public career--he could be serious one minute and sarcastic the next or calm one minute and angry the next. Regardless, interviewers would always have something interesting to print. Budd concludes that even if Twain were not in the mood for an interview, he would always rise above "no comment" and let his moods be known. Additionally, it is this same love of being interviewed and put in the public eye that led Twain to his love of being photographed at almost every opportunity, and the classic Twain frown stems from his belief that a smile would be damning to his posterity.
In the last few chapters of his book, Budd points out Mark Twain as a prominent social advocate and even reformer and even a "statesman without salary." On the one hand, Twain could delight everyone with his charitable efforts and contributions, but on the other he could infuriate almost an entire country with his outspoken anti-imperialist sentiment. However, Budd is certain to remind his readers that they should remember the image of the well-liked old man in the white suit who always had something interesting to say. Budd does express his worries about our modern perceptions of Mark Twain though: "As yet most Americans, anyway, have opened Twain's books with similar expectations, gathered from a seamless web of clues--word-of-mouth praise, textbook judgments, and Twainisms retreaded by wits or statesmen" (234). Budd warns us that we "also need to get beyond the classic boyhood novels. Making Huckleberry Finn carry so much of Twain's essence has put it under inhuman pressure and isolated it with a now deadening reverence that prejudices his other writings" (240-41). While Huckleberry Finn obviously addresses more than just boyhood, Budd is right--we need to continue appreciating Mark Twain for what every aspect of his life can teach us. Our Mark Twain successfully conveys who Mark Twain was based on the events of his life and the public's perception of him, and it shows us the necessity of appreciating Mark Twain in a context much larger than merely the novels he wrote.

Back to Table of Contents