Our Mark Twain: The Making of His Public Personality , by Louis J. Budd
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.
Louis J. Budd’s book, Our Mark Twain, explores the creation and evolution of Twain’s public persona. Arranged in a predominantly chronological manner, Budd’s work reveals Sam Clemens’ progressive obsession with Twain’s image, as he molds his creation into an American icon. Budd’s investigation is supported by a healthy amount of quotations from newspapers, journals, and reporters that form an image of the press that seems equally dynamic as Twain himself. Through analyzing the interactions between Twain and the media, Budd uncovers everything from mutual appreciation to spitfire battles between these two giants, as they both attempt to use each other for financial gain.
Budd begins with the obituaries in an effort to project Twain’s lasting image. Drawing from numerous periodicals, Budd traces of every kind of critique from the most vibrant praises to reluctant surrenders that he was good author, “although his weaknesses were definitely known” (17). While such different opinions certainly stem from the contrasting personalities of the businessman, Clemens, and the American comedian, Twain, Budd wants us to look past the man’s divided image that snags so much of our historical and academic reflection. Budd writes, “Although the mind and psyche that guided the working author were just as real as those for the showman?it is time to move on from that gap and appreciate the operative images of Twain” (20). For Budd, dwelling on the agonizing separation between the man and his mask draws attention away from Twain’s celebrated impact on American society.
Budd introduces the early Twain as a self-made, dynamic humorist. Boasting an arsenal of distinguishing characteristics, Budd feels that his “dominant quality was irreverence” (25). The Innocents Abroad shows Twain’s talent for balancing his readers’ emotions. While his unique ability to comfortably lead audiences into the uncomfortable was a major source of his early success, his growing relationship with the press slipped ominously toward dependency.
Twain’s image had begun to take root in American culture through more book releases and increasing media coverage. He studied his public following religiously, responding to their needs with necessary surprise. Budd highlights Twain as a performer when he writes, “as a showy dancer, Twain was expected to go too far occasionally, to slip and disgrace himself” (74). Yet Twain’s ability to composedly mock his faults was completely overwhelmed as he moved into monetary crisis. Twain enjoyed a comfortable friendship with the press as he sailed for Europe in 1891. However, as his financial status grew bleaker the press began to turn on him.
Budd’s wealth of newspaper quotes show that the media jumped on his financial and legal debacles like vultures. A headline from the New York Times regarding a lawsuit over Huck Finn reads: “Put Him on the Witness Stand/He May Make Another Extraordinary Exhibition of Himself” (108). As Twain moved toward immanent bankruptcy, these small attacks multiplied. Budd writes, “the increased weightiness of his image would merely deepen the emotionality of the domestic tragedy that the press corps created on his behalf” (123). However, as Twain spiraled into the pit of financial despair, it was actually the press that helped him to emerge, as the New York Herald set up a charity fund for him following his daughter’s death.
Budd traces Twain’s resurrection from financial death presenting a new and more politically charged Twain. However, Budd shows that Twain maintained his illusive personality in the midst of political activism when he says that Twain was “being quoted along the range from robber barons to Marxists” (166). Yet, Budd still insists on his “hardening patriotism” even in the midst of anti-imperialist splurges and attacks on foreign missionaries calling him a “statesman without a salary” (171). Through the course of his political activity, however, Twain appears to be less engrossed in pleasing his fans. Instead of the chameleon-like image of the past, Twain becomes a more solidified individual with protruding personal convictions. As Budd shows later in the book, Twain’s new, hardened identity is evident even in his prideful clothing selection, “still wearing his summer whites in the frosty New Hampshire autumn” (207). Such is the image we are left with today, as the man in the white suit continues to entertain.
Although I would not recommend this book for the syllabus, it could be a powerful tool for those seeking a better understanding of Twain’s relationship with the media. A warning for those who want to skim this for research: Budd’s book reads like an eternal newspaper. It seems as though heavy research in the historical media has left a lasting impression on his writing style, as long quotations often collide with hefty metaphors to create interesting images that demand you visit them once more for a complete understanding. Overall, however, this book provides some great information, and I would recommend it for your exploration of the legendary Mark Twain.