- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 20, 2004

Could it be that doorstoppers are giving way to minis in the world of biography? There may be a trend in that direction, and it will be interesting to see if minis find a market.

For a compact reminder of the genius of Mark Twain and the disparate forces that shaped him, it’s hard to beat Larzar Ziff’s Mark Twain in the Lives and Legacies series (Oxford, $17.95, 144 pages). Born in the slaveholding state of Missouri in 1835 and self-educated (his father died when he was 11), Samuel Clemens quit school early to become a printer’s apprentice, then a journeyman printer and story-teller/journalist before becoming a riverboat pilot.

However, when the Civil War disrupted commerce and his livelihood on the Mississippi, he headed west to mine silver and gold, adopted a pen name for his stories and platform appearances, and, as Mark Twain, eventually became the most famous American of his day. Who but he would have petitioned Queen Victoria herself to sort out a little misunderstanding on the part of the Department of Inland Revenue, which had levied an income tax on Twain’s English royalties?

Mr. Ziff, a professor at The Johns Hopkins University, nominally divides this serious little study into four parts — Celebrity, Tourist, Novelist, and Humorist — but each overlaps the others and Humorist trumps all, even when the humor turns dark.

Twain had a reputation as a backwoods humorist in the West, and at times he worried that his critics in the East regarded his work as “sub-literary” because his humor often veered into burlesque.

In defense of humor as a literary mode, Twain argued, “Humor must not professedly teach, and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever.” In the end, Mr. Ziff says, Twain’s “stature in his day as in ours arises from his drawing readers of all sorts or levels of literary sophistication into his audience.”

Twain’s first great literary success was “The Innocents Abroad,” which, the author says, “upended the genre” of travel writing by abandoning earnest instructive intent for “blithesome and satiric” commentary. As Mr. Ziff notes, travel writing suited Twain’s rambling comedic style, and the discomforts of travel provided much fodder for his humor.

Twain eventually came to loathe traveling, especially when he had to hit the road (and the high seas) to recoup the fortune he had lost through bad investments (in the wrong automatic typesetter, as it happened). His later travel writing became so acerbic that Harper’s, his publisher, refused to let him publish some of his sharper commentary on American policy or European colonialism.

Twain’s assessment of his fellow writers could be astringent, too. He denounced Sir Walter Scott’s florid fiction, but reserved some of his harshest words for James Fenimore Cooper, the “American Scott.” He pointed out Cooper’s “clumsy handling of dialogue, his insipid characterizations, and the flat-out impossibility of the achievements he claimed for his hero.” Twain measured the shortcomings of Cooper’s language against his own brief list of rules for good writing, which remain fresh today:

“The author shall

Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

Use the right word, not its second cousin.

Eschew surplusage.

Not omit necessary details.

Avoid slovenliness of form.

Use good grammar.

Employ a simple and straightforward style.”

Twain’s place in American literature today may rest on his seven novels, Mr. Ziff says, but comic journalism was the foundation of his reputation and literary technique. “No American writer before or since has occupied so large a space in the public mind, and his presence there seems, finally, to be larger than the sum of what he wrote or said.”

Few American presidents have generated such widespread amnesia as has our 21st president, Chester A. Arthur, and not without reason. The portly New Yorker was a stranger to elective office for most of his life, and had no great desire for political advancement. Chance in the form of an assassin’s bullet took him to the White House. His story is now told in a chatty little volume by Zachary Karabell Chester Alan Arthur (Times Books, $20, 154 pages). It is one of a series of presidential minibiographies.

Arthur was a prosperous Manhattan lawyer in 1871 when President Grant, recognizing his services to the Republican Party, appointed him to the lucrative post of collector for the Port of New York. As collector, Arthur was entitled to a percentage of the value of illegal goods seized at customs, and he soon became a rich man. He enjoyed the good life. “Until he became president,” Mr. Karabell writes, “Arthur used the Fifth Avenue Hotel and Delmonico’s as his offices.”

Arthur was a loyal acolyte in the Republican machine headed by Senator Roscoe Conkling, and the customhouse became overstaffed with clerks who recognized their obligation to Conkling’s machine. When President Rutherford B. Hayes ordered an investigation of customhouse procedures, Arthur opposed the president, and was removed from office.

Far from damaging his career, Arthur’s ouster made him a martyr to New York Republicans. When, in 1880, party leaders nominated James A. Garfield for president, they sought as his running mate someone who could deliver the votes of the Conkling machine. Their choice was Arthur, who was elected along with Garfield and became vice president in March 1881.

When Garfield was fatally wounded by an assassin four months later — shot in a railroad station on the site of today’s National Gallery of Art — sympathy for Garfield mingled with apprehension regarding his successor.

But Arthur sought to meet his unexpected challenge. As president he oversaw the first steps toward a nonpartisan Civil Service, and attempted unsuccessfully to revise tariff rates. Arthur hoped for renomination in 1884, but he had no personal following and the Republicans turned instead to James G. Blaine.

Mr. Karabell concludes that Arthur “was neither loved nor feared,” and in fact generated little passion of any kind. The writing is competent although not without error. William H. Seward was not a founder of the Republican Party, and the author’s contention that Garfield’s death inspired little grief is not born out by the record. Still, Mr. Karabell tells us all about President Arthur that most of us need to know.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va. Mr. Taylor is the author of a number of books, including “Garfield of Ohio: The Available Man.”

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