Yesterday I posted a short article I wrote for the Star-Ledger about the differences between Twain biographies. Today, at work at the Twain house, I was given a little article in a Norwich paper to refute. (The article states that Hartford was irrelevant to Twain's writing. Very easy to refute, in my opinion.) Doing my preliminary research for my rebuttal, I had a conversation I've had several times: "Now if you've got to read one biography, read the Kaplan. This is the one. Unless of course you want the early years. Then it's not the one."
"Oh, yes, I've got to get to that new one. Dammit. So much to read."
Here are the Twain biographies I feel like I should read before I can consider myself an expert-- wait, forget expert-- before I can consider myself the most basic of Twain scholars. Kaplan's, Powers', Fishkin's, this new one about the early years that I can't remember the name of, Twain's own Autobiography (of which there are several versions, and certain parts aren't really true), and his nonfiction The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, A Tramp Abroad, and Life on the Mississippi. Most of these books I've read parts of to find out what Twain thought about music or New Jersey or ghosts. Keep in mind, I just reviewed Loving, Shelden, & Trombley's biographies. And the letters. Oh, my, the letters. There are approximately 5,000 and I have learned that they can be used to prove anything.
What I'm wondering is how much we read about a person before we can really know them, or at least speak for them. You have to imagine the people of the future sifting through blogs and facebook posts and writing contrasting books (and facebook posts) about what they may have wanted or believed. Or maybe none of that matters; maybe all you need to know about Twain is contained within Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And how many biographies before we feel we've really made a decision as to who he was?
That last thought, though, is silly. We have already decided who and what he is to the culture: important and hilarious. The rest is possibly just an excuse to spend more time with and understand a man who is collectively admired worldwide. You have to hope that when you, dear reader, write your memoirs, letters, emails, and what have you, that future generations will see that that isn't the complete version of yourself. That you are worth uncovering again and again. That any human life is so complex as to be studied for centuries, and the more details that are available, the more fuel there is to draw new conclusions. That there is no final word on you.