New book on Mark Twain examines author's moral torment

Mark Twain is often referred to as America's favorite humorist. But a new book by American Studies professor Forrest Robinson sheds new light on the renowned author's tormented moral life.

The Author-Cat: Clemens's Life in Fiction (Fordham University Press) is a culmination of more than 25 years of research by Robinson on Samuel Clemens--who is better known by his pen name, Mark Twain. A critical psychobiography, the book frames Twain's work in terms of major American social issues, particularly slavery. It is a belated sequel to Robinson's 1986 book In Bad Faith: The Dynamics of Deception in Mark Twain's America, in which he talks about the ways in which Clemens's major fiction both addresses and denies the moral burden of slavery in American culture.

"This is a book about a man deeply troubled by what he believes are his own moral failures," said Robinson. "It's about guilt; he never got over the fact that he lived in a slave culture as a child and was persuaded there was nothing really wrong going on."

Although Clemens was motivated near the end of his life to write an autobiography that purportedly contained what he considered the flaws in both his character and behavior, Robinson notes that book--published posthumously--reveals very little about either. In contrast, Robinson argues, it is actually in Clemens's fiction that he inadvertently reveals his true colors.

As Robinson notes in the preface, ".Clemens's potent confessional impulse--to reveal what he regarded as the worst of himself to posterity--found its fruition not in his copious autobiographical writings, but rather in his travel books and major fiction. He was most free with the dark truth, I have found, when he was least aware he was disclosing it."

Robinson includes a letter to a friend in which Clemens confesses that the act of writing an autobiography is like the behavior of a cat trying to cover up and hide its waste--it can't be done. Robinson contends that Clemens wrote out of a driving need to come to terms with his past experiences--not by memorializing the past, but rather by transforming it. Hence the title of Robinson's book, The Author-Cat.

Robinson said he plans to continue his study of iconic 20th century writers who deal in fictional terms with major moral castrophes. He is currently researching Nobel laureate Gunter Grass and the prominent German writer's preoccupation with personal and national guilt that arose out of Nazism and the Holocaust.

A founding fellow of College Five, now Porter College, Robinson joined UCSC's Literature Department faculty in 1970. He earned his Ph.D in English Literature from Harvard in 1967 and his B.A. from Northwestern University in 1963. Robinson is also the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain and coeditor with Susan Gillman of Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson: Race, Conflict, and Culture.