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Who Is Mark Twain?

Read this Web-Exclusive Book Review by Allan Fallow.

The rumor of his death was an "exaggeration," Mark Twain deadpanned in 1897, but now comes news that his publishing career, too, may have been prematurely written off. Ninety-nine years after the iconic satirist died—this time for keeps, of a heart attack in 1910—HarperStudio has brought out Who Is Mark Twain?, a collection of two dozen unpublished essays, short stories, letters, and pieces of literary criticism.

Book-club habitués will savor or seethe at Twain's take on Jane Austen: "I am doing Sense and Sensibility now," wrote Twain in 1905, "and have accomplished the first third of it—not for the first time." In other twists of his pen-knife, he dismissed the novel's Edward Ferrars as an "unpleasant shadow" and a "harmless waxwork," then condemned Lucy Steele as "coarse, ignorant, vicious, brainless, heartless, a flatterer, a sneak."

Why are these jottings seeing daylight only now? "When Mark Twain died in 1910," explains volume editor Robert H. Hirst, "he left behind him the largest cache of personal papers created by any nineteenth-century American author… (easily half a million pages)."

Among those orphaned sheaves was a send-up of the American funeral industry, "The Undertaker's Tale," in which Mr. and Mrs. Cadaver and their three wholesome children pray for a pneumonia epidemic to hit town so they can discharge a family debt. But the reaction of Twain's most trusted focus group—his wife and children—doomed the story to 132 years of solitude: On the evening in 1877 when Twain read the tale aloud, notes biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, "…nobody laughed. The air was thick with disapproval…. Mrs. Clemens was the only one who could speak. 'Youth, let's walk a little,' she said."

Modern readers, coming to the story in the era that gave us HBO's Six Feet Under, could be, as Hirst suggests, the first audience able to enjoy the story's humor "as the author intended." Maybe so. But far more intriguing is the notion that Mrs. Twain penned history's first draft of this classic line: "Honey, we need to talk."

Allan Fallow is the managing editor of AARP Books and the book editor of AARP The Magazine. Read his review of Closing Time: A Memoir.

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