Lunatic, Solomon, Missionary, Burglar, Idiot

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The strangest thing about The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. II is the photo on the cover. Taken in 1855, it shows a wonderfully stern-looking 20-year-old Twain, and while I absolutely approve of that fabulous sweep of jet-black hair, it doesn’t make up for what’s obviously missing. It would have been somewhat odd to choose Daniel Maclise’s smooth-faced Charles Dickens for the cover of Claire Tomalin’s biography of the famously bearded writer; Mark Twain minus the trademark moustache is barely Mark Twain at all.

And ‘trademark’ is not much of an exaggeration – in 1908, Twain formed The Mark Twain Corporation, not only to protect his works, but also to protect his image, and in doing so spawned ‘an entire specialized area of business and copyright law’. The photos that survive of him are extraordinary in number and range. Among my personal favourites: Twain on the deck of a steamship; at the House of Lords; hanging out with Tesla in his laboratory. Almost all, though, are trademark Twain: a suit, a bow tie, a halo of curly hair and those prolific whiskers. (I say 'almost': a special mention must go to another favourite – Twain, shirtless. Perhaps the clothes don’t make the man after all.)

This volume of material might suggest a willingness, even an eagerness, to be photographed, but Twain’s opinion of photography was less than positive:

No photograph ever was good, yet, of anybody--hunger and thirst and utter wretchedness overtake the outlaw who invented it! It transforms into desperadoes the meekest of men; depicts sinless innocence upon the pictured faces of ruffians; gives the wise man the stupid leer of a fool, and a fool an expression of more than earthly wisdom ... The sun never looks through the photographic instrument that it does not print a lie. The piece of glass it prints it on is well named a "negative"--a contradiction--a misrepresentation--a falsehood. I speak feelingly of this matter, because by turns the instrument has represented me to be a lunatic, a Solomon, a missionary, a burglar and an abject idiot, and I am neither.

With his tightly controlled trademark looks, he sought to guard against ‘contradiction, misrepresentation’. And he succeeded. I’m not sure whether Twain, sleek and whiskerless, is ‘lunatic, Solomon, missionary, burglar or idiot’, but it isn’t Mark Twain.

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