Twain's comic and humane sides - in letters; The Selected Letters of Mark Twain, edited with an introduction and commentary by Charles Neider. Harper & Row. 328 pp. $16.95.
Mark Twain (born Samuel Langhorne Clemens) was the first of our great writers whose celebrity during his lifetime equalled or surpassed the prominence given him since.
Everybodym wrote to him: admirers of his published works or his triumphs on the lecture circuit, scribblers who offered to collaborate with him, well-meaning cranks (his brother Orion chief amonc them) urging him to finance their visionary projects, and political and literary eminences who welcomed him onto their level or else questioned the legitimacy of his - always forcefully proferred - opinions.
For ''the Lincoln of our Literature,'' in the felicitous phrase of his friend and colleague William Dean Howells, was not above the pleasures of epistolary strife - not at all. Bigots and bluenoses could count on hearing back from him; so could the innocent who outlined his plan to dramatize ''Tom Sawyer'' and spoke of ''some arrangement of profits.'' Western Union received a letter of complaint that's a virtually perfect comic short story. The US government always got Twain's dander - and his inspiration - up.
It's wonderful to have this further evidence of Twain's genius back in print. The present volume, a selection made from Albert Bigelow Paine's ''Mark Twain's Letters'' (1917), while something less than a work of original scholarship, has the considerable virtue of focusing on ''the comic and humane sides of Clemens, '' Es Neider explains, and of providing a detailed running commentary, some of it, too, adapted from Paine's. This identifies persons and other particulars, and constitutes a pleasant brief biography.
The letters themselves cover the major eFents of Mark Twain's life from 1853, when he was a young printer in the Northeast writing home to his family, through 1909, the year before his death.
We see him as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi and a prospector in the Nevada Territory. There's little of interest in letters from these periods, really, except for the characteristic vigor of the prose. Livelier missives issue from the young reporter in the far West, then the Sandwich (later Hawaiian) Islands. Once he had become a successful author, with ''The Innocents Abroad'' (1869), Twain was also a vigorous, and paradoxical, public personality: a cagey businessman, who brooked no tomfoolery with his royalties - and an investor who kept backing money-losing schemes - and an earthy mocker and scorner of assorted human weaknesses, who yet extended limitless compassion and charity to loved ones. He was consistently a furtive doer of good deeds.
His later life saw a gradual outpouring of the cynicism that his beloved wife , Olivia, had always softened and censored. For ''Livy'' had died before him, following his two brothers and his adored young daughter, Susy. Another daughter , Jean, would die young, leaving him embittered and frustrated, a sage whose pronouncements were increasingly indicative of his certainty that human nature was ''merely a machine, . . . moved wholly by outside influences. . . ,'' human experience only a pointless chronicle of pain.
These letters are fascinating for the light they throw on Mark Twain's alteration from a master of outrageous comic exaggeration to an uncompromising critic of what he came to regard as man's pretenses that his life has meaning. ''I wish I could ,earn to pity the human race instead of censuring it and laughing at it,'' he admits in one missive.
Well, of course he could, and did. No writer has ever shown more touching concern for his family andnriends than did Twain in his correspondence with Livy on those rare occasions shen they were separated; with his closest friend Reverend Joseph Twichell, partner in ''a companionship which to me stands first after Livy's''; and, especially, the endearingly helpless Orion.
There's plenty of compensatory savagery, too - seen at its best in Twain's maverick literary opinions: ''I can't stand George Eliot and Hawthorne and those people. I see what they are at a hundred years before they get to it and they just tire me to death.'' It is also seen in his wary tolerance of reporters and interviewers, and - most of all - his curt handling of any missionary sort who solicited his approval for any of the available philosophies or religions. His skepticism is seen in these untrammeled eruptions from his innermost, upper ot thoughts and feelings.
Despite my reservations aboet its integrity as part of the Twain canon, this is a delightful book. However, since Neider has drawn his material from a work issued before Twain's surviving daughter had cleared all his remaining work for publication, it may be that the promised ''Collected Letters,'' forthcoming in 1983 from the University of California Press, will furnish material that further illuminates Twain's late works. It will be interesting to see to what extent his image is destined to be altered.