Synopses & Reviews
Mark Twain founded the American voice. His works are a living national treasury: taught, quoted, and reprinted more than those of any writer except Shakespeare. His awestruck contemporaries saw him as the representative figure of his times, and his influence has deeply flavored the 20th and 21st centuries. Yet somehow, beneath the vast flowing river of literature that he left behind books, sketches, speeches, not to mention the thousands of letters to his friends and his remarkable entries in private journals the man who became Mark Twain, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, has receded from view, leaving us with only faint and often trivialized remnants of his towering personality.
In Mark Twain, Ron Powers consummates years of thought and research with a tour de force on the life of our culture's founding father, re-creating the 19th century's vital landscapes and tumultuous events while restoring the human being at their center. He offers Sam Clemens as he lived, breathed, and wrote drawing heavily on the preserved viewpoints of the people who knew him best (especially the great William Dean Howells, his most admiring friend and literary co-conspirator), and on the annals of the American 19th century that he helped shape. Powers's prose rivals Mark Twain's own in its blend of humor, telling detail, and flights of lyricism. With the assistance of the Mark Twain Project at Berkeley, he has been able to draw on thousands of letters and notebook entries, many only recently discovered.
It is hard to imagine a life that encompassed more of its times. Sam Clemens left his frontier boyhood in Missouri for a life on the Mississippi during the golden age of steamboats. He skirted the western theater of the Civil War before taking off for an uproarious drunken newspaper career in the Nevada of the Wild West. As his fame as a humorist and lecturer spread around the country, he took the East Coast by storm, witnessing the extremes of wealth and poverty of New York City and the Gilded Age (which he named). He traveled to Europe on the first American pleasure cruise and revitalized the prim genre of travel writing. He wooed and won his lifelong devoted wife, yet quietly pined for the girl who was his first crush and whom he would re-encounter many decades later. He invented and invested in get-rich-quick schemes. He became the toast of Europe and a celebrity who toured the globe. His comments on everything he saw, many published here for the first time, are priceless.
The man who emerges in Powers's brilliant telling is both the magnetic, acerbic, and hilarious Mark Twain of myth and a devoted friend, husband, and father; a whirlwind of optimism and restless energy; and above all, a wide-eared and wide-eyed observer who absorbed every sight and sound, and poured it into his characters, plots, jokes, businesses, and life. Mark Twain left us our greatest voice. Samuel Clemens left us one of our most full and American of lives.
"After dozens of biographies of Twain (18351910), one can fairly ask, 'Why another?' But Powers, who wrote about Twain's Missouri childhood in Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain, early on promises 'interpretive portraiture,' which entails doing something that has never quite been accomplished before: presenting the totality of the man in his many moods and phases of life, including acerbic son and brother, prank-prone youth, competitive writer, demanding friend, loving husband and, eventually, globe-trotting celebrity. In doing so, Powers succeeds in validating his own assertion that Twain became 'the representative figure of his times.' Powers demonstrates that Twain embodied America during the tumultuous latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, from the divided self of the Civil War, through the unstable prosperity of the Gilded Age, to the verge of WWI. All the while, Twain asserted in both literature and life his confidence in New World progress over Old World conservatism. Unlike Twain, whose prose Powers characterizes as 'wild and woolly,' the biographer is lucid and direct while maintaining a steady hand on the tiller of Twain's life as it courses a twisty path as wide and treacherous as the Mississippi itself. Powers, a wise, if loquacious captain, takes us on a wonderful journey from beginning to end. 16 pages of photos not seen by PW. Agent, Jim Hornfischer. (Sept. 20)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"In the welter of Twain's split personalities, Powers locates one distinctive American voice, perhaps the most powerful ever to enliven American letters. A masterful biography of interest to both general readers and academics." Booklist (Starred Review)
"If it is a huge challenge to achieve a humanely balanced yet dramatic account of this icon, Powers is formidably equipped by experience, geography, curiosity, patience and open-heartedness to succeed." Geoffrey Wolff, The New York Times Book Review
"A magisterial book that may not replace Justin Kaplan's 1966 biography but almost certainly will become the go-to guide for readers wanting to learn as much as they can about the man in a single volume." Denver Post
"Carefully crafted to help us experience...Samuel Clemens as a living, breathing, three-dimensional being....Powers does a thorough job of tracking Twain's development both as a writer and a human being, and the book offers some particularly lovely pleasures." Christian Science Monitor
"Powers has given us the whole man. We feel we know him, as well as we can....No biography of Mark Twain could do him full justice. Powers' comes as close as you can imagine." Los Angeles Times
"Always readable, Life occasionally dares to mimic Twain's style. In Powers' hands, passages that could have been awkward parodies become moving and worthy tributes." San Diego Union-Tribune
"[A] work of comprehensive scholarship worthy of its subject....[Powers] manages to stick close to the facts...creating a narrative that is, incredibly, exciting, given our familiarity with the broad outlines of Twain's life." Kansas City Star
In the most important narrative biography of Samuel Langhorne Clemens in half a century, a Pulitzer Prize winner brings to life the astonishing man behind one of America's most famous sons.
About the Author
Ron Powers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning and Emmy Award-winning writer and critic, has studied and written about Mark Twain for many years. He is the author of ten books, including Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain, and the coauthor of two, including the #1 New York Times bestseller Flags of Our Fathers. He lives in Middlebury, Vermont.