Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Mark Twain: A Life by Ron Powers - Book Review

As I read Ron Powers' remarkable biography Mark Twain: A Life, I increasingly came to realize how much of America can claim Twain as its own. Spending much of his youth in Hannibal, Missouri, he became a riverboat pilot, giving him access to the entire riverine interior of the emerging U.S., first gained national attention while living in Nevada and California, moved east to woo and wed the daughter of a wealthy Elmira family, lived in Hartford, CT for many years as well as spending many of his later years in Europe. Through his travels and his writing about them, he brought his manic humor and acute observation of the rest of the world to American minds, imaginations, and ambitions. “Breaking the ranks of New England literary culture was Clemens's most important achievement (short of his actual works), and a signal liberating event in the country's imaginative history.” (pg. 5) While American emerged as a world political and economic force in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Samuel Clemens, in the guise of Mark Twain, created and interpreted the American mind and spirit to the people it inhabited. Powers notes that American literature “became a lean, blunt, vivid chronicle of American self – invention from the yeasty perspective of the common man.” as Twain's pen spun out his humor and bile. (6)

Ron Powers, who writes fiction, biography, and non-fiction from his home in Vermont, was born in Hannibal, MO where he developed a lifelong passion for Mark Twain and his works. Mark Twain: A Life has, since its publication in 2005 and its release as a trade paper back a year later, become the definitive biography of this iconic writer, humorist, and celebrity who stands astride of the second half of nineteenth century America. Powers may be familiar to some readers for his work in television on CBS Sunday Morning, where he won an Emmy award. He was the first television critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. His writing, while comprehensive, is always graceful and readable. It would be difficult to spend many years of a studious life engaged with Samuel Clemens and his alter-ego Mark Twain without be infected by his spirit. Besides offering huge amounts of detail, Powers writing often contains bits of wicked humor, enlivening the book and retaining Twain's huge spirit.

Sam Clemens was born in 1835 in Florida, MO to Orion and Jane Clemens, who soon moved to Hannibal, where Sammy grew up. Orion was a striving, but ineffectual, business man whose struggles to score big never amounted to anything. The poverty young Sam grew up in haunted and helped direct his entire personal, literary, and business life. As gigantic a literary figure as Mark Twain was to become in America and around the world, Clemens' bad business decisions and insistence on stubbornly pursuing them constantly haunted his adult years. It was only when he was rescued late in his career by a generous and wealthy patron that he was able, at least partially, to set aside his fears of financial ruin.

Mark Twain emerged as a writer when he moved to the Nevada silver mines and established a presence in nearby San Francisco as a writer of tall tales and short stories. Much of his work was picked up by eastern newspaper, where his writing in the vernacular of ordinary Americans marked a decided contrast to the more formal writing of Boston and New York's literary lions. Championed by Atlantic editor William Dean Howells, Twain's rise to literary prominence was meteoric. From his short, humorous story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras Count (1867), through his travel books like Innocents Abroad (1869) and Roughing It (1872) to his series of great novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Huckleberry Finn (1884) through more novels, non-fiction, political and social writing, and more, Mark Twain was prolific and has never been out of print, although sometimes out of fashion. As he became more urbane and experienced, his views on the world often changed, and his voice reflected the changes in American society. He supplemented his income throughout periods of his life by lecturing around the world on a variety of topics in a way that spread his humor, brought him great acclaim, and earned him much money.

Despite the honors and riches his literary life garnered for him, his personal and business life was marked by tragic loss and bad judgment that clouded much of his later years. Sam Clemens married Olivia Langford, daughter of an extremely successful Elmira business man after a long courtship. They had four children, only one of whom lived beyond her parents. Clemens' life was haunted by the threat of death. Furthermore, his father's business failures and family's poverty drove him to a series of disastrous investments, keeping him on the edge of bankruptcy through much of his later life until the Standard Oil vice president, Henry H. Rodgers rescued him by helping him restructure his debts and taking over his finances, leaving Twain to write and travel during his last years. This bare outline, however, doesn't do justice to Clemens/Twain's life. Powers, however, does so in one of the best biographies I've ever read.

Throughout his book, Powers places the man (Twain, Clemens) in the social, intellectual, and cultural context from which he came and which he created. One question always haunting Twain's reputation surrounds his attitudes toward race. Powers builds an argument concluding that young Sam Clemens was early on imbued with the attitudes of slave society but that his growth as a human being took him beyond racial animus. His use of the word “nigger” was an artifact of an earlier age. As Clemens aged and traveled, his views on race, American imperialism, and the contributions of peoples from around the world broadened along with his experience.

As a writer, Powers, who has lived much of his life immersed in Mark Twain and Sam Clemens captures some of Twain's humor in his own clear and graceful writing. For instance, at one point in 1856, Sam Clemens explored taking an expedition to Brazil to chase rumor of a remarkable vegetable that gave partakers huge reserves of energy. Powers comments, “The idea of Samuel Clemens turning Keokuk, Iowa into the mid-19th century cocaine capital of America has its irresistible nutty appeal, but it was not to be.” (72) Powers' humor surprises and pleases throughout this book which might seem overlong and detailed without it. In discussing Lincoln's election and the run up to the Civil War, he describes how Clemens' brother in law's business was next door to a real estate company U.S. Grant had in interest in. Powers notes, “On June 15 of that year [1861] Ulysses S. Grant found himself a steady job.” This small anecdote takes on added significance when considering that Twain was largely responsible for driving Grant to write and publish his autobiography, saving Grant's estate and reputation. One more example: Writing of the Territorial Enterprise, a newspaper Twain wrote for, Powers comments, “Much of what it printed could be summed up in a two-syllable phrase, had there been enough bulls in the region to anchor the metaphor.” (110) Powers' frequent throwaway remarks are worth the price of admission.

Mark Twain: A Life by Ron Powers is published in trade paperback, a division of Simon and Schuster. It is extremely well-documented and reads smoothly and thoughtfully. For readers of biography, American history, and American biography, it's an important book. For general readers, it's extremely worthwhile. The book can be obtained from all the usual sources. Support your local independent bookstore.