"The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow," opined Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain). Here, Powers (The Cruel Radiance) follows Twain's genius to its source, illuminating both the sorrow and the exhilaration of a boyhood that provided a lifetime of inspiration. The saga, framed by two anecdotes from Twain's old age, begins with the westward journeys of his grandparents and parents and the arrival of the Clemens family in Missouri just before his birth in 1835 ("I do not remember just when, for I was not then born and cared nothing for such things," remarked Twain). It ends with the death of his brother Henry in 1858. Young Sam's life was a m?lange of horrors, pleasures and difficulties. He was haunted, among other things, by a distant father who moved ever closer to bankruptcy while pursuing dreams of wealth, and by images of the self-immolation of a drunk to whom he had supplied matches. He found great solace in smoking a good cigarAhe began at age sevenAand in the tales and songs he heard around the fire in the slave quarters. Powers regularly draws convincing links between Twain's early life and events and characters in his fiction, locating Twain's greatness as a humorist in the dynamics of his family, the tragedies that surrounded him, the literary currents of the time and a lifelong love for the varieties of spoken language. At times, Powers strains for significance, for instance marking the end of Twain's boyhood four disparate times. But he demonstrates convincingly that "the sunlit parts of [Twain's] childhood cast deep shadows... and in those shadows lay the dark artifacts that would torment and compel him to his masterpieces..-- childhood cast deep shadows... and in those shadows lay the dark artifacts that would torment and compel him to his masterpieces."
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An eloquent portrait of the American Renaissances greatest writer as a young man. Powers is the Pulitzer Prizewinning author of eight books. His expertise in popular culture, mass media, history, and the American small town is in evidence here as in Far from Home: Life and Loss in Two American Towns (1991). Powers, who also grew up in Hannibal, Mo., sees Mark Twain as Americas first popular, media-fed superstar who knew how to dress for the photo op. Powers exposes Clemenss mirth for the flip side of the mans many tragedies. ``Sammy'' was a premature baby and sickly toddler who grew up into the barefoot boy who showed off for the girl wed know as Becky Thatcher. Far from a protected and fanciful Tom Sawyer, Clemens, as a three-year-old sleepwalker, tugged at his sisters blanket a few days before she died. She was one of several siblings Sam would lose. Unsuccessful but not evil like Huck Finns papy, Samuels father was relatively bland, passing on only his tendency toward bad debts and investments. Powers shows that young Sam was fascinated by the spoken word (whether of preachers or slaves) and by books, from the Bible (despite his famous heresy) to Cooper, because his reality was so painful. The biographer notes an inner conflict that is the key to Clemenss appeal: ``the Connecticut literary gent contending with the western roughneck.'' After adolescence, itching to light out for the territories, young Clemens ``made the break from his landlocked life'' and talked himself to the captains wheel on riverboats. Powers feels the Mark Twain pseudonym helped free Clemens to become the ages most celebrated humorist, traveler, lecturer and novelist. There are 20 pages of chapter notes, but this biography is too good to be confused with literary criticism. Powers calls out ``mark twain'' and leads us on Samuel Clemenss dangerous, poignant, and delightful voyage against the current. -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.See all Editorial Reviews