This is more than a lavishly illustrated companion book to the Mark Twain PBS series. National Book Critics Circle Award winner Geoffrey C. Ward, Dayton Duncan, and Ken Burns have produced a cogent, colorful portrait of the man who forged our national identity in the sentences he spun. Excellent though the brisk narrative may be, the book's greatest pleasures are the extensive Twain quotations; no one has topped his description of the Mississippi River, and he had a salty remark for every occasion (charged an outrageous fee for a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, he cracked, "Do you wonder now that Christ walked?"). Passages from his correspondence reveal a man of deep feeling; letters to his wife Livy movingly express enduring marital love, and the grief-stricken note following his beloved daughter Susy's sudden death is almost unbearable to read. Excerpts from less well known works like "The War Prayer" highlight Twain's scathing contempt for imperialism and hypocrisy alike. Several freestanding pieces by various admirers (including novelist Russell Banks and actor Hal Holbrook) supplement the authors' text; most notable among them is critic Jocelyn Chadwick's persuasive defense of Twain's frequent use of "The Six-Letter Word" (n----r) in Huckleberry Finn
as a necessary and still-shocking device to confront Americans with the moral horror of racism. Gracefully synthesizing current scholarship, this warmhearted biography provides the perfect introduction to Mark Twain. --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
In 1867, after successfully marketing accounts of his Mideast travels to several newspapers, Mark Twain wrote to his mother, "Am pretty well known now. Intend to be better known." But he could hardly have anticipated the meteoric rise that would rapidly make him America's most prominent citizen. Next January, Twain will be subjected to that conclusive proof of American significance, the Ken Burns documentary. The inevitable cross-merchandising will include this illustrated biography, which, happily, stands on its own merits as a fascinating account of Twain's extraordinary career. All Burns productions center on a good story, and this is a plain, very human tale: rags, riches, and the rest. The authors (Ward and Duncan are frequent collaborators with Burns) thoroughly examine Twain's disastrous business sense, his horrid temper, his unlikely courtship of the heiress Olivia Langdon, his climb out of bankruptcy at the age of 60, the loss of three of his four children, his global celebrity. Even amid tragedy, Twain could make a stone laugh, but it was his rare frankness in confronting racism, and the publication of the controversial Huckleberry Finn, that would secure his fame beyond national borders and his own time. As one might expect, the Burns team has done magnificent archival detective work and unearthed a treasure trove of rare Twain photographs. This should appeal to a vast potential readership eager to learn more about this manic, profound, daft and provocative mad genius of American culture. (Nov. 20)Forecast: Shelve this with The Annotated Huckleberry Finn (Forecasts, Sept. 10) and sales should soar during the holidays, even before the TV documentary airs.
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