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Mark Twain: A Life Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 13, 2005

4 out of 5 stars 125 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Mark Twain grew up with America. Born in 1835, he reached adulthood as the country was expanding and threatening to splinter all at once. Along with his towering talent and personality, his timing and instinct for finding the action allowed him to play a major role in pushing the boundaries of American culture and mythology by creating a new approach to literature. "Breaching 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," writes Ron Powers in this dazzling biography. Not only did he observe and chronicle this cultural shift, he participated in it, allowing him to report "from the yeasty perspective of the common man." While still Sam Clemens, he worked as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River and experienced the Wild West of the Nevada Territory as a miner, land prospector, and newspaperman. Later, while still the people's champion, he married into wealth and ran with the moneyed class of the Gilded Age--until his money ran out--and toured the world meeting with the famous and powerful at every stop. He was, as Powers puts it, "the nation's first rock star." But Twain was more than just a writer and Powers strives to cover all sides of this complex man. Employing an approach he calls "interpretive portraiture," he explores Twain's personal relations, temperament, religious skepticism, and psychology as closely as his written work. He discusses Twain's zeal for life along with his "chronic insecurity," and describes how this eternally optimistic and forward-looking man was prone to spells of nihilism and despair. Powers is a talented and lively writer clearly up to the task of covering this American legend, and his book vividly and thoroughly explains why Twain was "the representative figure of his nation and his century." --Shawn Carkonen

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. After dozens of biographies of Twain (1835–1910), 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.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 736 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (September 13, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743248996
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743248990
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (125 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #751,982 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Mediocre biographies are medicore for the same reason that boring histories are boring: they list facts and dates while providing little context that brings the subject to life. But good biographies bring the emotion, the context, the why behind the what, that brings you into intimate contact with a vibrant human life. Ron Power's Mark Twain is of the "good biography" sort. Indeed, it proved far more fascinating and readable than I had reason to suspect it would be when I bought it on a lark. Mark Twain comes through in clear colors. One can easily imagine the impact this wild fellow had with his drawl, rolling walk, and incisve humor. In addition, one comes away with an understanding of how Mark Twain was woven into the fabric on 19th Century USA. The relationship between Clemens/Twain and his time is as interesting as the man himself.

Power's biography was refreshing and interesting on every page. Honestly, there was never a dull page. He effectively weaves into a coherent whole the life experiences of Samuel Clemens, the shaping forces that stimulated the growth of Mark Twain the writer, and the life those books had in 19th Century US as a whole. This tri-fold story is woven together seamlessly and dynamically. One comes away learning so much about a remarkable American icon as well as the nature of the times he lived in.

Obviously, I really liked this book. It has piqued me to re-read Twain, and read some of Twain's works that I have never read. I would think that anyone interested in writing, literature, and American history would enjoy Power's biography as thoroughly as I did.
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Format: Hardcover
At last! A rational, reasonable, but above all readable account of the man who gave the United States its most realistic voice. Biographies of Mark Twain are ranked along the shelves. From Paine through De Voto to Lystra's scurrilous depiction, Twain has been the subject of idolisation and iconoclasm. The Kaplans severed him and sutured him, but Twain has survived them all. Powers does more than simply restore Twain's reputation. He provides a picture of Clemens the man. More importantly, Powers gives us Clemens the observer, recorder and writer. The result is a robust work that will outlast its predecessors.

The past generation, tainted with "deconstruction", Freudian, feminist and anti-racist analyses of who Samuel Langhorne Clemens was, leaves many wondering why he should be venerated. Accusations of "crude" and "unlettered" still drift though writings about him. Powers lays these to rest with gentle, if firm, dismissals. Like any man, Clemens had his faults and foibles. His failures at business are the stuff of legend, but it was an era of freebooting capitalism. No vaccine had been developed to inoculate the innocent, and innocence was considered a virtue in Clemens' time. Powers carefully relates how "Sammy" who wanted to live forever on the Mississippi River, was snatched away from a life of absolute power - no-one dared challenge a steamboat pilot - to partake of an era for which he had no briefing.

From the childhood on the River, dominated by his austere father and religious mother, Sam Clemens moved across America to avoid the conflict he had no taste for. The escape to Nevada and the Comstock opened many opportunities for discovery. His own Mother Lode turned out to be people. Powers follows Clemens on his prospecting for personalities.
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Format: Hardcover
The first great advantage of this book is that it gives the reader the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the presence of an enormously complicated, interesting and humorous character , Mark Twain. A second advantage is that it does this by giving a detailed description of the time and world in which Twain lived in. It takes the reader through the wandering Twain's adventures in America , and as an innocent abroad. It relates turning point moments in Twain's life in a dramatic way, as for instance his meeting with William Dean Howells in the Atlantic's office in Boston, a meeting which not only open a forty- one year old friendship but pave the way for Twain's acceptance by the New England Literary culture which dominated American Letters.

Powers also gives insight into the unique genius of Twain. There is a wonderful paragraph in which he describes the child's gift for hearing and seeing in unusual ways. And how this gift would totally transform American literature bringing into the colloquial voices of so many different American worlds.

There have been other very good biographies of Mark Twain but this one in its most detailed reading of the life is a real contribution to our understanding of America's greatest comic writer.
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Format: Hardcover
Imagine if you will someone who is a mixture, on the one hand, of Voltaire and Nietzsche, and, on the other hand, of Andy Rooney, Steve Martin, Woody Allen, and Will Rogers, and you will get some idea of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), "the Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope" and "the Lincoln of American Literature," a man known as Mark Twain.

In Mark Twain: A Life, Ron Powers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning and Emmy Award-winning writer and critic who has studied and written about Mark Twain for many years (his published work includes Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain), has written a top-echelon biography of "the representative figure of his times."

Powers' project was to write a narrative of Twain's life and works that explains what bound Twain and his half of the American 19th century so closely together, and to explain the liberating personal magnetism that Twain possessed that moved his contemporaries to forgive him for traits and tendencies that biographers of a later time have found deplorable.

"Twainian critical literature from 1920 onward," writes Powers, "has been dominated by theory, rather than interpretive portraiture. His biographers have tended to evoke him through the prism of Freudian psychoanalysis. In that way he is seen as an interesting, if not terribly self-aware outpatient--a walking casebook of neuroses, unconscious tendencies, masks, and alternate identities."

Drawing heavily on the preserved viewpoints of the people who knew him best, Powers seeks to rediscover Mark Twain the human being, as he lived, breathed, and wrote. With the assistance of the Mark Twain Project at Berkeley, he has drawn on thousands of letters and notebook entries, many only recently discovered.
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