127 of 129 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eminently Readable
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"...
Published on October 17, 2005 by Amazon Customer
3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars
Interesting trip into the life of Samuel Clemens - connects a lot of scattered info into a cohesive narrative.
Published 8 days ago by Amazon Customer
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127 of 129 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eminently Readable,
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.
61 of 69 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An ordinary man - plus genius,
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. The mining ventures, the reporter's role and world travel each produced their own literary nuggets. In a time without jets or SUVs, Clemens' voyages seem almost astonishing. Yet every trip and their stops provided fresh nuggets he would refine and reproduce for our delight. Powers shows that the portrayals are far more than just "reporting" on the Western way of life. They are harbingers of what was making the United States
Powers' view of his subject avoids the popular form of "deep" analysis. Instead, he demonstrates how far-reaching Twain's views proved. He found his nation's imperialist ventures abhorrent, and Powers' presentation of it is subtly topical. He uses Clemens' voice for his own - "he made a book of a Paige" referring to the aftermath of the bankruptcy would be a perfect Twain aphorism. Powers carefully analyses Clemens' writing prowess, noting both strengths and weaknesses with professional candor. "Huckleberry Finn", considered by many to be the greatest of the novels, takes a sharp turn in Powers view. The "break", he says, follows the "Wagnerian aria" of Huck's damning himself for protecting Jim's identity. Following that event, the biographer condemns Tom Sawyer's "evasion" scheme as anticlimatic to the vitality of this outstanding work.
Having produced a "life" that reads with an easy familiarity, Powers should be applauded for restoring Clemens as a human being, a literary icon and as the voice of the United States of his day. Clemens successfully broke the patterns of both Boston Brahmin intellectualism and the frequently disdainful view of Victorian commentators. Powers manages this without speculation or judgement, simply offering Twain's expressive words in their context. Having produced other works about Clemens' youth and environment, he's capped the "set" with an outstanding biography. Anyone wishing to learn about Clemens should start here. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A pleasure to spend time in his presence,
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.
35 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterpiece on America's greatest writer!,
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.
Powers' expertise in the field of literary criticism is seen as he describes the conception and execution of Twain's major works (listed here in their order of publication): The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches; The Innocents Abroad; Roughing It; The Gilded Age (with Charles Dudley Warner); The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; A Tramp Abroad; The Prince and the Pauper; Life on the Mississippi; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; The American Claimant; Personal Reflections of Joan of Arc; Tom Sawyer, Detective; Following the Equator; Eve's Diary; and Letters from the Earth.
Powers points out that Twain characteristically used the narrative technique of a frame story--a main story that seeks to organize a set of shorter stories, each of which is a story within a story. Twain's strong suit as a writer, he asserts, was not tightly organized plots with logical connections and transitions; his genius lay in a free-flowing style that carved out new islands of prose, much like the wild. wide-ranging Mississippi River that periodically overflowed its banks.
Although Twain lacked formal training in rhetoric and literature, he was a voracious reader, knowing the Bible better than many men of the cloth, and knowing Shakespeare almost as well as the Bible. Powers raises an interesting question: "If he had been schooled in the formal requirements of literature, would that have suffocated the divine, anarchic spontaneity [and serendipity of his narratives] that provides the greatest pleasures in his work?"
Twain's early works established his reputation as a "mere humorist." These tall tales and genre send-ups are filled with language parodies, hoaxes, quaint customs, deadpan drolleries, sarcasm, and zany, antic "snappers" of the type beloved by stand-up comics. His mastery of platform gimmicks, especially the dramatic pause, typically sent his audiences into convulsions of laughter. "Mark Twain," writes Powers, "never met a genre he didn't like to lampoon."
And yet Twain had a darker, more serious side. "The line between humor and sorrow," writes Powers, "was thin, tending toward nonexistent, in Samuel Clemen's mind." Twain himself wrote, "The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no laughter in heaven." His satire, turning skeptical and cynical, contained barbed stings.
Twain told his friend, the Rev. Joe Twichell that he did not believe in the "divinity" (divine inspiration) of the Bible, and that it was arrogant and presumptuous of humans (insignificant microbes in a vast cosmos) to believe in a providential God who intervenes in world events and answers prayer.
Having a "personal hatred for humbug," Twain lashed out at pious pretensions and patriotic flimflam with the fury of an Old Testament prophet. The radar of this "moralist in disguise" (his self-description) was keenly attuned to detect hypocrisy and mendacity.
Powers devotes much space to Twain's relationship with his family--his wife Olivia Louise ("Livy") Langdon, and their children, Langdon, Susy, Clara, and Jane (called "Jean"). Langdon died as an infant, Susy died of spinal meningitis, and Jean was an epileptic whose death also preceded Twain's. Of his immediate family, only Clara survived Twain. Powers also describes Twain's lifelong friends, William Dean Howells and the Rev. Joe Twichell, and Twain's disastrous pursuit of a will-o'-the-wisp, the Paige typesetting machine, which promised to make him filthy rich, but which instead drove him to the verge of bankruptcy.
The writings of Twain's last two decades were especially filled with anger. Although he approved the United States' intervention in Cuba, he soon parted company with the imperialism of a new "Manifest Destiny." The American expansionist policy of seizing the Philippine archipelago aroused his fury. Powers points out that Filipino losses would total twenty thousand soldiers and more than two hundred thousand civilians against 4,200 Americans dead.
"I am an anti-imperialist," thundered Twain; "I oppose putting the eagle's talons on any other land." Reading these words a century after they were written, one experiences an eerie sense of deja-vu.
"The newspapers heralded [Twain]," writes Powers, "as a prophet, or something larger than a prophet'; the soul of the nation personified."
Twain's dark fury also turned more intensely to religious humbug. "I have a religion--but you will call it blasphemy. It is that there is a God for the rich man but none for the poor." His scathing indictment of jingoistic patriotism, "The War Prayer," was so potentially offensive to conservatives that his editors refused to publish it. Also, Twain ordered that his iconoclastic work, Letters from the Earth, be published posthumously, so as not to wound his pious wife, whom he adored.
Of Mark Twain: A Life, Ken Brown writes: "No one understands the complicated American the world knows as Mark Twain better than Ron Powers. Finally, we have scholarship and writing worthy of the man. Powers's prose is insightful, elegant, and gets to the center of Twain's life, humor, tragedy, and outrage."
Hal Holbrook writes: "Ron Powers ... gives us the steady progress of Twain's intensely personal existence, the human side of Twain's victories and failures. With lightning-bolt images Powers illuminates the explosive strength of America's homegrown literary voice."
"Twain demonstrated, as no one had before him," writes Powers, that humor and thematic seriousness were not incompatible." The same is true of Powers' Mark Twain: A Life. Well-researched and well-documented this work of solid scholarship is a serious biography. But it is also a work containing much humor, spiced as it is with Powers' bon mots, zingers, and snappers.
For many years, Ron Powers has communed with the greatest of American writers and has absorbed much of Mark Twain's spirit. With superb writing, he brings Twain to life. Buy this book! It's a masterpiece.
Roy E. Perry of Nolensville is an advertising copywriter at a Nashville publishing house.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars University presses! Take note!,
I can add nothing to the other reviews here. I would add, sadly, that Powers' excellent biography of Mark Twain would unlikely to ever appear on the list of a university press, at least without a lot of editing. Scholarship is not the issue. Powers puts himself into the book and makes comments that no university press would tolerate. Rather, they would insist on bland prose.
21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sewing Up Twain,
Mark Twain and his volatile life have often been microscopically filleted until one literally can't see the whole man for the particular interpretation of him. This is certainly an understandable scholarly approach with such a wealth of material to deal with. But now in Ron Powers's holistic Twain book we see the parts finally coalesce into the whole fascinating fellow.
Twain was impish, outrageous, sentimental, crass, heroic, vituperative, venal, generous, vain, insecure, self destructive, self regenerating, almost mystically prolific and uncompromisingly brilliant but above all passionately human. Thanks to Powers's watershed book, we can see just how human. The many letters from which he has quoted contain Twain's trademark yin yang of self deprecation and hilarity. The narrative is so seamless that there are times it is difficult to see where Twain's writing leaves off and Powers's begins.
Most are accustomed to the beloved Twain of both white suit and hair (and occasional red socks) featured center stage, spouting quotable humorous yarns, culminating with the zinger of truth. In Powers's book, Twain is still in the spotlight, but now the house lights have been turned on to reveal the rest of the cast. What a cast, and what a stage America was! Twain starts strutting America's proscenium in the mid 1800's when the country traveled by horse and buggy or river steamboat. He goes from preteen unpaid cub typesetter and nascent reporter to Mississippi riverboat pilot, then carouses through the gold pixilated West, making his bones as mining town reporter where facts were meant to be flexible. Later he starts his lecture circuit, eventually becoming as famous and apparently as temperamental as the most worshiped of our contemporary rock stars. Mark Twain as chick magnet. Who knew?
Back East, he finds his mentor and eventual life-long friend, editor-critic William Dean Howells; writes his first smash hit, the comic travelogue "Innocents Abroad," then meets, woos and weds his dear aristocratic Livy. He travels, publishes more books, pens "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and much later his masterpiece "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
Twain criticizes but personally revels in the wealth of the "Gilded Age", (which he named in a novel of that title), throws lavish parties and rubs shoulders with writers, generals, presidents, and robber barons. Eventually he even turns publisher of Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs, rescuing the dying general's family from bankruptcy. All the while he is writing letters by the basketful to family, friends, and foes. Somewhere In the process of traveling to write travelogues and lecturing to repay debts, he becomes world renowned. In the end, despite losing a fortune and most of his dear family, and having to lecture to repay his almost infantile business investments, he never stops observing, writing "appearing" and critiquing his 19th century even into on into the nascent 20th century. Twain endures.
In addition to his humor, Powers highlights Twain's revolutionary literary voice; his unique take on `our' particular American voices. In an age characterized by "polite" Victorian prose, Twain wrote in the American vernacular, not to ridicule, but to capture and popularize the cadences of ordinary people for the first time. The voices of Huckleberry Finn and Jim explode the myth of the contented slave in a time when people still hung on to the concept of slavery as divine right. There are other voices in the book. The voices of Twain's contemporaries as seen by Twain pop to life in his correspondence and are further lovingly delineated by Powers. Of course there is the actual written or spoken voice of Twain as lecturer, letter writer, critic, and occasional mock rube. Again, the voice. It's his humor, his humanity, his self deprecation and his passion for life that we hear.
If you are used to dry biographies, throw away your pre-conceptions. This book has been written by someone with a unique voice. It is scholarly, but graced with wry humor, it's informative, but above all, it is wildly entertaining. Twain is never ever dull. He could not have chosen a biographer with a voice more suited to his work.
Joan Hibbard Ryan
22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magnificent,
Ron Powers's "Mark Twain" is one of those rare treats: a biography where the subject and author are so perfectly matched that the result is a fascinating, compulsively readable book, one that proves perfectly worthy of the subject it covers. It will certainly become the gold standard of Twain biographies.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nice to listen to as well as read,
This review is from: Mark Twain: A Life (Audio CD)
I wouldn't presume to add anything to the reviews of this book, even if I could. But I didn't find any comments on the quality of the recording, which is worth a note.
The reader is the author himself, Ron Powers. He is very easy to listen to. I find myself drifting off less than I usually do, and getting a lot more of the meat of the book. Powers manages to suggest by his voice when the subject changes or a recurrent theme appears and he clearly pronounces the punctuation that he no doubt sweated over. His imitation of Twain's voice isn't quite what I expected after Hal Holbrook, but it works to make the transitions to and from quotations very fluid, and I have begun to think of it as the voice of Twain.
All in all, I liked Power's reading as much as those of professional readers. If the book sounds good to you, I am certain you will love the audio CD.
18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Everything you always wanted to know about Twain, and then some...,
This review is from: Mark Twain: A Life (Paperback)
I have never been exposed to Mark Twain, but I do enjoy reading biographies. So when a friend gave me Mark Twain: A Life by Ron Powers, I couldn't resist.
Mark Twain is a mammoth work, and Powers goes to great lengths to explain this 19th Century icon to 21st Century readers (Powers calls Twain America's first rock star). Twain had a circuitous route to fame, and the author starts with his childhood and the history of the Clemmens family. Twain first became a printer's assistant, switched over to steamboat pilot and then had a very short career as a Confederate soldier in the Missouri State Guard. But Twain's first love was writing, and he became a successful newspaper writer for two Western papers. This gave him the platform which launched his career as a humorist, speaker and novelist.
Powers gives us lots of information about his relationships with his family and friends. Clemmens was a prodigious writer, and is said to have written from 50,000 to 100,000 letters. He also kept dozens of notebooks, which help give us a window on Twain's thought processes. It is mind-boggling to think that Twain's social circle included Thoreau, Emerson, Longfellow, Henry James, Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Ward Beecher and William Dean Howells.
But while Powers gives us everything we ever wanted to know about Twain (and then some), he skimps on Twain's early years, as well as his old age. Powers claims that the Hannibal years of Twain's youth were the "ten most imaginatively fertile years of his life." Yet Powers only spends one chapter (13 pages of a 722 page book) discussing these formative years. Powers dedicates only two chapters (29 pages) to the last ten years of his life. Instead of facts, Powers has a tendency to over-analyze Twain's writing. The chapter on Huckleberry Finn reads like a doctoral dissertation. At the end, Powers leaves us hanging when Twain breathes his last, and there are many unanswered questions. Where was Twain's funeral? What was it like? Who eulogized him? Where is he buried? Does he have any descendants? Who reaps the financial benefit of his writings today? When and how was his Hartford house turned into a historic site? And what ever happened to his father's Tennessee land? After finishing this book, I discovered that Twain had his wife's remains cremated. Why didn't Powers include this fact in his book? Such information is interesting--especially for the times.
Still, Powers is a wordsmith and he is obviously smitten with his subject. His descriptions of Twain's talent are first rate. "Mark Twain's baton began to mute the Anglican symphony and strike up the rhythms of American jazz....Any language to him was a form of music. Even the slightest misuse of his native tongue grated on his ears like a false note--unless it was in dialect, which had its own laws." Powers claims that Twain suffered from "typographical Tourette's Syndrome" when he worked as a Western news writer. This is good stuff. But unlike Twain (who valued brevity), Powers loves a dollar word when a nickel word will do.
I definitely enjoyed Mark Twain: A Life and it has piqued my interest to read more of and about Mark Twain. I may even take a ride to see his home in Hartford CT. But I feel that Powers fell short of having a truly magnificent biography.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best Biography of Mark Twain?,
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This review is from: Mark Twain: A Life (Paperback)
I thought it was, and this is my third or fourth Mark Twain biography. It has more detail and contains a synopsis of each of his major works. Nor are his minor writings ignored but the factors that relate them, one to the other, are discussed and analyzed. Twain's family, his friends and his associations are examined and the facts laid out for the reader to decide whether the great man was a great friend or a bit of a rascal (he was both).
Bring along your Webster's Dictionary: Ron Powers has a command of many adjectives I needed to look up. I deemed the exercise beneficial even when the list of new vocabulary words grew quite long. Being challenged by an author is one of the reasons we read these long tomes, isn't it?
So be forewarned, this is a very long and very detailed biography but if you are interested in social history, as I am, in which you have the pleasure of learning what it was like, day to day, to live Mark Twain's life, you'll like this book. If a 700 page read with notes is intimidating you may want one of the other Mark Twain biographies I've read. If you're frightened by new terms this book is not for you. Powers is not for everyone. At this writing there are three two star reviews which cite these issues and his supposed interjected political views (I must have missed that part) as reasons for not liking the book. I find when an author challenges through context or ideology I learn something beyond the mere factoids biography lends itself to occasionally.
I'm giving this book five stars because I enjoyed reading it, the author displays a fine sense of irony from time to time, and because Powers ability to carry the narrative page after page kept me interested even when the events in Mark Twain's journey were off putting. It's well written, clearly well researched, has fabulous detail and plenty of style.
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Mark Twain: A Life by Ron Powers (Paperback - June 5, 2006)