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Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography Hardcover – November 13, 2001

4.7 out of 5 stars 25 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (November 13, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375405615
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375405617
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 0.8 x 10.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #731,084 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Like the comet that heralded his arrival and, 74 years later, signaled his passing, Mark Twain was a man in nearly constant motion. Either his pen was racing across the page, or he was racing across the world, gathering the raw material of experience for his stories, es­says, letters, novels, invest­ments and inventions. He was a writing machine, turning out so much copy that we haven't yet found the bottom to this gold mine.
Part of Twain's greatness is that he was a man of enormous talent and en­ergy who was in the right places at the right times. It was the perfect combination that made him a uniquely American artist. Talent without energy would not have given him the ability to write so much. Ener­gy without talent would not have made him, as Russel Banks' words, a wise guy who was wise. American letters is full of humorists who are now footnotes. In Twain's time, there is P.V. Nasby, and Josh Billings, Bret Harte and Arte­mus Ward. What makes Twain so different?
First, Twain saw himself as more than a humorist. He was a moralist. He was perfect­ly capable of writing funny without a point, whether it be about a trick played with a jumping frog, or the stories about Tom Sawyer. But he also used Huck Finn to rage against slavery. He berated Commo­dore Vanderbilt for not using his millions to help the poor (he later hob­nobbed with the rich, one of those contradictions that en­riches his character). Later in life, embittered by the death of his children, he abandoned hu­mor to rail against imperial­ism, lynching and even God.
Written by Burns' collabora­tors Dayton Duncan and Geof­frey C. Ward, "Mark Twain" is crammed full of stories that show us the man behind the penname. Twain boiled with mirth, resentment, anger and passion, both on and off the page.
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Format: Hardcover
If you only read one biography in the next year, I suggest that you make it this one.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) was “torn between fame and family, between humor and bitterness, bottomless hunger for success and haunting fears of failure.”
His own writing makes this volume sparkle. “I am only human -- although I regret it.” “Aw well, I am a great and sublime fool.” “The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.” His ability to capture the American vernacular on paper has never been equaled.
Much of his best-known writing was based on Hannibal, Missouri where he lived from age 4 to 17, and visited only 5 times thereafter. The benefit of an illustrated biography for Mark Twain is that you can see the people and places he was describing, which adds to your enjoyment of those works and to a greater understanding of his craft. Tom Blankenship was a model for Huck Finn and Laura Hawkes inspired Becky Thatcher. Constantly on the move, Twain wrote about the places he visited to earn his living and you will learn a great deal from seeing contemporary photographs and illustrations of these sights from the western United States and Hawaii through to Europe and the Middle East. He also did a world-wide lecture tour in 1895 that is captured here.
“Livy” (Olivia Langdon) was the great love of his life, and you will be enchanted and touched by their letters. You will also enjoy learning about her role as editor (helping him avoid expressions that would offend almost everyone) and as muse (he wanted her to be proud of him).
You will come away with many new impressions of Mark Twain.
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Format: Hardcover
Finally! A "coffee table" book that has top-quality photos and an excellent text.
MARK TWAIN: AN ILLUSTRATED BIOGRAPHY is a companion to a two-part, four-hour documentary film, directed by Ken Burns, on the life and work of Samuel Langhorne Clemens and his "famously, irrepressibly rambunctious alter ego Mark Twain."
Ernest Hemingway once said that Twain is "the headwater of American fiction" and called THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN "the best book we've ever had. There was nothing before. There's been nothing as good since."

George Bernard Shaw referred to Twain as "America's Voltaire."

William Dean Howells described Twain as "incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature."

Susy Clemens once wrote of her father: "He is known to the public as a humorist, but he has much more in him that is earnest than that is humorous. He is as much of a Philosopher as anything, I think."

In this reviewer's considered judgment, Twain is the greatest literary genius America has produced, a thinker of remarkable depth and substance.

Twain's life was filled with many travels, adventures ... and tragedies. Born in 1835, when Halley's comet made its appearance, he lived for 75 years, until 1910, when Halley's comet returned. He survived, and suffered, the death of his beloved wife "Livy" (Olivia Louise Langdon), and three of their children: Langdon, who died in infancy; Susy, who died of spinal meningitis at age 24; and Jean, who died of a heart attack evidently brought on by an epileptic seizure.

"The secret source of humor itself," wrote Twain, "is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven. ... [Our] race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon--laughter. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.
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