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Mark Twain: A Life Paperback – June 5, 2006
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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This book does a nice job tracing the arc of his life from childhood, most famously in Hannibal, Missouri, to his effort to create his own career (for a time as a riverboat pilot), to his abortive career as a soldier in Missouri, to his trip west to make his mark, to. . . .
His life was rich and full--even as he experienced failure (some of his speaking tours went bust, whereas others were grand successes; he wasted a fortune on failed inventions--going bankrupt, in essence, later in his life). He was beloved by many, made friends with major figures of the day--but could easily insult people, lose his temper, and turn his back on associates.
His wife, Livy, was his partner for many years. This book also suggests very briefly here and there that Isabel Lyon and Laura Wright (later Dake) had little known roles in his life. The latter sounds innocent. The former? So little is mentioned here that that story remains in the shadows.
The story of how he created his works, from Tom Sawyer to Huck Finn and so on, is well told. The book describes nicely the early years of his writing career, as a reporter, then as a humorist, and then the evolution toward a major author. What makes this work especially interesting is the exposition of Twain's somewhat mercurial nature and his interactions with those around them. He could be hard on people; he could also be the most loyal of friends.
His last years, rather sad at that, are well described. All in all, a fine biography of an American icon. . . .
But this ability of a true genius was embedded in a deeply flawed and ambiguous person, a person who only partially overcame some deep prejudices, often showed uncaring irrational cruelty to friends and family, and frequently acted in self-centered and narcissistic ways. Powers does an excellent job of showing both the genius and the flaws. Powers’ own writing is clear with smooth transitions and well-organized chapters and paragraphs. Though a long book, it is easy to follow with chapter titles followed by the months or years covered in the chapter. Multiple double-spaced breaks in each chapter allow the reader to stop at a break point and come back with no problem. Powers adds periodically a touch of humor in the story analogous to what Twain would have done. It is usually a sentence or a phrase, sometimes just a word. For example, he has Twain “absquatulate” to the West before his ragtag group of Confederate volunteers at the beginning of the war could be attacked by, of all people, a fairly ragtag team of Union soldiers led by a new leader, Ulysses S. Grant. “Absquatulate” is exactly the kind of 25 cent word, a bit strange sounding, that Twain would insert into his work at times. I found such bits of irony or mimicry of Twain appropriate and a helpful addition to the flow of the narrative.
Powers lays out the best and worst of this American original. This is a terrific biography that keeps the reader’s attention from Sam Clemons’ birth to Mark Twain’s death.