Review: Mark Twain: A Life

I’ve long enjoyed reading Mark Twain.  There is a combination of pulling for the hometown boy, in that he is buried in my hometown, and well, I just like the way he writes.

There’s a certain amount of Twain’s life that one soaks up living in Elmira, the way I assume one must soak it up living in any one of the many other towns in which he lived.  Any opportunity for a high school English or History class to spend a week talking about his life was taken.  As a result, I knew the broad outlines of Twain’s life before I picked up this book.  Ron Powers, the author of Mark Twain: A Life, seems to assume such passing familiarity without leaning on it.

Overall, Powers’s book is a fine gateway into Twain’s life and career.  His writing is clear and crisp, assumes the reader has heard something of the subject without being an expert.  From that basis he composes a biography that is conventional in form – birth to death telling of the major events – but light and discursive in content.  There is a daunting amount of scholarship about Twain, focusing on everything from his place in world literature to the motivations for the most trivial choices, and Powers points that out without getting drawn into the vortex of it.

For example, it’s really difficult to decide how to address the subject of this biography: Twain is fictional and says and does things that Clemens doesn’t.  Powers solves this elegantly by referring to the writings (and the writer) as “Twain,” the adult as “Clemens,” and the child as “Sammy.”  The last seems a little incongruous until one reflects on how Clemens’s childhood informed practically all his written work.  It’s a very useful convention through which Powers keeps the reader connected to the history and influences of the man simultaneously. A reader can also see how he has been driven into this convention by a mob of scholars willing to dispute any particular characterization.

Powers’s narrative is well composed, and he drops a few bits of Twainian dry wit in as well.  He relates the seminal events with detail and provides analysis as to how and why the world and the author consider them important.  He also covers smaller incidents that provide background and tone.  Overall one comes away with a solid impression of Twain’s importance, abilities, and flaws.

There are some seams visible as well.  The chapters occasionally restate material already covered in a way that another pass or two over the whole manuscript might have caught.  Powers also seems enamored of William Dean Howells as well.  I don’t know the story here, but I suspect that Powers is a student of Howells, and is also interested in writing about him more extensively, or has done so.  It’s never distracting; Powers never forgets whose story he’s telling.  But still, you can see him stealing verbal glances at the person he’d rather dance with.

These criticisms are more in the spirit of notes.  The work is interesting, enjoyable, and informative.


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