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The following review appeared 13 October 2005 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Mark Twain remains elusive prey. As Ron Powers points out in his excellent new biography Mark Twain, A Life, he continues to remain "hidden in plain sight" (p. 6) defying anyone to capture him within the covers of a book. The historical facts of Twain's life have been abundantly documented and new information is constantly being uncovered, but enough of his life has stayed in the shadows to inspire a broad range of speculative criticism and biography. We have been given the kindly old funny man, the serious philosopher, the social critic, the angry old drunk, the gay Twain, the American prophet, the sexually repressed failed artist, the demanding incompetent businessman, the split personality, the singular fellow, the purveyor of unredeemed boyhood dreams, the western wildcat, the witty bohemian, the jovial family man, the genial cigar-chomping bon-mot machine, and the man with a personality flawed by whatever pathology appeals at the moment. Counting both full-length treatments and shorter memoirs, his biographers have included two of his three daughters, his "official" biographer, countless friends and casual acquaintances, fellow authors, his business agent, his secretary, his dentist, one of his maids, more than one artist who drew his portrait, actors and actresses, an opera singer, adults who grew up as children near Redding, editors famous and obscure, at least one niece and one nephew and two distant cousins, perhaps one-third of the population of Missouri, and of course, Twain himself. And did I mention the burglar or the circus clown? From this motley bunch, Ron Powers falls into the class of Missourians who have given us Twain biographies (if he falls into any of the other categories, he's not talking).
Powers has written one probing biography of Twain's early life titled Dangerous Water (1999), and two memorable portraits of Twain's home town of Hannibal, White Town Drowsing (1986) and Tom and Huck Don't Live Here Anymore (2001). While a Missouri birthright alone is no guarantee of success, Powers is right at home with his subject. Powers gives Twain his own voice, warts and all, animating his story with a compelling blend of fact, spirit, humor, and sympathy, all spread over the framework of a novel with a beginning, middle, and end, graced with the requisite elements of a good drama with character development, motivations, plot twists, and redemption.
Powers begins with a "Notice" modeled after Twain's own famous "Notice" that preludes Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He reminds his reader that he will be calling his subject "Sammy" in his childhood, "Sam" and "Clemens" in his personal life, and "Mark Twain" when discussing him as an author, and he lists the appropriate punishments for readers who stubbornly refuse to understand why. This is more than a simple and amusing gesture, and Powers makes good on his threat and by doing so succeeds in delineating Twain's complex and constantly shifting dual and singular personality, finding the truth that lies ("hidden in plain sight") somewhere in between where two biographers by the name of Kaplan hunted their quarry with mixed success.
Powers begins his story--and it's a page-turner even though most readers know how it will end--on the day Twain made his way to the offices of Ticknor and Fields to meet and thank the editor who reviewed his first successful book, The Innocents Abroad. There were many turning points in Twain's life that Powers might have chosen for his beginning including the joys and horrors of Clemens's childhood; his first taste of an appreciative audience while publishing squibs in a local newspaper; his trip away from Hannibal that led to New York City; his first hearing of a jumping frog story that later launched him to fame; his first publication in a magazine with national exposure; leaving California to travel to New York and publish his first book; etc. But Powers's choice is the best choice. That sympathetic reviewer introduced Twain's work to his first serious literary audience, and his meeting with that reviewer led to a life-long friendship that shaped Twain's entire public and private life, as William Dean Howells fulfilled the dual roles of personal confidant and reliable arbiter of public tastes.
Powers's style is never too distant, never too familiar and never afraid of the vernacular and the occasional pun. It is mature, focused, and comfortable. Readers who expect new research will be disappointed. Those looking for some theme or theory will cock their ears in vain for the sound of a grinding ax. However, those hoping to read a solid (if not flawless) biography of Mark Twain narrated in the tone of an empathetic, perceptive and wise friend, will feel right at home.
One of the best examples of Powers's blend of modesty and humor comes after he has presented a convincing case that Twain was sexually attracted to "Mother" Mary Fairbanks, whom he met on the Quaker City cruise, an intellectual and sympathetic (and married) woman just a few years his senior who served as his informal editor and social mentor. Perhaps, says Powers, Twain dubbed her "mother" to create some proper distance and suppress his impulses. Powers concludes his airtight argument with, "It's just a thought" (p. 221). I've never seen this tag-line appended to any scholarly work, but I can think of hundreds where it belonged.
Powers points out Twain's early use of "snappers" at the ends of his lectures and stories, and then utilizes them himself at the ends of his paragraphs and chapters with great effect. No biographer can ignore Twain's famous claim that he fell in love with his future wife the second he laid eyes on a miniature portrait of her, but Powers gently adds his own assessment that she was "a young woman more ethereal than beautiful, with rather narrow-set eyes under dark eye-brows; a small, composed mouth; and the sort of ears that might have drawn tugs from her schoolmates" (p. 213). Powers captures the relationship between Twain and Charles Webster, the ill-fated manager of his publishing firm, when he says "Don Quixote had found his Sancho Panza." He goes on to describe Webster's willingness to "immerse himself" and pander to Twain's every whim, and quotes a letter from Webster to Twain in which Webster promises "your smallest wish shall be gratified no matter how much it discommodes me." Powers presages the logical outcome of this relationship, concluding, "Webster was soon to learn how stressful it could be to lose one's commode" (p. 482).
Also like Twain, Powers knows the difference between using almost the right word and exactly the right word, and keeps his lightning and lightning bugs in their proper places, never confusing the two. When he quotes Twain using the word "absquatulated" (p. 142) he picks up on this word and uses it with pitch-perfect effect in subsequent pages. Powers also gives his narrative a jaunty, contemporary feel with the use of modern words and phrases like "rock star" (p. 164), "mojo" (p. 497), and "WMDs" (p. 523). Powers uses these effectively, but depending on whether these words become part of the American vernacular for the next century, future readers may have to turn to a dictionary. Well, let 'em.
Powers constantly supplies the reader with portents of things to come, or reminds them of undercurrents from the past. He weaves the repeating themes and events of Twain's life with skill, and at unexpected moments, as when Twain "strode down the gangplank into the hard daylight of the gathering Gilded Age" (p. 174) when he arrived in New York in January of 1867 to seek a publisher for his first book. Sometimes the reminders are amusing, but telling, as when Powers recalls the dinner of turnips and water that Twain was served at the Lampton household in 1861 (p. 353), a never-forgotten cuisine that would find its way a dozen years later into the pages of his first novel, The Gilded Age.
Context matters, and Powers knows context. When describing the steamer Ajax's return to San Francisco from Hawaii (the Sandwich Islands) Twain was present at the docks to interview passengers. We learn from Powers how Horace Greeley had introduced the "interview" into journalism just a few years earlier; how the social life on the Ajax attracted Twain's satirical eye in much the same way the social life on the Quaker City voyage would catch his eye a few years later; how Twain himself, the fledgling interviewer, would eventually become the most interviewed man on the planet; and finally how Twain would hone his abilities to make himself at home in any port of call, at the same time maintaining a journalistic distance.
In a single paragraph (p. 189) on Twain's New York debut at the Cooper Union, we learn what Twain, the first steam engine, the Atlantic cable, and Jell-O all have in common. Powers's style is a blend of humor, word choice, and context that are hard to analyze separately. One example may suffice: After telling the tragicomic tale of Twain's speech at the Whittier Birthday dinner, in which all of these elements are brought to bear, Powers ends with context that reaches forward in time one full century, providing a clean summation that "whatever else one might make" of that event, Twain had "inaugurated a venerable institution of American popular culture: the celebrity roast" (p. 413).
While much of Powers's story must cover familiar ground, it invariably yields new insights and spins. Besides Powers's theories regarding Twain's conflicted attitude towards sexy "Mother" Fairbanks, some readers may be surprised to learn that Laura Wright, who loomed large as one of Twain's lost-loves, was a school principal to Master Wattie Bowser (p. 440). Powers's presentation of the correspondence between Twain and Wattie Bowser (pp. 439-42), the Dallas schoolboy, is wonderfully amusing and telling.
This biography of more than 700 pages does not escape without typos and factual errors, but they do not seriously compromise the truth of the narrative itself. This reviewer will follow the example set by Twain, who once said he was taking time to correct errors in a book he was reading because he liked it so much he wanted it to be perfect. A few errors made by previous scholars do creep in. Powers has Twain arriving on the steamboat, Gold Dust, in New Orleans in 1882, when in fact Twain changed boats in Vicksburg and arrived in New Orleans on the Charles Morgan. In one reference, the title to Twain's greatest work Adventures of Huckleberry Finn carries a superfluous "The." The claim that A Connecticut Yankee (1889) was the first American science fiction novel (p. 523) is a bit slippery. Edgar Allan Poe (Arthur Gordon Pym, 1838) might lay claims to that honor, depending on how one defines science fiction. Powers gives James R. Osgood credit for some things more rightfully claimed by James T. Fields (p. 446) in attracting certain authors to the publishing firm of Ticknor and Fields. Some geographical locations get misplaced, like Keokuk's location in Iowa or William Gillette's castle. Some numbers given may be the result of typos: a 33,000 mile tour of the Mississippi River, (p. 455); 2,000 review copies of The Innocents Abroad, (p. 321); 100,000 copies of the Belford edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, (p. 385). The early editions of 1601 were not printed on linen (p. 393), but on linen paper. Typesetting (p. 48) also involves locking the lines of type from the stick into a metal "form" before being put in the bed of a press, a critical step Powers leaves out of his description of the process. Charles Webster gets confused with Charles Warner (p. 577). The Whole Family was certainly published in 1986 (p. 387), but it was originally published in book form in 1908. The Gilded Age was not the first novel ever sold by subscription (p. 333) but it was one of the earliest sold in this fashion. Powers praises Charles Neider's version of Twain's Autobiography (p. 622) when more praise could be reserved for Michael J. Kiskis's version. The story is told that Jean Clemens tried to kill Kate Leary (p. 623)--a story rooted in a long ago discredited misunderstanding of epilepsy--but a story repeated by others over the years without contradiction. Of particular interest to the careful reader, the reference notes for the last two chapters are misnumbered, beginning with note 24 on page 681; probably the result of some cutting or editing in the final chapters on Twain's life. None of these flaws, examined singly or taken together form a pattern that can amount to an indictment of Powers's research, but they must be noted for the record.
Toward the end of the book comes what may be the major disappointment
of this biography. After 598 pages, Powers condenses the last decade of Twain's
life down to a meager 28 pages, explaining that just as Twain ended The
Adventures of Tom Sawyer because it was only intended as the story of
a boy, he must end his story of Twain's life because "being strictly
a history of a man, it must stop here; the story could not go much
further without becoming the history of an old man. Which is to say,
the history of every old man" (p. 618). Twain's last years were hardly
the story of every old man's last years, and most readers will be unconvinced
by Powers's explanation. It is a pleasure denied to see Twain's last years
telescoped. This leaves Powers in debt to his readers for another volume on
Twain's last decade.
Together with Powers's Dangerous Water, a few corrections to this volume, and another volume from Powers on Twain's twilight years, we might have the definitive Twain biographical trilogy that an untimely death denied Dixon Wecter. It's just a thought.