Classic book review: Mark Twain: A Life
Like his young country, Mark Twain was rough, raw, and wholly original.
[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This review originally ran on Sept. 27, 2005.] He was born two months prematurely, so underweight and unattractive that his own mother said, "When I saw him I could see no promise in him."Skip to next paragraph
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As a boy, he was an uneasy soul who walked in his sleep, a poor student who daydreamed rather than studied until he dropped out of school at the age of 12.
When he became a man - and later a celebrity - he was still wild and disreputable, so much so that when he asked his friends (and these were his friends, mind you) to recommend him to his fiancée's parents, most suggested they grab their daughter and run.
Yet he was also a man of immense sensitivity, whose youthful feelings and impressions both haunted and sustained him throughout his lifetime. He became an adoring husband and so tender a father that when his eldest daughter went to college he longed to deliver her laundry just so he could be near her. All his passions were larger than life and they shaped his story, for good and for ill.
But most important, he is the man many credit with giving American literature its voice. He is Mark Twain, and thanks to Ron Powers we now have a new biography, Mark Twain: A Life, carefully crafted to help us experience the restless, complex, enormously gifted Samuel Clemens as a living, breathing, three-dimensional being.
Powers has written extensively about Twain in the past (including an earlier book called "Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain.") His gift here, however, is, first, to deliver the writer to us with subtlety and sensitivity, and then to set Twain's life story in the context of the growth of the United States, which was still an infant country full of potential but raw, rough, and unformed in 1835 when Samuel Clemens was born.
Sammy, as he was first known, came to a family that seemed destined to struggle. His father, although a bright and self-educated man, wasted his time and energy on a series of failed business schemes. (It was a pattern to be repeated throughout the lives of Twain's older brother Orion and even Twain himself.)
But despite the family's economic struggles, Twain's boyhood gave him material to feed on for the rest of his days.
He spent his formative years in Hannibal on the banks of the Mississippi and in slave quarters where a slave named Uncle Dan'l (a model for Jim in "Huck Finn") told stories and delighted the young boy with his language and rhetorical skills.
Young Sam, however, never stood still for long - not at any stage of his life.
By the time he was 18 he had already traveled more than 2,000 miles, lived in three major East Coast cities, and worked as a newspaper correspondent.
During the next decade he would make 120 steamship trips on the Mississippi, enjoy a wild interlude in Nevada and California (in part to avoid fighting in the Civil War), travel abroad, gain a national reputation as a humorist, and become almost an overnight sensation as a lecturer.