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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Tue, 7 Sep 2004 18:19:56 -0500
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by John



_Mark Twain: A Biography_. By Connie Ann Kirk. Greenwood Press. Pp. xxi +
140. Laminated hardcover. $29.95. ISBN 0-313-33025-5.

Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted prices from
the TwainWeb Bookstore, and purchases from this site generate commissions
that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
John D. Evans

Copyright (c) 2004 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

_Mark Twain: A Biography_, by Connie Ann Kirk, is the latest in a series of
biographies published by Greenwood Press. Greenwood Biographies
specifically target high school students and secondary schools. Their goal
is to provide educators with challenging yet entertaining biographies of a
wide variety of people, past and present, who have had an impact in the
fields of science, history, literature and the arts, politics, and the
world in general. Their list of personalities was the result of feedback
from educators and librarians, and has become "an intriguing mix of the
well known and the unexpected, the saints and sinners from long-ago history
and contemporary pop culture." The list would not be complete without the
inclusion of Mark Twain who would playfully count himself among the sinners.

Greenwood's mission is to provide "in-depth information about the subject's
life from birth through childhood, the teen years, and adulthood." A
thorough biography, they maintain, "relates family background and
education, traces personal and professional influences, and explores
struggles, accomplishments, and contributions." This is a yardstick by
which any biography may be measured, but biographers who are writing for
the high school reader face a unique challenge--accomplishing the above
within pre-set limits. A sampling of Greenwood Biographies suggests that
the publisher likes to keep the length of their biographies under two
hundred pages, and with good reason--high school students, by their very
nature, are intimidated by thick books with small print, and no pictures.
When one considers the complexity of Twain, the volume and variety of his
writing, his many accomplishments, and his impact on literature, the task
of condensing his life is daunting, yet Connie Ann Kirk has done so very

Her biography of Twain is a straightforward chronological narrative of his
life presented in six chapters starting with an introduction to the man and
the author. The chapters that follow divide Twain's life into five stages:
his childhood in Florida and Hannibal, Missouri ("A Heavenly Place for a
Boy: 1835-1847"); his Mississippi years ("From Printer to Pilot:
1848-1861"); his western years ("Lighting Out for the Territory:
1862-1869"); his golden years at Buffalo, Hartford, and Elmira ("The Gilded
Years: 1870-1889"); and his years of tragedy, debt, and loneliness ("Later
Years: 1890-1910").

There are inherent dangers in condensing so much material into a limited
space. One danger is to omit large segments of the subject's life, focusing
only on those areas that make interesting reading. The other danger is to
include everything in such a sketchy fashion that the biography becomes a
series of bare facts strung together on a thread of chronology. Connie Ann
Kirk successfully navigates between those pitfalls to create a short
biography that is entertaining to read and still presents a rather thorough
picture of Twain. She accomplishes this with a careful mixture of the
sketchy and the detailed. Twain's military experience, for example, is
summed up with "the Civil War would not be Sam Clemens's calling." The
death of Twain's brother Henry, the courtship of Livy, and Rudyard
Kipling's visit in Elmira, however, are related in detail with dialogue and
descriptions worthy of a novel.

The author uses the same selective approach when dealing with the works of
Mark Twain. At times she relies on lists of works and their dates of
publication during a period of Twain's life, but major works such as
_Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_, _The Adventures of Tom Sawyer_, and
_Pudd'nhead Wilson_ are given their own segments in the book detailing the
writing of the manuscript, the plot outline, its publication history, and
its literary impact.

Kirk has very carefully tempered Twain's biography with just enough
literary criticism and modern scholarship to be informative to high school
readers without burdening them with material they may not be prepared to
understand. Ironically, the very qualities which make Twain worthy of a
biography are of secondary importance to high school students whose primary
focus may be just to read an interesting or exciting life story. Shelley
Fisher Fishkin's study of Huck's voice and Laura E. Skandera-Trombley's
assessment of the influence of women in Twain's life are both touched upon,
and Hemingway's assertion that all American writing stems from _Huckleberry
Finn_ is mentioned briefly as Twain's legacy. These offerings show students
that Twain's life and writings are complex, open to interpretation, worthy
of study, and valid in today's world. For the more serious student who may
be inspired to do further reading or study, the author has carefully
annotated each chapter separately.

If there is one flaw in this biography, it lies in the early pages which
explore the origins of the Clemens name and details the history of John
Marshall Clemens, his many failed business ventures, and his Tennessee
land. While it may be important to understand the mechanics that deposited
Samuel Clemens on the banks of the Mississippi and his inheritance of poor
business sense, it is also important to remember that this book is written
for a generation of students who demand instant gratification. Samuel
Clemens does not burst upon the scene until page eight, and in a biography
of only 104 narrative pages, that is a relatively significant chunk of
reading before the student gets to meet the subject of the biography. It
might be more gratifying for the student if Twain were introduced
instantly. With a minor break from a rigid chronological narrative, much of
the "back story" could be presented at appropriate times in the course of
the biography itself.

This is a minor point, and does not diminish the overall quality of the
book and its many fine features. One feature common to all Greenwood
Biographies is a chronological listing of biographical details in the
context of pertinent historical events. Twain's chronology includes
historical and literary events and begins in 1770 with the birth of Samuel
Clemens, Twain's paternal grandfather, and ends in 1966 with the death of
Nina Clemens Gabrilowitsch, his granddaughter and last direct descendant.
The appendixes include a Clemens family tree, a list of books read and
consulted by Twain, a rather small sampling of Twain's quotations, a
chronological list of books published by Twain in both England and America,
and a list of websites and important places and holdings in Mark Twain
studies. These efficient lists help round out the biography, filling in any
gaps that may have occurred in the narrative presentation. Twain's two-week
military misadventure, for example, is covered in more detail in the
historical chronology.

The entire package is bound in glossy hardcover with a three-quarter
profile of Twain in one of his most distinguished poses (1907). Dressed in
suit and vest, white hair flowing, Twain gazes off to the right beyond the
red border of the picture. It is an attractive book and invites one to read
it. This is an important quality needed for any book on a high school
library shelf, and, as many will find out, this is one book that may safely
be judged by its cover.