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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 13 Oct 2005 10:28:15 -0500
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin Mac


Powers, Ron. _Mark Twain, A Life_. Free Press, 2005. 723 pages. Hardcover.
$35.00. ISBN 0-7432-4899-6.

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:
Kevin Mac Donnell

Copyright (c) 2005 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

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

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

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

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.