Made in America
Book Review: Mark Twain: A Life by Ron Powers
America loves second acts, but it also likes third, fourth and fifth ones. Just look at the life of Mark Twain. Born Samuel Longhorne Clemens in the tiny hamlet of Florida, Missouri, in 1835, the country's funniest writer appears to have been the busiest as well. During his life Clemens was a Mississippi river-boat pilot, a journalist, a traveling lecturer, raconteur, lover, society host, publisher and passionate critic of American imperialism. Sometimes all at once. Along the way, he also wrote three novels that became American classics.
Most Twain biographies have concentrated on his personality or literary production, and sometimes on his towering celebrity. Middlebury writer Ron Powers has finally gone after the whole man, from the prank-loving youngster to the turn-of-the-century expatriate; from the billiard-playing lay-about to the obsessive workaholic determined not to die in debt. The result is Mark Twain: A Life, a magisterial book that may not replace Justin Kaplan's 1966 biography but almost certainly will become the go-to guide for readers wanting to learn as much as they can about the man in a single volume.
And what a read it is. As Robert Caro has done with Lyndon Johnson, Powers takes a deep draught of that fragrant air surrounding his subject and turns his prose into an homage to his subject. Take a gander at this first sentence:
The prairie in its loneliness and peace: that was what came back to him toward the end of his life, after he had pulled the rug out from under all the literary nabobs, and fired off all his nubs and snappers, and sashayed through all the nations, and collected all his ceremonial gowns and degrees, and tweaked all the grinning presidents, and schmoozed all the newspaper reporters, and stuck it to all his enemies, and shocked all the libraries, and cried out all his midnight blasphemies, and buried most of his family.
OK, "sashayed" might be a bit over-the-top, but so was Clemens. From an early age he wanted to live, and he did. When he left home at the age of 18, "it was as if he had launched himself by slingshot," writes Powers. Over the next year Clemens traveled 2000 miles and visited three cities, living entirely by his wits. He set type in St. Louis and in New York, where he was paid "23 cents per 1000 ems." He didn't like East Coast people. They were "whisky-swilling, God-despising heathens," Clemens wrote to his brother Orion. He soon returned to the Midwest, but didn't stay for long.
Clemens' perambulations grow more interesting with each page, as he begins to write about his travels, transforming them into observations, tales and fabulous fibs. Thanks to the Mark Twain project at the University of California at Berkeley, many of these letters and journals are available, and Powers is a master at citing them. For example, though Clemens' evolution from typesetter to river-boat captain is somewhat vague, his reaction to 1200 miles of the Mississippi isn't, as we learn in a letter he sent to Pamela Moffett in 1859.
The face of the water in time, became a wonderful book - a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice.
Of course, in time, Samuel Clemens learned how to channel that voice, and in doing so became Mark Twain. The journey between the two is the meat of Powers' book. It is exhaustively researched, well told and refreshingly comfortable with contradictions. Twain appears to have wanted to do everything at once. He read voraciously - Pepys, Carlyle, Cervantes, Plutarch - and traveled widely. He ran away from the Civil War and Ulysses S. Grant (whose memoirs he would later publish) and wound up in Nevada, where he laid claims for timber ground, learned to write, and adopted his nom de plume.
Over the next decade, the name Mark Twain would become Clemens' entree to all sorts of experiences. In March 1866, he boarded a steamer for Hawaii, which he would write about for The Sacramento Union and incorporate into his second book, Roughing It. These experiences fed his stage show, which he soon kicked off in San Francisco, and paved the way for bigger jaunts. By 1867 Twain had catapulted himself to France, Russia and the Holy Lands.
Frantic subjects have a way of making their biographers pushovers. That's hardly the case here, since Powers is forever pausing Twain in his itinerary and culling more intimate thoughts from his welter of get-rich schemes and publishing imbroglios.
Powers, incidentally, is from Hannibal, Missouri, the town where Clemens/Twain spent most of his boyhood, and he displays a native's understanding for how to let his narrative pool and eddy without getting brackish. Within a hundred pages, Twain's childhood is gone and he's on his way to becoming famous, but Powers ably circles back over and again, reminding readers of the shadow cast by Twain's younger brother Henry's early death, in a steamboat accident.
Mining Twain's letters, Powers emerges with a complex man who created an entire persona to keep the world at bay. The most interesting bits of Powers' bio counter our image of a charming, whip-smart humorist who played to the crowd. By 1874, Twain was a full-fledged celebrity besieged with requests for help and advice, and even money. Here is how he answered one particularly pushy woman:
Madam: Your distress would move the heart of a statue. Indeed, it would move the entire statue if it were on rollers . . . I never have heard of a case so bitter as yours. Nothing in the world between you & starvation but a lucrative literary situation, a few diamonds & things, & three thousand seven hundred dollars worth of town property. How you must suffer.
Twain could be humorous, but often at others' expense. At one point he suggested his brother Orion try writing two books Twain himself wouldn't be able to get to: "One is 'The Autobiography of a Coward,'" he wrote to Orion, & the other 'Confessions of a Life that was a Failure.'" What are we supposed to make of this rather mean-spirited, gloating gentleman, who was throwing money at everything? Twain spent $10,000 so that The Prince and the Pauper had the best paper stock and a lavish cover.
Were it not for the downward turn of Twain's fortunes, it would be easy to find him a bit of a blowhard. Gradually, though, the soil began to crumble beneath him. Twain's house burned on several occasions, and he built it back finer and grander each time. That was OK - by 1880 he was earning $250,000 a year. But he began to spend more than he earned. Twain traveled back to the river to get hold of himself, and wrote one of his best books, Life on the Mississippi. But afterwards he went right back to the entrepreneurial life that had run him ragged, and with the same lack of success as before.
By 1894, Twain had to declare bankruptcy. He paid off his debt and restored his fortune with an 1895 world tour. But success was not to be savored. In 1896 he learned of his daughter's death, from meningitis.
Twain lived another 14 years, but his best work was behind him, and his joy clouded. Travel began to enervate him. Twain died in 1908 at "Stormfield," the Italianate villa he had built just a few years prior in Redding, Connecticut. He had been reading Seutonius, the Roman biographer who was briefly private secretary to Emperor Hadrian. Twain might have hoped his own biographer would be as thorough and thoughtful as was the ancient Roman. In which case, he can rest easily now.