by Ron Powers

Free Press


722pp/$16.95/October 2005

Mark Twain
Cover by Eric Fuentecilla

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Unruly white hair, bushy moustache, a white suit, and a slow drawl.  Ron Powers delves far beyond the stereotypical portrayal to look at Mark Twain and the man behind him, Samuel Clemens, in his new biography, Mark Twain:  A Life.  In his lengthy book, Powers examines Samuel Clemens the man and Mark Twain the author, and comes to the conclusion that that Clemens was, to a certain extent, able to separate the two personas.

Powers traces Clemens’s life from his birth in Florida, Missouri until the year 1905, at which point Powers explains that it is no longer the story of a man, but would be the story of an old man, mirroring the end of Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  While this may be a clever conceit by Powers, it does leave the last few years of Clemens’s life a mystery (although they are well covered in Karen Lystra’s 2004 book Dangerous Intimacy:  The Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final Years).  However, Powers does successfully present a well-rounded image of Clemens which not only provides explanations for his actions and his books, but also provides an analysis of his major books.  The result is that the reader comes away from Mark Twain:  A Life with an understanding of the subject much more deep than possible with either a straight biography or critical essay.

There are times, particularly when discussing the Quaker City expedition, in which Clemens visiting Europe and the Holy Land and later used as the basis for Innocents Abroad, when Powers appears to accept what Clemens wrote as a factual representation of the journey and his actions.  While this may be the case, Powers does not rely as heavily on Clemens's other semi-autobiographical works, such as Roughing It, A Tramp Abroad, or Following the Equator for details about Clemens's life in the same way.

Occasionally, Powers attempts to claim some of Twain's voice for his own in his writing.  These passages, rare as they are, jar on the reader as they don't mesh with the general tone of the volume.  Similarly, when Powers seems to drawn parallels between Twain's time and the present, perhaps most notably when discussing Clemens's view of the Spanish-American War and the current Iraq War, he seems to be stretching to provide additional relevance for Twain in the modern time, something which is utterly unnecessary.

Powers's book is, on the whole, a success, perhaps most evidently in the fact that as the reader follows Clemens's life and Twain's career, the book constantly brings forward the desire to read Twain's own words, whether they are his famous books or his less famous, and less accessible, newspaper articles from early in his career.

Mark Twain: A Life is one of the most complete biographies available of the author.  It explores all facets of his life without falling into hero-worship.  Clemens is presented as a deeply flawed human being who made his flaws work for him in his professional life even as his personal life presented him with a variety of failures and difficulties.  Any one with any interest in Mark Twain or Samuel Clemens should pick up and enjoy every page of this book.

Purchase this book from Amazon Books 

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