For some who made such an enormous contribution to American literature, Mark Twain has been the subject of many books the subject of many books but few major biographies. Albert Bigelow Paine’s dated butt still valuable three volume mark twain: A biography(1912) was the only “authorized”one. Paine,Twain’s literary executor,also cobbled together an autobiography in 1920 that must be approached cautiously. The best biographyremains Justin Kaplan’s magisterial Mr.Clemens and mark Twain (1966). Now Ron Powers-the author of Dangerous water: A biography of the Boy who became mark train – has published mark train: a life, after 20 years of research. Powers challenges Kaplan and his Pulitzer prize-winning book. He accusses anyone who dares interpret Twain”through the prism of Freudian psychoanalysis”of treating the man”as an interesting, if not terriby self-aware outpatient-a walking case-book of neuroses, unconscious tendencies, masks, and alternate identities.” Power’s purpose is to restore “the contours of an actual, textured human character,”as well as his voice,not to mention his humour”that “has gone issing from many of these analyses.” He relies on great chunks of Twain, mostly form leters and notebooks,thatmight have been more felicitously woven into the fabric of his narrative nevertheless, the vitality in these quotes invigorates the book. Powers recounts again the famous story of the poor river-town boy who became,according tothis friend William Dean Howells, “the Lincoln of our literature.” Twain’s literary reputation was what he and Robert louis stevernson called “submerged renown,”one that was “down in the deep water,once a favourite there, always a favourite, once beloved,always beloved,once respected, always respected,honoured, and believed in.” Alh\though he received honorary doctorates from Yale,Oxford and elsewhere,Twain never felt that he was taken seriously. “The world likes humour,but it trets it patrnisingly,”E.B.white observed., “It decorates its serious writers with laurel, and its wags with Brussels sprouts.” Sully Prudhomme, Bjornstjerne Bjornson, Christian Theodor Mommsen and Selma lagerlof all won the Nobel Prize for Literature,but not Twain. Twain’s work had to wait until the 1935 centenary of his birth for the vaish critical attention that he believed it deserved.
He always had the public’s attention. As a Hannibal,Missouri,native,powers might have brought more insight into the town’s most famous son. A firmer editorial hand might also have pruned away some of the flippancy, the repetitions and slang, as well as some of the factual leaps. How, for instance, does powers know that sam Clemens studied Mc.Guffey’s readers, the famous 19th century school books? Twain later recalled several other textbooks byname, as well as the Sunday school tracts he loathed, but nothing form William H.McGuiffey. Louisa May Alcott mayhave shown up in McGuffey’s Fourth Reader, but not when Clemens was a boy. (she was only three yeaers older than him) powers makes other mistakes, too:Horatio Alger did not write the first American boys’s adventure books; the Currier & Ives fortune came fromstone lithography, ot photo engraving; and trhe actress with whom Twain hobnobbed was Ellen (not Eileon)Terry. At times, this biography resembles,as powers called the Innocents Abroad,”a grab bag of abrupt digression.” Powers is best at specific details of Twain’s long,troubled life. GHe is particularly good at reconstructing the courtship of Clemens and his future wife,Olivia Langdon. He skillfully retraces the complex publishing history of Twain’s books,incyuding the founding and failure of hs own firm, which led to his bankruptcy. But pwers goes off-track with gratuitous information. For example, he discusses at length themost notorious hookers in Virginia city. References toFrank Sinatra,HelenGurley Brown,STArbucks,Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont seem similary irrelevant. Twain led a wild and untidy life that ddemands a strong, steady guide to shape it into a coherent biography,but powers tends to meander along with his subject’s violently shifting moods.