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Mark Twain: A Life
by Ron Powers
722 pages
Free Press
Published: September 2005

Mark Twain: A Life” was published in 2005 and is one of a dozen books authored by Ron Powers – not including four he co-authored as well as a biography of Jim Henson he wrote which remains unpublished due to objections from the deceased puppeteer’s family. Powers won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for critical writing as a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. His most recent book “No One Cares About Crazy People: My Family and the Heartbreak of Mental Illness in America” explores his two sons’ battles with schizophrenia.

This biography’s most obvious strength is its ability to follow the jagged contours of Twain’s tumultuous life – observing, considering and coherently reporting the countless twists and turns negotiated during his seventy-four-years of success, infamy, pain and hardship. And during most of its 627-page run, the narrative incorporates healthy doses of cultural and social context, providing an invaluable backdrop to Twain’s various machinations.

Many readers will be entranced by early tales of his days as a budding reporter in Nevada, his years spent as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River and his “luxury cruise” to the Holy Land in 1867. Others will appreciate the persistent appearance of witty one-liners (“The first weeks of Sam’s courtship bore all the cerebral complexity of a Saint Bernard beating its tail against the floor.”)

Powers’s prose in this adventurous biography is much like Twain himself – thoughtful, complex, often quite clever and, at times, almost irreverent. But readers who have grown accustomed to the alluring literary voice of biographers such as Chernow or McCullough will find this biography rougher terrain. The narrative is delightfully trenchant and penetrating but rarely elegant or smooth-flowing…and never settles into a rhythm for long.

In addition, while some authors incorporate highbrow vocabulary with admirable dexterity, Powers’s use of sophisticated syntax seems designed to send his audience searching for a dictionary. Finally, the biography ends promptly with Twain’s death; no consideration of his life or legacy is provided beyond that which is subtly injected into preceding chapters. Since much of his fame accrued after his death, Powers’s failure to consider Twain within the context of our time is regrettable.

Overall, Ron Powers’s “Mark Twain: A Life” may be as close to a fully-satisfying biography of Twain as is possible given the daunting complexity of this restless, gifted and flawed American Voice. It seems unlikely that another biographer will research Samuel Clemens more fully, analyze his character more deeply or be more unsparing (if still sympathetic) of his personal and professional failures. But if it is possible to write a better biography of Mark Twain, my money is on Ron Chernow.

Overall rating: 3¾ stars