Mark Twain: A Life
by Ron Powers
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authored by Ron Powers – not including four he co-authored as well as a biography of Jim Henson he wrote which remains unpublished due to objections from the deceased puppeteer’s family.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
Russ Robinson said:
I’m considering reading ‘Dangerous Waters’ by Ron Powers before I tackle this one. I understand it’s about Twain’s younger years.
If you do read it, please let us know what you thought! I found his early years fascinating, though somewhat quickly covered in Powers’s cradle-to-grave biography of Twain.
Russ Robinson said:
Just finished Power’s Dangerous Waters. A detailed account of Twain’s early life. It’s basically what made a young Samuel Clem mons, Mark Twain. His childhood wasn’t always easy and surprisingly somewhat violent at times Hannibal MO wasn’t an calm Midwestern town we often think about in the years before the Civil War.
It was a stop off point for pioneers, prospectors, etc all going west. Of course Slavery made a big impact on Twain.
Only 300 pages, it won’t take up a lot of your time. Certainly worth the time of your interested in Mark Twain.
Thanks! I definitely found Mark Twain interesting and I’m really looking forward to Ron Chernow’s take (though I expect to be waiting awhile). Sounds like Powers’s book is almost one I could efficiently read while simultaneously tackling something totally unrelated (like, say, a biography of Tecumseh or Lindberg!)
Thank you for another great review.
I found another review from 2005 (http://www.twainweb.net/reviews/powers2.html) which ended with:
“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 …”
… and cue Ron Chernow:
“… in response to an audience question that his next work is going to be a biography of Mark Twain in his later years.:
Terry H said:
I think a biography of an author (or other creative person) has to be one of the most difficult to pull off. I mean, everything is in their head. I struggled with a two-volume biography of Herman Melville. One that I think is closest is Joseph Frank’s five (!) volume work on Dostoevsky. Thankfully, there’s a one-volume abridgement that you might tackle some day. Looking forward to your Abe!
When it comes to Twain, I just keep reading Tom Sawyer every year (and hoping my grandkids will let me read it to them) and Huckleberry Finn every now and again. (Its clearly the better novel–but reading is also fun!)