three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
20-Jan-Feb-2006
By: 
Ron Powers
user_rating: 
0

A Life

A-MarkTwainIn this sprawling biography, Powers examines the man who first gave voice to the American experience. Powers previously tackled Twain’s boyhood in Dangerous Waters: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain (1999), but here he sets Twain’s long, complex, and often tragic life against the backdrop of an emerging nation. Twain, a nationally respected newspaper reporter, gained worldwide acclaim as a humorist and lecturer, becoming, in Powers’s words, "the first rock star." He introduced realism to American literature and wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the book that Ernest Hemingway claimed "all modern American literature comes from." Despite the acclaim he received during his lifetime, Twain experienced bankruptcy and personal grief in his final years.
Free Press. 723 pages. $35. ISBN: 0743248996

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"Powers has succeeded in providing us a work of comprehensive scholarship worthy of its subject. He manages to stick close to the facts and resists Twain-like embellishment, creating a narrative that is, incredibly, exciting, given our familiarity with the broad outlines of Twain’s life." Martin Zehr

San Diego Union Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"In his introduction, Powers scolds biographers who ignore Twain’s ‘voice, not to mention his humor.’ … He avoids this mistake, dipping into the great man’s letters, stories, essays and novels. Better yet, Powers gives us the personality behind the words." Peter Rowe

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Powers has written extensively about Twain in the past. … His gift here, however, is, first, to deliver the writer to us with subtlety and sensitivity, and then to set Twain’s life story in the context of the growth of the United States." Marjorie Kehe

Denver Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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." John Freeman

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"One of the many virtues of Mark Twain: A Life is its scrupulous justice, a stern yet tolerant account of rage and gentleness, affection and malice, creative genius and financial idiocy." Geoffrey Wolff

Washington Post 2 of 5 Stars
"Twain led a wild and untidy life that demands a strong, steady guide to shape it into a coherent biography, but Powers tends to meander along with his subject’s violently shifting moods." Michael Patrick Hearn

Critical Summary

Mark Twain: A Life is an audacious undertaking. Twain’s singular career was so rich and varied, and his inner life so complicated, that he defies easy categorization. Except for the occasional misstep, Powers pulls it off. He marshaled his own considerable expertise and mined the archives of the Mark Twain Papers project to produce a narrative that not only documents Twain’s life but also demonstrates how the great author personified an emerging nation. Critics agreed that the book’s historical context is its greatest asset and praised Powers for avoiding the pitfalls of many of Twain’s recent biographers. Some reviewers were more forgiving than others of the book’s shortcomings: Powers occasionally mixes up his facts and his prose is overwrought at times. Nonetheless, a fine effort.