It is difficult to overestimate Mark Twain’s place in American literature. With Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), he established the vernacular voice in American literature. He is quoted more often than any other writer except William Shakespeare. His friend William Dean Howells called him “the Lincoln of our literature.” Twain’s life spanned the American nineteenth century, from the antebellum period through the Gilded Age into the beginning of the twentieth century. Twain said of himself, “I am not an American, I am the American.” With the assistance of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California at Berkeley, biographer Ron Powers has been able to incorporate many recently discovered letters and notebooks in his massive new historical work, Mark Twain: A Life.
In his prologue, Powers emphasizes the importance of the November, 1869, meeting in the Boston offices of the publisher Tichnor & Fields, between Twain and Howells, the young editor of The Atlantic Monthly. This encounter would blossom into a close literary friendship which would connect the Brahmin tastes of American high literary culture with Twain’s vigorous, new American vernacular style. Twain was a deeply subversive figure, ridiculing and mocking American genteel attitudes and tastes in his first book, The Innocents Abroad (1869). It is to Howells’s credit that he recognized the enormous talent behind Twain’s unprepossessing veneer of a shambling, drawling, ill-dressed bohemian. The Howells-Twain friendship enabled Twain to contribute regularly to The Atlantic Monthly, a bastion of Brahmin literary tastes, and to extend his literary reputation. Through his friendship with Howells, Twain was able to break into “the ranks of New England literary culture” and in the process reinvigorate American literature.
The Powers biography departs from the standard theoretical/interpretative perspective of many Twain biographies, most notably Justin Kaplan’s award-winning Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (1966), and offers instead a historical/interpretive perspective which places Twain within his time period and milieu. The forty-five chapters of his massive, exhaustively documented new biography march the reader through Twain’s life in short increments, offering much new factual material based on the enormous archives of the Mark Twain Project at Berkeley, with its eleven thousand Clemens letters, fifty-odd notebooks, six hundred unpublished or unfinished manuscripts, and many other memorabilia. Powers also corrects many of the factual errors and misconceptions in Albert Bigelow Paine’s authorized three-volume Mark Twain: A Biography (1912) and the heavily edited, posthumous Mark Twain’s Autobiography (1924) that Twain largely dictated to Paine.
What Powers offers is a rich social and political biography that places Twain within the center of the cultural changes in post-Civil War America. In The Gilded Age (1873), his collaboration with Charles Dudley Warner, Twain exposed the sordid political climate in Washington, D.C., and in Congress. With his popular stage appearances, Twain became the first American literary celebrity, achieving the equivalent of almost rock-star status. His hunger for public approbation enabled him to play upon his audiences’ sensibilities to a remarkable degree, with his distinctive Missouri drawl, dramatic pauses, shuffling gait, hoaxes, burlesques, and other humorous devices. Though humorists were generally held in low repute, he developed his stage and literary humor into a distinctively American genre. Through his Western vernacular frontier sketches and his persona of the “American vandal” in The Innocents Abroad, Twain became the voice of a newly emergent and outwardly self-confident America, though his mockery of European culture and tradition reveals an underlying sense of cultural inferiority. His friend Howells also noted the anger beneath Twain’s humor, his indignation at injustice, and his incisive social criticism.
The private Sam Clemens was also complex and contradictory, as Powers demonstrates. An auburn-haired man with bushy eyebrows and mustache, an aquiline nose, and a curious shuffling gait, Twain presented a striking image. Ten years older than his wife, Livy (Olivia Langdon Clemens), and in many ways totally different from her in temperament and class, Clemens remained devotedly in love with her, and they were an exemplary literary...
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