Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Mark Twain: A Writer’s Life tells not only most of Twain’s life story in an engaging way but also something of the saga of the United States’ coming-of-age. In Milton Meltzer’s book, one senses the tenor of the nineteenth and early twentieth century: the push westward, the lawlessness of Western towns, the magic of the Mississippi steam-boat era, and the raw destruction of nature by powerful industrialists that created the “gilded age” for the few and an age of misery for the many. It is the restlessness of Americans that the book illustrates so well, and Twain is their exemplar.

In a highly accessible manner, Mark Twain tells readers how Twain came to write about the many places that he visited. For example, readers find themselves watching steamboats as they churn past Twain’s boyhood home of Hannibal, Missouri, seeing some of the first American tourists abroad, and enjoying jumping-frog contests in California mining camps. The biography begins with Twain as a sickly baby, eliciting his mother’s sardonic comment after she was asked about whether she was afraid: “ ‘Yes, the whole time,’ she said. ‘Afraid I wouldn’t live?’ A long pause. ‘No, afraid you would.’ ”

The book makes clear that, apart from the town of Hannibal, Twain’s most important source of schooling and inspiration was the time that he spent navigating the Mississippi River. (Later in life, he would say that he never met anyone in his post-river-pilot days that he had not met on the river.) Readers envision how the boy Samuel Langhorne Clemens turns into the man Mark Twain by observing the river currents and steering past snags and other hazards, learning lessons about life from the collection of drifters, backwoodsmen, gamblers, and boatsmen who came into his ken.

Meltzer dwells upon Twain’s early...

(The entire section is 760 words.)