Plain speaking about Twain

Special to The Times

IN the first century of America’s independence, two men forged a new language for the new Republic: Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain. Of the writers and talkers of the 19th century, these two more than anyone else gave American English its own strong slant, its special sound and rhythm and punch.

They gave their countrymen, too, their own identity, one not unduly influenced by the Old World. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman proclaimed the new American but it was the president and the humor man who gave that creation their lasting and immutable stamp.

Lincoln has had his biographers, a mountain of them, some very good indeed. Twain has not. His biographers have been generally hampered by an excess of prudery or a superabundance of psychological interpretation. He has not had the benefit of a solid life story that includes the necessary facts as well as sensible commentary on the probable formation of the young boy’s outlook and character through to his psychological development as a young man and on to his development as a writer of astonishing imagination and skill.

Now, in Ron Powers’ “Mark Twain: A Life” we have that biography. Powers has given us the whole man. We feel we know him, as well as we can, as well as his most perceptive friend and fellow writer William Dean Howells knew him.


Along the way Powers brings to vivid life Twain’s America, from his boyhood as Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Sammy) on the banks of the Mississippi to his indelibly formative years as a steamboat pilot on that river to his lighting out for Gold Rush California and his first writing there, through the Gilded Age and into America’s first venture into imperialism in the war with Spain -- which Twain denounced ferociously.

Powers shows you a country of small towns and backwoods and farming turn gradually and then faster into an America of machinery and railroads.

The author, who has written widely about aspects of Twain, has relied heavily on the huge resources of the Mark Twain Papers at UC Berkeley, the great collection of letters and notebooks by and about Twain and family and friends. Powers has uncovered new things and looked at old things in new ways.

He quotes to pointed effect Howell’s 1901 description of Twain’s writing style, “his single-minded use of words, which he employs as Grant [the general and president, whose memoirs Twain published] did to express the plain, straight meaning their common acceptance has given them.... He writes English as if it were a primitive and not a derivative language, without Gothic or Latin or Greek behind it.”


Powers makes much of Clemens having been born prematurely. Such babies, he says, often come equipped with an especially sharp auditory sense, which, he argues, contributed to the writer’s almost uncanny ear for human speech in all its permutations. Powers notices that Twain noticed everything, clearly and sharply, all his life.

In a fascinating section of “Mark Twain: A Life,” Powers describes how Twain wrote and rewrote. In “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” “always” became “awluz” and “never heard anything” became “didn’t hear nothing.” In a draft Huck says, “I had about made up my mind to stay there all night, when I heard horses;” in the book it becomes “when I hear a plunkety-plunk, plunkety-plunk, and says to myself, horses coming.”

In the same section Powers shows the reader how Twain tinkered with and sharpened the language in which Huck ruminates on whether he should have a guilty conscience for fast-talking some slave hunters away from searching the raft where Jim is hiding. This passage, by the way, taken with many others, persuades one beyond doubt that whatever racism Twain may have picked up as a boy, he was way beyond it when he wrote “Huckleberry Finn.” His use of the “n-word” more than 200 times in that book was a reflection of the way people talked there and then, not of the way Twain thought they should talk.

The great strengths of this biography are that Powers shows you how Twain perceived and thought and wrote, on his good days and his times of despair and darkness. He shows how he made public reading and lecturing into fine performance art. And how Twain lived with his family, with such passion and faithfulness to his wife, Livy. The death of his darling daughter Susy as a young woman was, he said, a “thunder-stroke;” he wondered how a man could receive such a blow and still live.

Among the book’s weaknesses are perhaps an overabundance of detail about that dratted Paige typesetting machine into the development of which Twain sank so much money and subsequently lost his shirt. Also Powers’ deplorable fondness for bad puns with contemporary connections, as when he describes Twain’s unhappiness with the reviews of “The Prince and the Pauper:” “it was as though a vast, polite-wing conspiracy had formed.”

But the detail here and elsewhere brings alive the man who was not just a humorist but in his way a writer of tragedy, the tragedies so especially American of loneliness and loss and good intentions gone terribly wrong and, yes, of race. No biography of Mark Twain could do him full justice. Powers’ comes as close as you can imagine.

Anthony Day, a former editor of The Times editorial pages, is a regular contributor to Book Review.