Samuel Clemens, the man known as Mark Twain, invented the American voice and became one of our greatest celebrities. His life mirrored his country's, as he grew from a Mississippi River boyhood in the days of the frontier, to a Wild-West journalist during the Gold Rush, to become the king of the eastern establishment and a global celebrity as America became an international power. Along the way, Mark Twain keenly observed the characters and voices that filled the growing country, and left us our first authentically American literature. Ron Powers's magnificent biography offers the definitive life of the founding father of our culture.
With brilliant immediacy, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain brings to life a towering literary figure whose dual persona symbolized the emerging American conflict between down-to-earth morality and freewheeling ambition. As Mark Twain, he was the Mississippi riverboat pilot, the satirist with a fiery hatred of pretension, and the author of such classics as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. As Mr. Clemens, he was the star who married an heiress, built a palatial estate, threw away fortunes on harebrained financial schemes, and lived the extravagant life that Mark Twain despised. Kaplan effectively portrays the triumphant-tragic man whose achievements and failures, laughter and anger, reflect a crucial generation in our past as well as his own dark, divided, and remarkably contemporary spirit.
The book begins as the thirty-one-year-old Mark Twain, carrying bottled within himself the experience of his boyhood in Hannibal and his coming-of-age on the Mississippi and on Nevada's silver-rush frontier, quits San Francisco and the old elemental America of the open spaces. He is heading east for the burgeoning new urban America of commerce, invention, finance, and status, where he is destined to marry well, hobnob with the rich and influential, throw away fortunes on tragically alluring schemes...and produce literary works that fulfill and go beyond the vocation he has already acknowledged: "to excite the laughter of God's creatures."
He is heard, seen, made palpable. The texture of his marriage with Olivia Langdon, the protean presence of Mark Twain on the lecture platform, his friendships and enmities -- virtually all his closest relationships partook of both -- spring to life. His writing and publishing experience is organically re-created. His endurance in the face of personal tragedy, his unrivaled charm, his compulsion to quarrel, his humility and his vanity are evoked and felt. His wit rings through the book.
"Honest poverty is a gem that even a King might be proud to call his own, but I wish to sell out. I have sported that kind of jewelry long enough." Thus the young Mark Twain, on the eve of world fame, spoke his disgust at a money-centered society in that blatantly philistine voice that he chose for his most savage satirical declarations. But all his life -- racked by his own ambivalences -- he was to embrace the values of that society.
Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain brilliantly conveys this towering literary figure who was himself a symbol of the peculiarly American conflict between moral scrutiny and the drive to succeed. Mr. Clemens lived the Gilded Life that Mark Twain despised. The merging and fragmenting of these and other identities, as the biography unfolds, results in a magnificent projection of the whole man; the great comic spirit; and the exuberant, tragic human being, who, his friend William Dean Howells said, was "sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature."
"...Twain lives in these pages as full and alive as any man could." --New York Times