Mark Twain: A Life by Ron Powers

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The sage's eyes didn't run over when Mark Twain lampooned him (along with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and other institutions of society) at a swanky Boston banquet in 1877. Nor did Emerson's family find it funny when Mark Twain "disgraced himself" (though we're not told how) at the august littérateur's deathbed a few years later.

Mark Twain - or Sam Clemens, to give him his real name - could be vindictive, vengeful, explosive, as well as gauche. These qualities, possibly created, or at least sharpened, by the insecurities of childhood (father a bit of a fool; siblings die) gave his performance, particularly beyond the written page, a ribaldry that could be bitter or reckless, or both. They could make it hard for people, among them his admiring readers, to comprehend his élan vital. This new biography, by a Pulitzer Prize winning author, remedies that.

Here we have a wonderfully drawn portrait of a man who, on the one hand, has an audience in stitches with "...they all jumped on him at once like a batch of Irish on a sick nigger" (two politically incorrect sins in a single phrase, according to today's rules); while, on the other, immersing himself in Suetonius, Pepys, Malory, Carlyle, Cervantes, Plutarch, Darwin, Macaulay and Shakespeare before he was 25 years old.

His most informative study, however, was the Mississippi river, the "strong brown god" (as T S Eliot would write) of Clemens' childhood , youth and early manhood, on which he briefly was a riverboat pilot. The river yielded tragedy, humour, adventure. It killed his beloved younger brother Henry, and entertained many millions through the escapades of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. "The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book," he wrote, "a book that was a dead language to the uneducated [riverboat] passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice." All his life it flowed, depositing none of its famous mud, through his astonishingly clear memory, even in his later years when he would turn to other themes.

As Powers puts it, "The river seemed, in life and in memory, to be a sanctuary for him"; not only in those antebellum years of the Mississippi's "floating palaces" ("moving mountains of light and flame"), but in the years during which his red hair turned to auburn and then to grey. Powers educates us with vividly detailed accounts of the great man's life and travels, in America and farther afield: across the Atlantic, into the Pacific, with oceanic storms lashing and honing his long experience of stiller waters, even as he tries to cheer himself with musings about the sea's "cheering influence". He is upbeat in his garrulity, especially, for example, in a coda appended to Innocents Abroad: "Lest any man think I mean to be ill-mannered when I talk about our pilgrims as I have been talking, I wish to say in all sincerety that I do not... They are better men than I am..."

Until he died, in 1910, aged 75, Clemens' enthusiasms never eclipsed his earlier influences - which of course enabled him to live quite well off them. Nor did his waterside tongue lose its rough edge. In a reference to the prolific novelist Henry James he said: "I would rather be damned to John Bunyan's heaven" than read The Bostonians.

Henry James, born into affluence, once said that one way of life was to "go in for everything and every one", being abundantly occupied, while another way was to be occupied "just with the sense and image of it all" rather than actual immersion. James chose the second way; Clemens, the first. James, who had an air of elaborate self-deprecating solemnity, complained, in 1895, that a "new generation [of writers], that I know not, and mainly prize not, has taken universal possession". He wasn't referring to Mark Twain, eight years his senior, who by then was an éminence grise of American literature, but to new writers whose style was, in all probability, influenced by the popular earthiness of Twain's output.

Even so, it is a bit of a shock to discover that around the time of James's whinge, publishers' prudishness had scarcely waned. Tom Sawyer Abroad, published by Chatto & Windus in 1894, was subjected to censorship. The "slang and naughtiness" were removed, and the illustrator was obliged to put shoes on the drawings of his characters. I'm not sure if these editorial attitudes were partly influenced by Mark Twain's temporary rejection of the biblical comforts to which most Americans cleaved (and still cleave), or by his calls for, inter alia, women's suffrage, or by his contempt for "Victorian ornamentation" in American literary English (which he helped to purge).

Ron Powers has written as good an account of the "Lincoln of American literature" as one could desire. There is some laboured prose about river craft ("Then the emergence from behind the bluff of the towering white emissary from Somewhere most unmistakably Else"). But the book is, on the whole, a joy, and I'd be surprised if anyone who, on reading the moving narrative of Mark Twain's (Sam Clemens') death in the final chapter, did not feel his eyes run over.