Mark Twain founded the American voice. His works are a living national treasury: taught, quoted, and reprinted more than those of any writer except Shakespeare. His awestruck contemporaries saw him as the representative figure of his times, and his influence has deeply flavoured the 20th and 21st centuries. Yet somehow, beneath the vast flowing river of literature that he left behind books, sketches, speeches, not to mention the thousands of letters to his friends and his remarkable entries in private journals the man who became Mark Twain, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, has receded from view.
It is hard to imagine a life that encompassed more of its times. Sam Clemens left his frontier boyhood in Missouri for a life on the Mississippi during the golden age of steamboats. He skirted the western theater of the Civil War before taking off for an uproariously drunken newspaper career in the Nevada of the Wild West. As his fame as a humorist and lecturer spread, witnessing the extremes of wealth and poverty of New York City and the Gilded Age (which he named). He travelled to Europe on the first American pleasure cruise and revitalized the prim genre of travel writing. He wooed and won his lifelong devoted wife, yet quietly pined for the girl who was his first crush and whom he would re-encounter many decades later. He invented and invested in get-rich-quick schemes. He became the toast of Europe and a celebrity who toured the globe. His comments on everything he saw, many published here for the first time, are priceless.
The man who emerges in Powers' brilliant telling is both the magnetic, acerbic, and hilarious Mark Twain of myth and a devoted friend, husband, and father; a whirlwind of optimism and restless energy; and above all, a wide-eared and wide-eyed observer who absorbed every sight and sound, and poured it into his characters, plots, jokes, businesses, and life. Mark Twain offers an unrivalled insight into the life of one of America's greatest writers whose culteral influence was seminal in the creation of modern America.
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March 23, 1993
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Excerpt from Mark Twain by Ron Powers
"Something at Once Awful and Sublime"
The prairie in its loneliness and peace: that was what came back to him toward the end of his life, after he had pulled the rug out from under all the literary nabobs, and fired off all his nubs and snappers, and sashayed through all the nations, and collected all his ceremonial gowns and degrees, and tweaked all the grinning presidents, and schmoozed all the newspaper reporters, and stuck it to all his enemies, and shocked all the librarians, and cried out all his midnight blasphemies, and buried most of his family. The prairie was what came back to him as he wrote in 1897-speaking, in his conceit, from the grave, and thus freely. He remembered what had mattered the most, the earliest. He thought not of the Mississippi River, which he encountered most fully later in his life, but of "a level great prairie which was covered with wild strawberry plants, vividly starred with prairie pinks, and walled in on all sides by forests"-a swatch of the great western carpet yet a decade from disfigurement by the grooves of the California gold rushers. There his prodigious noticing had begun. His way of seeing and hearing things that changed America's way of seeing and hearing things.
It was there, as a boy, where his great font of visual images-"the multitudinous photographs one's mind takes," he later called them-began to form. He found enchantment in the way moonlight fell through the rafters of the slanting roof of his uncle's farmhouse into little squares on the floor of the stairway landing. He was struck by the darkness of his bedroom, packed with ghostly stillness. When he woke up by accident in that darkness, his forgotten sins came flocking out of the secret chambers of his memory.
But more powerful than the early images in his memory were the sounds: the crack of a watermelon split open, the rising and falling wail of a spinning wheel, the dismal hoo-hoo of the owl and the howl of the wolf, the crash of summer thunder. It was to the sounds that he had always assigned his deepest fantasies and fears. The spinning wheel "was the mournfulest of all sounds to me... and filled my atmosphere with the wandering spirits of the dead." Animal wails were omens of death; the thunderclap was God's wrath over his sinfulness.