An eloquent portrait of the American Renaissance’s greatest writer as a young man. Powers is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of eight books.
His expertise in popular culture, mass media, history, and the American small town is in evidence here as in Far from Home: Life and Loss in Two American Towns (1991). Powers, who also grew up in Hannibal, Mo., sees Mark Twain as America’s first popular, media-fed superstar who knew how to dress for the photo op. Powers exposes Clemens’s mirth for the flip side of the man’s many tragedies. “Sammy” was a premature baby and sickly toddler who grew up into the barefoot boy who showed off for the girl we'd know as Becky Thatcher. Far from a protected and fanciful Tom Sawyer, Clemens, as a three-year-old sleepwalker, tugged at his sister’s blanket a few days before she died. She was one of several siblings Sam would lose. Unsuccessful but not evil like Huck Finn’s papy, Samuel’s father was relatively bland, passing on only his tendency toward bad debts and investments. Powers shows that young Sam was fascinated by the spoken word (whether of preachers or slaves) and by books, from the Bible (despite his famous heresy) to Cooper, because his reality was so painful. The biographer notes an inner conflict that is the key to Clemens’s appeal: “the Connecticut literary gent contending with the western roughneck.” After adolescence, itching to light out for the territories, young Clemens “made the break from his landlocked life” and talked himself to the captain’s wheel on riverboats. Powers feels the Mark Twain pseudonym helped free Clemens to become the age’s most celebrated humorist, traveler, lecturer and novelist.
There are 20 pages of chapter notes, but this biography is too good to be confused with literary criticism. Powers calls out “mark twain” and leads us on Samuel Clemens’s dangerous, poignant, and delightful voyage against the current.