A Life in Two Acts

Mark Twain, A Literary LIfeby Everett EmersonUniv. of Pennsylvania Press. 344p $34.95

Samuel Clemens’s birth in 1835 and his death in 1910 coincided with successive appearances of Halley’s comet, providing an apt image for the periodic reappearance of Mark Twain on the U.S. literary/cultural horizon. Two recent books on Clemens adopt different approaches in order to provide fresh assessments of the author’s prodigious life and achievements.

In Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain, Ron Powers brings a background of accomplishment as a novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist to bear on Clemens’s boyhood in Hannibal, Mo. Powers himself grew up in Hannibal, so his book breathes with the enthusiasm of a hometown native. He shows that Hannibal in the time of Clemens was by no means the cultural backwater it has been made out to be by critics like Van Wyck Brooks. On the contrary, the small Missouri town had a narrative-rich culture, brimming with family lore, slave songs and the local legends that swirled about the Mississippi River.


Because boyhood themes and characters figure so prominently in Twain’s fiction, Powers’ decision to focus on the childhood of Clemens is a wise one. Much of the Hannibal legacy for Clemens/Twain was painful and dark. The youthful Clemens had to navigate the "dangerous waters" of family dysfunction and social disruption in Hannibal with as much skill as a steamboat captain would have needed on the Mississippi. His parents had a rather loveless marriage, and his father’s aloofness was exacerbated by extremely poor judgment in business matters.

Powers sees Twain as haunted by boyhood ghosts and traumas, resulting in a lasting sense of guilt and pessimism that made the author a significantly darker figure than the white attire of his later public image suggested. Clemens encountered death in particularly stark versions: He witnessed a murder, he lost a younger brother in a steamship accident, and according to Powers he may well have witnessed his father’s autopsy. Powers provides a corrective to overly sentimental views of Hannibal and Twain, observing that Twain’s humor "had less to do with genial amusement than with building a psychological structure against chaos."

Powers has created a compelling reflection on the interaction of place and person, cultural context and authorial production. He makes a convincing case that, with his distinctive white garb and his whirlwind lecture tours, Twain shaped himself into "the new century’s first pop-cultural icon," a transitional figure joining the 19th and 20th centuries. Twain introduced a young Winston Churchill to a lecture audience and dined with people as diverse as Helen Keller, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. He was never shy to pass social judgments and maintained a consistently skeptical attitude toward church, government and society. Viewing American foreign policy as little more than piracy, Twain suggested that the U.S. flag’s red and white stripes be redone in black, with skull and crossbones replacing the stars of the union.

A different approach to Clemens’s life and writings emerges in Mark Twain, a Literary Life, by Everett Emerson, emeritus professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Emerson concentrates on the complex writing and publishing history of Clemens, charting his evolution from printer’s assistant to steamboat pilot, to silver miner, to newspaper humorist, to writer and lecturer. Whereas Powers renders a poetic appraisal of Clemens’s youth, Emerson offers a much more comprehensive and formal scholarly treatment of the author’s writing history.

Emerson conducts the reader on a thorough tour of Twain’s published writings, including the concoction of Mark Twain during Clemens’s days working on a Nevada newspaper. It was there, Emerson notes, that Clemens adopted what he called "the vigorous new vernacular of the occidental plains and mountains." Twain’s humor subversively deflated Eastern pretensions simply by describing life in a natural and direct fashion. Emerson notes that he discovered a "close connection between the comic and the forbiddenthe permissible and those aspects of life not to be mentioned in polite society."

Emerson sees Twain as a significant literary moralist in works such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: "Through Huck the writer was able to explore two intertwined themes that engaged him fully: the relationship of the individual to society, and the meaning of freedom." He used humor to undermine the pomposity of travel writers, as he did in his account of his visit to the purported tomb of Adam in Jerusalem: "How touching it was, here in a land of strangers, far away from home, and friends, and all who cared for me, thus to discover the grave of a blood relation. True, a distant one, but still a relation."

Warring against his comic sense of life were the business realities of the writer’s trade. The rise and fall of sales, the delays and dissatisfactions all took their toll on Clemens. He formed a publishing concern that sponsored the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (very profitable) and a biography of Pope Leo XIII (unprofitable). Growing financial and health difficulties plagued him, intensifying his pessimism.

In 1910, the last year of his life, Twain wrote a sketch on "Etiquette for the Afterlife," which begins: "In hell it is not good form to refer, even unostentatiously, to your relatives in heaven, if persons are present who have none there." Emerson makes clear that in his writings and in the broad range of his literary concerns, Samuel Clemens bestowed upon Mark Twain the equivalent of literary immortality. In reminding us of the humble place human beings occupy in the grand scheme of the universe, Twain assured himself of a permanent place in the literary heavens.

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