Mark Twain: A Life by Ron Powers

T. G. LaFredo
Student, MFA

Mark Twain was a writer, a world traveler, a silver prospector, and a riverboat pilot. He was Samuel Clemens, a real man who became a character of mythical proportions. We read his works and hear his quotes; we see him portrayed onstage and even in cartoons. But who is Mark Twain? More than a hundred years after his death, it’s hard to know the man from the myth.

Telling the life story of someone more recognizable than most American presidents is a serious task. Certainly there is no shortage of material, but portraying him as a complete person takes significant work. Ron Powers proves worthy in Mark Twain: A Life. He gives readers an unprecedented look at “the Lincoln of our literature,” from printer’s apprentice to literary elder statesman, in humor and in heartbreak.

Powers’s research is deep and well organized. He gives a strong sense of Twain’s evolution in letters, but also of his private life. Readers see a young Twain courting Olivia Langdon, at first with no success. In time they are married, and we get a feeling for their home life, which was happy, though later darkened with Olivia’s ill health and the deaths of three of their children: Jean at twenty-nine, Susy at twenty-four, and Langdon at just nineteen months.

The Mark Twain Papers and Project, the Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley
Interview, Vermont Public Radio
“Dead for a Century, Twain Said What He Meant,” New York Times

It’s clear that Powers appreciates Twain’s work, but he is not afraid to view it with a critical eye. He also gives readers a look at the manic episodes that yielded that work. We see weeks pass as Twain barely writes a word. After these seemingly dormant stretches, he retreats to his study for what Powers calls “his typical headlong sprints.” In July of 1874, for example, Twain detailed one such episode this way: “During the past 3 days I have written 157 pages of literature & 25 letters.”
Twain made a fortune as a writer and a speaker—and he lost nearly everything. For all of his literary success, he remained a failed businessman. He invested in losing prospects and backed incompetent inventors. For years he dumped money into the Paige Compositor, an early typesetting machine. The design was fatally flawed, and Twain lost a fortune.
By 1894 Twain had amassed a debt of what would be over two million dollars today. He was nearly sixty years old, and he had no choice but to embark on a lecture tour of the world. Powers details these travels: the ships and roads, the venues and hotel rooms, the lean living. We feel Twain’s failures and successes, and we come away knowing him better. We understand the man behind the myth.
Mark Twain: A Life is a look at the rise and fall—and resurrection—of one of our greatest writers. Powers’s work is sure to become the definitive biography of Mark Twain.

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