Mark Twain: a life

10th February 2006 at 00:00
Mark Twain: a life

By Ron Powers

Scribner pound;25

Like many other humorists, Mark Twain - the pen name of Samuel Clemens - was not a particularly happy person. He grew up in semi-poverty and was largely bedridden until the age of four. During his childhood he saw a man gunned down in a local feud and a slave beaten to death. He also experienced a number of deaths of close family members.

Later, as a high-earning writer and public raconteur, he lost most of his money on financial speculations. But as the author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884, he wrote one of the finest novels of all time, beating back 19th-century tides of sentimentality in favour of what the critic James Agee was later to call "the cruel radiance of what is". Still sometimes attacked for its liberal use of the word "nigger", by which Twain was simply imitating common speech usage, this novel is a great humane document, as well as a moving and entertaining story. If it contains any prejudice, it is more in Twain's treatment of America's indigenous Indians. His portrait of Jim, the runaway slave, is compassionate and respectful. Twain's achievement is put into perspective by his latest biographer, Ron Powers. He points out that Huck's adventures were still sharply criticised at the time for supposed "irreverence and vulgarity".

This was despite the fact the author's loyal wife had, with Twain's consent, taken out words and phrases that his own children enjoyed as "delightfully dreadful".

In later adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain's other classic young character, his illustrator Dan Beard was obliged by the publisher to add shoes to the drawings of the boys. Although he accepted these alterations, Twain was essentially an anarchic spirit, bringing a Western brashness to more genteel East Coast sensibilities. A great, if flawed, man, his life and times are admirably portrayed in this exhaustive biography, whose 700 pages would surely have provoked a typically dismissive and ungrammatical response from both Huck and Tom.

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