The Storyteller's Life, Well Told

Biography

October 09, 2005|By MICHAEL SHELDEN | MICHAEL SHELDEN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Mark Twain: A Life

Ron Powers

Free Press / 691 pages

The trouble with theories, says Tom in Tom Sawyer Abroad, is that "there's always a hole in them somewheres, sure, if you look close enough." You would think the legions of critics and biographers who have spent the last 100 years theorizing about Mark Twain's genius might take a hint from Tom and show some restraint. But, no, they keep coming forward year after year, confidently speculating - often with little evidence to back them up - that Twain was secretly gay or a confirmed racist or a sour misogynist or simply a cynical, self-destructive monomaniac.

So it's a relief to open Ron Powers' new biography, Mark Twain, and find that he doesn't pick over his title character's bones to advance a new theory, but tries to puts flesh on them and to restore the faded splendor of an epic life. Like his subject, he prefers telling good stories to manufacturing weak theories.

The result is a biography that makes an American icon seem fully human again. The portrait that emerges is not of a towering idol to be worshiped nor a straw man to serve an ideological agenda, but a complex character who enjoyed thwarting the world's attempts to reduce him to what he once called a biographical "Brontosaur: nine bones and six hundred barrels of plaster of Paris."

Twain himself always looked on the progress of his life as the unfolding of a long, convoluted tale. In the first 50 of his 74 years, he often thought it was a fairy tale. One friend who understood him as well as anyone, William Dean Howells, recalled his fondness for musing on "the story of his life, the inexhaustible, the fairy, the Arabian Nights story."

So much of what he touched turned to gold. From a backwoods hamlet, he emerged with little education and less money and won both fame and fortune before he was 40. He married a rich heiress who gave him three beautiful daughters, built a big mansion beside a flowing stream in the nicest part of Hartford, Conn., and lived like one of the princes of the Gilded Age - smoking 40 cigars a day, hobnobbing at banquets and resorts with other titans like Edison and Carnegie, and traveling abroad in style.

And, in the process, he also found time to transform American literature, introducing a fresh style of writing that was closer to the speech of ordinary people, and that tackled the big subjects that still dominate American life - violence, racism, moral justice, self-reliance, innocence, ambition and adventure. In his greatest book - Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - he dared to drag the question of slavery back into the open when the great national wound inflicted by the Civil War was still fresh and acutely painful. But his gamble paid off because he didn't allow the novel to be a thing bound by place and time. He created a mythological tale that spoke to everyone through its emphasis on the basics of the river, the raft, the wilderness, the boy, and the runaway slave.

Then the string of good luck ran out. After he turned 50, one crisis followed another - he went bankrupt, lost two of his daughters and his wife to illness, and struggled to rediscover the brilliance that made his early books so successful.

If there is a major fault in Powers' long book it is that he runs out of steam at the end. His treatment of the early triumphs and the golden middle age is exemplary, but he loses interest when Twain enters old age, spending only 20 pages on the writer's last decade. "He aged and he died," a weary Powers says, summing up this final period.

Yet in many ways the end of the story is as revealing and magical as anything that came before. This is the period when the old boy threw caution to the winds and began acting like a renegade kid again, repeatedly wandering off to Bermuda to frolic with friends as though it were Hannibal reborn, sporting his famous white suits all year long, and writing some of his fiercest prose and funniest lines.

"Before seventy we are merely respected ... and have to behave all the time," he wrote only four years before he died. "After seventy we are respected, esteemed, admired, revered, and don't have to behave unless we want to."

Michael Shelden has written biographies of Cyril Connolly, George Orwell and Graham Greene and is a regular contributor to The Daily Telegraph of London.

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