Navigating occasional 'trips and falls', Peter Messent considers the ties that bind the life of a great American author to the history of a changing nation
Mark Twain is a tough subject for biographers. As he dictated his autobiography, Twain claimed that his reader would find the "remorseless truth" about him in the various materials brought together there - despite any "dust" he, as the "author-cat", might rake upon it. In fact, his deepest motivations and innermost secrets, "the black heart's truth", remained resolutely locked away, effectively hidden even as he claimed otherwise. If Twain does this (I use "Twain" to refer to the author throughout), then it is no great surprise that his biographers have generally failed quite to penetrate him - to reach the Samuel Clemens who lived, and lived behind, the "Mark Twain" persona, and to shift the dust the latter laid. Perhaps Twain will always be a problem to biographers, as he was to contemporary observers. Ron Powers twice quotes the words of William Dean Howells, one of Twain's closest friends: "He was apt to smile into your face with... a sort of remote absence; you were all there for him, but he was not all there for you."
Powers goes some way to fill this absence as he tells the story of Twain's personal relationships (the "abusive" elements in his relationship with brother Orion get particular attention), of his wealth and bankruptcy, of his social status and celebrity, of his artistic successes and failures and philosophical concerns. But we are still left with gaps. The relationship with his wife, Olivia, remains indistinct. Was it just his "intense personality" that led her doctors to keep Twain away from her for all but a few minutes a day in her final illness? The emotional dynamics between Twain and his three daughters are comparatively undeveloped. And the domestic arrangements and disturbances of the final years are given too brief attention. We tend to know Twain better through his friendships (especially with Howells) than through his intimate domestic life. This may be a tribute to Twain's ability to draw screens round such areas and to dramatise the versions of himself he most wished others to see. And perhaps family strains and secrets may, even in the case of a celebrity, finally be no one's business but his own.
Powers is fooled at times by the various personae Twain adopted. He uses, for instance, the experiences of the protagonist of Roughing It (Twain's quasi-fictional account of his western years) as biographical source material. He transposes Tom Sawyer's boyhood pranks to Twain himself.
Occasionally, he takes the author's own account of melodramatic childhood events as gospel truth. But he acknowledges Twain's "self-mythifying" tendencies and notes how his "tale teller's impulse to improve memory with fiction... left biographers stumbling as they tried to sort out what actually happened from what actually didn't". This does not, though, prevent his occasional trips and falls.
But there is plenty that is very good in this biography - one aimed firmly at the general reader. Powers is a former Pulitzer prizewinner who was born in Hannibal, Missouri (where Twain grew up), and has a long-term interest in the author. He writes a lively and powerful narrative, in a prose style leavened by witty asides. How well these work will depend on the individual reader's taste. For me, they are sometimes effective and sometimes a touch overdone. Thus he writes of Twain's long-time commitment to, and disastrous investments in, James W. Paige's typesetting machine, and of how, at one point, he "once again embraced his role as Paige's useful idiot". While he describes Twain's final success in persuading Ulysses S. Grant to write his autobiography for his publishing company, Charles Webster & Co, with the sentence: "On the following day, Mark Twain took Grant like Grant took Richmond." Less fortunate, perhaps, are Powers's comparisons between Twain and today's rock-singer celebrities (so he refers to Twain's "proto-rocker mojo"), and such overcolloquial moments as when he follows analysis of Twain's veiled attack on late Victorian British culture in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court with the flourish: "Roll over, Lord Byron, and tell Jane Austen the news." When Powers is being more serious, though, his rhetorical effects can be powerful and moving. He writes with pace and verve throughout the book.
Powers is (over-)dismissive of a Freudian and post-Freudian approach, and of academic scholars and "their pet formulas and crusades". He narrates Twain's career in a way that allows a full say to the author's voice and the voices of those closest to him. These are placed in the larger context of the American nation and the enormous changes occurring within it in Twain's lifetime (1835-1910). His intent is spelt out in the questions asked in the preface: "What was it that bound Mark Twain and his half of the American 19th century so closely together? In what ways and by what process did he become the representative figure of his times?"
Powers does bind Twain to his times. But his method has more to do with collage than cultural analysis. A recurring motif is the way Twain's life and career impinged on so many significant historical figures of his period. Powers uses such conjunctions to trigger brief biographical commentary on these others. He also uses the year-by-year structure of his book to comment on events, changing conditions and modes of thought in the larger nation. As he does so, he effectively illustrates (among other things) changing assumptions about race and gender, the impact of modernisation and of capitalist expansion, the rise of realism as a literary genre, changing patterns of religious belief, and turn-of-the-century imperialism - and how Twain himself negotiated such issues.
If this approach succeeds to a significant degree, the overall effect is of a patching together of different types of (related) material rather than of causal patterning (just why is Twain so crucially "representative" a figure?). It may be that the answer to this last question must be found in his writings, as well as in his lived life, for it is here that his complex attitudes to his contemporary world are best expressed. Powers comments on the fiction, but fails fully to see its ambiguities, the cultural tensions everywhere rife within it. If he suggests the links between his subject and a larger Victorian and post-Victorian culture, he fails to nail down crucial aspects of that relationship, Twain's position as index and weathervane of American dreams, desires, doubts and anxieties at the time.
This is a well-written biography with strong use of Twain's own (multitudinous) correspondence. Powers, though, seems finally overwhelmed by his subject, as indicated in the lack of balance in his material. The book tails off badly in the last third of Twain's life, with, for instance, some 25 pages (out of 700) on the final decade. It is not enough to say, as Powers does, that the history of Twain as an old man is "the history of every old man" and cut it short accordingly. The narrative lacks the defining shape and thesis that makes Justin Kaplan's 1966 biography, Mr Clemens and Mark Twain , so taut and focused a work. The centenary of Twain's death in four years will doubtless see other biographers looking to outdo this latest effort. I suspect, despite its faults, they will not find it easy.
Peter Messent is professor of modern American literature, Nottingham University.
Mark Twain: A Life
Author - Ron Powers
Publisher - Scribner
Pages - 704
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 743 28579 4