Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain


While Mark Twain remains one of our most quintessentially American writers, the actual boyhood experiences that fueled his most enduring literature remained largely unexplored—until now. Twain's early years were a decidedly un-innocent time, marked by deaths of friends and family and his father's bankruptcy. Twain dealt with those personal tragedies through humor and the tall tale. From the time that a ten-year-old Samuel Clemens lit out on his own and boarded his first Mississippi steamer to his first encounter ...

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While Mark Twain remains one of our most quintessentially American writers, the actual boyhood experiences that fueled his most enduring literature remained largely unexplored—until now. Twain's early years were a decidedly un-innocent time, marked by deaths of friends and family and his father's bankruptcy. Twain dealt with those personal tragedies through humor and the tall tale. From the time that a ten-year-old Samuel Clemens lit out on his own and boarded his first Mississippi steamer to his first encounter with a traveling "mesmerizer" (which ignited his lifelong penchant for acting and spectacle), from the brooding sense of guilt and fear of eternal damnation inculcated into him at church to the superstitions and stories of witchcraft he learned from the blacks on his farm, Powers unforgettably shows how Mark Twain was shaped by the distinctly American landscape, culture, and people of Hannibal, Missouri. Jay Parini, the celebrated biographer of Robert Frost, called Dangerous Water "a long-needed evocation of the boyhood of the man who invented boyhood for all time. . . . An immensely shrewd and deeply engaging book, a great gift to all of us who love Twain."

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Just the mention of the name Mark Twain conjures up an irrepressible feeling of youthful adventure, of long summer days spent on the great Mississippi River. Best known as the creator of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, Twain gave us characters who were brash, sly, funny, and ultimately wise. He was an emblematic American writer, pursuing uniquely American themes and establishing for all time the notion of American boyhood. But Tom and Huck would be the first to agree that boyhood isn't always golden. Twain's own childhood (as young Sammy Clemens) was hardly a carefree idyll; as a boy he experienced death, violence, poverty, and guilt. From this messy raw material he was somehow able to create some of American literature's most enduring, affecting characters. "In Mark Twain's dark night lay America's literary dawning," writes Ron Powers in Dangerous Water: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain.

That dark night began — illuminated briefly by Halley's Comet — in 1835 as the family of Samuel Langhorne Clemens headed west to Florida, Missouri. Sammy was a sickly child, often bedridden during his first years, who was therefore able to spend hours in the company of the local slave community. There he was exposed to a rich and potent tradition of storytelling, superstition, and magic. He was also exposed, writes Powers, to "horror, and the special terror of the slave's estate." Powers finds a parallel between the slaves' fear and "the constant dread of Huck and Jim...the fear of capture, punishment, annihilation."

In 1839, Sammy's father, who would make an unfortunate habitout ofpoor business decisions and bad land deals, moved the family to the burgeoning river town of Hannibal. The boy's years there did not begin auspiciously: "Sammy's nights were frequently disturbed by sleepwalking and apocalyptic dreams," Powers writes. Gradually, as he grew stronger, Sammy became involved in his new habitat, exploring the river, the nearby plain, bluffs, and caves. He watched Hannibal grow and change, becoming more populous and cultured but also more dangerous and volatile: "The American frontier was saturated with violence," writes Powers, "and Hannibal was no exception."

Violence and death were not unfamiliar to Sammy after 1844, as he witnessed drownings, murder, manslaughter, and bloodied corpses in the course of his daily routine and nightly prowls with his fellows. Powers believes that "the aftershocks of these episodes never abated in Twain's memory, but erupted at the most unexpected moments" in his work. Perhaps Sammy sought out these horrors, suggests Powers: "Perhaps it was a welcome, if eerie, distraction from the horrors at home — not within the family, but within his own mind."

That is not to say that the Clemenses' home life was in any way enviable. By 1846 John Marshall Clemens, Sammy's father, had hit financial rock bottom; in early 1847 he died of pneumonia. Worse still, at his father's deathbed, Sammy's mother extracted from him a promise that he would "be a better boy." Powers is horrified, and links Sammy's increased sleepwalking to this "double bombardment of grief and censure [which] might have saturated any reasonably sensitive boy with guilt."

Powers makes a strong argument for the origins of humor in Clemens's boyhood. He maintains that this humor is rooted in the violence that was commonplace on the frontier: As bluster and shocking brutality often went hand in hand, humor preserved the humanity of the combatants. This is as likely an explanation as any; if the violence of his childhood had any value, perhaps it was to forge the humor and humanity with which Twain later endowed his characters.

In 1848, Sam went to work full time as a printer's devil — a printer's typesetting assistant. He had learned to read somewhere along the line, and when he eventually went to work for his older brother's newspaper, he put his own writing to the test, sneaking jokes into print when his hapless brother left him in charge. "It is generally agreed," Powers reports, "that Samuel Clemens came upon the writing life haphazardly, without ever having planned it as a boy or young man." Instead, he read newspapers voraciously and learned, either imitating a style if he liked it or skewering it hilariously if he did not. By age 16, in 1852, his work was being published in eastern newspapers.

By the end of 1852, Powers reckons that the boyhood of Mark Twain had ended. In May of 1853 he left Hannibal: "He would never live there again, never be a boy again, except in his literature and his dreams." The darkness that plagued young Sammy Clemens would continue throughout his adult life, through depression, anger, guilt, grief, and financial ruin. In Dangerous Water, Powers contends that this lifelong darkness — especially its early phase — informs and illuminates Twain's particular genius. His works remain as remarkably real chronicles of boyhood — Tom's, Huck's, and also young Sammy's.

—Julie Robichaux

Paul O. Williams
The book is a valuable addition to Twain biography. It is not intended for someone newly encountering Twain's life story but for one already familiar with its outlines and even many of its details....[I]lluminating and gracefully written, and certainly belongs on the shelf of the Twain aficionado.
The Christian Science Monitor
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow," opined Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain. Here, Powers The Cruel Radiance follows Twain's genius to its source, illuminating both the sorrow and the exhilaration of a boyhood that provided a lifetime of inspiration. The saga, framed by two anecdotes from Twain's old age, begins with the westward journeys of his grandparents and parents and the arrival of the Clemens family in Missouri just before his birth in 1835 "I do not remember just when, for I was not then born and cared nothing for such things," remarked Twain. It ends with the death of his brother Henry in 1858. Young Sam's life was a m lange of horrors, pleasures and difficulties. He was haunted, among other things, by a distant father who moved ever closer to bankruptcy while pursuing dreams of wealth, and by images of the self-immolation of a drunk to whom he had supplied matches. He found great solace in smoking a good cigar--he began at age seven--and in the tales and songs he heard around the fire in the slave quarters. Powers regularly draws convincing links between Twain's early life and events and characters in his fiction, locating Twain's greatness as a humorist in the dynamics of his family, the tragedies that surrounded him, the literary currents of the time and a lifelong love for the varieties of spoken language. At times, Powers strains for significance, for instance marking the end of Twain's boyhood four disparate times. But he demonstrates convincingly that "the sunlit parts of [Twain's] childhood cast deep shadows... and in those shadows lay the dark artifacts that would torment and compel him to his masterpieces." June Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
This is the biography of a boy, but it is far from being the biography of a happy childhood. Powers, who has recently appeared as a talking head in the Ken Burns documentary on Mark Twain, grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, himself and gives often elegant descriptions of the area. His perception of a guilt-ridden, nightmare-haunted and sleepwalking young Sam Clemens is, however, often as complex as the personality he is describing. The research for this book is scholarly, as is its vocabulary. While sometimes difficult in style and approach, this work is valuable to readers deeply interested in Mark Twain. Category: Biography & Personal Narrative. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students, and adults. 1999, Perseus, Da Capo, 328p. notes. bibliog. index., $17.50. Ages 17 to adult. Reviewer: Patricia A. Moore; Brookline, MA SOURCE: KLIATT, March 2002 (Vol. 36, No. 2)
Benjamin Cheever
It's easy to see how Powers won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973; he writes marvelously. Also — equally important — he knows when to shut up...[and let] his subjects speak....[T]his book is aptly titled. These were dangerous waters. Almost nobody got out alive.
WQ: The Wilson Quarterly
Paul O. Williams
The book is a valuable addition to Twain biography. It is not intended for someone newly encountering Twain's life story but for one already familiar with its outlines and even many of its details....[I]lluminating and gracefully written, and certainly belongs on the shelf of the Twain aficionado.
The Christian Science Monitor
Kirkus Reviews
An eloquent portrait of the American Renaissance's greatest writer as a young man. Powers is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of eight books. His expertise in popular culture, mass media, history, and the American small town is in evidence here as in Far from Home: Life and Loss in Two American Towns (1991). Powers, who also grew up in Hannibal, Mo., sees Mark Twain as America's first popular, media-fed superstar who knew how to dress for the photo op. Powers exposes Clemens's mirth for the flip side of the man's many tragedies. "Sammy" was a premature baby and sickly toddler who grew up into the barefoot boy who showed off for the girl we'd know as Becky Thatcher. Far from a protected and fanciful Tom Sawyer, Clemens, as a three-year-old sleepwalker, tugged at his sister's blanket a few days before she died. She was one of several siblings Sam would lose. Unsuccessful but not evil like Huck Finn's papy, Samuel's father was relatively bland, passing on only his tendency toward bad debts and investments. Powers shows that young Sam was fascinated by the spoken word (whether of preachers or slaves) and by books, from the Bible (despite his famous heresy) to Cooper, because his reality was so painful. The biographer notes an inner conflict that is the key to Clemens's appeal: "the Connecticut literary gent contending with the western roughneck." After adolescence, itching to light out for the territories, young Clemens "made the break from his landlocked life" and talked himself to the captain's wheel on riverboats. Powers feels the Mark Twain pseudonym helped free Clemens to become the age's most celebrated humorist, traveler, lecturer and novelist. There are 20 pages of chapternotes, but this biography is too good to be confused with literary criticism. Powers calls out "mark twain" and leads us on Samuel Clemens's dangerous, poignant, and delightful voyage against the current.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780306810862
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press
  • Publication date: 10/2/2001
  • Edition description: 1 DA CAPO
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Ron Powers is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, novelist, and nonfiction writer. The coauthor of the best-selling Flags of Our Fathers with James Bradley, and with eight books of his own, he has been a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and commentator for CBS News Sunday Morning. His lives in Middlebury, Vermont.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

"I was young and foolish then;
now I am old and foolisher."

* * *

On October 15, 1900, in the twilit moments of the shifting century he had dissected in his books and embodied in his life, Mark Twain reemerged as from a long, dark dream into the welcoming uproar of his native America.

    He had been abroad in auto-exile, save for brief visits, for nearly ten years. It had been the most public of privations, this self-inflicted banishment of his. The newspapers had chronicled his plunge from literary eminence into bankruptcy; Europe had welcomed him and his family as interesting fugitives, fallen literary royalty of an obverse kind. Then the western world had watched him mount an obsessive journey around it, lecturing in Ceylon and South Africa and other exotic lands to earn his way out of his $100,000 debt. Recovering in Guildford, England, at the end of that year-long ordeal, he had suffered a thunderclap of nearly unendurable grief, a bereavement that would leave him stunned and crazy in the night for the remainder of his life.

    For a man predisposed to brood on the unstable borders between apparent reality and the cataclysmic demimonde of dreams, the past decade must have seemed at times like a sleep-induced psychosis; indeed Twain, the childhood sleepwalker, had written compulsively in those years on the theme of dreams as storm-tossed voyages that engulfed and drowned the dreamer. But now he had awakened into a kind of dawn, his ship in the harbor, his dreamvoyage over at last. The welcoming shock of American lightbade fair to bathe him for the remainder of his days. Unless of course the light was beckoning him into the refuge of some new oblivion.

    There was nothing to do but move toward it. And so on this gusty October Monday, Twain at sixty-four made his way down the crowded gangplank of the Minnehaha, off the Atlantic seas from London, docked in New York harbor.

    The world was quietly shifting from one order of consciousness to the next. Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams had been published that year. (No record exists that the dream-obsessed Twain read that work, but Freud was aware of Twain, and regarded his work as the leading example of the "highest" form of humor.) Albert Einstein graduated from Polytechnic Institute of Zürich, Switzerland—his great theory, completed fifteen years in the future, would give scientific weight to Twain's metaphysical anarchies. Queen Victoria neared her demise—her era had constrained Mark Twain's sexual candor but not his gleeful truant wit.

    Twain, who had confessed in his notebook that the twentieth century was a stranger to him (he was to be, in ways he would not live to appreciate, among its most profound prophets), was walking down the gangplank toward it.

    "Twain" of course was the necessary artifice, the carefully manufactured persona that the wary man inside kept wrapped ever more tightly about him in public; soon it was to bloom full and white as the new century's first pop-cultural icon. The horde on the pier recognized the image at once, and the outcry was worshipful and noisy.

    All the press were there, his old jackleg calling. They'd taunted him with their sarcasms before; had him destitute, even reported him dead just three years earlier ("an exaggeration," he'd replied famously); but now they were here to yell out questions and jot dutiful notes. The next day they would tell the nation that "Mark Twain Comes Home," and would call him "the bravest author in all literature" and "the Hero as Man of Letters," and compare him to Walter Scott, a writer he detested, but the fellows meant it kindly; let it go. He put a ruddy smile on his face for the straw-hat reporters and "showed off" a little bit and soon had them laughing and fawning. (for they, as Twain himself might have written it, were "showing off" too).

    A master mesmerizer of lecture-hall audiences, Twain treated the newsmen to a vintage performance. His gray-blue eagle eyes glinting, he struck a pose of careless élan that seemed magically to banish the darkness of his recent past. No trace of pathos or grief or humiliation tarnished his playful indulgence.

    "Never looked better, was in splendid humor," the New York Times assured its readers the following day. "As soon as the author had finished with the salutations of his friends, he was surrounded by a large number of newspaper men and asked for a story of what he had been doing during all the nine years of his absence from his native land."

    Genially, as his wife and two surviving daughters looked on, Twain obliged.

    "Now, that is a long story, but I suppose I must give you something, even if it is in a condensed form," he drawled. And he began to delight the reporters, this small narrow-shouldered man with the famous tangled eyebrows and heraldic mustache, with fine summonings of Frankfort and the Riviera and Aix-les-Bains.

    "Most of 1892 I spent at Florence, where I rented a home. While there I wrote Joan of Arc and finished up Pudd'nhead Wilson. For the next two years I was in France. I can't speak French yet ..."

    Expansively, in the wash of laughter, he continued to embroider the contours of a fabulous idyll.

    "In the spring of 1895 I came to the United States for a brief stay, crossing the continent from New York to San Francisco, lecturing every night. In October of that year I sailed from Vancouver for Sydney, where I lectured, or, more properly speaking, gave readings from my works to the English-speaking people. I also visited Tasmania and New Zealand ..."

    He conjured India for them: Bombay and Calcutta. He told them of his arrival at Delagoa Bay, South Africa, in April 1896. He limned Kimberly, of the fabulous diamond mines (the source of an old private obsession of Clemens's), and Johannesburg and Cape Town, and of his daring contacts with some principals of the Boer War.

    "I met Oom Paul," he casually disclosed, and told them the great Transvaal patriot conformed to his popular image—"that beard, frock coat, pipe, and everything else. The picture is a true likeness." Indifferent to the transient squabbles that divide mankind, he had visited Paul's imperialist enemies, the famous Jameson raiders,* in their jail. "I told them of the advantages of being in jail. `This jail is as good as any other,' I said, `and besides, being in jail has its advantages. A lot of great men have been in jail. If Bunyan had not been put in jail, he would never have written Pilgrim's Progress. Then the jail is responsible for Don Quixote. So you see being in jail is not so bad, after all.' Finally I told them that they ought to remember that many great men go through life without ever having been in a jail."

    All this time, Twain told the reporters, his family had been with him. After their adventures in Cape Town they had taken a steamer for Southampton. "On arriving in England we went to Guildford, where I took a furnished house, remaining two months, after which for ten months our home was in London. All this time I was lecturing, reading, or working hard in other ways, writing magazine stories and doing other literary work"

    There followed some further badinage: He was "absolutely unable" to speak of his plans; he was, "as near as I can find out, an anti-imperialist"; he was a political Mugwump and didn't know whom he intended to vote for, he'd have to look over the field; yet he'd remained a taxpaying citizen of the United States throughout his nine-year absence; and with those credentials he could run for President, couldn't he?—and if that were so, "why, then, I am a candidate for President!"

    Grateful chuckles over this shaft of the famous Twainian foolery; and now one of the more awestruck newsmen made bold to invoke a topic of nearly celestial magnitude—Mark Twain's rumored autobiography "that is to be published 100 years hence."

    A practiced pause from the great man for effect, and then: "It is true I am writing it."

    "That's not a joke, is it?"

    A setup for a set-piece witticism, and Twain grabbed it.

    "No; I said it seriously; that's why they take it as a joke. You know, I never told the truth in my life that someone didn't say I was lying, while, on the other hand, I never told a lie that somebody didn't take it as fact."

    Laughter all around; and then another questioner, apparently swept away in the lovestruck mood of the moment, cried out: "Well, it's not wrong, anyway, to tell a lie sometimes, is it?"

    "That's right, exactly right!" Mark Twain exclaimed. "If you can disseminate facts by telling the truth, why that's the way to do it, and if you can't except by doing a little lying, well, that's all right, too isn't it? I do it."

    With that the famous writer gave a pleasant nod to the genuflecting newsmen and, allowing himself to be swept up by an entourage of friends and family, strolled off, the New York Times reported, "to locate his baggage."

He strolled, in fact, into an America that wanted to carry his baggage for him, and that would garland him with honors and banquets and worshipful attention for the remaining ten years of his life. Within weeks of his return, his slight, shuffling figure was drawing stares and salutations in theaters and restaurants and the swarm of Fifth Avenue; he was the first public celebrity in a new century destined to be saturated with them. He manipulated his visibility with the same shrewdness that he'd summoned to manipulate lecture-hall audiences as a kind of proto-rock star of the 1870s; a new wardrobe of six white broadcloth suits to match his white mane and mustache, and worn in all seasons and for virtually all occasions, offered the world's rotogravure sections a distinctive image. He loved white, but his true taste was more than half a century ahead of its time; its descriptive term, yet uninvented, was "psychedelic." "I would like to dress in a loose and flowing costume made all of silks and velvets" he remarked in 1906, "resplendent with all the stunning dyes of the rainbow, and so would every sane man I have ever known; but none of us dares to venture it."

    A publishing friend soon said of him: "I doubt if there is another man on earth whose name is more familiar." Common people, the folks who had bought his subscription books from door-to-door salesmen and who now bought the daily papers, felt at ease stopping him and chatting him up. Porters rushed to grab his bags when he traveled. At railroad stations the conductors solemnly held up express trains while Mark Twain relieved himself in the Gents room.

    The old rivertown urchin strutted among the gods of his time. His friendships had already touched the giants of the nineteenth century—Ulysses S. Grant, Whitman, and Emerson among them. Now they expanded to embrace the coming titans of the twentieth. Two months after his return, Twain introduced the twenty-six-year-old Winston Churchill to his first American lecture audience at the Waldorf-Astoria. As the decade progressed he would dine at President Theodore Roosevelt's White House and hobnob with the future President Woodrow Wilson in Bermuda; he would gossip and drink with Andrew Carnegie; he would greet the Russian revolutionary Maxim Gorky with Jane Addams and Finley Peter Dunne; he would have Helen Keller to dinner.

    By 1902 his fortune was fully restored: His income exceeded $100,000. In that year he made a triumphal final visit out west to Hannibal, Missouri, the Mississippi rivertown of his boyhood and the seedbed of his richest imaginings. He posed for photographs by the doorway of the little whiteframe house on Hill Street where the Clemenses had lived for a time, and thus consecrated it. A century later that same dwarfish house, propped upright with reinforcing dowels and framed in the background by a billboard advertising "Mark Twain Fried Chicken," stood as an official shrine to his memory.

    Back East, his evenings were lit by banquet-hall chandeliers; oysters and champagne became his regular bill of fare. In 1905 he was toasted at a seventieth-birthday banquet at Delmonico's that included, among its guests, Willa Cather and Emily Post. ("If you find you can't make seventy by any but an uncomfortable road," he told the celebrants, "don't you go." It was received as a witticism.) Two years later at Oxford he received an honorary doctorate of letters and met King Edward VII. (The Queen scolded him to keep his hat on, for fear of him catching cold.) He also met Sir James Barrie, of Peter Pan fame, and George Bernard Shaw, who called him "by far the greatest American writer."

    William Dean Howells, the editor of The Atlantic who was his lifelong friend and ardent reviewer, would exalt him as "the Lincoln of our literature," and gave him a nickname that another blazing icon of the culture would one day claim: "The King."

And yet this King was far from the serene "whited sepulchre" that he seemed to the world. Beneath his calculated outer wrappings, the small figure descending the Minnehaha gangplank was a Mysterious Stranger, alienated and dream-driven, and the glint in his eye was not public amusement but private fury. A great dark river raged out of control through the vast channels of his being, a river that roiled against the foundations of his past, his friendships, his art; against mankind, against fate, against the Christian God, and against the fat and grasping nation that even now rushed out dumbly to worship him.

    A cultural treasure he might have been; but the Mark Twain reentering America at the opening of the twentieth century had hardened as well into a kind of cultural Antichrist. The manuscripts in his trunk, and the others yet unwritten in his head, would swell against and seek to drown the tinny pieties that his doting host culture held dear, or thought it did.

    His performance with the welcoming reporters had established the watershed between his public and private selves. He hadn't lied to them exactly, but he had not disseminated all the facts by telling the truth, either. The pierside interview had amounted to a serenely promiscuous gilding, if not an outright revision, of inner reality. The decade and a half just concluded had been progressively disheartening for Samuel Clemens; the past ten years had all but wrecked his health and the most recent five had pushed him to the borders of insanity.

    The press—the world—knew some of this, but by no means all. And in a way peculiar to Mark Twain's reputation available through his life and his works, the darker dimensions lay, and would remain lying, concealed in plain sight: available as evidence in his novels and essays and memoirs, but discounted somehow, against the blinding glosses of the man himself and the encircling custodians of his legacy.

Europe had been a refuge, a continent of sanctuary and cheap lodging where he had fled with his wife Olivia and his daughters Jean and Clara. (Elegant Susy, his eldest, most literary and most adored daughter, had stayed behind to pursue her education at Bryn Mawr.)

    A catastrophic loss of fortune had driven him abroad; the fortune he had earned as author of celebrated travel books and founder of the Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn mythos. He'd squandered that wealth by increments during the 1880s through irrational, addictive investments in publishing and in the demonically unworkable Paige typesetting machine. By 1889, Clemens's unrecovered payouts to the eccentric putterer James W. Paige—whose invention he'd imagined would make him a multimillionaire—had exceeded $150,000.

    Tortured with rheumatism (his writing arm nearly useless) and frantic with financial anxiety, Clemens closed down his extravagant house in Hartford in the spring of 1891. He dismissed the servants and sold off many of the lavish furnishings accumulated over seventeen legendary years as the presiding genius of a storied literary/social enclave that included Charles Dudley Warner and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In June 1891 he and the family left America—first for Aix-les-Bains, France, and then on to Germany and Italy and a spacious but inexpensive villa in the hills above Florence.

    There he had indeed written much of Joan of Arc and finished up Pudd'nhead Wilson, as he'd blandly informed the reporters, but the process had been at once more nakedly commercial and more heroic than he'd let on. In Aix-les-Bains, preoccupied with debt, he had labored through his arm pains, trying to generate cash through travel journalism, even switching to his left hand when the agony of motion grew unbearable. That winter an attack of influenza had left him with a permanently damaged lung. It would be yet more months before his inflamed joints allowed him to grasp a pen with his right hand.

    His output at Florence had been physically prodigious for a man approaching sixty and nursing an afflicted writing arm: nearly two thousand manuscript pages in something under six months. Artistically, it yawed wildly, in quality and intent, forking the polarities of his nature. Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, stilted and unctuous, would rank among the quaintest of his novels; he wrote it out of an old clinging piety (toward women, if not God) and perhaps a sense of determinism-as a fifteen-year-old boy in Hannibal, he'd been brushed by a windblown page from a Joan of Arc history, and it had awakened his lifelong absorption in medieval life. He had modeled St. Joan's traits upon his prim daughter Susy, had read aloud from it sonorously at every opportunity, and had thought at first to have it published as an anonymous gift of cultural uplift.

    Pudd'nhead Wilson, which would prove his last novel of any merit, unsheathed his colder, more modern vision. Begun as a playful piece of mixed-identity farce, it had matured into a flawed but unrelenting satire of man's flattened moral state and the instability of the human self.

    "For the next two years I was in France," he'd told the reporters, and wisecracked, "I can't speak French yet ..."

    The little jest masked a season of ghastly anxiety. Speaking French was scarcely the point. Sam Clemens spent large draughts of that period sailing between Europe and America. He made eight crossings, begging loans and investments to salvage his failing publishing enterprise, Chares L. Webster & Co., and, of course, to feed the curse of the Paige typesetter.

    In May 1894 Clemens slunk back across the Atlantic to his exiled family in humiliation. Magazine installments of Pudd'nhead Wilson were rekindling a national admiration for him as a literary light, but his finances had now slipped beyond his control. He arrived back in Paris a declared bankrupt, his slide into irretrievable poverty being averted by the guidance of an admiring captain of Standard Oil named Henry Huttleston Rogers. Still he hoped obsessively that Paige could somehow stanch the typesetter's breakdowns. When that hope collapsed for good early in 1895, Clemens could see nothing but failure in himself. Life was a dream from which he could not awaken.

    "In the spring of 1895 I came to the United States for a brief stay, crossing the continent from New York to San Francisco, lecturing every night ..."

    No, not San Francisco. He'd ended up swinging well north of California, which he'd departed a generation before, and into British Columbia. "San Francisco" was a typically Twainian mistake of memory, or a mixing of memory and desire. He had wanted to include his old "heaven-on-the-half-shell" city of bygone newspapering days on this transcontinental barnstorm, but was talked out of it by his agent.

    In every other respect, the remark was singular for its understatement: Mark Twain's lecturing sweep of the United States in the summer of 1895, just months after a near physical collapse, was the first leg of the protean round-the-world platform tour—Livy and Clara in tow—on which (combined with "Following the Equator," his literary accounting of it) he earned the money to pay back his creditors one hundred cents on the dollar. This was the odyssey that allowed him finally to regain financial and spiritual control of his life, and the world recognized it for the heroic gesture it was. As the Clemenses made ready to sail the Pacific from Victoria, B.C., one newspaper sent them off with this salute:

At the age of sixty years Mark Twain manfully faces four [sic] years of the hardest labor to provide money, not for his comforts nor for a heritage to descendants, but to pay debts contracted by a firm of which he was a member ...
Without any appeal for sympathy or any suggestion of assistance, keeping away from pathos and avoiding pity, this man of stern honor begins in his old age the same struggle as he once before made.

    Back in England in August 1896, in the house at Guildford where he was staying alone. Clemens received a cable telling him: "Susy was peacefully released to-day." Only twenty-four, she had died of meningitis back home, in the old family house at Hartford.

    Neither Sam nor Olivia Clemens ever stopped suffering the ache of that loss. Sam tortured himself by grasping at artifacts of her; he read and reread the biography she had begun of him when she was thirteen. ("He has the mind of an author exactly," one passage had gone, "some of the simplest things he can't understand.") An entry in his own great disheveled memoir, dictated shortly before his death, cried out: "It is one of the mysteries of nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live."

This, then, was the accounting beneath the accounting; the essence of the dark twin concealed beneath the amiable lion of American letters who disembarked from the Minnehaha in New York harbor on October 15, 1900. Mark Twain, the figure in white, would reign over his mechanizing, urbanizing culture almost as a living statue through the new century's ambiguous first decade—a comforting symbol of the accelerating nation's virtue, its unbroken connection with its arcadian, small-town (in certain ways feudal) past. A self-"petrification," to use a favorite term of Twain's—one he employed only in the service of undeviating contempt.

    Unobserved by the enveloping entourage of friends and family was the man entire—the dream-ridden, river-tossed world wanderer out of the old Interior, a purer product of America in his gorgeous flaws and terrible genius than most of his celebrants would ever want to consider. His flaws were to some extent the flaws of the nation: exploitative appetite, an irreducible nativism that endured despite his travels, an uncritical faith in technical progress and the perfectability of man's nature via the machine. As a writer he had seldom shown concern for the received aesthetic demands of his craft. Form inconvenienced him; bother form; a Twain book, especially a Twain novel, went drifting like a river, from change to change, until it ended. Likewise consistency of tone, or consistency of anything: He would be uproarious one minute, maudlin the next, turgidly "historical" the moment after that, and then the writerly voice might disappear utterly into a Cheshire smile of reportage. The characters in his novels could be shockingly cardboard, grown-up ones especially and grown-up females most especially of all. In this, too, he was distinctly American; form, the nuances of character and the edgy implications of gender were worse than precious; they were downright French.

    But his genius was distinctly American as well, the raw, improvising genius of a rich new culture in eruption, and that genius lay partly in his way of either adjusting his flaws to accommodate reality, or else melding them into the service of his art. His self-liberation from high European style (except when he was lampooning it) gave him room to write U.S. English in as pristine and stripped-down a way as it had ever been written, especially when he was replicating speech; and this in turn made him the fountainhead of modern U.S. literature.

    His most characteristic mode—humor in its many varieties—betrayed his American stamp more than anything else. Twain had lived long enough to have experienced New World humor in its still-forming, unconsecrated state, and in that state it was seldom merely funny; more often it was a densely accumulating series of myths and metaphors for rationalizing chaos. Men and women of the frontier had traded in humorous archetypes—a kind of diplomatic folk-language—in order to understand and safely negotiate the backwoods country's extreme religiosity, its uncontrollable violence, and the many deadly gradations between the two. More than one commentator remarked on Twain's preternatural deadpan; his lecture audiences were mesmerized into hysterics by it, and some people thought he actually never spoke or wrote in deliberate jest at all. "He was an American; that is, an unfathomably solemn man," ventured G.K. Chesterton, who also found him "serious to the point of madness." Even his unfailing booster Howells cited "the profoundly serious, the almost tragical strain" that was the fundamental tone of the Southwestern culture from which Twain sprang. Still, the man could get a laugh.

    But now as Twain returned scarred and grieving to America, the locus of his humor had shifted to a place outside the limits of his own petrifying canon. "For several years I have been intending to stop writing for print as soon as I could afford it. At last I can afford it," he had written to Howells while still in England. And while he would not abandon "for print" entirely, he plunged now with avidity into his newly defined subject-matter. "It is under way now, & it is a luxury!" he informed Howells, "an intellectual drunk ..."

    W. D. Howells knew "Clemens" (as he always insisted on calling him) for forty-six years. He probably knew Mark Twain better than any other human being, with the possible exception of Olivia. Among the most fundamental and unqualified pronouncements Howells would ever make was that his friend "had the soul of a boy." (Olivia would seem to have agreed—her pet name for her husband was "Youth.")

    Now, it seemed, the aging boy's subject-matter, the substance of his intellectual drunk, was to be man; was to be mankind; was to be the loss of Mark Twain's pride and respect for mankind.

    He wrote furiously now out of a hot dark private place, where men are trapped on monstrous voyages inside drops of rainwater; where angels mock the works of a conscienceless God (whose motto read, "Let no innocent person escape"); where mankind's "Moral Sense" is shown inferior to the base instincts of animals; where the human hope of free will is exposed as a sham and men are nothing more than self-deceiving machines; where a malign Source of All Etiquette can exterminate the house of Baasha for the crime of pissing against the wall. This new sulfurous strain of humor knew no limits of blasphemy whatsoever: it even imagined the game of baseball as a sport in which the batsman, "in the fullness of time," "did lay the Umpire dead," and then was himself annihilated by a beanball that cracked his skull.

    No more the self-kidding of his old California newspapering days, no more the indulgent manners-and-morals humor of the great set pieces in the travel books, no more the brilliant explosions of rendered vernacular, no more the containable naughtiness of his immortalizing boyhood novels. (It would still be some decades before the critics pried loose the more subversive visions embedded in those.) His endearing public writings were all behind him now. Ahead lay the full discharge of the pen warmed up in hell.

    The world received a sampling of this heat six weeks after Twain's return, after he had settled himself and Livy into a townhouse on West Tenth Street—an area that would become famous among midcentury artists as Greenwich Village. On New Century's Eve, he unveiled what he called "A Salutation Speech from the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth taken down in shorthand by Mark Twain" in the December 31 edition of the New York Herald:

I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched and dishonored from pirate raids in Kiao-Chow, Manchuria, South Africa, the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her soap and a towel, but hide the looking-glass.

    That was for practice. A month later, Twain shocked his public by unleashing all, concerning that subject, that was on his mind. He chose the February North American Review, an unassailably stately journal of opinion, for a corrosive assault against American highhandedness in the Far East. Modeled vaguely on Swift's "A Modest Proposal," and laced with ironic allusions to Biblical scripture, "To the Person Sitting in Darkness" mocked the false pieties that had attended the recent coercive demands by United States missionaries upon the Chinese following the Boxer rebellion. The screed ended with nothing less than an early-century version of a flag-burning: his suggestion that the American flag be repainted black and its field of stars replaced by a skull and crossbones.

    For a while, the creamy banquets and the polemic bursts alternated in an uneasy tension. Luxury and radicalism coexisted—validating the insight of Howells, who called him a theoretical socialist and a practical aristocrat. After moving to a large rented house in fashionable Riverdale in the autumn of 1901, Mark Twain joined the Anti-Imperialist League, which was monitoring the Philippine situation. So did Howells; they both served as vice presidents. Twain threw in with the activist Society of Acorns and helped them turn public opinion against an enclave of rascals from the Tammany Hall machine. Writing to Harper's Weekly in 1905 in the voice of Satan, Twain excoriated the philanthropies of John D. Rockefeller as "conscience-money." (This was an especially ticklish stance, given that Rockefeller's Standard Oil colleague, Henry H. Rogers, had recently saved the author from the poorhouse. Perhaps that incongruity was on Twain's mind when an ingratiating friend remarked to him that the Rogers wealth was "tainted," and Twain snapped back: "Yes. 'Tain't yours, and 'tain't mine.")

Such polemical firebursts made a public stir, influencing the political thinking of the decade and creating, temporarily at least, an altered image of Americana's great white father. Yet neither the firebursts (the public ones, anyway) nor the new image was destined to endure. By the time Halley's Comet, which had hovered over his birth in 1835, came round again to reclaim him on April 21, 1910, the overheated old man had slipped back into the comfort of his nation's damp embrace. He died beloved and was laid to rest in one of his white suits—"humorist." aphorist, family patriarch, valiant traveler, enduring poet of American arcadia, American boyhood, unending American summer. Riding the comet into the next world, Mark Twain was still performing, still fooling the press. And still the cultural Antichrist underneath.

    All of this might suggest that by the end of his life, Mark Twain had voyaged irretrievably far from the memories and the qualities of temperament that had infused his canonical works: The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi, and especially his signature "boys'" novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It might suggest that Twain in the tortured final decade-and-a-half of his life had in some elemental sense ceased being Mark Twain at all, or at least had ceased being the Samuel Langhorne Clemens whose early life—his boyhood and youth in Hannibal, on the great river and in the far western territories—had given Twain his mythic stature and the canonical works their content.

    This has remained, roughly, the assumption of many of his readers—and many more of his nonreaders—in the century since his death: that after a sunny, pastoral boyhood in Hannibal ("what began to seem the most memorable boyhood ever lived," in the phrasing of Justin Kaplan), followed by an idyllic, dream-come-true adventure as a Mississippi River steamboat pilot and some prospecting and newspapering exploits in the West, Mark Twain settled in to an extended career as a fond memoirist and novelist, then grew old, grew unaccountably alienated and "bitter," and died. The popular-cultural consensus, especially among the many commercial marketers and theme-park packagers of his image, has been to focus on the sunlit tales and aphorisms of Twain the "humorist," and leave Twain the bewildering dark prophet to his convenient obscurity.

    Twain's own inner circle collaborated in this smothering, sterilizing legacy. The chief perpetrators were Clara and his genuflective first biographer and literary executor, Albert Bigelow Paine. To a lesser extent, Twain was muted by his astute and worshipful, but fatally Victorian chum Howells.

    Howells, plump and humid, is the least suitable object of blame; without Howells and his passionate effusions stretching across forty years, there might have been no Mark Twain—at least as a sustaining figure in American literature. It was Howells, among the "serious" critics, who had first paid attention to Twain in 1869, Howells who swept the rough-edged westerner into respectability among the New England literary elite. But it was also Howells who gave Twain a discrete nudge now and then regarding the limits of good taste, and it was Howells who in 1883 had sent Twain a strong signal about the suitability of his more searing childhood memories. "Don't let anyone see those passages," he implored his friend about a particularly morbid anecdote in the manuscript of Orion Clemens's autobiography—which went unpublished and eventually was lost.

    Clara was the most vigilant suppressor of her father's unbridled imaginings. The middle of the three daughters, and not the favorite, she was the last to survive her father and influenced his legacy until her own death at eighty-eight in 1962. She had trained for a career in music, excelling at voice and the piano, but caring for her invalid mother, her aging icon of a father and her epileptic sister Jean had nearly broken her—she'd repaired to a sanitorium in 1904 after her mother's death. Recovering, she took on the role of managing her father's household and, more tellingly, his wholesome "humorist" image. (She'd found his taste in white suits vulgar.) After Twain's death, Clara hovered over the process of any book published about him, suppressing photos she didn't like (including some of her dad with members of his "Angelfish" club) and the entire contents of Letters from the Earth until after her own death.

    Clara found a malleable ally in the fastidious Paine. A dapper, starch-collared Iowan, sometime photographer, and writer of children's books, Paine had attached himself to the old writer after having met him several times in the early 1900s, including the seventieth birthday fete at Delmonico's. In 1906 he boldly sought and immediately received Twain's permission to write his biography. From that time until the end, Paine virtually merged his identity with Twain's, indulging him at billiards, moving his own family into the author's house, even going so far as to retrace the author's voyage to the Holy Land that had resulted in The Innocents Abroad.

    As Paine scrutinized his subject, Clara scrutinized Paine. She would make sure that this biographer betrayed no hint of her father's dark side. In the event, there was no serious conflict; the two of them were equally determined to enforce a sanitized, sentimental perception of Twain that had no place for satanic angels, hellacious dreamvoyages, degraded Moral Senses, or pissing against the wall.

    Paine's three-volume, half-million-word study, Mark Twain, a Biography: The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was published in 1912. Exhaustive and valuable in many ways, it fatally suppressed the brimstone. And Paine's damage to his subject's legacy extended well beyond his prim and proper biography. As literary executor, he maintained control of those unpublished papers for a crucial quarter-century after Twain's death. His selections of material for publication were invariably skewed by his and Clara's notions of propriety. More unforgivably still, Paine actually meddled in the work—abridging Twain's letters, even rewriting (and bowdlerizing) passages of "The Mysterious Stranger" (published in 1916) without disclosing his interventions.

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Table of Contents

One 1
Two 25
Three 39
Four 51
Five 65
Six 81
Seven 97
Eight 119
Nine 141
Ten 165
Eleven 181
Twelve 203
Thirteen 219
Fourteen 235
Fifteen 255
Sixteen 265
Seventeen 291
Selected Bibliography 301
Notes 305
Index 321
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