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From Barnes & NobleThe 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.