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Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography

Overview

Ernest Hemingway called Huckleberry Finn “the best book we’ve ever had. There was nothing before. There’s been nothing as good since.” Critical opinion of this book hasn’t dimmed since Hemingway uttered these words; as author Russell Banks says in these pages, Twain “makes possible an American literature which would otherwise not have been possible.” He was the most famous American of his day, and remains in ours the most universally revered American writer. Here the master storytellers Geoffrey Ward, Ken Burns, ...
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Overview

Ernest Hemingway called Huckleberry Finn “the best book we’ve ever had. There was nothing before. There’s been nothing as good since.” Critical opinion of this book hasn’t dimmed since Hemingway uttered these words; as author Russell Banks says in these pages, Twain “makes possible an American literature which would otherwise not have been possible.” He was the most famous American of his day, and remains in ours the most universally revered American writer. Here the master storytellers Geoffrey Ward, Ken Burns, and Dayton Duncan give us the first fully illustrated biography of Mark Twain, American literature’s touchstone, its funniest and most inventive figure.

This book pulls together material from a variety of published and unpublished sources. It examines not merely his justly famous novels, stories, travelogues, and lectures, but also his diaries, letters, and 275 illustrations and photographs from throughout his life. The authors take us from Samuel Langhorne Clemens’s boyhood in Hannibal, Missouri, to his time as a riverboat worker—when he adopted the sobriquet “Mark Twain”—to his varied careers as a newspaperman, printer, and author. They follow him from the home he built in Hartford, Connecticut, to his peripatetic travels across Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. We see Twain grieve over his favorite daughter’s death, and we see him writing and noticing everything.

Twain believed that “The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” This paradox fueled his hilarity and lay at the core of this irreverent yet profoundly serious author. With essays by Russell Banks, Jocelyn Chadwick, Ron Powers, and John Boyer, as well as an interview with actor and frequent Twain portrayer Hal Holbrook, this book provides a full and rich portrayal of the first figure of American letters.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Geoffrey C. Ward, Dayton Duncan, and Ken Burns have written a touching and heartfelt look at the life and career of the man who is, arguably, the greatest writer in American history: Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. This is a glorious and beautiful illustrated book, drawing on Twain's works, diaries, and letters -- it's ideal as a companion to the four-hour PBS series on Twain.

What's most remarkable about Twain's life is the amount of personal loss he went through, and the degree to which he blamed himself for it. His brother Henry, a steamboat clerk, died in an explosion on the Mississippi in 1858; Twain felt responsible because he hadn't been there for his younger brother when he needed him. He and his beloved wife, Livy, lost a prematurely born son, Langdon, in 1872; again, Twain felt responsible, blaming himself for allowing the baby to catch cold. His daughter Susy died of an infection at the tender age of 23; Clemens blamed the death on the stress caused by the family's chronic bankruptcy. When Livy herself succumbed in 1904 (a loss that devastated Clemens, who adored the woman who so often inspired his writing), their daughter Clara suffered a nervous breakdown.

How did a man who has written some of the wittiest and most trenchant social commentary cope with so much intense misfortune? Perhaps it was his very "American-ness"; he clearly had that zest for adventure that sums up the spirit of the country. On the other hand, when one looks at the evolution of his writing over the years, there is a definite darkening in tone, a negativity that reflects Twain's personal misery. Either way, this illustrated look at the great humorist is a wonderful read. (Nicholas Sinisi)

Nicholas Sinisi is the Barnes&Noble.com Nonfiction Editor.

Publishers Weekly
In 1867, after successfully marketing accounts of his Mideast travels to several newspapers, Mark Twain wrote to his mother, "Am pretty well known now. Intend to be better known." But he could hardly have anticipated the meteoric rise that would rapidly make him America's most prominent citizen. Next January, Twain will be subjected to that conclusive proof of American significance, the Ken Burns documentary. The inevitable cross-merchandising will include this illustrated biography, which, happily, stands on its own merits as a fascinating account of Twain's extraordinary career. All Burns productions center on a good story, and this is a plain, very human tale: rags, riches, and the rest. The authors (Ward and Duncan are frequent collaborators with Burns) thoroughly examine Twain's disastrous business sense, his horrid temper, his unlikely courtship of the heiress Olivia Langdon, his climb out of bankruptcy at the age of 60, the loss of three of his four children, his global celebrity. Even amid tragedy, Twain could make a stone laugh, but it was his rare frankness in confronting racism, and the publication of the controversial Huckleberry Finn, that would secure his fame beyond national borders and his own time. As one might expect, the Burns team has done magnificent archival detective work and unearthed a treasure trove of rare Twain photographs. This should appeal to a vast potential readership eager to learn more about this manic, profound, daft and provocative mad genius of American culture. (Nov. 20) Forecast: Shelve this with The Annotated Huckleberry Finn (Forecasts, Sept. 10) and sales should soar during the holidays, even before the TV documentary airs. Copyright 2001Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Ward hooks up with his old pal Ken Burns and consultant Dayton Duncan in this companion to a four-hour PBS series. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-An excellent introduction to both the man and the writer. In making Ken Burns's PBS program on Twain, the authors brought together countless black-and-white photographs, many never before published. Students who look at nothing but the images will learn a good deal. The interesting text is liberally interspersed with italicized quotes from Twain's novels, diaries, essays, lectures, and letters that bring out the finer points of an event in vivid detail. Longer quotes are presented in white print on black pages. Although it is obvious these are the writer's words, they are not cited in source notes. Five essays or interviews from the time period give qualified opinions on specific aspects of Twain's life or writing. An excellent choice for high school students.-Claudia Moore, W. T. Woodson High School, Fairfax, VA Graphic Novels SAKAI, Stan. Usagi Yojimbo: Grasscutter II: Journey to Atsuta Shrine. illus. by author. 174p. (Usagi Yojimbo Series). notes. Dark Horse. 2002. pap. $15.95. ISBN 1-56971-660-9. LC number unavailable. Adult/High School-This book opens with the legend of Prince Yamato-Dake, who gave the sword of the sun-goddess Amaterasu to his bride on their wedding day. He met a tragic fate by going to fight without the sacred blade, and the sword, known as Kusanagi no tsurugi, or grass-cutting sword, was enshrined at Atsuta. Several centuries later, a replica was made, and the real Grasscutter was moved to the imperial court and then lost. Grasscutter (Dark Horse, 1999) tells the story of how Usagi came to possess the legendary sword. In Grasscutter II, the samurai rabbit is trying to take it back to Atsuta where it cannot be used as a political tool to cause dissent and civil war. Unfortunately, two rival ninja clans also want it. Usagi travels with his friend Gen, the priest Sanshobo, the former samurai lord Ikeda, and the devious ninja leader, Chizu. The book is packed with battles, from Yamato-Dake's battle with a giant snake kami to the final showdown at the shrine. Sakai populates his vision of historic Japan with anthropomorphic animals. Gen is a rhino, and the warring ninja clans are comprised of cats and bats. The black-and-white artwork is distinctive and dramatic, with strong lines and many details reflective of Japanese culture. The action is easy to follow and exciting, and the Japanese words used in the text are translated in footnotes.-Susan Salpini, Fairfax County Public Schools, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
What comes after baseball, the Civil War, and jazz? Mark Twain, of course. Burns and Company are back with a four-hour PBS television series on America's favorite riverboat captain and author. The companion volume, assuredly an attempt to cash in further on all that research, is nonetheless an enticing edition in its own right. It offers a sumptuous collection of photographs, reproductions of original documents, and illustrations that capture the rough-and-tumble of Twain's life and career. Scholars in the audience might turn their noses up at the crisply informal bits of biography-some recreated so vividly that they seem ready for the stage-but even the most curmudgeonly will be enraptured by the scores of photos. General audiences will be beguiled by yet another heaping dose of Burns et al.'s sprawling yet intimate portraiture. The arc of Twain's life is captured with sweeping flourishes of fact supplemented by intimate details of his home and family life. The letter he wrote to his children as Santa Claus, his grief over his son's death from diphtheria, and his joy when the public library of Concord, Massachusetts, banned Huckleberry Finn illuminate the private life of 19th-century America's most public figure. Twain's trademark wanderlust kept the adventures coming during his life, and they make for fascinating reading today. Russell Banks, John Boyer, Jocelyn Chadwick, Hal Holbrook, and Ron Powers also contribute to the volume; the best of this bunch is Chadwick's meditation on Twain's use of the word "nigger" as she ponders the intersections of yesterday's racial politics, their present-day afterlife, and the ways they affect Twain's writing. Pick this cornucopia up for thepictures and you'll probably end up reading the whole thing. A coffee-table volume that someone might actually read-and enjoy. The wonders of Burns and Company never cease. (110 b&w and 40 color illustrations) First printing of 100,000
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375405617
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/28/2001
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 201,909
  • Product dimensions: 8.15 (w) x 10.26 (h) x 0.82 (d)

Meet the Author

Ken Burns
Geoffrey C. Ward is the author of twelve books, including A First Class Temperament, which won the 1989 National Book Critics Circle Award. He has written or co-written many documentary films, including Jazz, The Civil War, and Baseball.

Dayton Duncan is the author of five books and has been a consultant on many of Ken Burns' films, including Lewis & Clark, and was also the co-writer and consulting producer of the PBS series The West.

Ken Burns, the founder of Florentine Films, is a director, producer, and writer who has been making documentaries for more than twenty years. His work has won numberous prizes, including the Emmy and Peabody awards.

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Read an Excerpt

Ernest Hemingway called Huckleberry Finn "the best book we've ever had. There was nothing before. There's been nothing as good since." Critical opinion of this book hasn't dimmed since Hemingway uttered these words; as author Russell Banks says in these pages, Twain "makes possible an American literature which would otherwise not have been possible." He was the most famous American of his day, and remains in ours the most universally revered American writer. Here the master storytellers Geoffrey Ward, Ken Burns, and Dayton Duncan give us the first fully illustrated biography of Mark Twain, American literature's touchstone, its funniest and most inventive figure.

This book pulls together material from a variety of published and unpublished sources. It examines not merely his justly famous novels, stories, travelogues, and lectures, but also his diaries, letters, and 275 illustrations and photographs from throughout his life. The authors take us from Samuel Langhorne Clemens's boyhood in Hannibal, Missouri, to his time as a riverboat worker-when he adopted the sobriquet "Mark Twain"-to his varied careers as a newspaperman, printer, and author. They follow him from the home he built in Hartford, Connecticut, to his peripatetic travels across Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. We see Twain grieve over his favorite daughter's death, and we see him writing and noticing everything.

Twain believed that "The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorry. There is no humor in heaven." This paradox fueled his hilarity and lay at the core of this irreverent yet profoundly serious author. With essays by Russell Banks, Jocelyn Chadwick, Ron Powers, and John Boyer, as well as an interview with actor and frequent Twain portrayer Hal Holbrook, this book provides a full and rich portrayal of the first figure of American letters.

Read More Show Less

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2002

    A rich & rewarding biography

    Finally! A 'coffee table' book that has top-quality photos and an excellent text. MARK TWAIN: AN ILLUSTRATED BIOGRAPHY is a companion to a two-part, four-hour documentary film, directed by Ken Burns, on the life and work of Samuel Langhorne Clemens and his 'famously, irrepressibly rambunctious alter ego Mark Twain.' Ernest Hemingway once said that Twain is 'the headwater of American fiction' and called THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN 'the best book we've ever had. There was nothing before. There's been nothing as good since.' George Bernard Shaw referred to Twain as 'America's Voltaire.' William Dean Howells described Twain as 'incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature.' Susy Clemens once wrote of her father: 'He is known to the public as a humorist, but he has much more in him that is earnest than that is humorous. He is as much of a Philosopher as anything, I think.' In this reviewer's considered judgment, Twain is the greatest literary genius America has produced, a thinker of remarkable depth and substance. Twain's life was filled with many travels, adventures ... and tragedies. Born in 1835, when Halley's comet made its appearance, he lived for 75 years, until 1910, when Halley's comet returned. He survived, and suffered, the death of his beloved wife 'Livy' (Olivia Louise Langdon), and three of their children: Langdon, who died in infancy; Susy, who died of spinal meningitis at age 24; and Jean, who died of a heart attack evidently brought on by an epileptic seizure. 'The secret source of humor itself,' wrote Twain, 'is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven. ... [Our] race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon--laughter. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.' Laughter and sorrow: Twain was well acquainted with both. Known superficially to many admirers as merely a humorist or funny man, Twain was essentially, as he described himself, 'a moralist in disguise' who preached sermons to 'the damned human race.' Twain's literary corpus abounds with excoriating criticisms of racism, anti-Semitism, religious hypocrisy, governmental arrogance and imperialism, petty tyrants, and Philistine culture. His often deadpan humor bristles with barbed satire and withering sarcasm. In addition to its narrative text, this volume includes five bonus essays: 'Hannibal's Sam Clemens,' by Ron Powers; 'Hartford's Mark Twain,' by John Boyer; 'The Six-Letter Word,' by Jocelyn Chadwick; 'Out at the Edges,' by Russell Banks; and an interview with Hal Holbrook, 'Aren't We Funny Animals?' MARK TWAIN: AN ILLUSTRATED BIOGRAPHY is a rich and rewarding book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 13, 2002

    Defining the American Fiction Writer

    If you only read one biography in the next year, I suggest that you make it this one. Samuel Langhorne Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) was ¿torn between fame and family, between humor and bitterness, bottomless hunger for success and haunting fears of failure.¿ His own writing makes this volume sparkle. ¿I am only human -- although I regret it.¿ ¿Aw well, I am a great and sublime fool.¿ ¿The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.¿ ¿Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.¿ His ability to capture the American vernacular on paper has never been equaled. Much of his best-known writing was based on Hannibal, Missouri where he lived from age 4 to 17, and visited only 5 times thereafter. The benefit of an illustrated biography for Mark Twain is that you can see the people and places he was describing, which adds to your enjoyment of those works and to a greater understanding of his craft. Tom Blankenship was a model for Huck Finn and Laura Hawkes inspired Becky Thatcher. Constantly on the move, Twain wrote about the places he visited to earn his living and you will learn a great deal from seeing contemporary photographs and illustrations of these sights from the western United States and Hawaii through to Europe and the Middle East. He also did a world-wide lecture tour in 1895 that is captured here. ¿Livy¿ (Olivia Langdon) was the great love of his life, and you will be enchanted and touched by their letters. You will also enjoy learning about her role as editor (helping him avoid expressions that would offend almost everyone) and as muse (he wanted her to be proud of him). You will come away with many new impressions of Mark Twain. I came away from this book with a strong desire to read more of Mark Twain¿s writing, and to see the PBS series for which this book is a companion. I am sure you will, too! Turn your sadness and setbacks into fertile soil for imagination and humor! Listen to all those around you, and share their lessons with the world! Donald Mitchell, co-author of The 2,000 Percent Solution and The Irresistible Growth Enterprise

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