The following review appeared 24 August 1999 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 1999 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Harold K. Bush, Jr. <email@example.com>
Saint Louis University
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
As we learn in the opening pages of this wonderful volume, the full story of the life and times of Sam Clemens had been, for a very long time, either neatly laundered or altogether suppressed. Such mythologized versions of the legendary writer emerged from numerous sources, not the least of which were his daughter Clara and his notoriously questionable biographer Albert Bigelow Paine. In particular, the early days of Clemens's life, which are the focus of this volume, had remained largely whitewashed and unexamined in great detail at least until the publication of what has remained for some 47 years the standard account of his youth: Dixon Wecter's excellent Sam Clemens of Hannibal (1952). In the intervening years, biographers have paid scant attention to Clemens's youth: Justin Kaplan ignored it altogether, for instance, while Andrew Hoffman gave it only a couple of thin chapters.
Ron Powers's recent volume, a thoroughly informed and elegantly written work that will be of interest to both scholars and general readers, steps in to present the content of the first twenty or so years of Clemens's life in rich and nuanced ways. In taking on this topic, Powers does rely heavily on key earlier studies, especially Wecter's. But Powers transcends Wecter's achievement in several important ways. In particular, Powers is able to draw upon the very rich tradition of Twain studies over the nearly half century since Wecter's publication. Moreover, and related to this, is the ready availability of numerous primary and secondary sources not available so many years ago. More to the point of this book's originality, Powers brings to his work a vivid understanding of the Hannibal scene that results from his own childhood in Hannibal.
I would also like to suggest that Powers's book is outstanding in its stylistic and "readerly" attributes. Powers, a Pulitzer Prize winner and author of at least eight other volumes, brings to bear the full range of his writerly talents in capturing with verve and at times great humor these early pre-Mark Twain days. For example, in largely dismissing Van Wyck Brooks's dark assessment of the effect of the death of John Clemens on young Sammy, Powers writes: "Brimming with Freudean theory and burdened by his sobersided brahmin's tin ear, Brooks swooped down on this episode and used it to form a pathological view of Twain that would set the terms of debate for forty years" (135). Powers describes a stinging response to one J. T. Hinton published by the young Clemens in the Hannibal Journal: "This flotilla of heavily armored prose, so conventional in its mid-century context, was no match for the sleek torpedoes that came foaming back. . . . [T]wo more jackknife-wrought woodcuts appeared" (187). And here he evokes Clemens's first visit to New York: "Like Walt Whitman across the East River in Brooklyn, like Thomas Wolfe eighty years in the future, and like the ten thousand young journalist-writers who were their heirs, he bestrode the million-footed city, was caught up in the manswarm, heard the blab of the pave, sensed the souls moving along, listened to the living and buried speech that was always vibrating there" (226).
Perhaps some might demur to such flowery prose stylings in a book of this sort. For me, though, the book is a great pleasure to read--and yet one, despite its artistry and frequent breeziness, that will supply even the most acute Twain scholars with insight and ideas for further research. I was particularly struck by Powers's insistence on the rather dark aspects of Twain's childhood--a preoccupation signalled, I guess, by the chosen title. These times were, under Powers's microscope, pretty dangerous times. Fortunately, the author convinces us that much more should be said about the apparently deep and profound impression that many of these events and cultural manifestations left on the subject of the book.
The volume is largely chronological, and yet the individual chapters tend to become brief essays on particular themes or events. Chapter 3, for instance, nicely evokes African-American storytelling and spiritual singing, showing how these aspects of black language began early on to work their way into Clemens's imaginative enterprise. Chapter 7 provides a lengthy listing of the many gruesome experiences of violence, death, drowning, murder, mayhem, and corpses to which Sammy Clemens was privy in his youth. Chapter 9 covers the emergence of southwest humor and the meaning of "rough-and-tumble"--barbarous joking that featured, among other things, an unusual interest in gouging out a person's eyeballs.
Chapter 12 gives nice coverage of the neglected topic of Clemens's earliest sketches and other writing--many of which he snuck into the paper when his older brother Orion left the Journal in his care. Chapter 15 is a brief meditation on Twain's romanticized view of the river itself--with interesting deliberation on why he never seemed to critique this myth, despite the fact that he did virtually every other myth of the nineteenth century. Chapter 16 is a brilliant reading of the death of his favorite brother Henry, contextualized in a rendition of the culture of riverboats in which the fatal explosion of the Pennsylvania occurred on 13 June 1858. With this traumatic event, writes Powers, the childhood of Sammy Clemens came to a stirring close. And for all practical purposes, so does the book--after a final chapter rehashing Twain's last visit to his hometown in 1902.
Interwoven throughout the story are tidbits of historical concern that help to explain important aspects of the ethos of the young Clemens: information about the Postal Act of 1792, for example--a statute that allowed all publishers to receive competitors' papers with no cost of postage--a single law that Powers uses to explain much about Clemens's earliest readings. We learn about the outlaw John Murrell; about the Nullification Crisis of 1833; about the connection between Southwest humor and Whiggery; and about the fascination and danger of riverboat racing. In short, this is a provocative and highly informative work covering the foundational period of Twain's career, a period that has heretofore received scant attention.
The story by Powers is an easy read, highly enjoyable, yet also deeply informed. I should like to say that there are some weaknesses. For example, I am always a bit surprised to see how little coverage issues of religion and churchgoing are given in works about Twain. Surely more than the 2-3 pages' mention of these matters could have been offered. Additionally, some readers may be put off by the scant scholarly apparatus: Powers does footnote, but never gives page numbers, only book titles. This would make it challenging to locate the more esoteric quotations. These are, at most, minor quibbles. More importantly, I highly recommend this volume: it is a wonderful read, and it sheds much light on this fascinating period of the great author's life.
About the reviewer: Harold K. Bush, Jr., author of American Declarations: Rebellion and Repentance in American Cultural History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), is assistant professor of English at Saint Louis University. His essays on Mark Twain have appeared in a variety of publications, including American Literary Realism and American Quarterly, and are forthcoming in The New England Quarterly and The Oxford Historical Guide to Mark Twain, edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin.