Monday, December 31, 2007

Writing Mark Twain

To write a life of Mark Twain must be an incredibly daunting task. The man lived a long and eventful life and wrote constantly (including more than 12,000 extant letters!). Much of what he wrote was ephemeral, a lot of it has dated poorly, and some is downright bad. Anyone who can grapple with all of that and come away with a convincing, compelling life is to be praised.

But they should also be sure to get their manuscript into the hands of a close-reading, hands-on editor. Sadly, Ron Powers doesn't seem to have done that with his Mark Twain (2005). A good editor would have prevented the following annoying, recurring problems from marring what is otherwise a fine book: anecdotes, incidents, and quips that are repeated, turning up first in the brief initial sketch of a character or period, then again when they occur naturally in the chronology; overuse of particular pet words, ranging from the wildly obscure ("absquatulate," which Powers plucks from one of Twain's letters and uses four or five times) to the simply uncommon ("anneal," which turns up a few too many times, never in connection with metalworking); the occasional slip into parade-of-events-style contextualization that is the hallmark of lousy biographies; too-easy reference to modern-day cultural figures and events; and simple mistakes, such as identifying Honus Wagner, the greatest shortstop ever to play baseball, as a third baseman.

More important, a truly daring editor would have convinced Powers to drop most of his attempts at humor. I understand the impulse; after reading Twain it's really hard not to start thinking in his sarcastic, ironic terms. But that's one of the jobs of a good editor: to point out that when put up against some of the best humor writing in American history--a fair amount of which, particularly in the letters, is still quite funny--the biographer's sallies are sure to seeem flat at best, lame and forced at worst.

I don't want to sound relentlessly critical; I meant what I said in the opening paragraph. Twain's life is a tough task, and Powers handles it well. He delivers a Clemens that is unsimplified and unreduced: a stormy, fractious, emotional, talented man who seemed to only very rarely be able assess himself with any dispassion or objectivity, which both generated and compromised his art. Powers juggles Twain's crazily peripatetic life, his scads of friends and relatives, and his many, many projects (both completed and aborted) while never losing the narrative thread or allowing the tumult to explode into confusion. It also never bogs down, remaining interesting, even fun, despite the darkness that shadowed Twain's later years.

What I'm most thankful for, though, is Powers's delving into Twain's papers, including his letters and notebooks. Twain's voluminous correspondence--which must have been a brutal slog at times--yields some real gems for the reader. My favorites are the letters sent to Twain in the wake of the success of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, many of which were brazen requests for some form of assistance. Many, many people wrote for literary advice:
Do you think you could find time to look over say 400 pages of M.S.S. written. Something out of the treadmill style of the latter day novels?

On that envelope, Twain scribbled, "An absurd request." Others he filed away under "From an ass." No word on how he categorized the following inarguably logical request for funds:
Gracious Sir;
You are rich. To lose $10.00 would not make you miserable.

I am poor. To gain $10.00 would not make me miserable.

Please send me $10.00 (ten dollars). . . .
From Twain's own letters Powers turns up the following lines, which as a Chicagoan I can't resist sharing, written following a visit to Chicago in December of 1871, mere weeks after the Chicago Fire:
There is literally no Chicago here. I recognize nothing here, that ever I saw before.
Then there's this off-hand speculation on genius from Twain's notebook, written December 21st, 1866:
Geniuses are people who dash off wierd [sic], wild, incomprehensible poems with astonishing facility, & then go & get booming drunk & sleep in the gutter . . . people who have genius do not pay their board, as a general thing.
Finally, because it serves as the flip side of my occasional feature on works lost to fire, I'll close with this extract from a letter Twain sent his friend and editor William Dean Howells in August of 1876:
I . . . began another boys' book--more to be at work than anything else. . . . I have written 400 pages on it--therefore it is very nearly half done. It is Huck Finn's Autobiography. I like it only tolerably well, as far as I have got, & may possibly pigeonhole or burn the MS when it is done.

Have a great New Year's. Be careful what you burn.

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