Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Marking Twain

By Ben Winters

JUNE 14, 1999: 

"Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Man who Became Mark Twain" by Ron Powers, Basic Books, $24, 328 pages

I've never understood people who don't like Mark Twain. There are definitely some high-school English standbys that deserve our frustration and loathing - Hawthorne, Melville, even Steinbeck when he starts to prattle on about dust storms - but Twain is a joy, a comic riot, a proto-Bill Murray rolling off punchlines in sly deadpan. Consider this quote, used to kick off an early chapter in Ron Powers' remarkable new bio of the young Twain: "My parents removed to Missouri in the early thirties; I do not remember just when, for I was not born then and cared nothing for such things."

That's funny shit.

But "Dangerous Waters" is not intended as a celebration of Twain's comic genius. To the contrary, the goal of the author - who was born, like his subject, in tiny Hannibal, Mo. - is to return to the writer's childhood and find the seeds of the other Sam Clemens: The sad, bitter cynic who co-existed with the mirthful world traveler and bon vivant. Powers argues that the typical view, of the "fond memoirist and novelist" who, in his dotage, "grew unaccountably alienated and bitter," is off target. Twain was always bitter, always more the vicious critic, always "the cultural Antichrist underneath."

In search of the real Twain, Powers starts with the Clemens family's restless migrations, tracking young Sammy from his conception to the death of his brother Henry and his subsequent forced entry into adulthood. As an author biography that focuses on one particular portion of the Twain's life, Powers' book is unlikely to find an audience outside the most earnest Twain devotees. This is unfortunate, because "Dangerous Waters" is so powerfully imagined and poetically constructed that it is nearly worthy of Twain himself.

Describing the roots of little Sam's understanding of slavery, Powers goes to town, Twain-style: "And always, floating up... into that atmosphere like tendrils of smoke from an exotic leaf, there were the haunting different-rhymed voices of the black slaves."

Powers stresses time and again that Twain's life, far from being the innocent idyll one might imagine from "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," was marked from boyhood forward by painful events and deep sadness. And it is there, perhaps, that we find the birth of a genius. To quote the maestro: "The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven."

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