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Mark Twain: A Life

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4.06  ·  Rating details ·  1,491 ratings  ·  144 reviews
Mark Twain founded the American voice. His works are a living national treasury: taught, quoted, and reprinted more than those of any writer except Shakespeare. His awestruck contemporaries saw him as the representative figure of his times, and his influence has deeply flavoured the 20th and 21st centuries. Yet somehow, beneath the vast flowing river of literature that he ...more
Hardcover, 722 pages
Published September 13th 2005 by Free Press (first published 2005)
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Average rating 4.06  · 
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 ·  1,491 ratings  ·  144 reviews


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Christine Boyer
Jan 03, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Twain enthusiasts, would-be writers, publishers, American history buffs
Wow, this is a huge book and it took me two months to finish! So right off the bat, if you're not into biographies, put this book back on the shelf and check out something else. Secondly, if you're not into Twain or have never read one of his books, or you're not into the writing process and publishing, again, put it back on the shelf. This thing is a commitment!

Mark Twain is my favorite author. I've read most of his books and some of his essays and sketches. I was familiar with his writing and
...more
Doug
Dec 15, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
For someone like me who has never studied the life of Mark Twain, nor 19th century history, at least not my attempts to not learn history in high school, this tome is quite an education. Thoroughly covers Mark Twain's life, including commentary on past writings by other authors about him. Why is it that most creative geniuses seem to be dysfunctional in everyday life? Maybe genius is part of a mental and/or emotional pathology. Anyway, not having read very many biographies, I can't say whether ...more
Sherry Sharpnack
Mark Twain has long been my favorite American literary personality, and this excellent, often witty and wry, biography delineates why. We learn in this biography about Clemens’ boyhood in Hannibal, Missouri; his introduction to the written word in a printing shop, and his lifelong obsession w/ typesetting; his life on the Mississippi River, both as a boy and as a riverboat pilot; his aborted participation in a “secesh” unit that led to him “lighting out for the territory”—Nevada; where he became ...more
Arminius
Jul 10, 2009 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
I did not finish this book so here is my impression. One striking thing about Mark Twain is the way events in his life made an indelible impression. It something like when a child sees a rather ordinary event as an extraordinary event while an adult will view the same event as commonplace. The child will always remember the event while the adult may forget it. Twain had the gift of remembering in detail the events of his life. He recreated these impressions into print and turned into a prolific ...more
Edward
Aug 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Ron Powers has written a powerful, masterful biography of a towering figure in American literature. He tells not only the story of Twain's life, but delves into the innumerable facets of his character that made him the man he was - husband, father, riverboat pilot, entrepreneur, internationally recognized celebrity and terrible money manager. When I finally put the book down, I felt like I had met the man. Truly a five star story!
Illiterate
Dec 06, 2019 rated it liked it
Powers shows Twain using a prodigious imagination to fuse reality and myth. He also points to contexts that inspired the content of this imagination.
Dorothy
Jan 07, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
This is a truly magnificent biography. I give it four rather than five stars only because there were so many bits of trivia about other people who merely crossed Twain's path that they occasionally bogged down an otherwise fascinating and well-executed biography of this man and his myth. Powers is a gifted and eloquent writer and his prose flows beautifully.

For those who have not read all Twain's works or have dim memories of grade-school readings the author does a marvelous job of
...more
Terry Cornell
The book deserves a three and a half star rating. A long read, but very detailed. The only thing that kept me from giving the book a four star rating, is the author seemed to have a 'word of the day' requirement. Thankfully, I read the Kindle version, so the built in dictionary was quite useful. I enjoyed how the author described advancements and happenings in the world in conjunction with the events in Twain's life. A couple of the most interesting things I learned, was that Twain owned a ...more
Constantine
Jul 12, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Thought it was one of the best biographies I've read. Good window into American mindset, history, nuances of 19th Century. Here is an excerpt from an email I sent to a friend right after finishing the bio(subjective and a little self aggrandizing, I know...but it reveals how the bio affected me...):

Just finished the Twain bio. The trouble with biographies...they bring me way down.WAY DOWN! They immerse you in the arc of life, so there is always the verve and whoosh of the ascending curve as you
...more
Nina
Oct 07, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Any one intrested in History.
Recommended to Nina by: My book club members
I am currently reading this book for my book critique group. I doubt I get it finished in time for our meeting but not because it isn't interesting. Whenever I snatch a few minutes I'm into Twain. Great writing and didn't I think I knew most everything I needed to know about him? Yes, but I was wrong; even after the excellent PBS segment on Twain and visiting his home in Hartford, CT I am amazed at all I have learned in a few short sections of the book. I recommend it even though I am not ...more
Terry Clague
Feb 09, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"A dog is der Hund the dog; a women is die Frau the wom[an]; a horse is das Pferd, the horse; now you put that dog in the Genitive case, & is he the same dog he was before? No sir; he is das Hundes; put him in the Dative case & what is he? Why, he is dem Hund. Now you snatch him into the accusative case & how is it with him? Why he is den Hunden? ... Read moreBut suppose he happens to be twins & you have to pluralize him – what then? Why sir they’ll swap that twin dog around thro ...more
Colleen Semanek
I did enjoy this book even though it took months and months to read it. It was really funny throughout, but it was a struggle to get through it at times. It was certainly written at a higher level than I am used to. I haven't read a book with so many unfamiliar words in years; that explains part of the struggle, but it was neat to learn new words.
Apparently I had no real understanding of all of the struggles he encountered during his fascinating life. Plus, i love learning of all the
...more
John
Mar 31, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Another of those extraordinary biographies that gifted writers have given us lately, one that focuses on personality, affect and responses to the subject's world. A more insightful (and engaging) biography of Mark Twain is hard to imagine. Either Powers adopted Train's sense of humor or he wrote of Twain because he responded to a personality like his own. In either case, Powers gives us more that a goodly share of laughing matter. Again one of those books that I only allow myself to read slowly, ...more
Michael Baranowski
I knew Mark Twain was always hustling for money, and I knew he was more than a little bit bitter and angry toward the end of his life, but until I read Powers' biography, I had no idea how deep Twain's (largely self-imposed) financial woes went, and how incredibly bitter and angry he became.
Mary-Ellen
This book is more interesting if the index is used to find topics of interest. I find that I pick up the book every now and then and will do this. Whatever I read is interesting. But when I read the book from the beginning, it seemed tedious. Twain is an interesting life, no doubt.
Hudson
Sep 16, 2014 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Just could not get in to this, dropped it at 20% or so.
C.K.
Dec 28, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An adventurous life filled with tragic losses and much success.
Andrew
Dec 15, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
History can sometimes be appreciated best by following one individual's journey through it. Earlier this year, I began by reading about Lincoln, which then led me to Grant. Twain--who ultimately published Grant's definitive autobiography at the end of his life--seemed like the natural next choice. Together, the lives of these three men cover almost the entirety of the 19th century and embody so much of the nascent American identity. Incredible fortitude, genius, resilience, and sheer creativity: ...more
Cory
Mar 01, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Power's exhaustive Twain biography well researched and well cited. Much of the material was gleaned and quoted from correspondence among Clemons, his friends, and family members. The first half of the book is fast moving and entertaining, especially his steam boat days and early newspaperman feuds in Carson City, Nevada. Somewhere around two-thirds of the way through the book, the pace becomes tedious and oppressive. Perhaps this is not the fault of Powers, as the time period covered in this ...more
Mike
Jul 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
Heavy as a full loaded barge and as slow as one navigating down the Mississippi River that Samuel Clemens so famously wrote about, Ron Powers' Mark Twain is just that. Heavy and a slow read. However, much like the valuable resources barges tote, Powers' lengthy biography of a man who helped Ulysses S Grant write his memoirs, is THE resource for everything Twain(outside of Twain's own autobiography).
Distractions perhaps caused the reading to be so lengthy, as it took two months to finish 722
...more
Greg Harper
Aug 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What an incredible book! So much detailed information about this American icon. If you consider yourself a student of History, be sure to read this instant classic biography. The details Ron Powers shares with us cause us to (almost) see and hear Mark Twain on stage and with his family. He was truly a man of his time, and we read about his faults, shortcomings, mistakes, as well as understand the love he had for his wife and daughters (in other words, he had a big heart and a lot of good ...more
Nick Ertz
This is a comprehensive biography that paints a picture of a man who is iconic and yet remains aloof. Powers goes deep into the story of Samuel Clemmons and his growth and development throughout his life. The story is compelling if a bit slow at times. This is the longest I've stayed with a book that wasn't a page turner because the man was so interesting. Twain grew from his youthful take on the world to the old sage who was cantankerous but wise. His ideas on race changed over time that alone ...more
Alex
Nov 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fantastic bio/research on the Best of Best of Mark Twain's influences, life stories, and his transition from news journalist to creative storyteller, business man, and international icon making him the ultimate American Writer. Created two of the all time best fiction characters (Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn) and arguably the most famous opening line in literary history. . .It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

After reading this, this reader is inspired to dust off a couple of his
...more
John Scaife
Feb 03, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not only a fine biography but a worthwhile overview of America’s transition from fragmented civil war casualty to budding economic and cultural superpower status in the late 19th/early 20th century. Mr Clemens is a fascinating, brilliant but flawed subject and Mr Powers does him proud, warts and all.
David Engel
Jun 02, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not being a Mark Twain scholar, I conclude this book is all one needs in order to know Samuel Clemens as completely as necessary. Powers reveals Clemens in his glory as well as his humanity as an imperfect being...just like the rest of us. I truly enjoyed getting to better know this gifted author whose work had entertained me so thoroughly!
Demetrius
Mar 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A while ago I read that George Orwell called Clemens the freest man who ever lived. I never get bored learning more about this guy, and this book touches on areas that others might have skipped, often with a more personal focus. There's also a closer analysis of Innocents Abroad and Huck Finn. (Btw, check out Hal Holbrook in M.T. Tonight)
Rick
Mar 03, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was the most comprehensive book about Mark Twain's life that I could find. And it is a rather complex book to read by my standards. It's quite thick and filled with long involved sentences. Ron Powers is quite the writer and Mark Twain is a complicated subject to write about.
Megan
Aug 25, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I finished it. It was a monster. The use of primary sources was wonderful and it was fun to learn things about the man behind one of my favorite books. The author goes on tangents and his points seemed convoluted in his wordy explanations. Learn a lot, but it was incredibly hard to get through.
Ricky Kimsey
Jun 10, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fairly Good Biography

This is a fairly good biography of the writer we know as Mark Twain. There are some aspects of his later years that are not touched on,like his frienndship with inventor Nikola Tesla, but still there's enough here to like.
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Ron Powers (born 1941) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, novelist, and non-fiction writer. His face include White Town Drowsing: Journeys to Hannibal, Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain, and Mark Twain: A Life. With James Bradley, he co-wrote the 2000 #1 New York Times Bestseller Flags of Our Fathers.

Powers won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1973 for his
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“Mark Twain was virtually alone among journalists in his reportage of Jewish Europeans as caught in the pincers of rising nationalist antagonisms.” 2 likes
“The Senate is now composed of a different material from what it once was. Its glory hath departed. Its halls no longer echo the words of a Clay, or Webster, or Calhoun . . . the void is felt.” 1 likes
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