Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography

Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography

  • Publish Date: 2001-11-13
  • Binding: Hardcover
  • Author: Geoffrey C. Ward Ken Burns Dayton Duncan
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Ernest Hemingway called Huckleberry Finn the best book weve ever had. There was nothing before. Theres been nothing as good since. Critical opinion of this book hasnt 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 literatures 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This book pulls together material from a variety of published and unpublished sources.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 Clemenss boyhood in Hannibal, Missouri, to his time as a riverboat workerwhen he adopted the sobriquet Mark Twainto 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 daughters 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. This is more than a lavishly illustrated companion book to the Mark Twain PBS series. National Book Critics Circle Award winner Geoffrey C. Ward, Dayton Duncan, and Ken Burns have produced a cogent, colorful portrait of the man who forged our national identity in the sentences he spun. Excellent though the brisk narrative may be, the book's greatest pleasures are the extensive Twain quotations; no one has topped his description of the Mississippi River, and he had a salty remark for every occasion (charged an outrageous fee for a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, he cracked, "Do you wonder now that Christ walked?"). Passages from his correspondence reveal a man of deep feeling; letters to his wife Livy movingly express enduring marital love, and the grief-stricken note following his beloved daughter Susy's sudden death is almost unbearable to read. Excerpts from less well known works like "The War Prayer" highlight Twain's scathing contempt for imperialism and hypocrisy alike. Several freestanding pieces by various admirers (including novelist Russell Banks and actor Hal Holbrook) supplement the authors' text; most notable among them is critic Jocelyn Chadwick's persuasive defense of Twain's frequent use of "The Six-Letter Word" (n----r) in Huckleberry Finn as a necessary and still-shocking device to confront Americans with the moral horror of racism. Gracefully synthesizing current scholarship, this warmhearted biography provides the perfect introduction to Mark Twain. --Wendy Smith

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