cover image Dangerous Waters: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain

Dangerous Waters: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain

Ron Powers. Basic Books, $24 (328pp) ISBN 978-0-465-07670-3

""The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow,"" opined Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain). Here, Powers (The Cruel Radiance) follows Twain's genius to its source, illuminating both the sorrow and the exhilaration of a boyhood that provided a lifetime of inspiration. The saga, framed by two anecdotes from Twain's old age, begins with the westward journeys of his grandparents and parents and the arrival of the Clemens family in Missouri just before his birth in 1835 (""I do not remember just when, for I was not then born and cared nothing for such things,"" remarked Twain). It ends with the death of his brother Henry in 1858. Young Sam's life was a m lange of horrors, pleasures and difficulties. He was haunted, among other things, by a distant father who moved ever closer to bankruptcy while pursuing dreams of wealth, and by images of the self-immolation of a drunk to whom he had supplied matches. He found great solace in smoking a good cigar--he began at age seven--and in the tales and songs he heard around the fire in the slave quarters. Powers regularly draws convincing links between Twain's early life and events and characters in his fiction, locating Twain's greatness as a humorist in the dynamics of his family, the tragedies that surrounded him, the literary currents of the time and a lifelong love for the varieties of spoken language. At times, Powers strains for significance, for instance marking the end of Twain's boyhood four disparate times. But he demonstrates convincingly that ""the sunlit parts of [Twain's] childhood cast deep shadows... and in those shadows lay the dark artifacts that would torment and compel him to his masterpieces."" (June)