By: Mary Lou Montgomery
The most famous image of Sam Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, is of an old man with bushy eyebrows wearing a white linen suit, posing for a portrait in front of the little house on Hill Street in Hannibal that his family once called home.
Ron Powers' contrasting vision of the famous author focuses on a frail little red-headed boy, mesmerized by the slaves who sang and told stories of their heritage on his uncle's farm near Florida, Mo.
This is the Sam Clemens that Powers writes about in his new biography of the famous author, "Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy who Became Mark Twain," published by Basic Books.
Powers, a Hannibal native and Pulitzer-prize winning writer, who now resides with his family in Middlebury, Vt., believes that writing this book is the culmination of his life-long fascinations with Mark Twain.
"When I was a little boy in Hannibal, be was a mystic figure to me. His pictures and books and images were all over (my friend) Dulany Winkler's house, and I spent a lot of time there. I just wanted to reach out and touch him. Eventually I was able to."
In order to do that, three years ago Powers spent a large portion of the summer on his screened-in back porch in Vermont with a yellow marking pen, a notebook and a cup of tea. He re-read Twain's writings, plus books about American humor in the 19th Century.
"Just about everything he's written has been collected into hard cover books; his letters, his diaries," Powers said.
He found access to these works through the college library in Middlebury, and also reviewed the "Oxford Mark Twain," which was published in 1996.
"I took a lot of notes in long hand," Powers said. "I started comparing the boyhood that he wrote about in fragments. In Innocence Abroad, he would be in some museum someplace, looking at a statue, and his mind would go hurtling back to an incident in his boyhood, and he'd write about that. So I put the jigsaw puzzles together from that and from other biographies about him. I learned a lot.
"Then I just started remembering authors, people I've read and admired, and I realized they were influenced by Mark Twain. Woody Allen. Charlie Chaplin was influenced in mannerisms. I think in a lot of ways (Twain) was our first rock star. He was such a great performer on stage. Everybody was doing lectures in the 19th Century, he certainly wasn't the first, but he was the first that people came to see just because he was so mesmerizing, in and of himself.
"His mother called it Sammy's long talk. He had long pauses. Hal holbrook does it really well. Twain felt the power over the audience."
The research and writing process taught Powers a new skill.
"It is very exciting," he said. "If you're a biographer you have a lot of responsibility. My responsibility was to bring him back to life. He's been turned into a cartoon by promoters. The skill is to keep myself out of it and bring him out on stage. it taught me a lot about his world, about violence in America at the time; what a violent country we've always been.
"And, it taught me again how important words are to healing. How important the language is, story telling, and I think that's a lesson that America's forgotten. His stories were all about coming back from violence, and surviving and being alive in the world. The stories that are given to kids today are about anger and destruction. In a way this is a good time for Mark Twain to come back and remind us how to get beyond the darkness."
Powers believes that Twain's boyhood days on his uncle's farm had a profound impact on his future writing.
"He was very sickly the first four years of his life," Powers said. "When he was well enough to go outside, I see this little 4-year-old red head kid, toddling outside, and he's hanging out there for hours, and he's listening to the slaves sing their songs and tell their stories. Hannah was an old slave, and people said they thought she was as old as Moses. He would hear them tell about Biblical illusions, violent imagery about chariots coming out of the sky, Biblical tales, magic of all kinds, animals that could talk, witches.
"Uncle Dan'l captured young Sammy's imagination, and as an old man Twain wrote of the slave, whose sympathies were wide and warm and whose heart was honest and simple and knew no guile. Uncle Dan'l would become Jim in Twain's writings."
"The point is he listened to these stories and heard these songs," Powers said. "And he was enchanted. He also understood that these slaves were talking about very sad things. They were talking about their loved ones who were sold away, the cruelty of the slave masters, their wish to escape. But they found a way of making that telling kind of joyful, and the stories they told seemed to make them happy, and that's the secret. That's where everything started."
"And his mother, Jane, was also a fantastic story teller," Powers said. "She was a brilliant, uneducated Kentucky woman with a fiery temper, but she loved to laugh and loved to dance. So young Sammy was surrounded by a universe of storytelling. He learned to understand the stories that can save you.
"I think he was also influenced by the music he heard, those songs and the music of the language. It was like he was able to memorize those mannerisms and speech patterns. He had a genius for making people talk natural, realistic in his pages, and that came fight from those experiences."
From his research, Powers concludes that the Hannibal of Twain's boyhood had two distinct personalities.
"Everything in Mark Twain's life seemed to be divided," Powers said. "In the daytime, Hannibal was a kind of paradise. It was the white town drowsing. Twain described it as the sunshine of a summer's morning. I think it was a place of really unbelievable beauty. In a lot of ways, it was a lot like it is today. The bluffs that frame the town on the north and the south. The river, the woods and the orchards, and the nooks and crannies inside the town. That's the daylight part of it. In the sunlight, he had so much stimulation from the people in his life, including the slaves."
But there was also a dark side to his boyhood. As a boy, he lost two of his siblings, first Margaret, then Benjamin.
"When those deaths happened his mother went berserk," Powers said. "Her grieving was terrible. She would lead little Sammy into the room where the bodies were, and take his hand and make him feel the foreheads for some reason, we don't know why. I think that little boy felt responsible for those deaths, because he talks about them in his diaries later in life. He talked about his feelings of guilt and responsibility, so that's the darkness."
"He was 11 when his father died," Powers said. "And he peeked through the keyhole to see the autopsy. Then there was the murder he saw, and the drowning of his friends. He would seem to feel that is was his fault. He would sleepwalk and hallucinate. A tramp burned in the jail, and Sammy thought it was because he gave him a match to light his pipe. And then there was Henry's death on the riverboat."
But Powers said the book itself is not a journey through the pain, but is instead a look at the pain and an examination of how Twain transformed it into literature.
"It gave us a kind of racial vision that was way ahead of its time," Powers said. "Twain wrote at a time when America was still breaking free of Europe. We were a very young country. In his writings, Twain helped identify that America had a culture and a point of view, separate from Europe.
"The book itself is not a dark and depressing book. I tried to show what happened to him, but I really wasn't to show people the real person. He's a real human being, a person I really love. He's part of Hannibal's culture, salty, funny , wisecracking culture, identified with the common man, nothing pretention. It's the way he came out of his grief and sorrow that fascinates me. The way it turns his imagination on. He's hysterically funny. He said some of the funniest things, he was Yogi Berra of his time. He went to baseball games."