In my experience, Mark Twain is one of those polarizing authors that people either love or hate. I have met very few people that, when asked, would say “yeah, he’s okay” or “he’s not my favorite, but he’s fine.” Being an English major and having taken more than a couple American Literature courses, it’s safe to say that I’ve read some Twain. But Geoffrey C. Ward’s Mark Twain has given me a new appreciation for him as a writer, as a person, and as one of the founding and most significant contributors to the canon.
In the book, Ward recognizes that, at least according to Ernest Hemingway, Twain is the father of American literature, and that everything since him is, at least in some way, in his image and style. Or, at the very least, heavily impacted by it. Of course, Hemingway is maybe even more polarizing than Twain, but he’s got more authority than I do. I don’t feel like I’ve read enough of anything to make such a sweeping generalization with any degree of confidence. But Twain definitely has a voice. And Ward recognizes that in the book. His voice and tone were unique, he wrote as Americans actually wrote and what he actually thought. This was ahead of its time. I admire that.
I also admire how his own man he was. A true artist. He had very big ideas and he was passionate about them. He didn’t compromise who he was, what he wanted, or what he thought. For anyone. He didn’t sell out.
And his life was not easy. His were the high highs and the low lows. His life saw stark contrasts. He experienced incredible fame and wealth. He experienced unimaginable tragedy and loss.
Widely and generally, he is (and was) known primarily as a humorist. But, and I think this is true of many who resort to humor, it’s not because he was always exceptionally happy or non-serious. It was a coping mechanism, how he made the world tolerable for himself and others. I could relate to some of this.
He loved life, though, and saw things in a unique way. The book contains not only a detailed and fascinating history of his life but a plentitude of excerpts from his correspondence and works. Any fan of Twain would appreciate this.
I enjoyed the book, but it had an overall somber tone. For me. Maybe that’s just where I am right now. But it was inspiring and fun as well. It is hard to believe he lived and wrote at the turn of the last century. His tone and humor and relevance seem very contemporary. Also, he’s from Missouri, so that has special significance for me right now. If you too are from here or have any fondness, you’ll love this book with its accents and tones and descriptions of the river and the flora and the people. If you have or do read this one, I’d love to discuss.