DANGEROUS WATER:A BIOGRAPHY OF THE BOY WHO BECAME MARK TWAIN By Ron Powers Basic Books 328 pp., $23
One of the most unusual facts about Samuel Clemens is how a boy with a truly meager education, born near the frontier, whose father died when he was 11, thus leaving him to make his way with a poor family, became America's most celebrated author.
Ron Powers attempts an explanation, in "Dangerous Water: a Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain." Or at least he explores the conditions under which these events happened.
If there is an explanation, and surely it is a facile one, it was Twain's remarkable comic genius. He simply declined to be put down, to be swept away, by a whole lot of difficulties. He learned how to ride them out, to turn them into opportunities, to float on the raft of his abilities over the rough waters he had to ride.
As Powers brings out, Twain's difficulties were increased by his tendency to blame himself for others' misfortunes, even if that required contorting the facts. For instance, when his brother Henry was lost in an explosion of the steamboat Pennsylvania, on which he was working through Twain's influence, Twain felt horribly responsible, as he had for other human disasters.
Powers feels this gave the young man an "enslavement of the soul" from which he was eventually released by adopting the pen name, Mark Twain.
"Something in this name released him from himself; the alias took the function of a magical mask, or a gorgeous puppet, through which he could address the world in voices not identifiably his own." Powers adds, "In 'Mark Twain' he found his frame; in his lifelong flight from the melancholy of Henry's flowered metal casket, and from his childhood, and from the nighttime terrors of Hannibal's embrace, he had become his own tall tale."
Of course, Powers's explanations of Twain are more complex than this, and in his detailed exploration of his childhood, and especially of his parents, he has thrown much valuable new light on a life already well examined.
Twain's life, one feels, is ultimately more of a mystery than even Powers's adept inquiries truly explain. But he has made a noble attempt and produced a highly readable book.
Powers's exploration is especially devoted to explaining causes and meaning. He is not simply providing names, dates, and events, though they are present in abundance. He is searching for significance, often in a subjective and perhaps impressionistic way.
He sees Twain's humor as typical of his time and place, that is, as a technique of survival under difficulties on the frontier. He discusses, for example, Twain's development of the familiar Southwestern storytelling technique of the frame narrator, who describes the action taking place from a distanced point of view, offering at times civilized commentary on violent physical action.
Powers feels Twain transforms this narrator by making him not only a detached storyteller, but the butt of the story as well, and in this finds a wholly new dimension of humor. This, he points out, takes place for example in Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" story, which brought him to national fame.
This book is a valuable addition to Twain biography. It is not intended for someone newly encountering Twain's life story but for one already familiar with its outlines and even many of its details. But it is illuminating and gracefully written, and certainly belongs on the shelf of the Twain afficionado.
*Paul O. Williams taught American literature at Principia College for 22 years. He lives in Belmont, Calif.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society