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Mark Twain: A Biography, by Connie Ann Kirk, is the latest in a series of biographies published by Greenwood Press. Greenwood Biographies specifically target high school students and secondary schools. Their goal is to provide educators with challenging yet entertaining biographies of a wide variety of people, past and present, who have had an impact in the fields of science, history, literature and the arts, politics, and the world in general. Their list of personalities was the result of feedback from educators and librarians, and has become "an intriguing mix of the well known and the unexpected, the saints and sinners from long-ago history and contemporary pop culture." The list would not be complete without the inclusion of Mark Twain who would playfully count himself among the sinners.
Greenwood's mission is to provide "in-depth information about the subject's life from birth through childhood, the teen years, and adulthood." A thorough biography, they maintain, "relates family background and education, traces personal and professional influences, and explores struggles, accomplishments, and contributions." This is a yardstick by which any biography may be measured, but biographers who are writing for the high school reader face a unique challenge--accomplishing the above within pre-set limits. A sampling of Greenwood Biographies suggests that the publisher likes to keep the length of their biographies under two hundred pages, and with good reason--high school students, by their very nature, are intimidated by thick books with small print, and no pictures. When one considers the complexity of Twain, the volume and variety of his writing, his many accomplishments, and his impact on literature, the task of condensing his life is daunting, yet Connie Ann Kirk has done so very effectively.
Her biography of Twain is a straightforward chronological narrative of his life presented in six chapters starting with an introduction to the man and the author. The chapters that follow divide Twain's life into five stages: his childhood in Florida and Hannibal, Missouri ("A Heavenly Place for a Boy: 1835-1847"); his Mississippi years ("From Printer to Pilot: 1848-1861"); his western years ("Lighting Out for the Territory: 1862-1869"); his golden years at Buffalo, Hartford, and Elmira ("The Gilded Years: 1870-1889"); and his years of tragedy, debt, and loneliness ("Later Years: 1890-1910").
There are inherent dangers in condensing so much material into a limited space. One danger is to omit large segments of the subject's life, focusing only on those areas that make interesting reading. The other danger is to include everything in such a sketchy fashion that the biography becomes a series of bare facts strung together on a thread of chronology. Connie Ann Kirk successfully navigates between those pitfalls to create a short biography that is entertaining to read and still presents a rather thorough picture of Twain. She accomplishes this with a careful mixture of the sketchy and the detailed. Twain's military experience, for example, is summed up with "the Civil War would not be Sam Clemens's calling." The death of Twain's brother Henry, the courtship of Livy, and Rudyard Kipling's visit in Elmira, however, are related in detail with dialogue and descriptions worthy of a novel.
The author uses the same selective approach when dealing with the works of Mark Twain. At times she relies on lists of works and their dates of publication during a period of Twain's life, but major works such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Pudd'nhead Wilson are given their own segments in the book detailing the writing of the manuscript, the plot outline, its publication history, and its literary impact.
Kirk has very carefully tempered Twain's biography with just enough literary criticism and modern scholarship to be informative to high school readers without burdening them with material they may not be prepared to understand. Ironically, the very qualities which make Twain worthy of a biography are of secondary importance to high school students whose primary focus may be just to read an interesting or exciting life story. Shelley Fisher Fishkin's study of Huck's voice and Laura E. Skandera-Trombley's assessment of the influence of women in Twain's life are both touched upon, and Hemingway's assertion that all American writing stems from Huckleberry Finn is mentioned briefly as Twain's legacy. These offerings show students that Twain's life and writings are complex, open to interpretation, worthy of study, and valid in today's world. For the more serious student who may be inspired to do further reading or study, the author has carefully annotated each chapter separately.
If there is one flaw in this biography, it lies in the early pages which explore the origins of the Clemens name and details the history of John Marshall Clemens, his many failed business ventures, and his Tennessee land. While it may be important to understand the mechanics that deposited Samuel Clemens on the banks of the Mississippi and his inheritance of poor business sense, it is also important to remember that this book is written for a generation of students who demand instant gratification. Samuel Clemens does not burst upon the scene until page eight, and in a biography of only 104 narrative pages, that is a relatively significant chunk of reading before the student gets to meet the subject of the biography. It might be more gratifying for the student if Twain were introduced instantly. With a minor break from a rigid chronological narrative, much of the "back story" could be presented at appropriate times in the course of the biography itself.
This is a minor point, and does not diminish the overall quality of the book and its many fine features. One feature common to all Greenwood Biographies is a chronological listing of biographical details in the context of pertinent historical events. Twain's chronology includes historical and literary events and begins in 1770 with the birth of Samuel Clemens, Twain's paternal grandfather, and ends in 1966 with the death of Nina Clemens Gabrilowitsch, his granddaughter and last direct descendant. The appendixes include a Clemens family tree, a list of books read and consulted by Twain, a rather small sampling of Twain's quotations, a chronological list of books published by Twain in both England and America, and a list of websites and important places and holdings in Mark Twain studies. These efficient lists help round out the biography, filling in any gaps that may have occurred in the narrative presentation. Twain's two-week military misadventure, for example, is covered in more detail in the historical chronology.
The entire package is bound in glossy hardcover with a three-quarter profile
of Twain in one of his most distinguished poses (1907). Dressed in suit and
vest, white hair flowing, Twain gazes off to the right beyond the red border
of the picture. It is an attractive book and invites one to read it. This is
an important quality needed for any book on a high school library shelf, and,
as many will find out, this is one book that may safely be judged by its cover.