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The Singular Mark Twain: A Biography

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One of our most distinguished biographers offers a bold, revisionist view of the inimitable Mark Twain. Mark Twain invented American literature. His humor, his fearless evocation of how ordinary people live and speak, his ferocious social criticism, all make him the progenitor of a truly national literature. And his extraordinary books—including The Adventures of Huckleberr One of our most distinguished biographers offers a bold, revisionist view of the inimitable Mark Twain. Mark Twain invented American literature. His humor, his fearless evocation of how ordinary people live and speak, his ferocious social criticism, all make him the progenitor of a truly national literature. And his extraordinary books—including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Gilded Age, Innocents Abroad, Life on the Mississippi—were drawn from his extraordinary life. Based on original research, including access to previously unpublished correspondence, The Singular Mark Twain presents the first fully integrated portrait of this great American icon. Few Americans, let alone American writers, lived such a large and eventful life. From his idyllic Hannibal, Missouri, childhood to his days as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi, from his wildcat-mining life in the Nevada territory to his reporting job in wide-open Barbary Coast San Francisco, Twain’s early life was one of restless adventure. He traveled the world, and his dispatches to the United States made him famous, and wealthy. With maturity and success, Twain grew tremendously as an artist and as a social critic. Fred Kaplan shows definitively that Twain’s ferociously progressive ideas about race informed all his later works and absolve him from absurd charges of racism laid in recent years. Kaplan also details the darker side of Twain’s story—the illnesses and death that plagued his family and darkened his vision, his almost comically terrible business sense that lost him his great fortune, and his paranoid sensitivity to slights and betrayals. No American writer is more appealing, funnier, or more universally admired than Mark Twain. The Singular Mark Twain brings him to life as never before. Like the bestselling books of H.W. Brands, David McCullough, and Edmund Morris, The Singular Mark Twain is a masterful blend of history and biography, at once erudite, eye-opening, and highly entertaining.


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One of our most distinguished biographers offers a bold, revisionist view of the inimitable Mark Twain. Mark Twain invented American literature. His humor, his fearless evocation of how ordinary people live and speak, his ferocious social criticism, all make him the progenitor of a truly national literature. And his extraordinary books—including The Adventures of Huckleberr One of our most distinguished biographers offers a bold, revisionist view of the inimitable Mark Twain. Mark Twain invented American literature. His humor, his fearless evocation of how ordinary people live and speak, his ferocious social criticism, all make him the progenitor of a truly national literature. And his extraordinary books—including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Gilded Age, Innocents Abroad, Life on the Mississippi—were drawn from his extraordinary life. Based on original research, including access to previously unpublished correspondence, The Singular Mark Twain presents the first fully integrated portrait of this great American icon. Few Americans, let alone American writers, lived such a large and eventful life. From his idyllic Hannibal, Missouri, childhood to his days as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi, from his wildcat-mining life in the Nevada territory to his reporting job in wide-open Barbary Coast San Francisco, Twain’s early life was one of restless adventure. He traveled the world, and his dispatches to the United States made him famous, and wealthy. With maturity and success, Twain grew tremendously as an artist and as a social critic. Fred Kaplan shows definitively that Twain’s ferociously progressive ideas about race informed all his later works and absolve him from absurd charges of racism laid in recent years. Kaplan also details the darker side of Twain’s story—the illnesses and death that plagued his family and darkened his vision, his almost comically terrible business sense that lost him his great fortune, and his paranoid sensitivity to slights and betrayals. No American writer is more appealing, funnier, or more universally admired than Mark Twain. The Singular Mark Twain brings him to life as never before. Like the bestselling books of H.W. Brands, David McCullough, and Edmund Morris, The Singular Mark Twain is a masterful blend of history and biography, at once erudite, eye-opening, and highly entertaining.

30 review for The Singular Mark Twain: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Matthew

    This is a book that I never would have read on my own. My Dad and I exchange books from time to time and this one came my way recently. I admit to knowing little of Twain, including the fact that Mark Twain is the pen name of Sam Clemens. He might best be thought of as a 17th century literary version of John Stewart. Not a bad thing by my estimation, but it does make getting to know him quite difficult as his temperament produces wild exaggerations and often outright lies as a sort of hyperbole. This is a book that I never would have read on my own. My Dad and I exchange books from time to time and this one came my way recently. I admit to knowing little of Twain, including the fact that Mark Twain is the pen name of Sam Clemens. He might best be thought of as a 17th century literary version of John Stewart. Not a bad thing by my estimation, but it does make getting to know him quite difficult as his temperament produces wild exaggerations and often outright lies as a sort of hyperbole. Beneath the humorist exterior was a man tormented by death, megalomania and an insatiable thirst for wealth. This leads to a tragic figure. He does seem wholly devoted to his wife but spends an inordinate amount of time away from her either working himself into or out of debt. His family is given to constant medical difficulty and his view of Christianity is influenced by and teeters between American moralism and mysticism which he angrily rejects. I spent most of the book annoyed as Twain's ability to run toward ruin at each opportunity but by the end I felt sympathy and sorrow for Twain. I haven't ready many biographies but this was the most poorly written. It could have been about 400 pages shorter and if length were the goal then it could have painted more of a picture of life in America during the 17th and 18th century. The story was hard to follow as chronology was often interrupted by theme and theme by chronology. The author's own views on religion, sex and politics make regular appearances throughout the book which is also disappointing. Twain is an interesting figure in American literary history and probably deserves a different biographer.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Mark Lawry

    I might be a bit biased as a lover of history who has long admired Mark Twain. Reading the other reviews from those who claim the same thing I see they rate it much harder than I do. They claim that for what it is (a 650 page monster) it is dry and dull. Ok, perhaps. I still loved it. Hard to say what few 100 pages could be taken out to fill with other things. Twain did have one hell of an interesting life. He seemed to have hung our with everyone from Stardard Oil leaders to President Grant, Wi I might be a bit biased as a lover of history who has long admired Mark Twain. Reading the other reviews from those who claim the same thing I see they rate it much harder than I do. They claim that for what it is (a 650 page monster) it is dry and dull. Ok, perhaps. I still loved it. Hard to say what few 100 pages could be taken out to fill with other things. Twain did have one hell of an interesting life. He seemed to have hung our with everyone from Stardard Oil leaders to President Grant, Wilson, the Kaiser. Few people before or since haver traveled as extensively. Two takeaways: life sucked in the 1800s and Mark Twain probably should have stayed away from the stock market. Reading it one might think TB and Cholera just followed him everywhere he went around the world. No, that was just life all over the world until recently. His brother died running a riverboat as the boiler exploaeded and burned the ship to the bottom. Just part of doing business back then. Two of his daughters died while still young and before him. On the 2nd point, in an era when having access to insider information was perfectly acceptable and he had friends in high places he seemed to be really good at losing his shirt, over and over. It did read like 70 years of diary entries. If it is possible to make a well researched book on such an interesting person and time less than a 5 out of 5 Kaplan pulled it off.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Alicia

    This is a book assigned for my Teaching American History Through Biography class. I made it 1/2 way through, which was impressive given the size and how dry the writing way. I really wanted to read about Mark Twain going to Elmira and meeting/marrying Livvy since I went to Elmira College, which Livvy went to as well. Once I got there, I had a hard time motivating myself to continue. I did learn some things about him that I never knew before, some of which made me have a little less respect for h This is a book assigned for my Teaching American History Through Biography class. I made it 1/2 way through, which was impressive given the size and how dry the writing way. I really wanted to read about Mark Twain going to Elmira and meeting/marrying Livvy since I went to Elmira College, which Livvy went to as well. Once I got there, I had a hard time motivating myself to continue. I did learn some things about him that I never knew before, some of which made me have a little less respect for him. Most of my loss of respect came from the fact that he wrote for profit, not for art. I always wanted to believe that he wrote because it was inside him, it was his art, and it was what he enjoyed creating. Instead, I got the impression that he enjoyed creating because he enjoyed the money that went with it.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Brian Olinger

    While at the library, I grabbed this book on a whim. Interesting read about a revered writer who it seems was far more focused on how his writing could benefit him monetarily much more so than for art. Mr. Twain would have been extremely jealous of all the potential ways to monetize and profit from his writing and celebrity today. The book was well-written and did what a good biography should do, which is make you feel like you know the subject.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sally Atwell Williams

    This was a very well written biography of Mark Twain. I didn't know much about his life. I knew some of his books, of course Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, but not many of the others. Mark Twain's life was as different as you can possibly imagine, and not really a happy life. However, he loved his wife very much, and she him. Where he questioned religion of all kinds, she was at the start a very devoted and church going woman. That changed over the years. I had no idea of all the different types of e This was a very well written biography of Mark Twain. I didn't know much about his life. I knew some of his books, of course Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, but not many of the others. Mark Twain's life was as different as you can possibly imagine, and not really a happy life. However, he loved his wife very much, and she him. Where he questioned religion of all kinds, she was at the start a very devoted and church going woman. That changed over the years. I had no idea of all the different types of employment Clemens was in; nor about his passion for investments that put him into financial woes. There is a lot of sadness in the Clemens family throughout the years, as well as illness. All these things I knew nothing about until reading this wonderful book. His early travels as well as trips taken abroad with his family which were not vacations as I would think of them. He was much loved both at home and abroad in spite of the fact that as he traveled around the country and the world, he began to see the inequities of the poor and disadvantaged, as well as the racial discrimination around him. And he began to speak out about that as well as on Christianity as well as other religions. I certainly understood what he was saying.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Forrest

    Twain, like many famous folks, found his voice and fame at the same time, and was as surprised as anyone, apparently. At the end of this book, if you have any questions about Mark Twain that aren't answered, it would be surprising, too. Kaplan hits it all, and the detail he brings to the mundane aspects of Twain's existence fills out the character nicely. He's not just the 1860's equivalent of Garrison Kielor, he's pretty much the embodiment of 19th century America, all in one little package. I s Twain, like many famous folks, found his voice and fame at the same time, and was as surprised as anyone, apparently. At the end of this book, if you have any questions about Mark Twain that aren't answered, it would be surprising, too. Kaplan hits it all, and the detail he brings to the mundane aspects of Twain's existence fills out the character nicely. He's not just the 1860's equivalent of Garrison Kielor, he's pretty much the embodiment of 19th century America, all in one little package. I sense the perceptiveness of Robert Burns, with the same large intellect, self-education, and ability to relate and communicate to the common man. The book has given me a new American hero, and a better appreciation of the vagaries of fame and fortune.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Wayland Smith

    I've always been a fan of Mark Twain, so when I read about this biography, I added it to my list, and finally got there. It was a very eye-opening book. I had no idea of some of the troubles and concerns, as well as flat out foolishness, Mr. Twain got into. It was a bit slow in parts, but overall enjoyable. It did give me a much better picture of the man, his hopes, fears, losses, and triumphs. If you're interested in Twain, I recommend the book. Or interested in American History, for that matter I've always been a fan of Mark Twain, so when I read about this biography, I added it to my list, and finally got there. It was a very eye-opening book. I had no idea of some of the troubles and concerns, as well as flat out foolishness, Mr. Twain got into. It was a bit slow in parts, but overall enjoyable. It did give me a much better picture of the man, his hopes, fears, losses, and triumphs. If you're interested in Twain, I recommend the book. Or interested in American History, for that matter. It's far from light reading, but it's interesting and instructive, which makes it sound boring ,and it wasn't.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Peter

    A decent biography of one of the most important writers in American History. Kaplan does a great job integrating the two personas...Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain...not an easy task since they each have a power of perso nality such as to make them individual characters. Twain is a fascinating guy with some real smarts and some truly real blind spots. Kaplan's bio gives you everything you need to apprecaite the man, everything you need to understand the writer. A decent biography of one of the most important writers in American History. Kaplan does a great job integrating the two personas...Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain...not an easy task since they each have a power of perso nality such as to make them individual characters. Twain is a fascinating guy with some real smarts and some truly real blind spots. Kaplan's bio gives you everything you need to apprecaite the man, everything you need to understand the writer.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Janice

    i couldn't finish this. this is a hard fact to announce. it wasn't that the book was horrible, i just realized that once twain got famous i just didn't have much interest anymore. or maybe i was just interested in comparing his autobiographical works to his real life, and once he became a novelist i wanted to leave well enough alone. i also just wasn't that into this author's style, though it would be difficult to point out one thing and say, "there, that, that annoyed me." i couldn't finish this. this is a hard fact to announce. it wasn't that the book was horrible, i just realized that once twain got famous i just didn't have much interest anymore. or maybe i was just interested in comparing his autobiographical works to his real life, and once he became a novelist i wanted to leave well enough alone. i also just wasn't that into this author's style, though it would be difficult to point out one thing and say, "there, that, that annoyed me."

  10. 5 out of 5

    Atchisson

    One of the better recent Twain biographies. Fresh twists on familiar periods in the author's life. One of the better recent Twain biographies. Fresh twists on familiar periods in the author's life.

  11. 4 out of 5

    marvin

    It is refreshing to know that Mark Twain was as much if not more of a screw up than I. It gives me hope. I also suggest Mark Twain Tonight! a one man performance by Hal Halbrook. Available on DVD.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Denise

    A good and detailed biography, but given the subject, I would have expected a more engaging read. In places he actually had Twain coming across as a little boring.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jamie

    fascinating history because he knew so many people in his lifetime and quite the adventurer. Writing is far more difficult than it needs to be but it is worth it when you get through it.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Chambers Stevens

    Hands down one of the best Twain biographies!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Frank Revy

    So far so good. I would say Mark Twain is my favorite American.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Susana Pierce

  17. 5 out of 5

    Diane

  18. 4 out of 5

    Chris Viens

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jodi

  20. 5 out of 5

    Saurabh

  21. 5 out of 5

    Karen

  22. 4 out of 5

    GrayK

  23. 4 out of 5

    Melody

  24. 5 out of 5

    Blewis

  25. 5 out of 5

    David Tooke

  26. 5 out of 5

    Michael Martin

  27. 5 out of 5

    Carla Cox McCann

  28. 4 out of 5

    Sherry

  29. 5 out of 5

    Welton Barker

  30. 5 out of 5

    Dominique

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