Sid Fleischman begins his biography of Mark Twain with this: “When I was the young writer of a novel, The New York Times reviewed my comedy with the news that I was no Mark Twain. I was astonished. I had already had myself fitted for a white suit, like the celebrated author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I had been trying to track down the brand of cigars he smoked by the handful. His wit may have come from the noxious weed. Who knew?”
That sets the tone for this biography of the celebrated and always interesting writer. It’s a fabulous book, not just for the wealth of information about Sam Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, or for the illustrations/photographs that grace its pages, or even for the beautiful layout and font. It’s a great book because Fleischman tells the tale in such an amusing manner.
Fleischman spends the book recounting the origins of Mark Twain — from Clemens’ birth through his rough and wild days in Nevada and San Francisco, through until he became famous. He’s not all that interested in what Twain did with the rest of his life — the later books (aside from Huck Finn) only get a passing glance, as do the last 50 years of Twain’s life. But, then, that’s not the important (or humorous) part of Twain’s life. No, it’s the young Twain, the wild Twain, the one that’s observing, exaggerating, writing, figuring — that’s the interesting Twain.
It isn’t a detailed book, though: there are facts, but Fleischman is not as interested in the facts as he is in the story of Twain’s life. It’s not as dry as a typical biography, but then it’s also not as detailed. Thankfully, Fleischman has a book list (in order of importance and relevance) in the back that will point anyone curious to know more about Twain in the right direction.
Most of all, though, Fleischman treats Twain probably exactly the way that Twain himself would want to be treated: with equal parts grace, humor and skepticism, which makes it an absolutely wonderful book.
Rated: Mild. A few mild swear words, because Fleischman quotes Twain, and Twain was known for colorful language.