Hannibal Free Public Library

 Mark Twain:
A Life

Ron Powers

November 19, 2007

Born in 1941 in Hannibal, Ron Powers is a prize-winning journalist, novelist, and non-fiction writer.  Hannibal has been influential in much of Powers' writing.  Our community is the subject of his book White Town Drowsing: Journeys to Hannibal, it is the location of the two true-life murders that are the subject of Powers’ Tom and Huck Don't Live Here Anymore, and it was the home of Mark Twain.  Powers has written extensively about Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens, including two books entitled Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain, and Mark Twain: A Life.  He also co-authored Flags of Our Fathers with James Bradley.  He resides in Middlebury, Vermont.    (Biographical information from Mark Twain: A Life and Wikipedia.)

  Discussion Questions

  1. When Powers uses different names, Sammy, Samuel, and Mark Twain, do you understand him to be talking about Samuel Clemens at different times in his life?  Is Powers describing a divided man as other biographers do?
  1. Does Powers adequately explain the meaning of “mark twain” in river parlance (two fathoms or the difference between safe and dangerous water) and as a pseudonym that Samuel Clemens selected for his writing?
  1. How does Powers show the formation of Twain’s attitudes about Native Americans and African Americans?  Why does Powers avoid portraying Twain as a racist?
  1. Do you agree with the way Powers handles some of the more unpleasant parts of Twain’s character, like his drinking and gambling too much, and his temper? 
  1. In an interview on “Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg,” Ron Powers describes Twain’s time on the river as “…one of the enchanted moments of American history, the steamboat age.”  How much of Twain’s life experience do you think happened because the places where he was at the times in which he lived?  Think about his growing up in Hannibal in the 1830’s and 1840’s, becoming a steamboat captain just before the Civil War, going West, writing and publishing in the late 19th century, etc.  You can find the transcripts of the interview on “Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg” at http://www.pbs.org/thinktank/transcript1217.html#TOP and http://www.pbs.org/thinktank/show_1218.html
  1. Mark Twain was a storyteller, and Ron Powers tells the story of Twain’s life.  What is your favorite part of story, whether fictionalized by Mark Twain or part of the biography by Ron Powers?
  1. What characteristics would a Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens of our times have to have?  Does anyone come to mind?
  1. Do you agree with the review of Mark Twain: A Life by Ron Powers in the San Francisco Chronicle?  The reviewer’s comments state, "An impressive achievement...This book earns an honored place on the shelf of essential works on Mark Twain...Ron Powers has done justice to an incomparably complex, rich, fruitful, and tangled life, and along the way he has granted us a glimpse into the heart of America, as well as the heart of America's greatest writer."
  2. Did you learn anything new about Mark Twain from this book?   Were all the photos familiar?
  1. Ron Powers is also a native of Hannibal, Missouri.  Would he be as persuasive a biographer of Mark Twain if he had grown up somewhere else?  Why or why not?