Though Ron Powers has enjoyed big-city success--he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize while he was a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times--he still considers himself a small town kid at heart. In fact, his boyhood was spent in the quintessential American town of Hannibal, Mo. The son of a Fuller Brush salesman, Powers was born and raised in Hannibal, "which put me on to Sammy," he said.
Sammy is Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, Hannibal's most-famous native son. Powers was probably destined to write the definitive Twain biography, but he resisted it for years. Ultimately, though, he wrote two--Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain and Mark Twain: A Life.
As part of the Read Me Treasure Valley community-wide celebration of Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Powers will speak on Tuesday, Feb. 14, at 7:30 p.m. at Boise State's Special Events Center.
I don't think many people nowadays have had the experience of a Fuller Brush man coming to the door.
My dad sold brushes for almost 50 years. He wore two-toned shoes, a hand-painted wide necktie and a fedora cocked over his eye. He drove an old Model A, which didn't have any brakes. Getting up the hills of Hannibal was OK but getting down was a problem. He probably knew the town as well as Sammy did when he was a kid.
Mark Twin must have cast a permanent shadow over Hannibal.
The town had a spell on me. It was more compelling because Hannibal was an isolated town, way out on the prairie. The only thing that connected us to the world was the Mississippi River, which flowed right by the town.
Twain was so big his face was on the back of produce trucks. There was the Tom Sawyer Theater, the Mark Twain Dinette and even the Injun Joe Motel.
So I'm guessing that you read Tom Sawyer a little differently than the rest of us.
Tom Sawyer was the secular Bible of my childhood.
As you became a writer, did you have a sense that you were destined to write a Twain biography?
I ran away from it most of my adult life. By the time I was a professional writer, there had been 40 biographies of the man--hundreds if not thousands of scholarly papers or criticism. I figured, what more was there to say and who was I to say it? But my literary agent, who, by the way, is a 6-foot, 9-inch, 280-pound Texan, said, "You really need to write this."
What did you find when you began doing your research?
I realized that Twain was hiding in plain sight. Biographers had always been seduced by the allure of deconstructing or psychoanalyzing Twain. He was the ultimate dead white male. They would build the story of his life based on theory. But what they left out was his life itself and the way he lived it. His life was a great opera and he left a giant footprint on American culture and later, the whole world.
Is it fair to say that he was a man of destiny and the right man for the right time?
Absolutely. Somebody once called him the ordinary man, plus genius. After Mark Twain American writing was never the same. You could still find lofty discourse, and there's nothing wrong with that, but he brought a voice of direct experience. "I've been out there, I've seen this, and I want to tell you about it." And he did it in a language that you can understand.
Do you sense that his books are self-contained, or do you find new relevance in the 21st century?
I don't know if the relevance ever went away. One of the sad things about Mark Twain is that he is too-often considered a museum piece. Many of the other biographies used him as a collection of spare parts. But the fact is, he doesn't get old.
Tom Quirk, from the University of Missouri, put his finger on it: Mark Twain understood human nature perhaps better than anyone alive. Times change but human nature really doesn't.
Can you speak to the experience of winning a Pulitzer?
It has finally healed over by now. It has its dangers. In certain ways, your contemporaries resented you. You went from being a nobody to being overrated overnight. It basically spurred me to see what I could do next. I realized that I didn't want to write a newspaper column for the rest of my life. I wanted to write books, starting from scratch, and build a body of work based on nothing more than whatever talent I might have.