He was born, obscurely, Samuel Clemens in 1835, the year Halley’s comet appeared in the Victorian skies. When, as Mark Twain, he died in 1910, the comet was once again describing a fiery track through the heavens, and he was now more famous than any American writer had ever been.
As Ron Powers puts it in his exhilarating new biography: ‘His way of seeing and hearing things changed America’s way of seeing and hearing things … he was the Lincoln of American literature.’
‘Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.’
‘If you must gamble your lives sexually, don’t play a lone hand too much.’
‘Education: that which reveals to the wise, and conceals from the stupid, the vast limits of their knowledge.’
‘Often it does seem a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.’
‘It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and the prudence never to practise either.’