Today is the birthday of Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain (1835-1910).
He’s an important writer for me in many ways, as he is for everybody, though I couldn’t call him my very favorite American writer (I would have to give the highest slots to some combination of Melville, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Poe, and probably in that order, with Whitman and Twain about neck and neck somewhere behind that leading pack — and somewhere in front of most others).
But unlike the others, Twain has been there nearly my entire life. I wasn’t more than four or five when my father gave me one of my first books, an illustrated copy of Huckleberry Finn (Grossett and Dunlap edition). I don’t think he understood that it wasn’t exactly for very small children, or that it was preceded by The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which was undoubtedly the second Twain book I came to know, although I may have watched movie versions first. As I wrote in No Applause, the story of Huck Finn is important to me, not just because of the theatrical mountebank characters of the Duke and Dauphin…but I was early on enraptured by that idyllic image of running away, floating from place to place on a raft, and having adventures.
It’s curious I should love these books so much, given that I was just the sort of kid that Twain hated and made fun of all the time. I went around with a halo over my head all the time, I LOVED both school and Sunday-school, and I scorned and detested rebellious, trouble-making kids. That said…all kids play imaginative games and, more importantly, all kids get into trouble. Twain wrote these children so well…gave them credit for being people not poppets…they have feelings and thoughts, and they are generally good (morally) even if they frequently misbehave according to society’s artificial constructs. And in all honesty I did plenty of downright wicked things, I just tried not to openly defy authority, and there’s the difference. Tom and Huck and Jim (and to a lesser extent, Becky) dare to operate outside the law, hang the consequences. And they are good people — about as good as we are, at any rate. So their exploits make for highly attractive fantasy.
Twain’s heart was in this of course — the characters and the setting were based on his own memories of his childhood in Missouri. The broadest blanket statement I would make about Twain is that his writing is best the closer he sticks to himself and first hand observations. Journalism, memoir, commentary, humor, essays, semi-autobiographical fiction and lectures…this is where he excels. The farther he strays from that, the worse he gets. When we get to Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective, for example, we have Jumped the Shark. The magic is gone. He has gone too far.
Believe it or not, I had not read Life on the Mississippi until recently. I’m not sure why I thought it wouldn’t appeal to me. I had read almost all of his major works by this point and still hadn’t gotten to this major one. I suppose I felt that since I had read his autobiography (an early, three volume, unfinished edition I read as a teenager) and I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and those gave me so much pleasure — why would I want to read some non-fiction book about a river and riverboats? Because Mark Twain wrote it, that’s why! Then I heard I was was related to some people Twain wrote about in the book (I have since learned I am also distantly related to Twain himself!) so I finally picked the book up for purely selfish reasons. I am now inclined to think of it as Twain’s masterpiece. Like many of of my favorite American books (Moby Dick and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men are two examples) it defies categorization. Humor, history, science writing, autobiography, travelogue, current events…and his voice so strong throughout. Yeah, I think this may be his best book.
Other than the books I’ve mentioned, I think Twain’s best writing is in his humor pieces and short stories. Interestingly, that writing kind of spans his career. The humor squibs I associate mostly with the beginning of his career in the Far West in the 1860s (his “Jumping Frog” period as it were), when he would contribute to newspapers from San Francisco and Nevada (Roughing It covers that period as well). As for the short stories, some of his masterpieces date from what I call his “Mean Old Man” period, his bitter satires, so sour and dark because he just didn’t give a damn any more. Stories like “”The ₤1,000,000 Note”, “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg”, fit this description, and pave the way for later literary misanthropes like H.L. Menken and Kurt Vonnegut. One of my all time favorites dates from the early period though. In “Cannibalism in the Cars” (1868), a train carrying a group of U.S. Congressmen gets snowed in while crossing the Rocky Mountains and the politicians use parliamentary procedure to determine the order in which they will eat each other. Now that’s what I call comedy!
Twain could also be ribald in surprising ways. He once wrote a comical speech in tribute to masturbation which he delivered to a group of French nationals. I adapted it and delivered it at the Metropolitan Playhouse in 2007.
I am so seldom tempted to quote Jim Morrison, but on this occasion it fits so nicely. When it comes to the writing of Mark Twain, “The West is the Best.” He is a genius when writing about his boyhood and young adulthood in Missouri, or the years that followed in the western mining camps. But like so many writers from the American West, he had an apparent inferiority complex. He seems downright obsequious in his awe for America’s Eastern Establishment, and for that of Europe. Unfortunately, he makes that the subject of his writing A LOT.
Like so many writers, poets and visual artists of the late 19th/early 20th century, Twain was an amateur Medievalist. He seems to have a lot of fun writing in that voice, but he doesn’t know it as well, and it doesn’t quite land. Still, these are some of his more popular works — mostly because they are inspired ideas even if they fail in execution. These works include The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and (even less successfully) Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. If these have the power to make you cringe from time to time (they do me, anyway), I find his West-East culture clashy things the least bearable of all. These would be works like The Gilded Age, The Innocents Abroad and A Tramp Abroad. The irony of these works is that our Great Satirist and Hater of Hypocrisy is himself guilty of pretension. It doesn’t suit him but he seems to be striving for this badge of legitimacy ALL THE TIME. But it’s mixed. Like Ben Franklin before him (who stormed Paris high society wearing a coonskin cap), Twain gained a lot of attention by crashing the parlors of sophisticates bearing the earmarks of the roughneck — messy mop of hair, omnipresent cigar, and the white suit of a Southern plantation owner. But where does he go to live the instant he becomes established? Hartford, Connecticut. We don’t want sophistication from Mark Twain, we want “Americana” – – but he’s pushing his sophistication at you all the time.
Then again, he had something to prove. WE think he’s a genius, but mostly because he redefined the word. Those writers at the top of this post whom I mentioned that I love: Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, Poe…those are all pre-Twain. Their language is rich in allusion, highly wrought, and reflective of the influence of religion and the King James Bible. Before Twain there is Thanatopsis. Twain was an empiricist, not a metaphysician. The discipline of journalism taught him to be direct and immediate and to scrape off all filigree and gratuitous adornment. Twain’s writing embodies certain American principles: truth, clarity, simplicity. His primary acolyte was Hemingway — the two of them cast a mutual shadow over American writing over the entire 20th century. While I recognize and appreciate Twain’s genius, stylistically I’ve always preferred the writers who’ve gone against that grain, writers like James Agee and Thomas Wolfe. I contend that it is legitimate to at least attempt to peer beyond the veil of reality. Words as ceremony rather than anecdote. I’m somewhat bored with the aesthetics of the 20th century.
Still, Twain is who we all want to be, isn’t it? And I have to acknowledge that I am not above that adolescent aspiration. Like him, I gave myself a nom de plume. Like him, I like to perform my writing, live and in person, wearing a costume. Like him, I want to run away and see the world and write, write, write about it, with a snarl, and a wink, and maybe even give the reader an Indian sunburn.
Twain is one of those writers I didn’t think I could like, when learning the assigned works in middle and high school. Some time later I came around voluntarily and gave things a try and was stunned that he could be … deft. Whimsical. Even lighthearted. Some of that’s obviously me maturing, some of that’s my reading as something to try out rather than to get through with as little contact as possible.
I had a similar shocking discovery about Dickens, who’s stylistically about as un-Twain as you can get.