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Our Best Writer: Mark Twain

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The literary reputation of Mark Twain survived the political-correctness hysteria that swept college campuses during the last decades of the twentieth century. In some places there was agitation to have Twain’s books removed from libraries. For a while he was attacked for using words which now are considered racist. But those words were often used in Twain’s lifetime without any feeling of bigotry. That’s certainly true of their use in Twain’s works.

Anyway, the good news is that Twain’s writing is currently enjoying the enthusiasm it deserves. The Oxford University Press recently published his complete works in a facsimile edition, made from copies of first editions with the original illustrations. A scholar is currently working on a definitive  edition of Twain’s writing. And Ken Burns has done a film biography that appeared on PBS.

People who know Twain only through the reading of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should get better acquainted by looking at some of the travel books, especially Roughing It. There are several versions of his autobiography. Twain had an unusual idea about what order his remembrances should come in the book. He dictated some of it, putting things in as they occurred to him.  The Albert Bigelow Paine edition (1924) is probably as Twain wanted it.  But I recommend the version edited by Charles Neider which is in a more chronological order.

When you are in Missouri, you should visit Florida, the place of Twain’s birth, and Hannibal on the banks of the Mississippi, where he grew up. The little town of Florida has almost disappeared but has a fine Twain museum which includes the actual house in which the writer was born. As a boy living in Hannibal, Twain made visits to his uncle’s farm near Florida, Missouri. He lovingly describes that place in his autobiography. He also uses the memory of his uncle’s farm in Huckleberry Finn to describe the setting in which Huck and Jim are reunited with Tom Sawyer and Aunt Polly.

Hannibal is a charming place to spend the day. It has several good museums; one is the house in which the Clemens family lived. And if you are not claustrophobic you may enjoy going into the cave that inspired the one in Tom Sawyer. Tom takes Becky there and the two of them become lost in a maze of passageways. The cave in Hannibal is exactly like a maze.

Twain is often characterized as a humorist. It is interesting to examine the different ways he uses language to create humor. Notice in the examples below how Twain uses certain devices to make himself the butt of the joke. The examples come from the autobiography edited by Neider:

1. Unnecessary explanation [About his parents moving to Missouri] “I do not remember just when, for I was not born then and cared nothing for such things.”
[About Florida, Missouri] “The village contained a hundred people and I increased the population by one percent. It is more than many of the best men in history could have done for a town. It may not be modest in me to refer to this but it is true. There is no record of a person doing as much–not even Shakespeare.”

2. Recognition of his own failing, indirectly expressed [Upon seeing a photograph of the house in which he was born ] “Heretofore I have always stated that it was a palace but I shall be more guarded now.”

3. Use of an unexpected object for a demonstration [About the cracks in the church floor] “if you dropped anything smaller than a peach it was likely to go through.”

4. Pretense that an annoying thing is valuable “In summer there were fleas enough for all.”

Toward the end of his life Twain experienced some difficult times.  His pessimism about human vanities and self-deceit is reflected in his Letters from the Earth.  That book was intentionally not published until after his death.  One of the most moving things he ever wrote is on the death of his daughter Jean who died the year before he did.   

The importance of Mark Twain as an American writer has been affirmed by other American authors as different as Ernest Hemingway and T. S. Eliot. Hemingway said that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Eliot said he learned from Twain to use American colloquial speech as a literary language.

Equally important is the intellectual tone Twain sets for everybody. His writing reveals strength of character and intellectual honesty. He consistently satirizes pretentiousness. And his humor undermines human vanity and meanness.

If Twain had a serious fault of character, it was that he could never cast off the dream of becoming fabulously wealthy.  He was wealthy at the time he was building his home in Connecticut. Then he lost his money on schemes to get even more. 

But I like Twain’s writing so much that I’m not even going to mention that weakness in his character.


Written by polemicscat

August 8, 2008 at 10:38 pm