Writers Talk About Writing
Mark Twain: the Lincoln of American Literature
When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.
In my recent reading I've gone on a major Mark Twain kick, and with every page I read, my admiration for Twain's writing grows. William Dean Howells, a contemporary and friend, called Twain "the Lincoln of our literature," and the title rings true, both for the plainspoken American vernacular that the two mastered, and for the boldness with which they faced our democracy's ugliest stain, the enslaving of African-Americans by European-Americans.
Yet compared to Twain, Lincoln was terse, his letters and addresses famous for their focused brevity on the matter at hand, here getting himself elected to Congress:
DEAR SIR:—You perhaps know that General Hardin and I have a contest for the Whig nomination for Congress for this district. He has had a turn and my argument is "turn about is fair play." I shall be pleased if this strikes you as a sufficient argument.
Twain, in sharpest contrast, was verbose. Online bibliographies catalogue his prodigious output: forty-two separate published works, fifty notebooks of fiction and nonfiction fragments, enough essays to make a book seven-hundred pages long, plus 28,000 collected letters. His discursive style allowed him to leap in a few pages from all the history that the "broken-nosed" statues of Paris' Notre Dame cathedral have witnessed:
…mail-clad knights come marching home from Holy Land... heard the bells above them toll the signal for the St. Bartholomew's Massacre and saw the slaughter that followed; later they saw the Reign of Terror, the carnage of the Revolution, the overthrow of a king, the coronation of two Napoleons…
—to describing the Can-Can in all its glory:
A handsome girl tripped forward, grasped her dresses vigorously on both sides with her hands, raised them high, danced an extraordinary jig that had more exposure than any jig I ever saw before, and then, drawing her clothes still higher, advanced gaily to the center and launched a kick at her partner that must have removed his nose if he had been seven feet high. It was a mercy he was only six.
Some have called Twain the Norman Rockwell of our literature, and views like this of little Dawson's Landing justify the title:
… a snug collection of modest frame dwellings, whose whitewashed exteriors were almost concealed by climbing tangles of rose vines, honeysuckles, and morning glories. Each of these pretty homes had a garden in front fenced with white palings…. When there was room on the ledge, the cat was there, stretched at full length, asleep and blissful, with her furry belly to the sun and a paw curved over her nose.
Yet the pretty village, Twain notes in the next sentence, was "a slaveholding town, with a rich, slave-worked grain and pork country back of it," and the whole novel, Pudd'nhead Wilson, is a mordant tale of murder and mistaken identity across race lines; Twain opens each chapter with sardonic aphorisms supposedly taken from Pudd'nhead's diary:
Let us endeavor so to live that when we die, even the undertaker will be sorry.
One of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives.
If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.
This word picture of a forest fire at Lake Tahoe suggests Bosch more than Rockwell. Note how Twain describes both the fire and his own rapture at its wild beauty:
…all before us was a tossing, blinding tempest of flame! It went surging up adjacent ridges, disappeared in the canyons beyond, then burst into view upon higher ridges... threw out skirmishing parties of fire here and sent them trailing their crimson spirals. Across the water the crags and domes were lit with a ruddy glare, and the firmament above was a reflected hell! Every feature of the spectacle was repeated in the glowing mirror of the lake! Both pictures were sublime…but that in the lake had a bewildering richness about it that enchanted the eye...
Nothing seems beyond his writing skill, from telling how much he hates the humble house fly:
The flea never associates with me so I have none but the friendliest feeling toward him. The mosquito troubles me but little, and I feel nothing but a mild dislike for him. Of all the animals that inhabit the earth, the air, and the waters, I hate only one—and that is the house-fly. But I do hate him. I hate him with a hatred that is not measurable with words.
—to spinning this sublime burlesque of Shakespeare:
To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin,
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear,
till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,
But that the fear of something after death
Murders the innocent sleep…
One thing missing in Twain's works: adult romance. He builds none of his fictions around a man and woman falling in love—a bit odd, given that so many novelists rely on courtship and marriage to structure their stories, and that Twain was happily married to his beloved Livy for thirty-four years. He does, however, paint the agonies of puppy love with a unsurpassed tenderness—here Becky and Tom lost in the winding limestone cave:
She sank to the ground and burst into such a frenzy of crying that Tom was appalled with the idea that she might die, or lose her reason. He sat down by her and put his arms around her; she buried her face in his bosom, she clung to him, she poured out her terrors, her unavailing regrets…. Tom begged her to pluck up hope again, and she said she could not. He fell to blaming himself for getting her into this miserable situation, [and] this had a better effect. She said she would try to hope again, she would get up and follow wherever he might lead if only he would not talk like that any more. For he was no more to blame than she, she said.
Twain's biographers point out the contradictions of the cantankerous man's character: the prototypical A merican who lived for years in Eurfope; a scathing critic of Gilded Age capitalism who threw himself and his money wholeheartedly into dozens of get-rich-schemes (most of which went belly up); the humorous painter of innocent youth who, as he aged, became increasingly bitter:
There is nothing kindly, nothing beneficent, nothing friendly in Nature toward any creature, except by fits and starts….Nature's attitude toward all life is profoundly vicious, treacherous, and malignant.
Yet for variety, vitality, and unbuttoned veracity Mark Twain can't be beat. As I read him, I almost believe I'm with him in the rambling house in Hartford, each of us with a smelly, smoky stogey clenched between our teeth, a glass of whiskey in our hands, and we're swapping tall tales over the clicking balls of the billiard table. The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Life on the Mississippi—I loved all these books as a boy and I still love them today.
What's my favorite moment in all these pages? That's easy—the moment when Huck Finn, alone on the raft, argues with himself whether he should turn Jim in as a runaway slave. The law, religion, and local custom all say that not returning Jim to slavery would be a hell-worthy sin, and Huck scratches out a two-line letter on a scrap of paper to Jim's owner telling her how to find the runaway. Then Huck starts remembering the good times he and Jim had together, "floating along, talking and singing and laughing":
….I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, 'stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; …and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he's got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper. It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: "All right, then, I'll GO to hell"—and tore it up.
That passage, more than any other, makes Howells' title for Twain, "the Lincoln of our literature," ring true. Every time I read, "All right, then, I'll GO to hell," I get snuffly, thinking in some inchoate way that those few words are Huck's and Twain's personal emancipation proclamations, and that if we have their courage, they can be yours and mine as well.