Friday, February 12, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 9 (2/12) -- Who Is Mark Twain? by Mark Twain

Twain was the great American writer of the 19th century. Some might quibble about that, but the case is strong enough to state it that boldly. Who else is close? Melville has one magnificent novel and a mixed bag of other work. Dickinson was unknown in her lifetime, and is an acquired taste to begin with. Thoreau is unlovable and frequently dull. Hawthorne gets remoter by the day, and was backwards-looking even in his day. Poe is too tainted by failure, too much the loner.

Twain, on the other hand, is both quintessentially American in a way that still resonates strongly today and hugely popular in his own time. He's as close as anyone has come to being the voice of America itself -- or, at least, his books speak in the voices of many Americans. He had a great writer's scope, moving from humorous travelogues to recast autobiography to the full inventiveness of his best novels, throwing off dozens of shorter pieces along the way, in all modes from the laconic rural storyteller to the high outraged dudgeon of a modern, whip-smart, sophisticated suburban liberal. His best work is still amazingly readable, and gloriously amusing, even two or three half-centuries after he wrote it: books like Roughing It and The Innocents Abroad and that still-lofty peak of the American novel Huckleberry Finn. And those short works are, in aggregate, possibly even stronger than any of the books -- for my money, the best Twain imaginable is the magnificent 2-volume Library of America edition of his Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays.

Twain also had a great writer's profligacy, leaving behind not only a mountain of published work, but a second (possibly larger) mountain of unpublished work -- abandoned sketches, essays he knew would be hugely unpopular, false starts, all of the odds and ends of a man who lived through the end of his ever-moving pen. Who Is Mark Twain? collects twenty-four pieces from that second mountain: partial and complete stories, essays that reach a conclusion and essays that don't, bits and pieces that fell from the desk of a restlessly working writer. And they're all essentially unpublished -- even ninety-nine years after Twain's death -- so they'll be new to any reader not in the habit of poking through the Twain archives at Berkeley or Vassar. (Though one essay, "On Postage Rates on Authors' Manuscripts," does begin with that oft-quoted Twain line "Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.")

Some pieces in Who Are Mark Twain? are clearly dated -- such as "The Snow Shovelers," a mild dialect satire of anarchists and socialists -- and some wander off in odd directions before suddenly stopping -- like "Conversations with Satan," which quickly turns into a disquisition on the merits of cheap cigars -- and some seem frankly ridiculous to modern ears -- as with "The Force of 'Suggestion,'" which bare-facedly insists that rapes will cease to happen if they cease to be reported -- but even the oddest, shortest bits of string here are pure Twain, and have sentences and paragraphs that no one else could have written.

And the best pieces here, such as the humorously nasty "The Undertaker's Tale," are as good as anything Twain published in the 1800s. Another, "The Privilege of the Grave,"explains why Twain buried many of these pieces (and, I hope, many more still sitting in his archives) --
An unpopular opinion concerning politics or religion lies concealed in the breast of every man; in many cases not only one sample, but several. The more intelligent the man, the larger the freightage of this kind of opinion he carries, and keeps to himself. There is not one individual -- including the reader and myself -- who is not the possessor of dear and cherished unpopular convictions which common wisdom forbids him to utter. Sometimes we suppress an opinion for reasons that are a credit to us, not a discredit, but oftenest we suppress an unpopular opinion because we cannot afford the bitter cost of putting it forth. None of us likes to be hated, not of us likes to be shunned.
So many of these are the pieces Twain put aside because he didn't want to be hated or shunned; some on topics of greater concern then -- such as missionaries, whom he savagely attacks in "The Missionary in World-Politics" -- and some that will never date, like his jaundiced view of the media landscape in "Interviewing the Interviewer."

Who Is Mark Twain? is a slim book, but one of many pleasures; it's a joy to discover new Twain works this long after his death. And the introduction, by Robert H. Hirst, the general editor of the Mark Twain Project, teases something even greater: that Twain's autobiography, written in 1906 near the end of his life, was forbidden to be published until a hundred years after his death. Twain died in 1910. It's now 2010 -- how much longer do I have to wait to read the full Autobiography of Mark Twain?

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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