The year 2010 marks the 175th anniversary of the birth of Mark Twain, the 125th anniversary of Twain’s most famous work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the 100th anniversary of his death. Rather than highlight the same old hoary chestnuts, I thought I’d feature some of my personal Twain favorites that are less well-known.
That’s what I thought. However, as is often the case when writing a post, I hit an interesting detour along the way.
My odds-on favorite piece of Twain writing is the essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” in which the famous son of Hannibal, Missouri, finds, in two-thirds of a page of the novel The Deerslayer, 114 of a possible 115 literary offenses. Twain sets out 19 rules of romantic fiction and finds Cooper in violation of 18 of them. This is a must-read for anyone who has suffered through even a chapter of Cooper’s infamously turgid prose. In high school, my class was assigned The Pathfinder and, upon asking around, I learned that I was the only one to read the complete novel, everyone else resorting to Monarch Notes (a precursor of Cliffs’ Notes).
My colleagues all got either a B or an A; I got a C-.
While beginning to write about another of my favorite Twain items, Letters from the Earth, I ran across something I’d neither seen nor heard of before: an article entitled “Mark Twain is a Slob” by Pittsburgh’s own Willa Cather. Originally published in the Nebraska State Journal, on May 5, 1895, it begins with this blistering assault:
If there is anything which should make an American sick and disgusted at the literary taste of his country, and almost swerve his allegiance to his flag it is that controversy between Mark Twain and Max O’Rell, in which the Frenchman proves himself a wit and a gentleman and the American shows himself little short of a clown and an all around tough.
Ouch. A little bit of karmic payback for Mr. Clemens, perhaps. Yet I couldn’t help thinking that, if he remained objective for a moment, he might have appreciated the quality and, well, snarkiness of the grand dame’s invective.
Twain trashes Cooper, Cather trashes Twain. Though not quite the literary equivalent of a WWE Smackdown, both articles make for mighty entertaining reading.
Since it’s Twain’s multiple anniversaries and since I’m determined to get to all those favorites I mentioned, let’s return to him for some last words. The premise of Letters from the Earth might serve as material for an upscale (think Bravo, think A & E) cable sitcom: Satan writes a series of letters to heaven, reporting on the current very sad state of affairs down here on Earth. Written just prior to, and published after, his death, Twain sets out some startling invective concerning the deplorable affairs of man. Here is the opening to Letter III:
You have noticed that the human being is a curiosity. In times past he has had (and worn out and flung away) hundreds and hundreds of religions; today he has hundreds and hundreds of religions, and launches not fewer than three new ones every year. I could enlarge that number and still be within the facts.
One of his principle religions is called the Christian. A sketch of it will interest you. It sets forth in detail in a book containing two million words, called the Old and New Testaments. Also it has another name — The Word of God. For the Christian thinks every word of it was dictated by God — the one I have been speaking of.
It is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.
Of course, we must hasten to remember that this is Satan speaking, not Mr. Twain. Oh, no, not Mr. Twain at all.
And then there is Mark Twain On the Damned Human Race, which was published in Letters from the Earth and as a separate book as well. Herein, Twain makes his case that man is, in fact, not a higher animal, but belongs to the lower animals. Based on “a series of experiments” conducted at the London Zoological Gardens, Twain notes that man is the only animal that is cruel, is the only animal that bands together and deals in that “atrocity of atrocities, War.” He is the only animal who enslaves. Man is the Religious Animal, he is “the only animal that has the True Religion – several of them.” Man is the only animal to have the great defect: “moral sense.” In the great satiric tradition of Swift, who proposed that man is not a rational animal but an animal capable of reasoning, Twain goes one step further: he notes that “It seems plain to me that whatever he is he is not a reasonable animal.”
Finally, in this year of Twain anniversaries, there comes a first: the publication later this year of the full, unexpurgated Autobiography of Mark Twain, concerning which Twain left instructions that it not be published until 100 years after his death.
I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to imagine what had to wait 100 years to be said, since he seems to have pretty much touched all the bases while he was alive. Thankfully or no, we won’t have to imagine very much longer.