On Twain Elsewhere in the


On Twain

Elsewhere in the blogworld there has been a bit of type lavished on the unlavishable Mark Twain. Mr. Dylan frankly admits that he sees nothing admirable in the "chief claims to fame" of our venerable Mr. Twain. Plain-spokeness seems to our protagonist merely a guise for lackluster and soporific. Mr. Twain's undoubted anti-clericalism and anti-religion are certainly unappealing. His strong cynicism and later-in-life misanthropy are certainly off-putting.

Let me note that I am not a foremost Twain fan. I do recognize the value of certain works even if they are not among my favorites. For example Huckleberry Finn for many reasons is probably one of the more important novels of the nineteenth century. Looking back at it from my present venue, I can't claim to love it as many of its proponents do, but I must admit to admiring a certain sly humor that creeps into a book that is a relentless attack on the received wisdom of society.

My favorite novel, read and reread year after year is undoubtedly Tom Sawyer. It was the stuff of dreams of boyhood. I spent much time being Tom Sawyer on a raft on the Mississippi, exploring caves, etc. Youthful enthusiasm has carried over into adulthood and I read this often. The charm is not in plain-spokeness, nor is it merely in appeal to youth, but it is in the humor that permeates the whole in a way that is hard to describe. Tom Sawyer standing outside of Church purchasing tickets for memorizing Bible Verses because he wants to impress Becky. Then when quizzed to name two of the twelve apostles--well, reread it for yourself. Whitewashing the fence, observing his own funeral (how many of us as youngsters didn't think something along the lines of--"Well, when I'm dead they're certainly going to be sorry," and imagine to obsequies that would ensue?"), all of these are episodes with a certain charm.

Many of the short stories are grand, and much of the criticism including some comments on the German Language, an essay on James Fennimore Cooper, and several others are ripe with a certain irony and incisive wit. Mr. Twain also has tremendous insight into fallen humanity. The War Prayer and "The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg" were both of and before their time. In addition along with Charles Dudley Warner, Mr. Twain gave us the name of a particularly corrupt and unpleasant period of American History--The Gilded Age (although the novel itself is quite amusing in parts.).

Mr. Twain's enduring legacy was his humor and his sometimes uncomfortable straightforward speaking of his mind. I acknowledge his rank as among the first of nineteenth century American novelists. And this too he deserves because his influence was as profound as the influence of Joyce in the twentieth century. Some of the excesses of the prose of Cooper, Irving, Hawthorne, and Melville have been trimmed away. (By the way, I do admire the style of these three, but recognize it as a heritage of eighteenth century literature). And in trimming away, he doesn't just cut off the bush at the roots, but he provides a viable prose with which to move forward. It is sparer than that of authors delineated above, but it is not stark. (Compare any passage of Twain with any passage of Hemingway, and you'll see immediately the difference.)

No, Mr. Twain undoubtedly deserves his place in the pantheon of American Literature. Whether he deserves it for some of the reasons critics give, it is hard to say. But people today can still read and enjoy Twain in a way that they cannot access Hawthorne or other nineteenth century novelists.

However, that said, if one does not care for fiction at all, one will hardly be in a position to appreciate Twain or his influence. Now, I must admit, I'm still puzzling over not enjoying fiction--but I know enough of this type of person to acquiesce that it is not an isolated phenomenon, just one that is incomprehensible to me. I will admit to having difficulty with a great deal of nonfiction, although I do not dislike it as a category, so I suppose it may be largely a matter of taste. But my life would be tremendously poorer and much less vivid were it not for the fictional worlds in which I have engaged and learned much. (Hence a topic for a future discussion--guiding the reading of children.)

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on January 27, 2003 8:12 AM.

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