Sunday, July 13, 2008

Two Fathoms Deep


The past week's "cover boy" of Time magazine was Mark Twain, in honor of their yearly Making of America issue.

I spent this afternoon reading all the articles, then finding a couple of his articles online and reading those.

What a unique and visionary talent. Ernest Hemingway said that all of American literature can be traced back to Mark Twain, and one of the Time articles attributes the success of sarcastic newsmen/comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to the groundbreaking, caustic wit of Twain.

While I've always been more partial to the even more caustic Ambrose Bierce, Twain used a little more humor and a little less acid, although his words could still cut to the core.

While like most American kids, I've read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, along with numerous short stories, I haven't read much of his outright satire (although satire runs through most of his works, sometimes just more subtly). It still surprises me to realize that Huckleberry Finn is one of the most banned books in the country. This previously was due to its alleged "coarseness," (as if there weren't people in the country who spoke that way) and more recently due to its alleged racism and use of the word "nigger." This ignores the fact that the novel was a product of its time (and yes, people really did talk that way in 1885), and that Huck considers the escaped slave Jim to be his friend.

If you need further convincing, read his essay The United States of Lyncherdom. I wish I could have found his unedited version, which wasn't published in its entirety until 2000, but the edited version is scathing enough. An indictment of all those who would follow the mob mentality and stand idly by while a human being is murdered in front of them, he wishes for a mere handful of brave men to stand up and declare what is right, in hopes that the human sheep will feel shamed into following. I wonder what he would have thought if he had lived to see Nazi Germany?

Twain may have served briefly in the Civil War as a Confederate (after two weeks, he resigned his commission because he explained that he was "incapacitated by fatigue through persistent retreating"), but to charge him with racism is ridiculous. Not convinced? Read "A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It."

Mark Twain was an equal opportunity master of sarcasm, satirizing the issues of the day. Whether the issue was overly-zealous religion, racism at home, colonial expansion, or torture, he skewered the practitioners of each with a finely-honed sword. Andrew Carnegie once brought up to him the idea that America is a Christian nation. Twain replied, "Why, Carnegie, so is Hell."


buckoclown said...

One of the things that I did not know was that his first fame came as a "travel" writer.  He wrote several books about travelling to various places.  Oddly enough, the first place he planned on travelling to, South America, he never made it to in his lifetime.  What an amazing character :o)

preciousone25 said...

Interesting read, I started to read that TIME article in the dentist office yesterday... wish I would have finished it now.


lynk4bray said...

hey how are you doing?  I live in CT and have been to Mark Twain house in Hartford Connecticut--very cool.  I did a little TV special there and at the Harriet Beetcher Stoe house ( I think I spelt that wrong).  But anyway it was very neat.
Take Care

dbdacoba said...

This is a great piece.  I've been a Twain fan and Bierce fan for years.  I have some of Mark Twain's comments in my quotation file, they show up now and then.  I used to live in Harford where the Twain house and museum is.

There is also some graphic writing about slavery and racism in America by Charles Dickens in his only full length non-fiction book American Notes.

The fact that people think Twain was a racist because of Huck Finn is the same old problem of not being able to separate the message from the messenger.  It's also the reason why some bone heads still think that actors are just like the roles they play.

Nice entry.  Thank you.     D

queeniemart said...

anything that makes me think is something i enjoy. As kids we often do not "get" what the author is trying to say or i would come upon a setence or remark and think that it was supposed to mean something more but it was "over my head". That is what Twain is to me. Great article.

helmswondermom said...

I've always been a fan of Twain, and I enjoyed this entry very much.

tsalagiman1 said...

Nelishia just won a 1954 edition of Tom Sawyer from Ebay.  I agree with you, charging Mark Twain with racism is ridiculous.  Very informative!