Saturday, April 18, 2009

Who is Mark Twain? (A Review)

Who is Mark Twain?
By Mark Twain
Edited by Robert H. Hirst
206 pages
April 21, 2009

[The grave's] occupant has one privilege which is not exercised by any living person: free speech. The living man is not really without this privilege - strictly speaking - but as he possesses it merely as an empty formality, and knows better than to make use of it, it cannot be seriously regarded as an actual possession. As an active privilege, it ranks with the act of committing murder: we may exercise it if we are willing to take the consequences. Murder is forbidden both in form and fact; free speech is granted in form but forbidden in fact. By the common estimate both are crimes, and are held in deep odium by all civilized peoples. Murder is sometimes punished, free speech always -
when committed. Which is to say seldom. - from "The Privilege of the Grave"

In 1900, Mark Twain wrote an editorial entitled "The Missionary in World Politics," originally intended for publication in the London Times. Palpable anger smolders beneath the polished veneer of a journalistic conviction intended to persuade the reader over the breakfast table. Now you, complacent Westerner, Twain charges, now you imagine what it would feel like to watch foreigners traverse, uninvited, throughout your homeland, telling your children that your native religion is the sure ticket to eternal damnation, which has doubtlessly been the fate of all your heathen ancestors. And we wonder at the murderous rage this inspires, he continues, and then fail to see that the insult is only compounded when colonial punishment is meted out and a new, overbearing church is built in memorial to the fallen Christian martyr. "[The missionary] has loaded vast China onto the Concert of Christian Birds of Prey; and they were glad, smelling carrion; but they have lit and are astonished, finding the carcase alive. And it may remain alive - Europe cannot tell, yet," Twain concludes, ominously foretelling a dark future should European exploitation of China continue unabated. The editorial is signed with an anonymous X, but it was never published anyway - it turned out that the "massacre of the Ministers" had been a mere rumor. The topic of the piece nevertheless remains pertinent today, while the tone and the imagery further emphasize the anti-imperialist sentiments of an author all too often derided as a racist.

"The Missionary in World Politics" also brings together two main themes - free speech and issues with the American publishing industry - that run throughout HarperStudio's new book Who is Mark Twain?, a collection of twenty-four previously unpublished essays, sketches, thoughts, and short stories by the famed writer whose real name was Samuel Clemens. Although he never left explicit instructions for dealing with his vast collection of written remains - roughly half a million pages of everything from personal correspondence to bills to manuscripts to miscellaneous notebooks - Twain certainly implied that he would greatly prefer that most of it be published only after his death. "He seems to have been wholly willing to let posterity read them," says editor Robert H. Hirst, "unafraid of the light they might cast on his talent, or the way he wrote. That unusual willingness to let the world see how he worked, including how he failed or simply misfired, had only one precondition - he must not be alive at the time." As indicated by the title, the purpose of this newly-released compendium is to contribute to a greater understanding of an American literary giant: to clarify and illuminate him as both an artist and an individual. But, as an occupant of the grave, Twain is also protected from whatever public outcry and vilification he felt would accompany the publication of his more controversial works. Pure, unadulterated free speech, he felt, is a risky endeavor for the living, but the dead are more easily forgiven.

Each item in the book was handpicked by Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California in Berkeley. While some are complete short works, others remain unfinished or unedited ("Conversations with Satan," for example, starts out very promisingly but soon veers off onto a tangent about taste in cigars and then abruptly cuts off). Opening the collection is, appropriately, a farcical essay entitled "Whenever I Am About to Publish a Book." Although Twain never knows exactly what kind of book he is writing until the literary critics tell him, he still wants to know what the general public will think of it, so he lists fourteen distinct "focus groups" (i.e. "Men and women with no sense of humor, "Men and women with a prodigious sense of humor," "A sentimental person") to whom he likes to gives private readings. "I seem to be making a distinction here," he observes, "I seem to be separating the professional reviewer from the human family; I seem to be intimating that he is not a part of the public, but a class by himself." That is not entirely the case, he goes on to explain: the professional reviewer simply represents a tiny sliver of the reading public, the crème de la crème who has the God-given authority to determine if you should be enjoying your new book or not. But whether or not he actually decides to publish the book in the first place depends largely on the opinion of the "Man who always goes to sleep," who must remain awake for at least three-quarters of an hour during the Twain's test run.

"Whenever I Am About to Publish a Book" also establishes Twain's tenuous relationship to the press, particularly the American press. The context of "The Missionary in World Politics," as well as the disparity Twain has noted between the freedom of speech accorded to the living and the dead, both indicate an ongoing resentment of the de facto social restrictions on what can and cannot be published. Two other pieces entitled "The Force of 'Suggestion'" and "Interviewing the Interviewer" also reveal a frustration with the often sensationalist and salacious nature of the "yellow journalism" that prevailed at the time. In the latter work, Twain takes aim at Charles A. Dana of the New York Sun and envisions a meeting between the two of them wherein Twain (ironically) plays the role of humble advice-seeker. "My son, unto none but you would I reveal the secret," he imagines Dana telling him,
". . . The first great end and aim of journalism is to make a sensation. Never let your paper go to press without a sensation. If you have none, make one. Seize upon the prominent events of the day, and clamor about them with a maniacal fury that demands attention. Vilify everything that is unpopular - harry it, haunt it, abuse it, without rhyme or reason, so that you get a sensation out of it. Laud that which is popular - unless you feel sure that you can make it unpopular by attacking it. Hit every man that is down - never fail in this, for it is safe. . . If an uncalled-for onslaught upon a neighboring editor who has made you play second fiddle in journalism can take the bread out of his mouth and send him in disgrace from his post, let him have it! Do not mind a little lying, a liberal garbling of his telegrams, a mean prying into his private affairs and a pitiful and treacherous exposure of his private letters. It takes a very small nature to get down to this, but I managed it and you can - and it makes a princely sensation."
Dana's imaginary "advice" also graphically reflects Twain's wariness of attracting public animosity as a living man writing controversial material. And yet, the last piece in the book, "The American Press," appears almost as a note of redemption for the hitherto darkly satirical portrayals of the state of American publishing. Twain is responding to English poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold's disparagement of American newspapers as lacking in reverence and respect. "Goethe says somewhere that 'the thrill of awe' - that is to say, REVERENCE - 'is the best thing humanity has,'" Arnold is quoted as saying. On the contrary, Twain contends, the European newspapers remain stupidly and thoughtlessly committed to propping up their nations' archaic governments and, to that end, maintain a sonorously serious aspect utterly lacking in any sense of humor. "Professor Mahaffy on Equality" also counters another European mischaracterization of American culture, as Twain responds to Mahaffy's apparent confusion of "physical equality" with the Constitution's proclamation of political equality. For all his difficulties with his country and its institutions, Twain was also more than willing to defend America from its misinformed detrators and proclaim it as the greatest, most free nation on earth.

At the same time, however, Twain's travel memoir Roughing It certainly leaves the reader with a profound sense of disillusionment as, one by one, American dreams and myths are acerbically torn down. The overall tone of the works in Who is Mark Twain? is likewise one of hard realism and a playfully pessimistic view of human nature, with a witty edge reminiscent (to modern readers) of TV's Dr. Gregory House ("Everybody lies!"). In "The Undertaker's Tale," a family in the graveyard business lists their sick neighbors as business assets and despairs of ever having a "good season," especially after the cholera epidemic misses their town. "Dr. Van Dyke as a Man and as a Fisherman" ironically makes use of the parable (in this case, the noble Christian Van Dyke luring an innocent fish to his hook of death) to illustrate the impossibility of man's ever living up to his own lofty ideals. But not that Twain is blind to his own faults:
Satan would not allow me to take his hat, but put it on the table himself, and begged me not to put myself to any trouble about him, but treat him just as I would an old friend; and added that that was what he was - an old friend of mine, and also one of my most ardent and grateful admirers. It seemed such a double compliment; still, it was said in such a winning and gracious way that I could not help feeling gratified and proud.
"Conversations with Satan" is emblematic of the entire collection: a small fragment of Twain, raw and unfinished, but still recognizably Twain in its biting satire (of courtly manners and the author himself) and brazen honesty. Despite having been previously unpublished, the selections in Who is Mark Twain? are definitely not second-rate when compared to his famous works. Twain's unique voice is heard in multiple genres, from travel accounts to indignant editorials to a wide range of short stories (one of my favorites, the sad and adorable "Telegraph Dog," surprised me with its striking tenderness and the pathos surrounding loyal, tragic little Billy). Who is Mark Twain? comes strongly recommended for anyone seeking a greater understanding of an American literary great whose candor makes him a contentious figure even today. It is both a quick, comprehensive introduction to readers unfamiliar with Twain and a great supplement to a full literary diet of Twain. Considering the 500,000+ pages he left behind, I am sure we can expect another book like this one in the future.

I would like to give a special thanks to Kathryn and everyone at HarperStudios for inviting me to review this excellent book.


Kathryn said...

Excellent review! It's so in-depth, and you really prep the reader for Twain's shorts.

I also wanted to add some other things going on with the book...
For one week you can download the free audio book (read by John Lithgow) from The New Yorker:

There is also a writing contest:
Twain left "Conversations with Satan" unfinished, so submit an ending and get some closure (and maybe a prize)!

E. L. Fay said...

Kathryn: Awesome! Thanks for posting that! I can't wait to see how "Conversations with Satan" ends up. That started out so well and then went so downhill.

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