Author: Kiley, Brendan
Date published: December 16, 2010
Journal code: STRR
The United States of Twain Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1 Is Just for You (Whoever You Are) Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1 by Mark Twain (University of California Press, $34.95)
I would submit that any sane American with a measurable amount of humor and audacity admires Mark Twain. It is diffi cult to imagine the sane American who wouldn't. Though he
struggled throughout his life with the better and worse angels of his nature-which is, in part, why we love him-Twain wound up as one of us, on the right side of the American character: the Huck Finn side, not the Tom Sawyer side. (More on that divide in a bit.) Most importantly, he lit the lamp and cut the trail so we could fi nd that side. We wouldn't be here without him. He combines rugged individualism with moral courage with merry gloom like nobody else.
And such mischief: Twain is, to my knowledge, the fi rst major writer to make a compelling case that it would be not only more fun but morally superior to run away from home, join a fugitive on a homemade raft, and, when he was caught by the police, bust him out of jail. He is the man who handed the Christian evangelist and stupid scion John D. Rockefeller Jr. his ass on a platter in a match of theological one- upsmanship. He is the man who wrote to the fi rst lady of the United States: "Total abstinence is so excellent a thing that it cannot be carried to too great an extent. In my passion for it, I even carry it so far as to totally abstain from total abstinence itself." (Would you write that to Michelle Obama?) And the man who wrote: "There has been only one Christian. They caught him and crucifi ed him-early." And: "The Church has opposed every innovation and discovery from the day of Galileo down to our own time, when the use of anesthetics in childbirth was regarded as a sin because it avoided the biblical curse pronounced against Eve."
What I wouldn't give to watch the thrashing that Twain-unassailably American, as patriotic as George Washington-would hand down to Sarah Palin and all the patriotismfor- pay that she represents. Don't know what to get your Tea Party relatives for Christmas? Sock 'em with the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1. It might even knock some sense into them.
Before we go further, I suppose, we must address the easiest and most cutting criticism people throw at Twain-his racism. Especially since racism in America is no longer in vogue. Racism is still around, of course, but it's no longer fashionable to profess it in public. Perhaps it will be again someday, and on that terrible, stupid day we can point to Twain as an object lesson in how to metamorphose from a casual boyhood racist (which Twain was) into the kind of man who admired Frederick Douglass and worked with Booker T. Washington to raise money for the Tuskegee Institute (which Twain did).
Racism is the easiest criticism you could lob at Twain, because it can be hurled from behind a hedge of self-righteousness. Damning anyone as a racist is very satisfying, since it implies that the one doing the damning is the damned's moral superior-and who doesn't want to be Mark Twain's moral superior? It is the most cutting criticism because, well, it's kinda true. Even in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the great novel of one boy's transcendence from received racism to courage and humaneness, we can sense (as writer George Saunders put it in his excellent 2001 introduction to Huck Finn) that in Twain's writing about Jim, "some swaggering remnant of the Hannibal kid is cranking out stereotypical comic images of blacks for cheap laughs, images that Twain the Reformed is failing to fully reject."
Twain helped invent and codify the American character, and since the struggle with racism is a fundamental American trait (a nation cannot found itself by annihilating the local inhabitants and then importing an entire population of slaves and not struggle with racism for the rest of its existence), it is also a fundamental Twainian trait.
Oddly, there isn't much about this journey from raised racist to more-or-less- clearheaded adult in Twain's Autobiography. Maybe that's because his journey seems far more interesting to us now as a national concern. Or maybe he was still in the midst of that journey and less sure about his conclusions than he was about pretty much everything else. Or maybe he felt he had already left a record of that struggle: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the novel in which Twain's evolution-not just from racism, but from all kinds of received opinion-is given the name Huck Finn.
In his introduction, Saunders (who is a literary heir to Twain, through the Vonnegut line) drills right into this by identifying what he calls Huck Finn's "Central Moral Vector... will Huck turn Jim in?" In other words, will Huck transcend his cultural and religious upbringing-which taught him that slavery was socially just and biblically sanctioned- and not only refuse to turn Jim in, but risk his own life and soul to singlehandedly rescue him from imprisonment? Saunders accelerates Huck Finn's Central Moral Vector into the present: "Imagine a sort of contemporary Huck equivalent: a little community-despised white-trash boy, son of an American Nazi Party member who periodically beats him and locks him in the garage for days, comes upon a sleeping and vulnerable homeless black man-what might he do?"
By luck or by design (and Huck Finn is enough of a structural hodgepodge that it could be either), Twain found in Huck the perfect boy to shuffl e off the shackles of received wisdom- a kid with a decent heart and an outlaw status that allows him some margin of empathy for Jim's situation that the other characters lack. Especially Tom, whom Saunders calls "that stinker," and who seems to represent Twain's (and America's) worse instincts.
Tom, Saunders suggests, is the half of Twain that "longed for acceptance from the Snooty East and Superior Europe." Huck, of course, is the half of Twain that we like. Saunders writes:
America is, and always has been, undecided about whether it will be the United States of Tom or the United States of Huck. The United States of Tom looks at misery and says: Hey, I didn't do it. I busted my butt to get where I am, so don't come crying to me. Tom likes kings, codifi ed nobility, unquestioned privilege. Huck likes people, fair play, spreading the truck around. Whereas Tom knows, Huck wonders. Whereas Huck hopes, Tom presumes. Whereas Huck cares, Tom denies. These two parts of the American Psyche have been at war since the beginning of the nation... and the hope of the nation and of the world is to embrace the Huck part and send the Tom part back up the river, where it belongs.
But this is not what happens in Huck Finn.
No, this is not what happens in Huck Finn. The end of the novel is a sad, waxy burlesque of the rest of the story. Blame Tom, and Twain's inner Tom.
But this is what happens in Autobiography, in a way. In its pages, we get to enjoy the society of latter-day Mark Twain. Not the mid-struggle Twain of the 1870s and 1880s, but a matured, calmer, and fundamentally funnier Twain who seems more comfortable in his own skull, letting his conversation wander where it will, and never stumbling as severely as he does in his novels-Twain was always best in the asides. (Twain published Huck Finn in 1884 after an eight-year wrestling match with the text. Maybe his relaxedness in Autobiography can be credited to his insistence that it not be published until 100 years after his death. After a century in the ground, what did he have to lose?)
Twain dictated his Autobiography text to secretaries, which might account for its loose, skipping-stone feeling-and, occasionally, its feeling that Old Uncle Mark is rambling a bit. The New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik threw a tantrum over this rambling in an oddly cranky review last month. He describes Autobiography as "a disjointed and largely baffl ing bore" and the prose "slack and antirhythmic," and he insists that "producing a real memoir demanded more concentrated energy than Twain possessed."
Listen to that sneer in "a real memoir." It protests with the same tart superciliousness an uncle of mine used to deploy when arguing that sledding could only be enjoyed by idiots because "it doesn't get you anywhere." (God rest the miserable bastard's soul.) But Gopnik, for all the shrillness of his indignation, isn't entirely wrong: Sometimes you have to haul the sled up the hill and sometimes Old Uncle Mark is a little boring. But the fun more than makes up for the labor.
As a whole, Autobiography doesn't feel like an extraneous addendum to Twain's work so much as the beginning of a fi nal chapter (it's only volume one, after all) that we never got to read.
In his introduction, Twain spurns the classic blueprint of autobiographies, with which he struggled for years: "The plan that starts you at the cradle and drives you straight for the grave, with no side-excursions permitted on the way." Because where's the suspense in that? Instead, he announces a new blueprint: "Start it at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime." It's a lesson more writers could stand to learn-if you're bored while you're writing, you can bet we'll be bored while we're reading.
And Lord knows the man was (mostly) allergic to boredom. While almost any individual would try his own mother's patience- let alone a stranger's-by bitching about his landlord for more than 15 minutes, Twain devotes over a dozen pages to opening a blast furnace on "the Countess," his Americanborn landlady in Italy. It's as cheerful a collection of blistering, withering sentences as you could want:
The Countess is two or three years past forty, and by the generous supply of portraits and photographs of her distributed over the house one perceives that she has once been comely and at intervals pretty... She is excitable, malicious, malignant, vengeful, unforgiving, selfi sh, stingy, avaricious, coarse, vulgar, profane, obscene, a furious blusterer on the outside and at heart a coward. Her lips are as familiar with lies, deceptions, swindles and treacheries as are her nostrils with breath... She told me once that when she bought the estate, the fi rst thing she did was to drive from it every peasant family but one. She did not make this as a confession, the whole tone of it was that of a boast, and nowhere in it was there any accent of pity... The Countess boasted to me that nothing American is still left in her, and that she is wholly Italian now. She plainly regarded this as a humiliation for America, and she as plainly believed she was gracing Italy with a compliment of a high and precious order. America still stands. Italy may survive the benefaction of the Countess's approval. We cannot tell.
And now let's take some passages at random. Twain on a faulty burglar alarm: It "led a gay and careless life, and had no principles." On America's military intervention in the Philippines: It "would not have been a brilliant feat of arms even if Christian America, represented by its salaried soldiers, had shot them down with Bibles and the Golden Rule instead of bullets... 'slaughter' is a good word. Certainly there is not a better one in the Unabridged Dictionary for this occasion." Twain on "Man" in general: "I desire to contemplate him from this point of view- that he was not made for any useful purpose, for the reason that he hasn't served any; that he was most likely not even made intentionally; and that his working himself up out of the oyster bed to his present position was probably a matter of surprise and regret to the Creator... That one thing puts him below the rats, the grubs, the trichinae. He is the only creature that infl icts pain for sport, knowing it to be pain."
I should stop. I have run out of room and out of time. Suffi ce it to say that Autobiography of Mark Twain is not some silly stunt, though it may have been presented as such by the publishers (who survive on Barnum & Bailey stunts), and academics (ditto), and critics (who survive on calling out such stunts). Ignore all of them, especially the academics (whose notes and transcribed primary-source documents jam up the front and the back of the book) and the critics (who have pooh-poohed Autobiography and its author from the New Yorker to the Christian Science Monitor-though perhaps it makes sense, since Twain was never fond of Christian Scientists... or New Yorkers).
Forget them. Twain is not for them. He is for y'all. The Hucks and the Toms of his big two-hearted nation.