Why Mark Twain still matters
On the 100th anniversary of his death, an homage to a writer who is as timely and important as ever
Mark Twain has special relevance for those of us who live at the foot of the Feather River Canyon, in a county formed by argonauts who came here seeking the gold up that river. The years following the Gold Rush drew lots of people to California, and Twain was one of them. The time he spent in San Francisco, in Sacramento, and in the mining camps of the Sierra Nevada allows us to lay a proprietary claim on the man and at least a few ounces of his literary gold.
In one of the hundreds of endlessly quotable observations included in Mark Twain’s legacy, none is more regularly repeated than a note he sent to a newspaper that had published news of his passing. “Reports of my death,” Twain wrote, “have been exaggerated.”
Though as of this month he’s been gone a full century now, reports of his death are still being exaggerated. Twain is very much alive, living on in the ways we Americans manifest our cultural identity, in the things we think and the ways we tend to behave. No writer before or since has sketched our national portrait better than Twain did.
The years leading up to his physical demise were not happy ones for Twain. You can search through a thousand biographies of famous men, and you’ll be hard pressed to find one who loved his daughters and his wife as abundantly as Twain did. But his beloved first daughter, Susy, died 14 years before Twain did, dealing him an emotional blow of unimaginable severity, losing this most favored girl who wrote a book about her famous dad, and who was the repository of so much paternal love and hope.
Eight years after Susy died, Twain lost his wife, Olivia, a woman with whom he’d shared one of the great love stories to be found in the history of American writers. Then, a year before Twain died, his daughter Jean passed away after years spent battling mental illness. For Mark Twain, a man who had invested so much devotion and love in the women who made up his domestic life, the cruelty of those losses must have verged on the unendurable. When he died, there was only one daughter left to bury him, Clara.
But, as his work so often reminds us, the human condition decrees that we laugh to keep from crying. Twain made a nation laugh, often at its own worst follies and excesses, and that consoling laughter made him our first literary celebrity, a man as well known in his time as Tiger Woods is in ours. “The human race has one effective weapon,” Twain wrote, “and that is laughter.”
In the 1880s, there was a handbill and an accompanying poster used to promote the series of humorous lectures Twain presented in a rigorous touring schedule, traveling the nation by train and coach in order to pay back a huge debt he’d run up by investing in a failed typesetting machine, a “word processor” that never could be made to work properly. That gadget cost Twain a fortune, and so he reinvented himself as a stage performer to dig himself out of a hole.
The handbill for those nightly lectures featured an iconic drawing of Twain, along with the slogan: “Known to everyone—liked by all.” I have a replica of that old handbill on my back porch, and I never take note of it without feeling a hint of the affection so many of Twain’s contemporaries had for the man.
Like millions of other Americans, my boyhood was pre-imagined for me by Twain, in characters like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Our adulthoods, too, were Twain-tweaked, with aphorisms for all occasions, and fictional characters who helped us puzzle out the world as we read of them doing the same.
Once, in a dark time, when my marriage was in trouble and my future uncertain, I came upon a Twain quotation embroidered and framed in a second-hand shop. “Worry,” it read, “is interest paid on a debt you may never owe.”
That was Mark Twain, turning up to dispel the mob of worries that was mugging me. I’d never seen that particular quotation before; it materialized, on linen, just when I needed it. But I’ve repeated it like a mantra a thousand times since, and offered it as advice to my daughters or to anyone else who might have been sharing anxieties about things that had not yet come to pass.
I can’t live by it entirely, of course. Twain couldn’t either. No one can. But the truth of that observation is undeniable, and if the truth does not necessarily set us free, it can sometimes lessen the amount of interest we pay in worry, and relieve us of just a bit of that debilitating dread of what may lie ahead.
Twain lived for a time near Sonora, in the central Sierra. There’s a little town up the road from there, Twain Harte, that yokes his name with Bret Harte’s, two writers who chronicled life in the mining camps that dotted the mountain ravines when they were both young men. And, of course, Twain’s breakthrough short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” remains a classic frontier yarn (as its frog-jumping contest remains a venerable mid-May tradition).
That piece also encapsulates a favorite Twain target, and an enduring figure of Americana—the huckster and the scam artist who concocts endless schemes to separate rubes from their money. Twain left us several more unforgettable portraits of such con men, most notably the two known as “the duke” and “the dauphin,” who turn up in Huckleberry Finn.
Those were fictional characters, of course, but in Twain’s times, as in ours, such real-life figures were easy to find. The American story is replete with them. There were those crooks known to history as the Tweed Ring, who pillaged and plundered when Twain was still alive. A little more than a dozen years after Twain bit the dust, there were those corrupt politicians who conspired with con men to create the Teapot Dome scam. And, in our own time, we’ll be lucky if we can survive the pillaging conducted by the charlatans and boardroom grifters at AIG and other financial institutions, those direct descendants of the shysters who once plied their con games up and down the Mississippi when Twain was a boy, those archetypes of sleaziness he re-created so unforgettably in his fiction. Read Twain when you’re a kid, and when real life produces a Charles Ponzi, a Ken Lay, a Jack Abramoff, or a Bernie Madoff, you might be appalled, but you won’t be surprised.
I had my own brief career as a grifter back when I was in the fifth grade, running a little playground hustle at recess. It was a con taught to me by my grandfather, who was reading Mark Twain before Mr. Clemens took leave of us. Readers will take from literature what they will, and part of what my grandfather took from Mark Twain was the notion that fortune favors cleverness, and that for poor boys a little guile ain’t a bad survival tool.
When he was a boy, my granddad had read about Tom Sawyer’s skillful hustle in which he got his friends to whitewash a fence for him, convincing them that the chore he dreaded was, in fact, a great privilege. Inspired by that tale, my grandfather had worked out a little scheme of his own, one that garnered him a local monopoly on marbles when he was a kid in his home town of Columbus, Georgia.
In the time-honored way one generation passes its knowledge to the next, my grandfather wanted me to know the boyish success and prestige he had known, wanted to teach me The Great Cigar Box Marble Con that would, if properly executed, allow him to relive, through me, the glory days of his boyhood.
“Take you a cigar box,” Grandpa told me in his thick Georgia accent, “and cut you a little hole in it, big enough for a marble to fit through, but not much bigger, hear?
“Put 10 or 12 good marbles in that cigar box, then challenge the other boys to try to drop a marble through that hole.”
At the time my mom’s dad was schooling me in this little con, marbles were like wampum in my tribe of boys. We hoarded them like jewels, and they served as markers of our relative worth among our peers. We competed for each other’s marbles almost constantly in games that took a great deal of skill. And lots of us were capable of hitting a marble on the ground by dropping another one on it from the height of our belts.
But that hole in the cigar box proved a lot harder to hit.
“See, boy,” Grandpa said, “you tell the other boys that if they can drop a marble through that hole, they will win all them marbles in that cigar box. But if they miss, they lose the marble they dropped.”
At the time this conversation was taking place, nearly all the boys I knew were marble wizards. Me, too. So, though I respected my grandfather’s experience, I thought he was maybe a little out of the loop when it came to understanding just how good my age group was with those little glass spheroids. This was a scheme that could, quite literally, result in me losing my marbles. Losing marbles one at a time was bad enough, but a 12-to-1 payout seemed pretty risky.
So, I expressed my doubts about his idea.
“Looka here, boy,” he said, and he produced a cigar box from the garage, cut a hole in the top of it, and defied me to drop a marble through that hole from where I buckled my belt.
To this day, I have no idea what makes that so hard to do, but I can attest that it’s damn near impossible and, by Friday of the following week, I had gained possession of nearly every loose marble my peer group owned, running my cigar box enterprise during recess and after school on the playground, with all my schoolmates becoming eager suckers, all of them convinced, until they had lost their marbles, that they could beat the hustle.
How sweet it was. For one glorious week, I was the marble king of Union Elementary. After school each day, I would dump out the take on my chenille bedspread and run my fingers through all those marbles—the perries, the cat’s eyes, the ghosts, the shooters, and the steelies. I was like Scrooge McDuck, like a pirate with his booty, or a bandit with his loot. It was avidity and greed awakening in a once-innocent heart.
And I loved it, right up until the moment I got hauled out of class and into the principal’s office. Someone had ratted me out. Though I wasn’t doing anything other than playing a variant on the entirely legal game of marbles, I had transgressed, had run afoul of government regulations, my cigar box confiscated, along with all the marbles I’d won that day, held until the school year ended and I could no longer run my scam on the unsuspecting playground patsies who had been my marks.
My parents were informed, of course, and there was hell to pay from my mother, who, outrageously, didn’t believe that the scheme had originated with her very own father, especially after he denied instructing me in the con.
Mark Twain could have written that story, though surely much better. In fact, he did write it, or variations on that theme, long before I was born. Tom and Huck were always in trouble with the adults, always running afoul of the rules.
Those two eternal boys of American lit were created by the man who wrote: “Always obey your parents, when they are present. This is the best policy in the long run, because if you don’t, they will make you. Most parents think they know better than you do, and you can generally make more by humoring that superstition than you can by acting on your own better judgment.”
Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were created by a man who keenly remembered what it was to be a boy. In the insufferable jargon of modern psychology, Twain kept his “inner child” alive for most of his days. His wife called him “Youth” long after his youth had fled, and for that reason boys who read his work today can still find themselves in it.
My time as a grade-school grifter was brief, but Twain would have recognized me as one of his own, though I was born more than three decades after he died.
There are a whole lot of grown-up hustlers Twain would find familiar these days, too, all of them preying on the enduring strain of American innocence and gullibility that make it possible for sleazy characters, both fictional and real, to persist, prosper, and prevail from one generation to the next, from Elmer Gantry to Gordon Gecko in the world of fiction down through the never-ending parade of real-world crooks and thieves who continue to rip us off.
There has always been a dependable strain of ignorant rubes born to each generation of Americans, millions of marks who live up to the words attributed to P.T. Barnum, that great American showman and contemporary of Twain’s, who may or may not have said “there’s a sucker born every minute.”
We live in the aftermath of a huge financial shakedown, when banks too big to fail engaged in a boardroom variation of three-card monte, with bundled loans and fancy language invented to disguise what they were doing. Then, when those big banks were given free government money intended to resuscitate the economy they’d nearly killed, they mostly decided not to use that money to make the loans that were intended as a transfusion to the ailing patient.
Of men like these, Twain wrote: “A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain.”
Though we now have Bill Maher and Jon Stewart, we could still use a man like Mark Twain. Humor was the weapon Twain wielded against ignorance and pomposity, and we’ve got as much puffed-up stupidity these days as we’ve ever had.
In the debate over health-insurance reform, for instance, the nation has just endured more than a year of congressional and talk-show bickering reminiscent of Twain’s con artists. We listened to lots of oratory and read lots of opinionizing that made Twain seem prescient when he wrote: “Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
And Twain must have seen guys like Karl Rove headed our way when he wrote: “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.”
Though a strong case can be made that Mark Twain is the greatest writer this nation has produced, very few English departments from sea to shining sea offer courses specifically devoted to Twain’s oeuvre. Chico State, for instance, has no such offering. “We don’t have a special course for Twain,” Dr. Aiping Zhang, who chairs the English Department at Chico State University, tells me in an e-mail, “but he is certainly frequently covered in various American literature courses.”
As to Twain’s place at the top of the canon of our national literature, Dr. Zhang writes: “Twain has been given that title quite often, just like many other American writers over the centuries. He certainly has Hemingway’s vote, because the latter claimed that ‘all American literature came from one single book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written by Mark Twain.’ Today, though, different readers will present different choices.”
Three literary giants, none of them American, do get their own courses at Chico State. Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare form the triumvirate that tradition has deemed worthy of extended study.
The last lineal descendant of Mark Twain died in 1966. Her name was Nina, and she was born the year Twain died. Not much is known of her life, except that she was an alcoholic, and she died relatively young, in Los Angeles, most probably due to that addiction to booze.
I was a college student when she died, reading her grandfather’s work with something more than academic interest. In fact, Twain has never been among the most frequently taught American writers precisely because the accessibility of his work renders unnecessary the parsing and symbol-hunting so dear to the hearts of the lit-crit industry. There’s only so much interpretive hair-splitting and bologna-slicing that can be done with Twain’s work, so he’s left to establish his relationship with each new generation of readers without the accompaniment of professorial palaver or grad-school deconstruction.
There was yet another recent reminder of why Twain matters, one that goes to the very heart of his legacy. In the last bitter stages of the fight over health-care reform, the Tea Party followers of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh—the duke and dauphin of demagoguery—gathered in Washington to shout racial epithets at people like Congressman John Lewis, a hero of the civil-rights movement.
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is faced with a keen existential choice that shines moral authority on our nation’s long and troubled history of race relations. All the mores of his upbringing tell Huck that it is his duty to inform on his friend, Jim, a runaway slave. Huck begins to write the letter that will send Jim back to bondage downriver. Readers watch the boy wrestle with the morality of this decision before he decides to go against all he has been taught. In Huck’s world, it’s a sin to shield a runaway slave, but Huck tears up the letter, and concludes, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”
It is a seminal moment in American literature, and it’s a decision at the precise center of the American experience.
In a recent interview with The Sacramento Bee, Hal Holbrook, the actor who has devoted a good deal of his career to reincarnating Mark Twain onstage, had this to say about Huck’s choice. “The great genius of the piece is that Mark Twain has this uneducated, reasonably ignorant young man tell this story, and in the course of it we recognize he has humanity, a humanity he didn’t know he had. The other thing is, the people down there, the people along the river—they’re not villains, they’re just like you and me—they don’t know they’re racist. Just like everybody. We don’t know we’re racist. That’s the joke if you can call it that—the sardonic joke.”
As to Twain’s enduring relevance, Holbrook added: “I’ve been working with this man for 56 years now, and I am constantly amazed at what he has given us in the way of thoughtful opinions. If I didn’t have Mark Twain to go out onstage and speak through him and his voice about this terrible foolishness and destructive thinking that’s going on, I don’t know what I would do.”
Mark Twain was born in 1835, a year in which Halley’s Comet was making its periodic pilgrimage to our planetary proximity; Twain died on April 21, 1910, a year when the comet swung back this way. We’ll next be visited by that celestial rock in 2061. If the American spirit survives until then, it will be, in part, because of the glow Mark Twain left in the wake of his passing.
We could use a man like Mark Twain, maybe now more than ever. Fortunately, we still have him.