Twain still matters
On the 100th anniversary of his death, Sacramento still holds a proprietary claim on the famous writer
“Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
Mark Twain has special relevance for those of us who live in and around Sacramento. The man who is, arguably, the most American of all writers once plied his craft near the banks of the American River, writing for the long-defunct Sacramento Union, chronicling some of the more raucous days of California history. The time he spent here allows us a proprietary claim on the man and at least a few ounces of his literary gold.
None of Twain’s bons mots are 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.”
This month marks the 100th anniversary of his passing, but reports of his death are still being exaggerated. Twain is very much alive, living on in the ways we Americans manifest our cultural identity. No writer before or since has sketched our national portrait better than Twain did.
Twain made a nation laugh, often at its own worst follies, 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 only one really effective weapon,” Twain wrote, “and that is laughter.”
Twain’s breakthrough short story—“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”—remains a classic frontier yarn. That piece also encapsulates a favorite Twain target—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. Read Twain when you’re a kid, and when real life produces a Charles Ponzi, a Ken Lay 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 even 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 worked out a little scheme of his own, one that garnered him a local monopoly on marbles when he was a kid in his hometown of Columbus, Georgia. In the time-honored way one generation passes its knowledge to the next, my grandfather 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. 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 12-1 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 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, 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 and, 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, and there was hell to pay from my mother who, outrageously, didn’t believe 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.
At the heart of Twain’s legacy is his seminal contribution to our long national dialogue on the issue of race. That dialogue continues. 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 demagogy—gathered in Washington, D.C., to shout racial epithets at people like U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a hero of the civil-rights movement.
In Twain’s greatest novel, 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.
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.
Now more than ever, we could use a man like Mark Twain. Fortunately, we still have him.