Friday, November 30, 2012

Mark Twain—Greatest American Writer Period. End of Argument

Note:  This first appeared in this blog in a slightly different form on November 30, 2010 and again last year.  Just can’t get enough of Mark Twain…

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born on November 30, 1835 in the insignificant village of Florida, Missouri shortly after the memorable appearance of Haley’s Comet.  His family soon moved to the very significant and bustling river port of Hannibal where he grew to be a lad of a more than standard issue impulse to mischief and a disdain for authority.  He vastly preferred idling along the river front to school work, but was quick and clever with words.  After his father died, his family sent him to apprentice at the age of 15 to the Hannibal Journal, a newspaper owned by his older brother Orion. He graduated from printer’s devil to typesetter and occasionally contributed unaccredited comic sketches to the paper. 

By the time he was 18 he itched to get out from under his family’s thumb and headed east where he easily found work as a type setter in New York City, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and St. Louis.  In his spare time he haunted libraries and educated himself.  Returning home in 1857 he fell in with legendary Mississippi River Pilot Horace Bixby on a trip to New Orleans and studied with him for two years until he earned his pilot’s license. For almost two years he plied the river earning a princely salary of more than $250 a month and the prestige of the most important job on the river.  

When the Civil War closed the river, the young man briefly joined his Hannibal friends in a company of Confederate Volunteers.  Without hearing a shot fired Clemens quickly determined that the boring drudgery of a soldier’s life was not for him.  When his brother Orion secured appointment as secretary to the Republican governor of Nevada territory, the two set out on an adventurous trip by stage coach to the west. 

Clemens tried his hand as a gold miner in Virginia City, but soon decided it was too much work.  He went back to newspaper work for the Territorial Enterprise.  His tendency toward scathing satire often got him in trouble and he often wrote under various pseudonyms, including one incorporating a term from depth sounding on the Mississippi, Mark Twain.  That one stuck.  But he soon had too many enemies with horsewhips and—worse—pistols and decamped for San Francisco in 1864.

In the City by the Bay, Clemens returned to reporting.  He also fell in with a lively literary crowd that included local color writers like Bret Harte and Artemus Ward as well a young poet, Ina Coolbrith.  Under their influence he submitted some of his sketches to Eastern publications.  When The Saturday Press in New York published his mining camp story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County in 1865 he found himself a national celebrity and much in demand.

In 1866 he took an assignment from the Sacramento Bee to visit the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii).  His accounts of that trip and his first ventures on the lecture stage recounting them, made him in demand as a travel writer.  In 1867 the San Francisco Alta California sponsored Twain, as he was now professionally known, on the Quaker City steamship tour of Europe, the Mediterranean and the Holy Land

That was a hell of a lot of living for a young man still in his early 30’s.  And Mark Twain used it all, every bit of it, beginning with Innocents Abroad; or, The New Pilgrim's Progress, his account of his European adventures, published in 1869.  It sold an astonishing 70,000 copies in the first year alone.  He followed it up in 1872 with Roughing It, yarns from his journey west, gold mining adventures, and Nevada newspaper days.

Between those two books Clemens met and fell in love with Olivia Langdon, the beautiful sister of a friend.  The Langdons of Elmira, New York were wealthy and socially well connected to a world of the Eastern liberal elite.  Despite their mutual adoration, Olivia spent much of her time trying to tame Clemens’s blaspheming tongue, cure him of his fondness for cigars, and make a decent Christian out of the admitted heretic.  

The couple spent a couple of years in Buffalo, New York where he edited and had an ownership stake in the Buffalo Express. After their first child and only son Langdon died of diphtheria at 19 months, Clemens sold his interest in the paper and with the earnings of his first two books built a handsome mansion for Olivia in Hartford, Connecticut.

The seventeen years spent in the Hartford house were the happiest and most productive of Clemens’s life.  His three daughters, Suzie, Clara, and Jean were all born there and doted on by their father.  His circle of friends widened and deepened from next door neighbor Julia Ward Howe to the editor and Christian socialist William Dean Howells.  He entertained and admired Fredrick Douglas and casually welcomed the increasing parade of fans, famous and ordinary, who made the pilgrimage to meet him.  Exposure to new ideas broadened him—and drove him further to the left politically with each passing year as he also became ever more disenchanted with smug Christianity.   He embraced full social equality for Blacks and other minorities, heartily endorsed women’s suffrage—and made one of the most widely circulated addresses by a man on the subject—and endorsed labor unions, gladly accepting an invitation to speak to the Knights of Labor.

The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today published was in 1872 shortly after settling into the new house.  It was Twain’s first foray into the novel and was written in collaboration with his neighbor Charles Dudley Warner. A satire on speculation and political corruption, the book was moderately successful and spawned a long running theatrical version featuring the blowhard promoter Colonel Beriah Sellers.  The book gave Twain the courage to try his hand at more novels.  

He turned to his own Hannibal childhood for the inspiration of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, followed by his masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn eight years later.  By that time Twain had matured as an artist and in addition to good fun and a rousing adventure yarn, Huck Finn, partly inspired by The Odyssey, included sharp barbs at slavery, social snobbery, mob mentality, and literary romanticism.

Among the books completed in Hartford were the novels which explored class, caste, and power—The Prince and the Pauper (1881) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889.) The later was one of the first works of fiction to employ the notion of time travel and deserves to be considered a forerunner of modern speculative fiction. There was also more non-fiction—A Tramp Abroad based on a second trip to Europe in made in 1878 and published in 1880 and Life on the Mississippi, his 1883 look back at his time as a Mississippi River boat pilot.  There were also numerous newspaper articles and sketches as well as speeches and lectures.

Clemens was also trying his hand at business.  He started a publishing house with his nephew by marriage, Charles L. Webster & Company.  The publishing company got off to a good start when it issued the memoirs of Clemens’s friend, former President Ulysses S Grant.  Grant was dying of cancer of the jaw and out of kindness, Clemens paid him a huge advance to secure his family’s financial future.  Luckily it turned out that Grant was an exceptionally fine writer for a general and he book was a huge success.  Later projects, however, fared less well.  A biography of Pope Leo XIII sold fewer than two hundred copies ruining the company.

Clemens was also an enthusiast for new inventions and his investments in them led to disaster.  The worst was the Paige Typesetter, a promising new invention to speed up the tedious and expensive work of setting type by hand, as Clemens himself had so often done as a young man.  The invention worked tantalizingly well but was complicated and too prone to mechanical failure to be practical.  Clemens sank nearly $300,000 (equal to more than $7.5 million today) of his own money and Olivia’s inheritance on it between 1880 and 1894.  Then, just as it was about to be perfected the Linotype rendered it obsolete.

As his debts piled up, Twain wrote furiously.  He undertook any newspaper or magazine work offered and dashed of hasty, not fully conceived novels like Tom Sawyer, Detective and Puddin’ Head Wilson to try to bring in revenue.  He turned more and more to the lecture platform where he was in great demand.  His performances, mixtures of readings from his works and seemingly off-the-cuff observations were masterful monologues and would be the envy of any stand-up comic today.

None of it was enough.  Clemens’s close friend, a Standard Oil executive named Henry Huttleston Rogers stepped in and took over his finances.  He transferred all of his copyrights to Olivia to protect income from them from creditors then declared bankruptcy.  Roger personally managed the household finances with a thrifty eye on the bottom line while Clemens undertook a world girdling speaking tour to repay all of his creditors, even though the bankruptcy absolved him of his obligations to them.  The tour stretched from 1894 to 1900, but Clemens returned home with enough money to pay every one off and start again clean.

A series of personal tragedies stalked Clemens in the last years of the 19th and early years of the 20th Centuries.   The death of his beloved daughter Suzie of meningitis in 1896 was a huge blow from which he never fully recovered.  He battled increasing depression when Olivia passed in 1904.  In 1909 both his close friend Henry Rogers and daughter Jean died within months.  Only Clara remained.

The succession of deaths caused Clemens to re-examine religion.  He was already deeply skeptical, although for Olivia’s sake he had often tried to open his mind to Christianity.  Twain’s serious 1896 novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by the Sieur Louis de Conte explored a topic that had fascinated him for more than 40 years.  He based the 17 year old Joan on his own Suzie and examined her more as a revolutionary heroine than a mystical figure. He considered it his best work, but the public disagreed.  

After Suzie’s death he became increasingly bitter at the notion of a God that would allow such pain and suffering in the world.  Twain last novella The Mysterious Stranger told of the visits of Satan to earth over various periods in history.  He wrote three versions over several years, but declined to publish any of them out of respect to Olivia and Clara.  A version miss mashed from all three manuscripts was published in 1924.  Now considered a classic, it was every bit as controversial as his family had feared.

Another, even more bitter, look at Christianity, Letters to the Earth was considered so shocking that it was withheld from publication for fifty years after Twain’s death.  Other manuscripts, including the complete versions of his Autobiography were held up for 100 years.  A version of the Autobiography, which Twain dictated from his bed, was published in serialized form as Chapters of My Autobiography in the North American Review in 1906 and ’07.  It was published as a book in 1927.  But the massive transcriptions contained much more material, which Twain knew to be scandalous.

In 2010 the first of three volumes of the complete Autobiography was published and became an instant best seller, making Mark Twain the first writer to have original material published and attain that status in three different centuries.  As Twain predicted, it contains “shocking” material with more promised in the remaining two volumes to be released over the next two years.  Here is a sample: 

There is one notable thing about our Christianity: bad, bloody, merciless, money-grabbing, and predatory. The invention of hell measured by our Christianity of today, bad as it is, hypocritical as it is, empty and hollow as it is, neither the deity nor his son is a Christian, nor qualified for that moderately high place. Ours is a terrible religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilled.

If his views on religion had soured, his political views had become extremely radical.  The Spanish American War and the brutal suppression of the Philippine Rebellion were the last straws.  Twain declared himself an anti-colonialist.  He co-founded the American Anti-Imperialist League in 1901 and spent the last ten years of his life crusading for justice for the “colored races of the world.”  He penned pamphlets, lectured until his health gave out and was equally as scathing to European as American imperialism.  He grew to hate war.  In 1905 he submitted his caustic War Prayer to Harpers Magazine, normally eager to publish anything by the great writer, but they rejected it as unsuitable for their female readership.  Because of contractual obligations, Twain was barred from publishing it elsewhere.  It did not see the light of day until 1923.  It has since inspired anti-war protesters from the Vietnam War to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Clemens’s views were becoming revolutionary.  He commented on his evolving views when he told an interviewer, “When I finished Carlyle’s French Revolution in 1871, I was a Girondin; every time I have read it since, I have read it differently–being  influenced and changed, little by little, by life and environment ... and now I lay the book down once more, and recognize that I am a Sansculotte! – And not a pale, characterless Sansculotte, but a Marat!”

Despite his hatred of war and violence, he endorsed the abortive 1905 Russian revolution.  “I am said to be a revolutionist in my sympathies, by birth, by breeding and by principle. I am always on the side of the revolutionists, because there never was a revolution unless there were some oppressive and intolerable conditions against which to revolt.”

He passed many of these ideas on to one of his last protégés, the deaf/blind student Helen Keller with whom he spent many hours of conversation through her interpreter Anne Sullivan, after first meeting her in 1896.  He encouraged his friend Rodgers to pay her tuition at Radcliffe.  Keller owed her awakening to social justice and socialism to Clemens and Anne Sullivan earned the title Miracle Worker from him.

Sam Clemens and Mark Twain—the two personalities now so intertwined that it  was impossible to tell them apart—died as he predicted the day after Haley’s Comet reached the nearest point to Earth on its return in 1910.  He suffered a heart attack on April 21 at Redding, Connecticut.

And Twain’s legacy?  Just this: the best damn American writer ever.  Period.  No argument allowed.

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