Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Who is Mark Twain?

Today is the 99th anniversary of Mark Twain's death, and news of the late Mr. Clemens' departure is still being greatly exaggerated, as evidenced by a new collection of unpublished material released today by Harper Studio. Not that he would have cared. As he observes in these very pages, "I have long ago lost my belief in immortality - also my interest in it."

Perhaps no writer, save Ernest Hemingway, left behind the trove of unpublished and unfinished manuscripts that Mark Twain did when he rode out on the tail of Halley's Comet in 1910. Several biographers, including Justin Kaplan, have explained how, in the years after the deaths of his wife and daughters, Twain would turn out veritable bales of manuscript, asking questions on the nature of fate and faith that seemingly had no answers. In these pages, we can see by turns a man who seems bitter, boyish, cynical, hopeful, cantankerous, mysterious, probing, sentimental and funny, forever funny.

The pieces in this new collection span his literary career, and show most of Twain's gifts as both a writer and entertainer. One of the many, many endlessly fascinating aspects of Mark Twain, the literary creation of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, is his ability to hold us spellbound with his own character as well as the characters that sprang from his imagination. He was a performer, a highly unlikely profession for a writer, as well as the most introspective of men. He draws both skeptics to his work, because of his knee-slapping rationalism, and believers, because of the moral tone of his work and the rhythms of his language, steeped as they are in 19th century American Protestantism. As the editor Robert Hirst observes, he is "always capable of surprising us into smiling at some shameful trait of the damned human race."

One of these pieces is an unfinished dialogue, "Conversations with Satan," which casts the devil as an aristocrat clothed as an Anglican bishop. The narrator encounters him in Vienna, and identifies Satan as "one of my most ardent and grateful admirers." They then begin a rambling discussion of stoves and tobacco before Twain abandons the idea. In fact, Satan, after appearing, begins to disappear into a monologue of very Twainian character.

Satan is often mentioned in Mark Twain's work, from early in his lecture career to the posthumously published "The Mysterious Stranger" and "Letters From the Earth." One recalls his stage joke, of Satan saying to a newcomer in Hell: "You Chicago people act as though you own the place, whereas you are merely the most numerous." At times, he protrays Satan as deceptive, while at others, he is a wronged, slandered figure forever in the shadow of the Almighty, seemingly over some undisclosed family spat. Like Mikhail Bugakov, Twain's Satan (in this story) is a man of impeccable manners and civilization, courteous and solicitous, eager to please. He comes in the guise of a clergyman, and he is well-travelled. Yet he assures our narrator he hasn't been to America as he is "not needed there."

The dialogue on tobacco seems a ruse, since Twain begins a discussion of how ignorant some smokers are in telling the difference between good and bad cigars. When one travels the earth, one tends to adopt the native cigar as though it were the best in the world, no matter the quality, he says. But it becomes evident after awhile that, in this case at least, sometimes a cigar is more than a cigar:

"I am well satisfied that all notions, of whatever sort, concerning cigars, are superstitions - superstitions and stupidities, and nothing else. It distresses me to hear an otherwise sane man talk of 'good' cigars, and pretend to know what a good cigar is - as if by any chance his standard could be a standard for anybody else."

Is Twain talking about moral judgments, religions, personal tastes, or just tobacco? We might never know, since the few odd pages here represent only a beginning. The title implies a series of conversations, not a monologue. We presume that even Satan would be able to get a word in edgewise when combating with Twain's garrulous frontier voice.

But like Kipling, I stand in awe of the great, godlike Twain, since reading one piece in this book, the notes for an ungiven New York lecture, provided me with one of the hardest laughing fits I've had in years. That a man, almost a century in the grave could provide that, provides us a very vivid answer to the question of who Mark Twain was, and is.

1 comment:

  1. For anyone interested, there is a writing contest to see who is the next Mark Twain: http://twainia.com/

    You can read 'Conversations with Satan' in its unfinished entirety and submit your own ending!