Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Mark Twain - Blogger

Mark Twain may have been dead for a century, but news of his continued life is no exaggeration.

With the recent publication of his autobiography, Twain became a best-selling author in the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And he is proving once again how little technology and mass communication have changed - or improved - the makeup of guilty man.

For many years, Twain wanted to write his own life story, but found the usual style of autobiography a straitjacket of dates, times, places and memories, to be put into some chronological order. For a self-invented man, this kind of artificial order for the sake of palatable narrative was not to his liking. It didn't feel true, he wrote. And so, he began dictating a series of daily talks, with observations on the day’s news, sprinkled with memories and seasoned with his own singular humor.

Basically, he was blogging.

On January 10, 1906, Mark Twain sat down to dictate that day’s entry. In the news was a little item he referred to as ‘the Morris incident,’ and Twain wondered what the verdict of history would be on it in fifty years time. “The Morris incident comes up and blots the whole thing out. The Morris incident is making a flurry in Congress, and for several days now it has been rioting through the imagination of the American nation and setting every tongue afire with excited talk.” He then goes on to state, rightly, that by the time people read his autobiography, they will have no idea what he is referring to.

He is correct, of course. The reader can be excused for not remembering the plight of Mrs. Minor Morris, who came to the White House on January 4, 1906, to ask President Theodore Roosevelt to have her husband reinstated to his post at the Army Medical Bureau. Unable to see the president and unwilling to leave, she was dragged out by police screaming and arrested for disorderly conduct, then temporarily charged as insane. She was later released and told her indignant story to reporters from her sick bed, resulting in six months of charges, countercharges, investigations and the sort of general public spectacle that Washington, even then, was good at manufacturing.

Twain’s reason for inserting this into his autobiography was not because he felt it was important - but rather that it was the stuff of life. The stuff that consumes most of our time and attention, Twain is saying, may not be as important in scope as the events we believe invest our lives with meaning, but they have some importance because they illustrate the quotidian nature of existence.

The item is also instructive because of how familiar it is to our news junkie sensibilities 100 years later. One common complaint among bloggers is that daily news topics sometimes act as a convenient ideological bait and switch for “the real issue.” The idea is that some group, invested in keeping “the real truth” from the public, either invents a cause celebre or serves up a steady drumbeat of stories about some inane topic and the American people conveniently seize on that topic instead of paying attention to this or that issue which begs for change. Everything from short attention spans to lack of education to the lure of “infotainment” is offered up as an explanation. If only the public weren’t so gullible, we are told, then they would see these banalities for what they are, and we would finally have genuine change.

For example, a quick Google search of the words “media smokescreen” calls up accusations that the story of the “Ground Zero Mosque” was a right wing plot to divert attention from President Obama’s bringing the last combat troops out of Iraq. Another site complained that last year’s stories about the private peccadilloes of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford were the liberal media’s attempt to divert the nation from recognizing Obama’s policy failures and inability to restart the economy.

I’m sure readers can immediately call to mind at least a dozen news stories from the past decade that received disproportionate coverage from their relative importance. It took the cataclysm of 9/11 to wipe the Gary Condit-Chandra Levy case from the 24-hour news cycle. Anna Nicole Smith’s death, Michael Jackson’s death and other celebrity funerals have had the same effect. The disappearance of Natalee Holloway, during the summer of 2005, was also labeled a distraction drummed up to divert attention from the mounting dead in Iraq, even as ratings mounted for chat shows that did nothing but dissect such diversions.

Critics complain of ideological bias as driving news judgments, while others point to shadowy corporate interests intent on controlling the news and thereby controlling political thought and discourse, as well as dissent.

But Twain’s observations come in 1906 - before radio, television, the Internet and ideological blogs. In fact, the 24-hour news cycle did not exist in any recognizable form. News was strictly disseminated by word of mouth and by newspaper. Whatever the news topic of the day, it may not have arrived at any given spot for days, or even weeks.

Looking at the Morris incident a century on, we see that perhaps the public’s appetite for news hasn’t changed as much as we might like to believe. It also reveals another truth - people tend to digest these stories, and hunger for similar news, because of the stories’ larger narrative significances.

Twain points out what the Morris affair says about Theodore Roosevelt and his character. “Certainly a biography’s chiefest feature is the exhibition of the character of the man whose biography is being set forth,” he observes, with his point being that Roosevelt was a man of extreme enthusiasms, passion and an occasional inattention to courtesy, which he naturally transferred to his secretary, who dealt with Mrs. Morris. The reason for the Morris incident’s hold on the public’s imagination in 1906 was what it said about the first Roosevelt White House and the occupant at that time.

The death of Anna Nicole Smith, for example, was yet another all-too-familiar example of how little happiness money can buy, or how outer beauty does not guarantee inner peace. Mark Sanford’s multiple denials of infidelity, and then his daily reactions to the uncontestable proof, appeal not just to a gossipy public but act as confirmation of our worst fears about politicians - that they are, in fact, human beings. By seeing his failures, we see ourselves, or we see what we hope we might never become. It isn’t a shadowy conspiracy diverting us as much as our own curiosity and temptations not to fill time with what is important, but with what is, on some level, a little more exciting, or petty or fun.

Twain’s voice sounds amused and astonished: “You set the incident down which for the moment is to you the most interesting. If you leave it alone three or four weeks you wonder why you ever thought of setting such a thing down - it has no value, no importance…But that is what human life consists of - little incidents and big incidents, and they are all of the same size if we let them alone. An autobiography that leaves out the little things and enumerates only the big ones is no proper picture of the man’s life at all; his life consists of his feelings and his interests, with here and there an incident apparently big or little to hang the feelings on.”

Reading Twain, one is reminded that much of life is forgotten, and forgettable, but almost never dull.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

1 comment:

  1. Really well written, and extremely insightful.

    Mark Twain is a personal idol, and his words resonate true in many situations to this day. I reckon it's because of his balanced world view. As for disproportionate media coverage, the list seems endless, doesn't it?