by Jon Clinch
Among Mark Twain’s greatest gifts to readers is the variety of relationships that we can have with him and his work. Ask your friends, and you’ll see. Pretty much every one of them will have his very own personal version of America’s Greatest Writer. They’re all different, and they’re not always easy to square with one another.
There’s Mark Twain, Author. Mark Twain, Publisher. Mark Twain, Realist. Mark Twain, Fantasist. Mark Twain, Champion of the Black Man. Mark Twain, User of The N Word. Mark Twain, Children’s Author. Mark Twain, Subverter of Youth. Mark Twain, Sophisticated Rhetorician. Mark Twain, Dialect Comedian. Mark Twain, Revolutionary. Mark Twain, Patriot. Mark Twain, Humorist. Mark Twain, Tragedian. Mark Twain, Aphorist. Mark Twain, Novelist. Mark Twain, Blasphemer. Mark Twain, Holy Man. Mark Twain, Avuncular Yarn-Spinner. And Mark Twain, Most Desolated and Despairing Soul Ever To Put Pen To Paper.
Every single one of them is real, of course, and every single one justified. Because Mark Twain was, above all else, a human being engaged in the struggles of a full human life—and he presented himself on the page with all of the complexity and all of the contradiction that unfiltered humanity brings with it.
Like Whitman, he contained multitudes.
And like many other serious writers, he didn’t find his footing until he was well into adulthood. There were occasional pieces and sketches and journalistic bits that found their way into one newspaper or another, often as not by stealth or luck; and there was the pre-Gonzo nonfiction of The Innocents Abroadand Roughing It; but it wasn’t until he was 41 years old—a Bloomer indeed, with a great deal of living under his belt—that Twain published his first novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Like very few writers since—and unlike any major commercial writer working today, a matter we’ll get to later on—he revealed his various selves to his audience without fear, doubt, or hesitation. He trusted his readers to accompany him on whatever stylistic or improvisatory adventure happened to interest him at the moment. And because of his skill and commitment to the craft, it generally worked.
His tales are perfect models of the form, whether we realize that it’s a form or not. Take “Jim Baker’s Blue-Jay Yarn”; the distance, the irony, the claim to authority despite pure ridiculousness, are there from the beginning:
“Animals talk to each other, of course. There can be no question about that; but I suppose there are very few people who can understand them. I never knew but one man who could. I knew he could, however, because he told me so himself.”
He could adopt the language and inhabit the mind of Huckleberry Finn without for a moment leaving behind his own principles and intellect. As early as that book’s fifth paragraph, for example, Huck describes the widow Douglas’ stance on tobacco—in a way that establishes everything to come on issues much, much larger.
“Pretty soon I wanted to smoke, and asked the widow to let me. But she wouldn’t. She said it was a mean practice and wasn’t clean, and I must try to not do it any more. That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don’t know nothing about it. Here she was a-bothering about Moses, which was no kin to her, and no use to anybody, being gone, you see, yet finding a power of fault with me for doing a thing that had some good in it. And she took snuff, too; of course that was all right, because she done it herself.”
That’s taking control of your materials, folks. Read and be humbled.
He could leap from the naïve voice of Huck to inhabit no less stately a power than an emissary of God Himself, addressing a gathered nation in the clarifying passages of “The War Prayer”:
“O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it—”
And in a private speech before a club of writers and artists in Paris, published later in an edition of fifty copies under the title, Some Thoughts On The Science of Onanism, he could even work blue.
“Homer, in the second book of the Iliad says with fine enthusiasm, ‘Give me masturbation or give me death.’ Caesar, in his Commentaries, says, ‘To the lonely it is company; to the forsaken it is a friend; to the aged and to the impotent it is a benefactor. They that are penniless are yet rich, in that they still have this majestic diversion.’ In another place this experienced observer has said, ‘There are times when I prefer it to sodomy.”’
If this strikes you as an astonishing performance, you’re right. But to understand its full impact, you need to recall that in Twain’s time the roughest of range-riding cowboys spoke more like the delicately indelicate Yosemite Sam than like the jacked-up and hyper-profane cast of “Deadwood.” It takes a lot to shock an audience these days; Hollywood has been reduced to jamming the language of Paulie Walnuts into the mouths of otherwise linguistically fastidious Victorians. Don’t believe it for a second.
Twain would have never tolerated that sort of fakery. He was meticulous about idiomatic English. In the note that opens Huckleberry Finn, he enumerates a handful of the dialects the reader will find within the book’s pages. “I make this explanation,” he writes, “for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.”
As I write this, the number one bestselling book in America is something called Alex Cross, Run, by James Patterson. James Patterson, of course, isn’t even a person, or at least not anymore; James Patterson is something like an assembly line. James Patterson might be a word processing program, for all I know. It might be a macro.
I located a copy of Alex Cross, Run, and read for myself the opening sentence that more Americans have read this week than any other: “It’s not every day that I get a naked girl answering the door I knock on.”
Whatever kind of thing James Patterson might be, it has publicly committed itself to the art of writing without style—which must mean writing in a style that attempts to suggest the absence of style—so as to (A) undetectably spread the creative work among multiple writers/processors and (B) simplify the business of mainlining thrills directly into the reader’s circulatory system. But even a sophisticated machine like James Patterson gets it wrong now and then. Oh, it certainly has the reader-captivating part down, that naked girl and all, but the details tend to get away from it. It writes “the door,” for example, when it means “a door.” It writes “I knock on” when it means “ I’ve knocked on.” It begins with a hackneyed phrase, “It’s not every day,” that serves only to alert the reader as to what kind of parts-bin reading experience we’re in for. But these are small points, when there are larger ones to be made.
Someone ought to feed the James Patterson machine some information about E.B. White’s recommendation of the periodic sentence, where the most important bit of information comes last. Moving the naked girl to the end would not only cure the weirdly arrhythmic downward droop of that sentence as it stands now—and eliminate that listless terminal preposition in the process—it would supply the reader with a fresher memory of the thing (a naked girl) that James Patterson is so certain America will have an interest in.
We can improve the whole business, then, this way: “Not every door I knock on gets opened by a naked girl.” If that sounds more like Raymond Chandler than like James Patterson, so be it. It was Chandler, after all, who wrote, “The most durable thing in writing is style.” And he was correct. (Note how even this brief credo of his ends with a bang.)
Style doesn’t just represent the writer or signal his intentions. Style connects. Style communicates. And any attempt to stamp it out, rather than helping a book inject its content directly into readers’ veins, actually obstructs the act of communication by removing one of the written word’s most humanizing functions.
Which is why, regardless of whether he was acting the clown or the teacher, serving as the poet or the dialectician, writing in the first person or the third, Mark Twain always sounded like Mark Twain. Because real writing serves the soul of both the writer and the reader.
When you search the internet for “Fenimore Cooper,” Google’s second autofill entry leads to “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” Twain’s rip-roaring demolition of The Deerslayer. Judging by the number of people who’ve tracked that piece down and, with any luck, read it, I don’t need to describe it in detail. Permit me this, though: it was far more than an English lesson. It was a shot across the bow of a moribund Romanticism, fired by the leading practitioner of the new thing—Realism—that had come along to replace it. And not only did Twain dare to assail an extraordinarily popular means of making fiction, he dared to use a very particular word in doing so.
That word was Art.
“I may be mistaken,” he concludes, “but it does seem to me that Deerslayer is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art.”
In Twain’s presence, we stand before an individual willing to defend the importance, the possibility, and the enormous cultural weight of literature. In his world the notion that such things would be discussed in public was understood as a given—by an audience that might seem to us, from our sophisticated 21st-century point of view, ill-schooled and hopelessly primitive.
I’ll give you primitive: These days, nobody outside the university talks about literature as art. Nobody looks for an author willing to alter his approach, his method—even his fundamental voice—in order to suit the needs of the material at hand. No major publisher supports such a creature, because his output is unpredictable and his marketability is therefore unstable. Far better to invest in the James Pattersons of the world, with their interchangeable parts and their relentless, inhuman productivity.
It’s basic economics. McDonald’s succeeds not because they’re good at making hamburgers, but because they’re good at making the same lousy hamburger over and over again. This is one sin Mark Twain never committed. He tried, ensconcing himself in the gazebo at Quarry Farm, to grind out a sequel to the successful-but-admittedly-minor Tom Sawyer, and we’ve all seen where that led. The next thing anybody knew, Ernest Hemingway was saying, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”
Given the opportunity and enough advance money, I suppose James Patterson could write the quick and dirty sequel that Twain had in mind—one that takes the basic setup of Tom Sawyer and runs the string out a few more yards for whatever pay might be in it, regardless of whether the result lives, matters, or endures. Patterson might even think to call it Tom Sawyer, Detective—if Twain hadn’t already written a book by that title.
Tom Sawyer, Detective, was minor indeed, no question about it. On the other hand, it was better than you might expect. And why not? It was written in one of the many voices of a true American master. But more than that—or at least in tandem with it—it was the work of a vital and mature human being, following such impulses as his vitality and humanity suggested.
And trusting his readers to follow along.
Jon Clinch is the author of Finn, an American Library Association Notable Book. His most recent books are The Thief Of Auschwitz and Unmediated Ink: Notes From The Self-Publishing Revolution. He’s on the web at http://www.jonclinch.com, and on Twitter via @jonclinch.