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Who Is Mark Twain?by Mark Twain
Synopses & Reviews
"You had better shove this in the stove," Mark Twain said at the top of an 1865 letter to his brother, for I don't want any absurd 'literary remains' and 'unpublished letters of Mark Twain' published after I am planted." He was joking, of course. But when Mark Twain died in 1910, he left behind the largest collection of personal papers created by any nineteenth-century American author.
Here, for the first time in book form, are twenty-four remarkable pieces by the American master — pieces that have been handpicked by Robert Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley. In Jane Austen, Twain wonders if Austen's goal is to make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters. The Privilege of the Grave offers a powerful statement about the freedom of speech while Happy Memories of the Dental Chair will make you appreciate modern dentistry. In Frank Fuller and My First New York Lecture Twain plasters the city with ads to promote his talk at the Cooper Union (he is terrified no one will attend). Later that day, Twain encounters two men gazing at one of his ads. One man says to the other: Who is Mark Twain? The other responds: God knows — I don't.
Wickedly funny and disarmingly relevant, Who Is Mark Twain? shines a new light on one of America's most beloved literary icons — a man who was well ahead of his time.
The Latin phrase "disjecta membra" means "scattered fragments," and, while an accurate assessment of "Who Is Mark Twain?," it does sound rather scholarly and high-flown. But then this book of hitherto unpublished pieces is being brought out under the august aegis of the Mark Twain Project, Bancroft Library, at the University of California at Berkeley. They probably know Latin there. Besides, "disjecta... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) membra," viewed as slightly skewed English, seems almost shockingly indelicate, which might have pleased Twain, who delighted in flouting the genteel tradition. In one essay included here, "The Grand Prix," he actually speaks approvingly of Parisian courtesans. Not that Twain is ever truly licentious. These 24 pieces weren't kept in a drawer because they offended 19th-century morals. No, most of them were failures; they simply don't work. One or two are absolutely terrible; several intended to be funny aren't ("The Music Box"); some are dated and practically incomprehensible ("The Quarrel in the Strong-Box"); and a few never got finished. None is as good as "A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage" (2001), a previously unpublished story edited (as is this volume) by the Mark Twain Project's general editor, Robert Hirst: It culminates in an outlandish attack on the novels of Jules Verne. The most successful piece of fiction in this new volume is "The Undertaker's Tale," a one-joke story about the warm and loving family of a village undertaker, Mr. Cadaver, who nearly goes broke when people stop dying. Happily, the Cadavers are saved from penury by the arrival of the plague. Still, "Who Is Mark Twain?" possesses one inestimable virtue: Its author is never dull. Sometimes Twain reminisces about his early days as a lecturer, or imagines a conversation about anarchism and socialism between two black workers out shoveling snow, or argues for the general odiousness of Jane Austen's characters, or complains about the insane rules governing the postage rates for writers' manuscripts. This last piece begins with a famous joke: "Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself." There's also a tall tale about a dog that can bark messages in Morse code — though it ends as heartlessly as any conte cruel. In "The Missionary in World-Politics" — parts of which seem to have been reused in the long-celebrated "To the Person Sitting in Darkness" — Twain directly attacks Christian evangelism: "Wherever the missionary goes he not only proclaims that his religion is the best one, but that it is a true one while his hearer's religion is a false one; that the pagan's gods are inventions of the imagination; that the things and the names which are sacred to him are not worthy of his reverence; that his fathers are all in hell, and the dead darlings of his nursery also, because the word which saves had not been brought to them; that he must now desert his ancient religion and give allegiance to the new one or he will follow his fathers and his lost darlings to the eternal fires. The missionary must teach these things, for he has his orders; and there is no trick of language, there is no art of words, that can so phrase them that they are not an insult." Twain is a master of all the registers of our language, from colorful black English to the rolling periodic sentences of 19th-century orators and preachers to the snappy commandments of Charles A. Dana, the editor of that era's National Inquirer: "Never let your paper go to press without a sensation. If you have none, make one. ... Vilify everything that is unpopular — harry it, hunt it, abuse it, without rhyme or reason, so that you get a sensation out of it. ... Libel every man that can be ruined by it." At one point a reporter interrupts this devilish homily: "'Mr. D., Gen. W is dead.' "'Ah, that is fortunate. A dangerous man — a very dangerous man. But now we can settle with him. Write an abusive obituary, and traduce the character of his mother.' "'And Mr. Greeley has fallen on the ice and hurt himself seriously.' "'Ah, that is fortunate also. State that he was under the influence of liquor.'" Readers of Mark Twain's late essays and "Great Dark" stories know that he frequently included the devil or his avatars in his fiction (see, especially, "The Mysterious Stranger"). Here he gives us "Conversations With Satan," opening with a vivid portrait of the prince of this world: "Now, with a most strange suddenness came an inky darkness, with a stormy rush of wind, a crash of thunder and a glare of lightning; and the glare vividly revealed the figure of a slender and shapely gentleman in black coming leisurely across the empty square. By his dress he was an Anglican Bishop. ... The next moment he was by my side in the room. He did not embarrass me. Real royalties do not embarrass one; they are sure of their place, sure of its recognition; and so they bear about with them an alpine serenity and reposefulness which quiet the nerves of the spectator. ... Satan would not allow me to take his hat, but put it on the table himself, and begged me not to put myself to any trouble about him, but treat him just as I would an old friend; and added that that was what he was — an old friend of mine, and also one of my most ardent and grateful admirers. It seemed a doubtful compliment; still, it was said in such a winning and gracious way that I could not help feeling gratified and proud. His carriage and manners were enviably fine and courtly, and he was a handsome person, with delicate white hands and an intellectual face and that subtle air of distinction which goes with ancient blood and high lineage, commanding position and habitual intercourse with the choicest society." While "Who Is Mark Twain?" contains — as editor Hirst admits — no masterpieces, it does remind us, however fleetingly, of just how good Twain can be. He was, in the phrase of his friend William Dean Howells, "the Lincoln of our literature" but also a writer to rival Samuel Beckett in gallows humor and philosophical bleakness. At the heart of his work lies that greatest of all American qualities: irreverence. Reviewed by Michael Dirda, whose e-mail address is mdirda(at symbol)gmail.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Who Is Mark Twain? is a refreshing reintroduction to both [Twain's] critical analytical thought and his playful sense of humor." Los Angeles Times
About the Author
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born on November 30, 1835, in the village of Florida, Missouri. He attended the ordinary western common school until he was twelve, the last of his formal schooling. He became a typesetter and began work on his brother's Hannibal newspaper, publishing his first humorous sketch in 1851. During the next fifteen years he was successively a steamboat pilot, a soldier for three weeks, a silver miner, a newspaper reporter, and a bohemian in San Francisco known as "Mark Twain." At no time during these years did he seriously entertain a career in literature. But in 1865, deeply in debt, he acknowledged a talent for "literature, of a low order, i.e., humorous." In the next forty years, he published more than a dozen books and hundreds of shorter works, including his masterpiece in 1885, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
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