Sunday, May 2, 2010

Mark Twain

Last month brought with it, on April 21, the centenary of the death of Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain. If he were here to comment, I suspect he would make an amusingly irascible remark—something about the questionable implications of celebrating the anniversary of his death rather than his life, or about the irrational fondness we all have for big round numbers—on anniversary dates and on banknotes.

Certainly our twenty-first-century society could benefit from his presence: he would be kept busy with an abundant supply of public crooks, hypocrites, and con artists ripe for his skewering pen. But though the satirical humor and the more acerbic and superficially clever aspects of his work lend themselves to easy recall, and to the creation of a delightful caricature of “Mark Twain” the literary brand, he was far more than that: a literary artist of great depth and feeling. Revisit the scene in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which Huck, convinced that to save his own soul from damnation he must betray his friend (the escaped slave Jim), writes a note revealing Jim’s whereabouts. Then, after setting the note aside, Huck thinks about his unsuspecting friend:
… But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and suchlike times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.
Among the many things one can say about this famous, pivotal passage is this: its author clearly knew what love is.

The current issue of Smithsonian Magazine has an excellent article by Ron Powers entitled “Mark Twain in Love” that provides another window into the author’s heart. Among its many pleasures, the piece quotes Mark Twain’s description of his feelings upon encountering a beloved girl in a dream:
The affection which I felt for her and which she manifestly felt for me was a quite simple fact; but … It was not the affection of brother and sister—it was closer than that … and it was not the love of sweethearts, for there was no fire in it. It was somewhere between the two, and was finer than either, and more exquisite, more profoundly contenting.
The expansiveness and idealism of this understanding of love, and of love’s tendency to evade or transcend categories, seems to me closely related to the love of Huck and Jim—and central to the glory of Mark Twain.

Images: Lilli Carré, jacket art for Penguin Classics edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 2009.