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Book Review: Michael Dirda on 'Who Is Mark Twain?'

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, April 30, 2009

WHO IS MARK TWAIN?

By Mark Twain

This Story

HarperStudio. 208 pp. $19.99

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 But then this book of hitherto unpublished pieces is being brought out under the august aegis of the Mark Twain Project, Bancroft Library, at the University of California at Berkeley.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 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 None is as good as "A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage" (2001), a previously unpublished story edited (as is this volume) by the Mark Twain Project's general editor, Robert Hirst: It culminates in an outlandish attack on the novels of Jules Verne.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.

Dirda -- mdirda@gmail.com -- writes each Thursday in Style.


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