What a wee little part of a person's life are his acts and his words! His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself . . . .
-- Mark Twain, "Autobiography"
That's true, of course, but not nearly as much as Old Mark thought, especially when it came to himself. No American of his time, and few if any since, revealed more of themselves in such lasting form than did Samuel L. Clemens, that Missouri roustabout, Confederate renegade and deserter, river pilot, itinerant reporter, irreverent bohemian, gambler, drinker of whatever alcoholic beverages were available and smoker of 40 cigars a day who became, forever, the mythical but real Mark Twain, the quintessential American character of yesterday. Few, if any, possessed the talents so needed to pierce the targets of materialism, hucksterism, jingoism, hypocrisy and political phoniness and incompetence as Twain did so memorably in what he called the Gilded Age of the 1880s and which abound again in the America of the 1980s.
I have been steeped in Twain of late, and not at first for the purpose of finding year-end subject material to fill this Sunday newspaper perch. On reflection, that should have been my intent from the beginning, for in many respects this year that is ending has been The Year of Twain.
He was born 150 years ago with the coming of Halley's Comet and went out with it as he always said he would when it came around again 75 years later. Now, with the passage of another three-quarters of a century, the skies are lighted again by the blaze of that heavenly trail and we've also just celebrated the centennial of the publication of the greatest of American novels, his "Huckleberry Finn." (He undoubtedly would be delighted to learn that some fools still seek to ban that book today.)
My admiration for and fascination with Twain is not new. He's been my favorite American writer since the night in childhood when my father proudly brought home a 24-volume set of the Collected Works of Mark Twain, tied with twine in two packets, and lovingly gave them to me, offering comments on each as we examined them one by one while sitting on the living room floor. Over the years, I've added to the store of books by and about Twain and in random moments have dipped into them for pleasure.
So I've done again this holiday season, picking up first his posthumously published "Autobiography," going from that to Bernard DeVoto's "Mark Twain in Eruption" published a generation later, then to Charles Neider's compilation of the same autobiographical material in 1959, Twain's own wondrous first book, "The Innocents Abroad," and finally Justin Kaplan's great biography of 1966, "Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain."
The marvel is how perfectly contemporary Twain is -- and how perfectly suited his jibes, lampoons, and rages of a century ago on the religious frauds, the political rapscallions, the patriotic posturers, the valueless celebrities of what he dubbed that "Gilded Age" to this one.
Whatever page I turn, Twain's words bear welcome pertinency to the present. Congress has disgraced itself this year, you say correctly? Well, so did it then when Twain termed politicians in general and congressmen in particular the only "distinctly native criminal class."
False piety from wearers of the cloth seeking commercial gain and political power are an appalling part of the American scene? So were they then in that pre-electronic age. He was fascinated by the athletic preaching of the most famous divine of the day, Henry Ward Beecher; but even before Beecher's scandalous trial for adultery, he instantly sensed, Kaplan writes, the minister was more "a showman than a shepherd." The commercialism and religious posturing he saw and despised in the Holy Land with his American innocents abroad led him to write satirically about seeing an imaginary sign there: "J. Christ & Son, Carpenters and Builders." (Wherever Americans went abroad, he noted of a still-familiar trait, they bore down on the local inhabitants "with America's greatness till we crushed them.")
You think taxes are an abomination today and need reform? You should hear Twain fulminating.
Just as he began to make money, but when he was still deep in debt and obligated to support his struggling family in Hannibal, Mo., Twain received a communication from the Internal Revenue Department questioning him about his liability under a gross income tax bill passed during the Civil War. Immediately after the letter came a personal visit from an internal revenue auditor. He left Twain a form. As Kaplan writes, he found its questions to be so incomprehensible "that the oldest man in the world couldn't understand what the most of them were driving at." Then, after struggling unsuccessfully to fill out the damned thing with pencil and two colors of ink, he erupted in rage. Across the top he scribbled:
"Pay no attention to any figures except those in black ink -- otherwise this report will drive innocent men crazy. Saml. L. Clemens, Elmira, N.Y."
After more encounters with the tax agents and internal revenue system of his day, he got wise. He adopted the tax practices followed by, as he put it, "the very best of the solid men of the city."
He went to tax office, met the agent who had first come to his house, and "under the accusing eyes of my old visitor I stood up and swore to lie after lie, fraud after fraud, villainy after villainy, till my soul was coated inches and inches thick with perjury, and my self-respect gone forever. But what of it? It is nothing more than thousands of the richest and proudest, and most respected, honored and courted men in America do every year."
Materialism and "I've-got-mine-Jack and get-out-of-my-way-Jill" Yuppiedom got you down? Listen to Twain: "What is the chief end of man? To get rich. In what way? Dishonestly if we can . . . . Money is God. Gold and Greenbucks and Stock -- father, son and the ghost of same . . . and William Tweed is his prophet."
How Old Mark would have loved Grenada and the Pentagon awarding of medal-per-man for the 16,000 U.S. troops who bested some 600 natives of the Caribbean (read him on our similarly crushing of the Moros in the early 1900s) -- how he would have -- but space does not permit the telling of more Twain tales. My advice, for a Happy New Year, is read him yourself, and wish he were still writing today when a new American Gilded Age provides such large and inviting targets.