TODAY, AMERICA'S FINEST humorist gets one of America's finest Google tributes.
And given the full, screen-sweeping beauty of a small-town scene, reports of its breadth are not greatly exaggerated.
To celebrate the 176th anniversary of Mark Twain's Missouri birth Wednesday, Google paints its logo in perhaps the most fitting way possible: By using its patented "Doodle" to render the world of Twain's Tom Sawyer, who famously cajoled friends to whitewash a fence for him.
To honor an author enshrined in the gilded pantheon of artistic genius — that "headwater of American fiction," as Hemingway so rightly said of Twain — Google found a deft way to depict today's brush with greatness.
The homepage Doodle is a panoramic triptych featuring the boyhood Missouri pals from two of Twain's best-loved books: 1876's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and arguably the greatest American novel, 1885's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." The Doodle's folksy style can be read as a nod to original Twain illustrator True Williams.
The enduring popularity of Twain is a testament to just how much his poignant and satiric writings and his public persona — that of curmudgeon in a cream-colored suit — have a profound hold on the public imagination.
"I think he is the only one of all the historical characters I've studied that you could bring to now and he'd be funny," historian and "America's documentarian" Ken Burns told me of Twain a few years back. "He'd be on the cable shows. He'd take his 15 minutes."
And Hal Holbrook — who has now played Mark Twain onstage more than a half-century, or longer than Samuel Clemens himself was "Mark Twain" — once told me that Twain still captivates us because human nature doesn't change; only human circumstances do. "The interesting thing to me," Holbrook told me, "was (that) he was a storyteller, a comedian and could be a very trenchant and incisive satirist."
Twain, of course, is also widely known for such novels as "Roughing It," "The Innocents Abroad," "The Prince and the Pauper," "Life on the Mississippi" and "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," as well as the comic sketch that first put him on the map: "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."
Samuel Langhorne Clemens came into this world with Halley's Comet on Nov. 30, 1835, in Florida, Mo., and his family soon moved to the nearby Hannibal that was the model setting for so many of his literary adventures. Clemens was a teen printer's apprentice, a Mississippi River steamboat pilot (the occupation that introduced him to the nautical term “mark twain”), a two-week quasi-Rebel soldier and a California newspaperman before buoying his fame on the lecture circuit and settling in the East, where he married wife Livy and raised a family.
While becoming the first uniquely American great novelist, Twain also endured much personal tragedy, outliving everyone in his immediate family save one daughter (Clara Clemens died in 1962). Yet renowned Twain scholar Ron Powers once told me he thought that became part of the author's cherished legacy: "He left us with the knowledge that you can convert sorrow to laughter ... which I think became an American device."
After becoming one of the first global media celebrities in his later years — despite some of his most bitter writings at this time, he could be counted on to dish out quotable quips and deftly spun social commentary — Twain himself died in 1910, his brilliant light extinguished right as Halley's Comet made its earthly return.
In "Eruption," Twain said: "Humor must not professedly teach, and it must professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever." In the simple wrinkle of truth, Twain somehow achieves the great legacy of publicly living forever.
And in "A Connecticut Yankee," Twain wrote: "Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising."
Today, thanks to the high visibility of Google's right kind of panoramic billboard, a literary giant like Twain renders us all a little larger today.
And that is no whitewash.
Comic Riffs’ TOP TEN GOOGLE DOODLES OF 2011 :
1. LES PAUL: THE PLAYABLE GUITAR
2. MARTHA GRAHAM: THE ANIMATION DANCE
3. LUCILLE BALL: CHANNELING THE HIGHLIGHTS
4. FREDDIE MERCURY: THE MUSIC VIDEO
5. JIM HENSON: THE CLICKABLE MUPPETS
6. ART CLOKEY: THE “GUMBY DOODLE”
7. JULES VERNE: DEEP-SEA DOODLE
8. MARY BLAIR: THE DISNEY DOODLE
9. THOMAS EDISON: THE ILLUMINATING DOODLE
10. LUNAR ECLIPSE: THE MOON DOODLE