Today is Mark Twain’s 176th birthday, as we are informed by the graphic of his character Tom Sawyer that pops up when we Google anything. Twain was the essential and quintessential American writer. He had the misfortune of writing classics, which he sagely defined as books men praise and don't read. This was uncomfortably prescient, as the copy of his Bigger Longer and Uncut Autobiography currently weighing down my coffee table will tell you. Anyone who comes up with a book’s worth of Alternate Uses for Your Copy of Mark Twain’s Autobiography will automatically top the New York Times bestseller list. So far, “iron” and “doorstop” make the list, but I’m sure there are ways to weaponize it or use it in child-rearing.
Almost everything that can be said about Twain has already been said, and better, and generally by Twain himself. He was an avid reader and student of language — “in German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has” — beginning with McGuffey’s Reader and the Bible and then developing an appetite for the poetry of Browning and such period classics as Carlyle’s “French Revolution.”
“The man who don’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them,” is a quote someone erroneously attributed to him at one point. (Twain is one of the looming figures of literature, like Oscar Wilde and Samuel Johnson, who can’t go out in the afternoon without several stray quotations following him home.)
Hemingway called him the “headwater of American fiction.” He had the characteristic expansiveness of large minds, churning out classics of the genre in the fields of travel narrative (“Roughing It”), science fiction (“A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court”), boy’s book (“Tom Sawyer”) and Great American Novel (“Huckleberry Finn”). And that’s neglecting more than half his oeuvre, the legions of bons mots he unleashed, and the lectures that catapulted him to fame and were so legendary that a few decades ago we paid Hal Holbrook good money to reprise them.
What Twain did best was point out the clothes-less emperors strutting through our midst, whether from the mouth of his unreliable narrator or making one of his characteristic jibes — “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
His name now hangs on the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, an inducement for popular comedians to visit D.C. so that people who watch public television can stand near them and inhale their distinctive musk. If you swung by only for the prize-giving, you wouldn’t think Twain was particularly funny. You would think that he was some sort of saccharine, mustached twerp who wandered around saying soupy things about the ennobling power of humor to cast light into the human soul.
Huckleberry Finn, his greatest legacy, is a funny book. But it is also a terrifying book. Its humor is the cutting kind that slices you open to reveal the tumor. This is the sort of thing one is expected to say in lugubrious essays celebrating Twain’s writing, but it’s nonetheless true. His observations hold up.
But Twain was and remains laugh-out-loud funny, with a peculiarly American sort of humor. He captured our desperate bravado in the face of reality better than most people before or since.
Before Twain, American literature was full of large scarlet A’s and characters named Ichabod Crane and Natty Bumppo whom we were expected to take at least somewhat seriously. Twain had an ear for the way people actually sounded and a desire to write the sort of books real people — increasingly literate, in his time period, thanks to the same McGuffey’s Reader that had given him his start — would devour. “My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine,” he noted. “Everybody drinks water.”
In the words of Jim Davis, the cartoonist of “Garfield” and a man people strongly advise you against quoting whenever you want to say something about humor, “We laugh not because it’s funny but because it’s true.”
So happy birthday, Marky Mark. I intend to celebrate in the traditional manner, misattributing a quote and strongly intending to start reading your autobiography.
Reports of your death have been greatly exaggerated.