Thursday, September 06, 2018

Mark Twain and Me

I (Donis) have been watching the PBS rerun of Ken Burns' documentary on the life of Samuel Clemens, the last episode of which ran last night. It is a most excellent documentary, I'm sure you agree, as are all of Burns' offerings. But this particular one speaks to me in a different way than the others. So let me tell you a story, Dear Reader.

Many long years ago, when the world was young and I was a slip of a girl, my husband and I lived for several months in a little apartment in a town called Cagnes-sur-Mer, which is located between Nice and Cannes on the French Riviera. Once a week, Don and I would hop on the local train and take the short, nine mile trip to Nice to visit the Anglo-American Library and check out a boatload of books.

The library collection at that time consisted mainly of English language and English translation classics, and it is there that I found and read so many old titles that are difficult or nearly impossible to find these days anywhere except in ancient dusty bookshops. For instance, I was able to read the entire eleven volume translation of the eleventh century Japanese novel The Tale of Gengi by Lady Murasaki, and was blown away by the fantastical world she portrayed. 

The library also owned the entire collection of Mark Twain's writings, and I read every one of them, in order, including the autobiography. Now, like all good little English majors, I had read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and analyzed the crap out of them. I was familiar with The Prince and the Pauper and A Yankee in King Arthur's Court, though whether I had read the books or seen the 1950s era movies I can't say. I can only remember that I thought that the Connecticut Yankee looked just like Bing Crosby.

But it was only when I read the entire body of work for my own pleasure rather than for academic analysis that I found myself falling in love. And I mean that. Especially after reading his late life works, I felt such a kinship with the man that I felt true grief that he was long dead and there was no possibility that I would ever get to meet him in the flesh.

It's cliche to say the man was a genius, but he had not only a beautiful facility with words, but he was so far ahead of his time in his thinking that it is startling. Some of the things he wrote about human rights would be controversial today–especially in this current political climate. So if you have not done so, do yourself a favor, Dear Reader, and read every Twain piece you can get your hands on. Whether he enlightens or offends, he'll rock your world.

Let me leave you with one of my very favorite pieces of writing and what Wright Morris called a 'triumph of the vernacular'.

This was authored by  Twain, not as any sort of literary enterprise, but as a letter of complaint to the Hartford Gas Company in about 1901.

Someday you will move me almost to the verge of irritation by your chuckle-headed Goddamned fashion of shutting your Goddamned gas off with giving any notice to your Goddamned parishioners.  Several time you have come within an ace of smothering half this household in their beds and blowing up the other half by this idiotic, not to say criminal, custom of yours.  And it has happened again today.  Haven't you a telephone?
S.L. Clemens

I consider this a prime example of how a great writer composes with language like a great musician composes with music.

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