Sunday, January 04, 2009
Last summer I tried explaining Mark Twain's 19th century renown to a younger reader. Imagine a combination of David Sedaris and Hunter Thompson, I said, a California journalist with a reputation for wild friends and substance abuse whose books were dependable bestsellers, and sold-out lecture tours usually left audiences weak from laughing.
I'm pleased to say she got it.
In the decades after his death, Sam Clemens-whom I shall refer to from here on as Mark Twain-was memorialized as America's Beloved Humorist, which was easy to do because he was. But he wrote to a very wide audience, from school children to the most hardened of newspaper men, and with a very sly humor which deepened according to the sophistication and alertness of his readers.
Sometimes it takes several readings, and a leavening of years, to get his jokes, or rather realize that he expects you to see that something he presents as amusing is much funnier on a rather more hidden level, or sometimes really isn't all that funny at all. Conversely, his deepest humor can also run through the most morbid of observations.
Twain was our first, and therefore our most, transgressive writer. His close friend and most perceptive contemporary critic, William Dean Howells, recognized early on the rage which animated his pages (rage we also find in Thompson and, I submit, Sedaris's work.) Twain was the first writer in America to make fun of the pious, mock the aim and content of the Bible, celebrate lying as an essential national trait, and ridicule nearly every popular literary convention held dear, to nearly universal acclaim. He despised hypocrisy most of all, and came to recognize it everywhere he looked.
His most transgressive book, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was written at the height of his powers, in three stages, over the course of seven years. And while we may be certain that his intentions for the book shifted over time, his animating rage only smoothed in the process into something dangerous and fine, an electric line which only shocks when exposed, but then to deadly effect.
My aim going forward is for us to run our hands over his work, feeling for the current. Huck is a rude and appalling book, full of difficulties which have pissed-off readers since its publication in 1885. Since then it has been regularly banned while never going out of print. We should understand from the start that Twain was a storyteller, not a novelist. The book's design is its language-which proclaims equal parts ignorance and sincerity-the likes of which had never appeared between covers before. Its characters, a good many of whom are violent and conniving, is its action. Its setting is the degraded frontier outposts built on a ruined Eden, the outlines of which are mainly visible only to its narrator. That individual is neither boy nor man, a young outcast mainly despised and feared by the only society he knows, who befriends and aids the only person in that society with less status than himself, and in so doing becomes a criminal.
Twain's genius, which was really a gift, was for observation. He paid close attention to life and presented his observations, daring his readers to pay attention too. His famous posted warning on the flyleaf of Huckleberry Finn reads:
PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR
This is my property, I think Twain is saying here. As one critic has pointed out, this does not mean that the book lacks motive, moral or plot, only that people shouldn't bother looking for them. I will add that shootings, banishment and prosecutions hover constantly over the book so as to be lode stars for everything that happens in it. It seems to me that the author is telling us in so many words not to worry about what the novel means, that if we pay attention it will be pretty damn clear.
Next Sunday: Chapter 1.
Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95