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The Real Mark Twain, Part Two of Two
THINK TANK WITH BEN WATTENBERG
#1401 The Real Mark Twain, Part Two.
FEED DATE: January 12, 2006
Opening Billboard: Funding for this program is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
WATTENBERG: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. Samuel Longhorne Clemens, alias Mark Twain, is regarded by many as America’s greatest writer. Ernest Hemmingway said all American writing begins with Huckleberry Finn. His talents made him the greatest global American celebrity of his time. But beyond the witty turns of phrase and social critique, there was a man who drank and gambled too much, who went bankrupt, who could be viciously mean, and was a deserter from the confederate army. So who was the real Mark Twain? To find out Think Tank is joined this week by Pulitzer Prize-winner Ronald Powers, author of ’Mark Twain: A Life’. The topic before the house: The Real Mark Twain, part two, this week on Think Tank.
WATTENBERG: Ron Powers, welcome back to episode two of your wonderful book Mark Twain: A Life.
POWERS: Thank you, Ben.
WATTENBERG: And I wanted to start out - you write that he is or was taught, quoted, and reprinted more than any other writer except Shakespeare. Tell us a little bit about that. What are the key books? Maybe quote something for us.
POWERS: First great book was The Innocents Abroad.
POWERS: His account of this pilgrimage to the Holy Land. A bunch of sort of wealth pietistic folks that chartered a boat. Henry Ward Beecher is the man who organized it. And he took this voyage with them and as they were admiring the Sphinx, and the Christian Relics, and the ground on which Jesus tread, he was watching them and having great fun with their mannerisms, their foibles, the way they lurched across the deck clutching their stomach saying, “Oh my, Oh my.” Seasick. And he came back and he wrote a book that was pretty much about his fellow tourists.
And the other part of it that made him distinctive, he dug in his heels. He said, “I’m not going to be impressed with Michelangelo, or the Vatican, or all these great ruins. What we have in America is just as good as anything they have over here.” He was the first American to dare to stand on to equal ground with old Europe and that made people love him. That made the common man love him and want to buy his books.
WATTENBERG: That sounds familiar. There was an aspect of super-patriotism and also an aspect where he condemned American society.
POWERS: Again, it’s so unified. Howell says he was a great friend unless you crossed him, and then get out of his way, Howell said in effect. Same thing with the faith, he loved the Christian faith until he found - until his brother, Henry, was killed in a terrible steamboat explosion on the Mississippi. Sam felt responsible because he had invited Henry aboard the Pennsylvania that blew up. That was probably the end of his religious faith.
And he loved America. He loved the 19th Century, loved his country. And then he comes back from this hiatus in England and finds that his America has invaded a foreign country and annexed it. And so he’s bitter about that. All –- see the consistency. Lost betrayal.
WATTENBERG: Now, this patriotism, he writes some books.
POWERS: Some essays.
WATTENBERG: Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
WATTENBERG: And Pudd’nhead Wilson, he like sort of has that aspect of –- and there’s The Prince and the Pauper -where you see an American... And you say he was the first science fiction writer. He’s got a time machine, and he goes back to King Arthur...
WATTENBERG: ... as to how the American character would have shaped Europe. I mean, would you explicate that a little bit for us?
POWERS: Well, he was fearless in a way. He was fearless in a way that a lot of American writers weren’t fearless. It’s almost as though, thank God, he’d never had a formal education. Because if had a formal education, Sam Clemens would have been taught never use vernacular speech, it’s impolite and it’s coarse. Let’s use the high blown rhetoric of the great orators, Cicero, and all the other translators. He didn’t know that. He just –- he heard the music in common words.
You asked a minute ago about the great spread of his fame. It was partly because he wrote – he said, “Great literature is like wine, and my work is like water, but everybody drinks water.” And that’s true. Everybody read his books.
WATTENBERG: Alright, let me ask you a question. Is there anyone in the contemporary era - I have two names in mind - that sort of, I wouldn’t put them in that class, but combine this idea of both the journalist and the novelist, and the two guys I’m thinking of are Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. Does that make any sense to you?
POWERS: You do wonder who would be the Mark Twain of our time. He would have to be a man who is great on the lecture stage, who is a good standup comic. He would have to be politically sophisticated and fearless. He would have to be a master of the short sketch, and he would have to have written the great American novel. That’s a heavy load. I don’t think Sam has any descendants in our time. Although, there are some people who come close.
I want to read you a little passage from one of his western sketches in the 1860’s and see if you can hear a contemporary voice. ‘He claims to have discovered a valentine that he found on the ground that was composed to his sweetheart by a young law student. And the valentine reads, “Such sights and scenes as this ever remind me, the party of the second part, of you my Mary, the peerless party of the first part, the view from the lonely segregated mountain peak of this portion of what is known and called the creation with all the singular hereditaments and the pertinent”’ –- and he goes on like that. I hear Garrison Keeler.
WATTENBERG: You call him in your book, by three names; Sam, Samuel and Mark Twain. Could you explain to us...
POWERS: Of course, Sammy, that’s the boy.
POWERS: Because his mother once refereed to Sammy’s long talk so we knew he was called Sammy as a boy. Sam, as a grown up in his life; as a citizen, husband, socialite, speculator; and Mark Twain, when we’re talking about his work.
Now, a lot of his biographers have gotten hung up over those distinctions, especially Sam Clemens and Mark Twain. They’ve gotten snarled in the sense of a divided man, a man of darkness and light, almost a split personality. I don’t care about that.
WATTENBERG: Now, Twain – reading your book I hadn’t realized that, frankly, he was really anti-religious. And he says, “If Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be: a Christian.” And you also write about him being pro-Satan.
POWERS: He thought that Satan just had a bad press, generally. He thought he - he sort of - he used to tease his mother by...
WATTENBERG: Poor old Satan...
POWERS: ... by pointing out Satan’s virtues. Satan’s virtues. And I think he –- it was by way of sympathizing. I think Sam was sympathizing with someone who had been cast out by God. I think he felt that way about himself. As a little boy, he went to that Presbyterian Church every Sunday with his mother and heard those fire and brimstone lectures, you’re probably going to burn in hell people, but just in case you aren’t, you’d better behave yourself or you will anyway. That was the jist of the religion. But he cared. He wanted to believe. He memorized more than half the Bible. Cited it all the time in his literature, and I think, Ben, that he had –- his attitude toward the Christian faith was that of a jilted lover. I think he felt the faith had gone in directions that he couldn’t accept, the cruelties he saw in the world. He wanted to believe but he couldn’t.
WATTENBERG: Let’s do the Huckleberry Fin thing for a while. Can you, very briefly if you can, a; give us the plot line. And what are these things that are continually referred to as the evasion problem.
POWERS: Okay. Huckleberry Fin starts out to be a continuation of Tom Sawyer. It’s going to be another boy’s book. He gets on fire. He writes 680-odd manuscript pages in six weeks. He was a fast writer. He was full of the story.
And then he gets –- it’s about a little Missouri boy who is running away from his wicked father. He jumps on a raft, he picks up a fugitive slave named Jim, and they set off down the river. And that’s the plot line. And things happen to them, and they happen to people. And as they get farther down the river, Mart Twain realizes that this book is harder than he thought it was going to be because he’s now getting them into moral complexities. What’s he going to do with this slave once they get into Dixie? How’s the story going to end and what does Huck have to say about himself that makes him a morally acceptable character?
WATTENBERG: What’s the famous line that he refuses to turn Jim –- Jim is a runaway slave.
WATTENBERG: And he’s supposed to turn him in or he’ll roast in hell.
POWERS: Huck is sitting on the raft in Mississippi well into Dixie. Jim is off the raft, he’s gone on shore. Huck realizes that he could turn Jim in and collect a bounty. In fact, that he should turn Jim because the Bible - the Bible defense of slavery said you must. And Ms. Watson, back up in Hannibal, is looking for him. And Huck thinks that this is the moral thing to do. He’s going to have to do it.
He’s got a letter from Ms. Watson in his hand - or he writes her a letter saying, I know where Jim is. He’s got this letter written. Now, he’s reading the letter by himself on the raft, and he starts to remember the beautiful things, the beautiful friendship that developed between the boy and the man, the black slave on the way down the river: the times that Jim opened up about his children, the stories they shared. And he realized he wasn’t going to be able to do this but if he doesn’t do it, he’ll go to hell. He believes that. He has this great epiphany. He says, alright, then, I’ll go to hell, and he tears the letter in half.
I don’t know whether Mark Twain, himself, knew that he was writing one of the great moral turning points of American literature, but I think he did. And I think that is the one moment in all of his literature that is - that most expresses the moral passion that he had, the sense of humanity, the sense of brotherhood.
WATTENBERG: Now, he’s born in November...
WATTENBERG: November 30th. What year?
WATTENBERG: And he lives until?
WATTENBERG: Did he have regrets about his childhood? And how important was that to his writing? I mean...
POWERS: Mark Twain was a walking regret manual. He had regrets about things he wasn’t even responsible for. Great sense of sorrow, and guilt, and responsibility, and I think that was probably at the bottom of a lot of the anger.
The childhood really was quite black and white. It really was.
WATTENBERG: The Tom Sawyer book was this idyllic great American book about growing up in a small town in pre-Civil War and it sounds like Valhalla.
POWERS: But remember inside Tom Sawyer there’s an episode of a grave robbing and a murder by knife at the site of the grave. Hannibal was a violent town at night. And Sammy was around and he saw stabbings, he saw men shot, he saw a hobo roasted in his jail cell because he lit a match that Sammy had given him to light a cigarette and this - and the jail went up. So there’s guilt and sorrow.
WATTENBERG: I found it so interesting. I mean, you talked about crime being a big issue at that time and crime’s a big issue now and has been. I mean, what goes around comes around in so many of these instances that you talk about, is what I found made it so interesting. Now, the guy was a sucker for hair-brained financial schemes. And for this guy who reaped millions - by contemporary standards – sold millions of books and made millions of dollars was always broke.
POWERS: Well, often. He lost it big time in the late 1880s.
WATTENBERG: And yet he lived in mansions and served these sumptuous meals and stayed in the best hotels.
POWERS: Traveled the world, collected art objects and great sculptures and carved oak beds and yet he lost it all. And people say - draw from that that Mark Twain was greedy, Mark Twain was money crazy. I don’t think that’s the reason. There’s a wonderful letter that I quote in my book from a traveling companion of his when Mark Twain was in London on a lecture tour in the 1870s. Sam would open himself up to his companion Charles Warnstauter like he never did to anyone else. What he told him in these late night, scotch-fueled monologues after a lecture in a hotel in London was that he was terrified of being poor again. His father lost everything, never made a penny in his life, spent 500 dollars on 70 thousand acres of land and it never paid off. Sam – that was traumatizing. So instead of Sam being greedy, I think what we’re seeing is a man doing everything he could think of to avoid lapsing back into poverty and oblivion.
WATTENBERG: And he becomes a publisher and he’s sort of addicted long after other people are to something called subscription selling. Could you explain that to us?
POWERS: We talked earlier, Ben, about his contact with the common man. The subscription way of selling a book was to sell to the common man. In the early 19th century there were book stores but they were mostly in Boston or Philadelphia or New York. If you were out in the hitter lands and you wanted to read a book you would – these guys were sort of like fuller brush men, like my father was. They would travel their routes and they had these (inaudible) with them and say, here’s this book that’s coming out by Mark Twain. It’s going to be 600 pages and here’s a little excerpt from it. Can I put you down for a copy? And people out on the farms and the small towns of America wanted that because they liked him. They thought that he was one of them?
WATTENBERG: He, Twain?
POWERS: He, Mark Twain. Because he talked like they did and he wrote about people like they were. And these books sold – these books made - the subscription method made him rich. Now, the high-toned authors, the Longfellows and Emersons and Holmeses looked down on that.
WATTENBERG: Now, tell me about that incident and tell me who was there. Dinner in Boston where Twain trashes the American New England transcendentalists. Who was there, what does he say, and then tell me a little bit about Henry Ward Beecher.
POWERS: Okay. 70th birthday party for John Greenleaf Whittier. A contemporary of Emerson the great giant and Holmes and Longfellow and they’re all there at his birthday dinner in Boston. William Dean Howells invites Sam, invites Mark Twain to give a toast because Mark Twain is incapable of offending or insulting anyone. Mark Twain decides he’s going to have a little fun and he makes up a story in his toast that has these eminences around him – Holmes and Longfellow - as drunken miners out west knocking on the door of a guy who - they want food and they want to play some cards. And he’s telling what he thinks is a very funny story. The room fell silent and he realizes that this is not the way to approach a Boston celebration in honor of a god and his voice drops to a croak, he finishes the anecdote, total silence. He sits back down at his table and he’s horrified and Howells is with him, horrified. He’s so embarrassed by this that he leaves for Europe in a few months and spends a year abroad trying to live down the shame.
WATTENBERG: And what is he saying about them?
POWERS: This I think I can find. He’s at the Whittier dinner, Boston Advertiser says it’s the greatest company of distinguished men ever assembled in America in one room, that’s how important the occasion is. He’s the last man to give a toast late in the evening.
WATTENBERG: Who’s there? Does it say?
POWERS: Oh, who’s there? Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the guest of honor, James Greenleaf Whittier. So Sam gets up and gives this silly story. It’s really the first celebrity roast, I think and it just goes terribly bad. And then he’s so humiliated, Ben, that he writes about it. He writes about it.
And this is the beauty of Mark Twain. You can see him think as he writes. You can see him fall in love with his anger or fall in love with his humiliation and make a story out of it. And he’s writing about this. He says - Sam describes his arising and launching into the speech he describes how some 200 words in he realizes that he is committing an act of secular blasphemy. And here’s him quoting, “The expression of interest in the faces turned to a sort of black frost. I went on but with difficulty, always hoping but with perishing hope that somebody would laugh or at least smile, but nobody did.”
Now, he’s starting to really embroider. He sits down, he says, the next speaker, as he recalls it, is a promising young Wisconsin novelist about to make his first public speech. This fellow arises with what –- on some sort of national expectancy in the air, but of a desolating chill of the moment after his big faux pa, the youth can only croak out a few sentences and then begins to hesitate, and break, and loose his grip, and tauter, and wobble. And at last he slumped down in a limp and mushy pile. That’s the way Sam remembered it. There’s no newspaper account of the young novelist.
WATTENBERG: Now, Ron, at this dinner, is William Dean Howells, himself a great figure of American...
WATTENBERG: ... literature. And perhaps for many years Twain’s closest friend; is that right?
POWERS: Oh, if there hadn’t been a William Dean Howells, we wouldn’t remember Mark Twain.
POWERS: He would be a little footnote.
WATTENBERG: Now, he uses Howells as his editor; is that correct?
WATTENBERG: And then he insists to various publications and to Howells that Howells review Twain’s books, which Howells edited and critiqued in manuscript stage; is that correct?
POWERS: Where is the Columbia Journalism Review when we need it?
WATTENBERG: I mean that’s your...
POWERS: Here it is absolutely –- he was –- sort of his publicist, his editor...
WATTENBERG: That’s dirty pool, isn’t it? I mean that...
POWERS: The rules...
WATTENBERG: ... that’s by current standards.
POWERS: By current standards. The rules really were very unformed in those days, and I do think that he probably pushed it a little farther than is ethically permissible. But it got him into print.
WATTENBERG: Okay. Now, I want to get into one thing, the book turns kind of political toward the end. It describes Twain as anti-colonial and anti-imperialist. H hated America’s early imperialism.
POWERS: He hated the imperialism but he...
WATTENBERG: Cuba, but Philippines particularly.
POWERS: That’s right. We went over to liberate the Philippines and ended up subjugating them, and he found that shocking. He marched down the gangplank October 15th, 1900, the boat that brought him back from England and said, “I am an anti-imperialist.” That was the strongest language an American had used till that point about the adventurism in the Pacific.
WATTENBERG: Now, here we are in the middle of the war in Iraq that some people say is imperialist. But others say that in recent years American imperialism is imperialism of ideas and ideals. Your view.
POWERS: My view?
WATTENBERG: Well, where do you think Twain would come out on this whole idea?
POWERS: Well, you know, he articulated it pretty closely. Let me read you something. He tells the reporters at dockside, October 15th, 1902, he’s back from England, “I am an anti-imperialist, I’m opposed to having the eagle put it’s talons on any other land.” And here’s the way - he then writes an essay called To A Person Sitting In Darkness, discussion with a victim –- one of the victims. This is still available on the Internet. And I think it remains one of the most eloquent expressions of official hypocrisy that we have. He says, he’s being sarcastic, “There have been lies, yes, but they were told in a good cause. We have been treacherous, but that was only in order that real good might come out of apparent evil. We have debouched America’s honor and blackened her face before the world, but each detail was for the best. Give yourself no easiness, it’s alright”.
WATTENBERG: Okay. We could have a show about that, which we’re not going to have.
WATTENBERG: Ron Powers, in a nutshell, why is Mark Twain so important? Why do you keep studying him? It’s almost like Herman Melvin chasing the whale. It’s like Robert Caro writing four or five volumes about Lyndon Johnson. What grabs you?
POWERS: He gave us our language. He gave us the language as we speak it now. The language that is distinctly American. He was present at the creation of so many important epics in the 19th century and wrote about them perceptively. I think he was the first rock star. You’ll have to read the book to find out why I think that.
POWERS: Because of the way he related to people on stage. The intimacy, the power of his presence. It wasn’t just for what he was saying, but the fact that he was out there. And that electric tension with all of his pauses until he said something and the whole house went down. It was what I call a new blooming audacity of the self that was taking hold after the Civil War. And he was the first to sort of – to it and make use of it. And it filtered down into popular performance and eventually, I believe, into rock.
WATTENBERG: Ron Powers, let me thank you for joining us for two full episodes about a truly remarkable book, Mark Twain: A Life, now on sale at your local bookseller.
And thank you. Please remember to send us your views and comments by email. We think it makes our program better. For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg.
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