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On Mark Twain, and imperfection

August 13, 2011

Mark Twain is my favorite American writer. I’ve read his major works several times over as well as the majority of his lesser pieces, plus several biographies. I’m a big fan, but I must admit that (like all of us) he’s noticeably imperfect as a writer. He writes wonderful individual scenes, but he has significant problems with the essential mechanics of each novel.  His blistering sarcasm and peppery cleverness are wonderful, and he shows a very modern attitude toward the flaws of our society; but his sentimentality regarding women and his acceptance of the uplifting force of female purity was completely a product of the Victorian era. He reached extremely far in his messages and satire, but not always, and not consistently….yet this imperfection endears him to me in a way that other writers cannot.

In his novels, Twain struggled with moving his narratives along. A novel ought to flow smoothly, without the sound of gears shifting; but most of his novels display a certain amount of gear-grinding. Tom Sawyer begins as the gentle adventures of a small town boy who plays with marbles and insects, but morphs into a melodrama featuring a murderous halfbreed and stolen treasure. Huckleberry Finn is notorious for its flawed last third, in which the author could think of no way to extricate Huck and Jim from their predicament except by bringing Tom Sawyer into the narrative as a deus ex machina. In the process of doing this, Jim devolves from a man who yearns for freedom to a hapless and unwilling participant in a farcical escape that would be at home in a minstrel show. Critics argue about this final third of the book, some saying that Twain meant one thing while others argue that he meant another; but it’s very obviously the weakest part of the entire book.

Part of the problem was his beloved wife Olivia. She encouraged her husband to address loftier topics than he ordinarily would have written about. She didn’t care for the “low” humor of Huck Finn, or stories that did not have improving or moralistic themes. Under her influence he struggled against his own essential nature as a writer. Only after her death did he finally unleash the sentiments that he had repressed for years, and committed to paper many thoughts that he knew would be seen at that time as immoral, ungodly and in no way improving to the reader. These late dark writings are fierce, angry, and disdainful as he considers the sorry thing that a human being really is. Letters from the Earth is the most fragmented of all his works. The reader who wades through this last collection can’t help but appreciate Twain’s bitter sentiments in general towards humanity, and parts of this collection are top-notch; but there are also some less solid pieces in the collection. But that’s Twain all over: almost always uneven, but enormously gifted. And I as a reader should not duplicate Olivia’s error by categorizing works in his oeuvre as either worthy or unworthy.

Twain was many things: frontier lad, printer, journalist, adventurer, liar, satirist, traveler, family man, and the sentimental worshiper of pretty little blonde girls with ribbons in their hair. But of all the American writers of the 1800s, he is the one who is most like us today. James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, Herman Melville and Edgar Allen Poe are now read mostly by comp-lit majors, and their various voices sound unfamiliar and increasingly archaic. But Twain’s voice remains timeless and can still be read with pleasure today.

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