by Thomas S. Vernon
"Man is the animal that blushes.
He is the only one that does it
-- or has occasion to."
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri on November 30, 1835, one of six children. When Samuel was four, his family moved to Hannibal, Missouri a little town on the west bank of the Mississippi River. His father, John Marshall Clemens, was a freethinker, a persuasion not at all uncommon in the Midwest of that period. He is also said to have been stern and puritanical, and was not Samuel's favorite parent. One of Samuel's biographers, Edward Wagenknecht, declares that his temperament was inherited from his mother, Jane Lampton Clemens, who was conventionally religious, but not fanatically so:
From her Mark Twain inherited many specific tastes and tendencies -- his love of red, his tenderness toward all animals, especially cats, his quick, impulsive emotions, his lifelong habit of protecting the outcast and unfortunate. no stray animal was ever turned away from Jane Clemens' door. At one time she was feeding nineteen cats. She kept no birds, for she could not endure to think of any creature deprived of its freedom.
She had her son's curiosity also. With her it took the special form of investigating strange religions, which she considered carefully but without committing herself to them. She was capable of great indignation and of dauntless courage. Once she opened her door to a fugitive girl whom her brutal father was pursuing with a rope, then planted herself in it and gave the brute such a tongue-lashing that he slunk away. Like her son, she mingled freely, in her conversation, fact and fiction. Like him, she was unconventional, as when she heard two men on a train arguing about where Mark Twain was born and turned around and told them. "I'm his mother," she said. "I ought to know. I was there." Something of his cryptic gift of phrase was hers also, as shown in her remark, "Never learn to do anything. If you don't learn, you'll always find someone else to do it for you."
After his father died, Clemens left school at the age of fourteen and became apprenticed as a printer, but soon decided that what he really wanted to do was to become a river pilot, and he set about "the stupendous task of learning the twelve hundred miles of the Mississippi River between St. Louis and New Orleans -- of knowing it as exactly and unfailingly, even in the dark, as one knows the way to his own features." He followed this career from 1857 to 1861, a brief period in his young life. However, his experiences as a river pilot, as well as his boyhood life in Hannibal, provided much of the raw material for his subsequent literary work. His pseudonym was, as everyone knows, the call of a Mississippi steamer's "leadsman" when a depth of two fathoms had been sounded.
His writing career began in 1862 as a newspaper journalist, and his gift for humorous writing was soon recognized. His earliest literary mentors were Artemus Ward and Bret Harte. The piece that first made him famous was "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." He went on, however, to much more substantial writings, including Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, A Tramp Abroad, The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, The Tragedy of Pudd'n Head Wilson, The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, and The Mysterious Stranger. His book, The Gilded Age, bequeathed its name on late nineteenth century America. One of his biographers, Justin Kaplan, expresses the view that Mark Twain "had probably the most richly endowed natural talent in American literature." He was a life-long friend of William Dean Howells, and was acquainted with many of the celebrities of his time, including Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Ward Beecher, Robert G. Ingersoll, Joel Chandler Harris, and James Russell Lowell. In his extensive travels abroad he established friendships with Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells, and many others. Recounting Twain's second trip to England, in 1873, Kaplan writes:
In London he was sought out by Browning and Turgenev, Herbert Spencer, Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins. Lewis Carroll -- "The shyest full-grown man, except Uncle Remus, I ever met" -- sat in nearly complete silence while Clemens talked; Alfred Tennyson longed to hear him lecture.
Twain fell in love with England and spent a great deal of time there. For some years, he was better known and better liked in England than in his own country.
Throughout his life, Mark Twain was an unpolished diamond. The word "urbane" could never have been applied to him. He was moody and experienced frequent periods of despondency interspersed with periods of elation. In psychological parlance he would doubtless be described as manic-depressive. His depressed periods, however, were often not without real cause. In addition to money problems, he experienced personal tragedies. Only one of his four children, Clara, survived him. The deaths of a son and two daughters were a lasting grief. Although he suffered frequent bouts of illness himself he survived his beloved wife, Olivia, whose death in 1902 was a terrible blow to him. Most of the financial worries which plagued him so often were the result of his impulsive nature and weakness for get-rich-quick schemes, as well as his extravagant tastes.
Being often desperately in need of money -- which in part accounts for his enormous literary output -- he was anxious for his books to be a financial success. In his struggles to keep out of debt, he was aided by two institutions that flourished in his day but have since vanished from the American scene. One was the subscription publishing system: an enterprising publisher would employ a large number of travelling salesmen who would retail the books to subscribers throughout the country, thereby assuring a contracting author a large volume of sales. The other was the lyceum system, likewise maintained by entrepreneurs who organized nation-wide lecture tours for popular lecturers, of whom Twain was one of the foremost.
The author of The Damned Human Race might justly be considered a misanthrope. In extenuation, it may be observed that the "Gilded Age" provided an abundance of fuel for his indignation over corruption, sham, and hypocrisy. For a time, he was convinced that American democracy was a disaster, and agreed with James Russell Lowell that it should be called a "kakistocracy," a government "for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools." (Kakistocracy" is a Greek word meaning literally government by the worst citizens.)
Misanthropy is usually the result of the conflict between a civilized set of moral values and the realities of the human condition. In most cases, Twain's included, misanthropic outbursts bespeak an ambivalence: the outrage is a result of a deep caring. Twain's crusty diatribes had deep moral and humanitarian roots.
There can be no question about Twain's literary genius; in this respect, he is world class. It must be said, however, that he lacked a disciplined intellectual training. He was self-educated, and read widely in the fields of literature and history, and was also keenly interested in science and technology, but he was somewhat philosophically naive, as indicated, for example, by his espousal of a simple mechanistic determinism as part of his Weltanschauung.
Theologically, he appears to have maintained a deistic point of view somewhat similar to that of Paine and Jefferson, but his rejection of conventional religion was as thorough and angry as his rejection of conventional patriotism. Much of what he wrote on these subjects was too controversial for publication and did not see the light of day until years after his death. For those who would like to know this side of Mark Twain, I would especially recommend two small volumes, A Pen Warmed Up In Hell and Letters From [The] Earth, both available in paperback.
His reportorial style is at times reminiscent of H.L. Mencken in its merciless exposure of ugly facts. An example is his account of American atrocities in the Phillippines ("Grief and Mourning for the Night" in A Pen Warmed Up In Hell). If you have not read his "The War Prayer," then you should. This is included in the same volume, as is also his "Battle Hymn of the Republic (Brought Down to Date)," the last stanza of which reads:
The following quotation is included in this volume, though it is offered in other sources as well:
I bring you the stately matron Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched and dishonored from pirate raids in Kiao-Chow, Manchuria, South Africa and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle, and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her soap and a towel, but hide the looking-glass.
A Pen Warmed Up In Hell also contains excerpts from the famous The Mysterious Stranger, one of his most searching and bitter attacks on conventional patriotism and religion.
Letters From [The] Earth contains the title piece, along with other brief, posthumously-published works. In the story bearing this title, we are brought into the Divine Presence at the moment when, after millennia of profound thought, God decides to create the universe, which he does after the manner of a magician causing a rabbit to appear in a hat. One of the angels, Satan, shares the puzzlement of his colleagues as to the nature and purpose of this act, but unlike them, he displeases God by asking questions. He is consequently banished from heaven for a few centuries. He decides to visit an obscure little planet called Earth, from which Satan writes letters to his friends Gabriel and Michael, letters full of rib-tickling descriptions of what he finds there. What fascinates him most is the religion of the Christian portion of the inhabitants. In one of his reports he writes:
These people cannot stand much church -- an hour and a quarter is the limit, and they draw the line at once a week. That is to say, Sunday. One day in seven; and even then they do not look forward to it with longing. And so -- consider what their heaven provides for them: "church" that lasts forever, and a Sabbath that has no end! They quickly weary of this brief hebdomadal Sabbath here, yet they long for that eternal one; they dream of it, they talk about it, they think they think they are going to enjoy it -- with all their simple hearts they think they think they are going to be happy in it!
It is because they do not think at all; they only think they think.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens died in 1910 at the age of seventy-five. It is remarkable that he lived as long as he did, for he practiced anything but an abstemious life; he was a hard drinker and a furious smoker. The year before he died, he suffered a heart attack, and Kaplan reports that "he tried to cut down his cigars from forty to four a day"!
Was Twain a Romantic? Perhaps it is fair to say of this complex personality that he was, though one must make reservations and qualifications. I believe it is true that he felt more deeply than he thought, though this is not to deny that he was brilliant. A great many people have written about Twain, but those who have been able to write as well as Twain are exceedingly few. Kaplan quotes Henry James as saying: "It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature."
1. Edward Wagenknecht, Mark Twain: The Man and His Work, Third Edition. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1967.
2. Justin Kaplan, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1966.
3. Frederick Anderson, Editor, A Pen Warmed Up In Hell: Mark Twain in Protest. Harper and Row, New York, 1972.
4. Bernard DeVoto, Editor, Mark Twain: Letters From [The] Earth. Harper and Row, New York, 1974. [Actually, 1962.]