The Mark Twain We’ll never Know



In contrast to the mystic's privatized trance, the humorist's transcendent ecstasy is directed outward, is transactional, is made social.

Lou Budd, Mark Twain: The Ecstasy of Humor

If I may, I’d like to side-step the opportunity to reflect upon the work of a scholar who has influenced my thinking on Twain for the simple reason that there are and have been so many fine and provocative Twain scholars that to choose one only would, for me, be ungenerous and inaccurate. Instead, I’d like to give a few remarks that have stuck with me and have come in handy, both in the classroom and in my long-standing attempt to a get a “read” on the mystery that is Mark Twain. I think my ambition on that score is in keeping with Twain's own fascination with how we misjudge one another and particularly with how he himself was misjudged. He put it this way in the otherwise uninteresting little story “Luck.” A blunderer and an ass, a man named Scoresby rises through the ranks and in the public estimation by means of lucky accidents, not merit. A clergyman explains to the Twain persona the reasons for Scoresby's success: “But you see, nobody was in the fellow's secret. Everybody had him focused wrong, and necessarily misinterpreted his performance every time. Consequently they took his idiotic blunders for inspirations of genius” (CSS, 252). Mark Twain often had the opposite problem; he was an inspired genius whose performances appeared to some as comic blunders.

One such remark (the French would call it an aperçu; in this country we call it a teachable moment) comes from William Dean Howells: “He was apt to smile into your face with a subtle but amiable perception, and yet with a sort of remote absence; you were all there for him, but he was not all there for you” (29). Howells, of course, was speaking of the man himself—physically present, palpable, engaged, genial, yet distant and observant, too. Separated as we are by a hundred years from the man of flesh and bone, I nevertheless sometimes feel in the course of reading him that he is doing a better job of focusing me than I am of him. Henry James, Sr. once described Hawthorne's bearing as reminiscent of “a rogue who suddenly finds himself in a company of detectives.” I’m not sure who, in the case I am describing, is rogue and who is detective, but the furtive shrewdness that lurks behind even the simplest of sketches is a presence that I sometimes fancy is really there. Any further comparison of Hawthorne and Twain is not only futile but simple-minded. Hawthorne once thought of himself as the “obscurest man of letters in America,” but Twain was a celebrity and incurably gregarious. Some camouflage was no doubt necessary for this to be so. That brings me to a second remark.

John Gerber in his classic essay “Mark Twain's Use of the Comic Pose”PMLA 77 (1962) observed that the humorist's several poses “simplified life and made it more tolerable.” I rather doubt that Twain found life intolerable; he was too responsive to things and people, too alive to occasion and detail, for that to be the case. But his poses did simplify the ways he might address the world and, even, anticly possess it. By playing the role of sentimentalist, for example, he allowed himself to expose his contempt for such false emotions without also retreating into Timon's cave. By acting the muggins, he could ridicule pompous self-assurance without also despising the more commendable ambition to be wise or learned. That pose also permits me to keep the company with someone whom I recognized belatedly and a bit begrudgingly is so much smarter than I am. Related to this facet of Twain is Harold Kolb's comment to Henry Wonham in an interview that the tall tale is a story told as truth and heard as fiction. I am supposing that Kolb was referring to the tall tale as a genre, but the observation has particular force for me when it is applied to Twain. What I like about this comment is the phrasing, for it elides the usual opposition between the genteel and the vernacular modes of discourse. It identifies the social transaction, however improbable, between two sorts of people who speak out of differing kinds of understanding but nevertheless are human beings trying to make a go of it as best they can. Mark Twain, unlike many other Southwest humorists, does not typically condescend to his created characters; they may miscommunicate, but they remain in a vividly human form of social exchange nonetheless.

The result is humor, of course, but humor with a difference. Another Howellsian apercu comes to mind. Twain had a “fine, forecasting humor, starting so far back from its effect that one, knowing some joke must be coming, feels that nothing less than a prophetic instinct can sustain the humorist in its development” (120). In other words, Twain knew his audience—how long and how far to wander from his purpose, when to pause, how to sustain the reader's interest (or rather, how much to try his or her patience), when to deliver, and when to quit. For the moment, Twain is the prophet and we his trusting disciples. I one time had the privilege of witnessing this quality first-hand. I had the enviable task of squiring Calvin Trillin around our campus. After his lecture at Missouri, he would travel on to Kansas City to visit relatives. His nephew was a college student at the University of Kansas, and Trillin had mischief in mind. We walked around in search of some damning bumper sticker assaulting the Jayhawks, an item only to be had in the university town that was its long-time rival. He would put that bumpersticker (something on the order of the motto of the University of Kansas is, “Would you like fries with that?”) on his nephew's car and get out of town.

Anyway, we spent about two hours together. He did most of the talking. He was an inexhaustible fund of fact and anecdote. He talked about an unbeatable tic-tac-toe playing chicken in Greenwich Village, how the Jews of London found some loophole for doing laundry on the Sabbath, that the English saddle yields to the Western saddle somewhere between St. Louis and Kansas City. He talked at length about a defense department experiment with what we would now call “smart bombs” during World War II. Pigeons were trained to peck at certain shapes—shapes that looked like railway lines, munitions factories, battleships, and so forth. They were to be placed in plastic nose cones of bombs and, in theory, peck their way to the intended target, and of course to their certain doom. The war ended before they could test their theory. The thing, though, was that Trillin seemed to keep losing the thread of his story. He worked me up to lather of interest and then made for the woods. Just at that point when I was about to interrupt him and get him back on track, he would brings things round. Every detail would fit, every nuance counted for something, no fact was extraneous. In a word, during our brief time together, I was all there for him, but he was not all there for me; he sized me up and knew how far he could go before I would grow impatient or lose interest. As we parted company, Trillin lamented the lost art of storytelling. It was not lost to him. Twain must have been like that.

On a personal note, I should say that Louis J. Budd has helped me on my quest for getting Mark Twain in focus more than any other. One passage especially comes to mind as enlightening. In trying to define the “quintessential Twainian quality” in his “Mark Twain: The Ecstasy of Humor,” Budd writes, “we need the term ‘ecstasy’ to match the élan of self-liberation from arbitrary rules … to carry the headiness of cutting through to the malleability of experience, to celebrate the delight of exploding the rigidities of wisdom. In contrast to the mystic's privatized trance, the humorist's transcendent ecstasy is directed outward, is transactional, is made social” (Budd 8). The remark requires no clarifications from me. It supplies a sense of Twain's motivation and effect, his revolutionary breaking through the dry crust of habitual social life, the hard-headed common sense of the man acting in combination with giddy celebration, and his glad-handed faith in common experience, experience which profits more from adaptation and keen observation than from stern maxim.

Still, I haven't got my game, as yet. I sometimes have a daydream. I am in pursuit of a stray cow. I have my lasso on the pommel and a branding iron at hand. After several days, I have run this maverick into a box-canyon. (And Twain is nothing if not maverick.) There is no way out. I will label this critter once and for all. I wind my way through the ever-narrowing canyon until I come to the end. But he's not there! I couldn't have missed him. Then, from behind, I feel a tapping on my shoulder. There he is. He smiles into my slack-jawed face and speaks. “Excuse me. You seem to be looking for something. Might I help?” We both laugh; we are both laughing at me. But we part company on good terms … or at least I think we do.