Saturday, May 1, 2010

Mark Twain by Gore Vidal

Excerpted from his 1996 introduction to Following the Equator and Anti-Imperialist Essays, Vidal's report puts flesh on the bare bones of my criticisms of Laura Trombley's Mark Twain's Other Woman. In short, see what I'm talking about?

Both Mark Twain and his inventor, Samuel Clemens, continue to give trouble to those guardians of the national mythology to which Twain added so much in his day, often deliberately. The Freudians are still on his case even though Dr. Freud and his followers are somewhat occluded these days. Yet as recently as 1991 [ and 2010!], an academic critic tells us that Clemens was sexually infantile, burnt at fifty, and given to degenerate reveries about little girls, all while exhibiting an unnatural interest in outhouse humor and other excremental vileness. It is hard to believe that at century's end, academics of this degraded sort are still doing business, as Twain would put it, at the same old stand.

As is so often the case, this particular critic is a professor emeritus, and emerituses often grow reckless once free of the daily grind of dispensing received opinion. Mr. Guy Cardwell, for reasons never quite clear, wants to convince us that Twain " suffered from erectile dysfunction at about the age of fifty...Evidence that he became impotent ranges from the filmy to the relatively firm." This is a fair example of the good professor's style. "Filmy" evidence suggests a slightly blurred photograph of an erection gone south, while "relatively firm" is a condition experienced by many men over fifty who drink as much Scotch whiskey as Twain did. But filmy - or flimsy? - as the evidence is, the professor wants to demolish its owner, who, sickeningly, married above his station in order to advance himself socially as well as to acquire a surrogate mother; as his own mother was - yes! - a strong figure while his father was - what else? - cold and uncaring.

No Freudian cliche is left unstroked. To what end? To establish that Twain hated women as well as blacks, Jews, foreigners, American imperialists, Christian missionaries, and Mary Baker Eddy. Since I join in detesting the last three, I see no need to find a Freudian root to our shared loathing of, say, that imperialist jingo Theodore Roosevelt. Actually, Twain was no more neurotic or dysfunctional than most people and, on evidence, rather less out of psychic kilter than other major figures in the American literary canon...

Exactly where and how the "Western Storyteller," as such, was born is unknown. He could have evolved from Homer or, from the Greek Milesian tales of run-on anecdote. In any case, an American master of the often scabrous tall story, Twain himself was predated by, among others, Abraham Lincoln, many of whose stories were particularly noisome as well as worse! - politically incorrect. Our stern Freudian critic finds Twain's smutty stories full of "slurs" on blacks and women and so on. But so are those of Rabelais and Ariosto and Swift, Rochester and Pope and ... Whatever the "true" motivation for telling such stories, Twain was a master in this line both in print and on the lecture circuit.

Primarily, of course, he was a popular journalist, and with the best-seller Innocents Abroad ( 1869) he made the hicks back home laugh and Henry James, quite rightly, shudder. Yet when the heavy-handed jokey letters became a text, it turned out to be an unusually fine-meshed net in which Twain caught up old Europe, Americanized the precedent civilization and vulgarized it in the most satisfactory way...and made it possible for an American idea to flourish someday.

But Twain was far too ambitious to be just a professional hick, as opposed to occasional hack. He had social ambitions; he also lusted for money ( in a "banal anal" way, according to the Freudian emeritus - as opposed to "floral oral'?)...

Mark Twain's view of the human race was not sanguine, and much has been made of the Calvinism out of which he came. Also, his great river, for all its fine amplitude, kept rolling along, passing villages filled with fierce monotheistic folk in the thrall of slavery, while at the river's end there were the slave markets of New Orleans. Calvinist could easily become Manichean if he brooded too much on the river world of the mid-1800s. Pudd'nhead Wilson contains the seeds of Twain's as yet un-articulated notion that if there is a God ( What is Man?, 1906) he is, if not evil in the Manichean sense, irrelevant, since man, is simply a machine acted upon by a universe "frankly and hysterically insane" (No 44 The Mysterious Stranger): "Nothing exists but You. And You are but a thought."

When one contemplates the anti-imperialism of Mark Twain, it is hard to tell just where it came from. During his lifetime the whole country was - like himself - on the make, in every sense. But Mark Twain was a flawed materialist. As a Southerner he should have had some liking for the peculiar institution of slavery; yet when he came to write of the antebellum days, it is Miss Watson's "nigger" Jim, who represents what little good Twain ever found in man. Lynching shocked him. But then, pace Hemingway, so did Spanish bullfights. Despite the various neurosis ascribed to him by our current political correctionists, he never seemed in any doubt that he was a man, and therefore never felt, like so many sissies of the Hemingway sort, a need to swagger about, bullying those not able to bully him. The Freudian critic cannot quite fathom how the Twain who in his youth made jokes about "Negroes", in his filmy years, turned anti-white and spoke for the enslaved and dispossessed. Dr. Freud apparently had no formula to explain this sort of sea-change. At sixty, he seems to have overcome his misogyny; our Freudian critic passes over this breakthrough in dark silence...

Finally, at the end of Following the Equator, Twain writes "Our trip around the earth ended at Southampton pier, where we embarked thirteen months before... I seemed to have been lecturing a thousand years..." But he had now seen the entire world, more or less at the equator and, perhaps more to the point, quite a few people got to see Mark Twain in action, in itself something of a phenomena, never to be repeated on earth unless, of course, his nemesis, Mary Baker Eddy, were to allow him to exchange her scientific deathless darkness for his limelight, our light.


  1. H.L. Mencken, in "The Smart Set", 1919

    Mark Twain knew his countrymen. He knew their intense suspicion of ideas, their blind hatred of heterodoxy, their bitter way of dealing with dissenters. He knew how, their pruderies outraged, they would turn upon even the gaudiest hero and roll him in the mud. And knowing, he was afraid. He "dreaded the disaaproval of the people around him." And part of that dread, I suspect, was peculiarly internal. In brief, Mark himself was also an American, and ghe shared the national horror of the unorthodox. His own speculations always half appalled him. He was not only afraid to utter what he believed; he was even a bit timorous about believing what he believed.

    The weakness takes a good deal from his stature. It leaves him radiating a subtle flavor of the second rate. With more courage he could have gone a great deal further, and left a far deeper mark upon the intellectual history of his time. Not, perhaps, intrinsically as an artist. He got as far in that direction as it is possible for a man of his training to go. " Huckleberry Finn" is a truly stupendous piece of work - perhaps the greatest novel ever written in English And it would be difficult to surpass the sheer artistry of such things as "A Connecticut Yankee," "Captain Stormfield", "Joan of Arc" and parts of " A Tramp Abroad". But there is more to the making of literature than the mere depiction of human beings at their obscene follies; there is also the play of idea's. Mark had ideas that were clear, that were vigorous, and that had an immediate appositeness. True enough, most of them were not quite original...much of "What is Man?" you will find in the forgotten harangues of Ingersoll; he got the notion of "The Mysterious Stranger" from Adolf Wilbrandt's "Der Meister von Palmyra"; in other directions he borrowed right and left. But it is only necessary to read either of the books I have mentioned to see how thoroughly he recast everything he wrote; how brilliantly it came to be marked by the charm of his own personality; how he got his own peculiar and unmatchable eloquence into the merest statement of it.

    When, entering these regions of his true faith, however, he yielded to a puerile timidity - when he sacrificed his conscience and his self-respect to the idiotic popularity that so often more than half dishonored him - then he not only did a cruel disservice to his own permanent fame, but inflicted damage upon the national literature. He was greater than all the others because he was more American, but in this one way, at least, he was less than them for the same reason...

    Well, there he stands - - a bit concealed, a bit false, but still a colossus. In such a work as "Huckleberry Finn" there is something that vastly transcends the merit of all ordinary books, a merit that is special and extraordinary; it lifts itself above all hollow standards and criteria; it seems greater every time i read it... There, working against the grain, heartily sick of the book before it was done, always putting it off until tomorrow, he hacked out a masterpiece that expands as year chases year. There, if I am not wrong, he produced the greatest work of the imagination that thee States have yet seen.

  2. Quite a trenchant analysis of Twain! I like your comments and though I think HUCKLEBERRY FINN is a great American novel, I stop short of saying it's our greatest novel.

  3. I kind of agree. I keep telling myself to re-read it and also to check out the previous author's contention that there is a lot of gender-bending and transvestism manifest in Twain's whole body of work but on both counts the task seems a bit daunting. I would like to get a hold of that notorious "dirty book" he wrote but so far it seems that his estate as kept it from the prying eyes of all but a privileged and trusted few! Here's a project for an ambitious modernist: study Twain in sufficient depth and write as one might imagine it to be!