The Outrageous Mark Twain, by Charles Neider, New York: Doubleday, 348 pages, $16.95
Mississippi riverboats and boyhood idylls—that's the essence of the more-or-less official, Disneyfied Mark Twain. Judging from Disneyland, from the recent musical production of his best known novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and from the uninspired adaptations of his stories about Huck and Tom Sawyer that show up these days on cable TV, you'd have to conclude that the essence of Twain's appeal lies in his nostalgic recreation of childhood when the world was young.
Yet how preposterous this Mark Twain must seem to anyone who knows his work well! For Twain's famous boys' books are not innocent and nostalgic at all; nor, for that matter, are they even books for boys. They are books for adult readers. They are cynical in attitude and grittily realistic in manner. And the only lesson they have to teach the young or anyone else is that "respectable society" is a sham, that duly constituted authority is generally ignorant and pigheaded, and that the claims of true friendship should count for far more than those of law, tradition, and the norms of right and acceptable behavior in the society one chances to be born into. In a word, Twain's famous "children's books" are subversive.
Mark Twain was not primarily a novelist. Nor was he primarily a poet of the Mississippi. What sort of writer was Mark Twain, "primarily"? He was a commentator on the passing scene, a critic of contemporary ideas. He filled the magazines and newspapers of his time with opinion pieces on all the major public issues of the day, from the latest visit by the British Royal family (what would he have made of Charles and Di?) to the Spanish-American War. He also wrote out his comments on such issues for his famous talks from the platform, for he was, you might say, the Lenny Bruce of his day and made a goodly percentage of his living from that end of the business.
It is sometimes asserted that Twain became bitter, misanthropic, and pessimistic in his later years, but the truth is that these attitudes and the ideas that served to rationalize them had been with him from the very beginning of his public career—as had a strong bawdy streak.
The Outrageous Mark Twain is a sampling of this more ornery side of the author. It includes nothing entirely new, though it does contain five chapters on religion from Twain's Autobiography that have never before appeared in book form. It also includes the infamous "1601," in which Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont, Sir Walter Raleigh, and assorted others discourse on such topics as farting and "ye manners and customs of many peoples."
Another piece laboriously but rather mildly ridicules certain widely recognized cliches about the afterlife—the idea that we will all spend eternity playing harps and singing in a heavenly choir, for example. Later in this same selection, an extract from "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven," Twain describes a heaven that libertarians might like to believe in: "That's the main charm of heaven—there's all kinds here—which wouldn't be the case if you let the preachers tell it. Anybody can find the sort he prefers, here, and he just lets the others alone, and they let him alone."
And there is Twain's once famous, now obscure assault on "Christian Science," nearly 160 pages of sarcasm, invective, and ridicule, all hurled at the unlikely figure of Mary Baker Eddy. Whether one shares Twain's estimate of his target's importance or not, one can enjoy the vibrancy and wit of his performance for its own sake, and for its historical value.
It was while doing just this (enjoying the performance for its own sake) that I suddenly realized who Twain had been reminding me of for pages and pages—H.L. Mencken. Mencken never made any secret of his admiration for Twain, of course. But I suggest that it isn't until you get into reading the polemical Mark Twain that you realize how much Mencken learned from Sam Clemens.
Mencken might easily have written the passage in this collection in which a poor Chinese immigrant describes the extortion racket practiced on newcomers to the land of the free and the home of the brave by the Consuls who greet them on their arrival: "My employer tells me that the Government at Washington know of this fraud, and are so bitterly opposed to the existence of such a wrong that they tried hard to have the extor—the fee, I mean, legalized by the last Congress, but as the bill did not pass, the Consul will have to take the fee dishonestly until next Congress makes it legitimate."
He could also have written this passage: "All Christendom is a soldier camp. During all the past generation the Christian poor have been taxed almost to starvation-point to support the giant armaments which the Christian Governments have built up, each to protect itself from the rest of the brotherhood and, incidentally, to snatch up any patch of real estate left exposed by its savage owner."
This incessant build-up of armaments against each other by the various "Christian Governments" of the world, Twain wrote, "the singular game, which is so costly and so ruinous and so silly, is called statesmanship—which is different from assmanship on account of the spelling."
And Twain did not disdain only Christianity. "There are many pretty and winning things," he wrote, "about the human race. It is perhaps the poorest of all the inventions of the gods but it has never suspected it once.…I could say harsh things about it but I cannot bring myself to do it—it is like hitting a child."
Myself, I don't find this kind of talk outrageous at all. I agree with some of it, disagree with some of it, and enjoy all of it. But I wouldn't call it outrageous.
Just honest. Realistic. And skeptical—damned skeptical.
Contributing Editor Jeff Riggenbach is a free-lance writer, editor, journalist, commentator, critic, teacher, and audio producer.