Mark Twain: The Big Daddy of American Letters (Revisited)

MT

On April 21, 1910, author Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, died in Redding, Conn.

Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.
Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of congress. But I repeat myself.
‘Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read.
The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out the conservative adopts them.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.
Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Mark Twain was the heavyweight champion in a time when giants roamed the earth and our color commentary was written in ink. Twain, along with Melville and Hawthorne, represents the holy trinity of 19th Century American fiction: the great white hope. But Twain was arguably the archetypal American writer; certainly that was William Faulkner’s assessment. And if Faulkner says Twain was the “father of American literature” than Twain is the father of American literature, end of discussion. Even still, he was more than that. A lecturer, a satirist, critic, commentator; a genuine public figure and ambassador for the well-examined life.

Twain’s influence is like history itself: impossible to deny, informing everything that comes later. It’s difficult to imagine Upton Sinclair, H.L. Mencken, Paul Theroux and Christopher Hitchens existing without the model laid out by their white-haired progenitor. Has anyone mixed accessible fiction, social commentary (caustic and comic) and travel writing with more elan than the peripatetic Twain? Is anyone, with the possible exception of Oscar Wilde, more deliciously quotable? Mark Twain remains the Big Daddy; distinctly American to be sure, but American in a way that invokes the better practices and habits we used to take for granted. Twain embodies an era when exploration (physical and intellectual), engagement with the world and an insatiable appetite for experience were not rites of passage so much as imperative points of departure.

Of course it was, in many regards, a simpler time: no movie stars or radio-friendly pop singers (no radio, for that matter), no prime time news anchors sensationalizing the story of the day. But to be certain, there were still opportunistic hacks and peddlers of propaganda: as long as art remains a viable avenue of commerce and politics exist, the world will never have a scarcity of these charlatans. So what? Well, would it be too quaint by half (or whole) to propose that writers in general (and poets in particular, per Shelley’s dictum) were indeed the unacknowledged legislators of the world? Expertise earned in the field and conferred via the discipline of expression. The best writers could acquire an old-fashioned kind of authority; the type that conferred upon an individual the honor (and obligation) of expressing truths not beholden to party lines or privilege. The type of sensibility that was capable of creating Huckleberry Finn, for instance. Mark Twain, in short, seamlessly incorporated many of the aspects we lionize in our leaders: a populist impulse, an instinctive aversion to prejudice, skepticism of power and an unabashed zeal for democracy. This is Twain’s legacy: his country did not define him so much as he helped define it. If Hawthorne wrote about what we had been (and, in his despairing eyes, always would be), and Melville wrote about what we could be, then Twain wrote about what we were, and what we should be.

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Mark Twain: The Big Daddy of American Letters (Revisited)

MT

On April 21, 1910, author Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, died in Redding, Conn.

Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.
Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of congress. But I repeat myself.
‘Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read.
The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out the conservative adopts them.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.
Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Mark Twain was the heavyweight champion in a time when giants roamed the earth and our color commentary was written in ink. Twain, along with Melville and Hawthorne, represents the holy trinity of 19th Century American fiction: the great white hope. But Twain was arguably the archetypal American writer; certainly that was William Faulkner’s assessment. And if Faulkner says Twain was the “father of American literature” than Twain is the father of American literature, end of discussion. Even still, he was more than that. A lecturer, a satirist, critic, commentator; a genuine public figure and ambassador for the well-examined life.

Twain’s influence is like history itself: impossible to deny, informing everything that comes later. It’s difficult to imagine Upton Sinclair, H.L. Mencken, Paul Theroux and Christopher Hitchens existing without the model laid out by their white-haired progenitor. Has anyone mixed accessible fiction, social commentary (caustic and comic) and travel writing with more elan than the peripatetic Twain? Is anyone, with the possible exception of Oscar Wilde, more deliciously quotable? Mark Twain remains the Big Daddy; distinctly American to be sure, but American in a way that invokes the better practices and habits we used to take for granted. Twain embodies an era when exploration (physical and intellectual), engagement with the world and an insatiable appetite for experience were not rites of passage so much as imperative points of departure.

Of course it was, in many regards, a simpler time: no movie stars or radio-friendly pop singers (no radio, for that matter), no prime time news anchors sensationalizing the story of the day. But to be certain, there were still opportunistic hacks and peddlers of propaganda: as long as art remains a viable avenue of commerce and politics exist, the world will never have a scarcity of these charlatans. So what? Well, would it be too quaint by half (or whole) to propose that writers in general (and poets in particular, per Shelley’s dictum) were indeed the unacknowledged legislators of the world? Expertise earned in the field and conferred via the discipline of expression. The best writers could acquire an old-fashioned kind of authority; the type that conferred upon an individual the honor (and obligation) of expressing truths not beholden to party lines or privilege. The type of sensibility that was capable of creating Huckleberry Finn, for instance. Mark Twain, in short, seamlessly incorporated many of the aspects we lionize in our leaders: a populist impulse, an instinctive aversion to prejudice, skepticism of power and an unabashed zeal for democracy. This is Twain’s legacy: his country did not define him so much as he helped define it. If Hawthorne wrote about what we had been (and, in his despairing eyes, always would be), and Melville wrote about what we could be, then Twain wrote about what we were, and what we should be.

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Mark Twain: The Big Daddy of American Letters (Revisited)

On April 21, 1910, author Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, died in Redding, Conn.

Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.
Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of congress. But I repeat myself.
‘Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read.
The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out the conservative adopts them.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.
Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Mark Twain was the heavyweight champion in a time when giants roamed the earth and our color commentary was written in ink. Twain, along with Melville and Hawthorne, represents the holy trinity of 19th Century American fiction: the great white hope. But Twain was arguably the archetypal American writer; certainly that was William Faulkner’s assessment. And if Faulkner says Twain was the “father of American literature” than Twain is the father of American literature, end of discussion. Even still, he was more than that. A lecturer, a satirist, critic, commentator; a genuine public figure and ambassador for the well-examined life.

Twain’s influence is like history itself: impossible to deny, informing everything that comes later. It’s difficult to imagine Upton Sinclair, H.L. Mencken, Paul Theroux and Christopher Hitchens existing without the model laid out by their white-haired progenitor. Has anyone mixed accessible fiction, social commentary (caustic and comic) and travel writing with more elan than the peripatetic Twain? Is anyone, with the possible exception of Oscar Wilde, more deliciously quotable? Mark Twain remains the Big Daddy; distinctly American to be sure, but American in a way that invokes the better practices and habits we used to take for granted. Twain embodies an era when exploration (physical and intellectual), engagement with the world and an insatiable appetite for experience were not rites of passage so much as imperative points of departure.

Of course it was, in many regards, a simpler time: no movie stars or radio-friendly pop singers (no radio, for that matter), no prime time news anchors sensationalizing the story of the day. But to be certain, there were still opportunistic hacks and peddlers of propaganda: as long as art remains a viable avenue of commerce and politics exist, the world will never have a scarcity of these charlatans. So what? Well, would it be too quaint by half (or whole) to propose that writers in general (and poets in particular, per Shelley’s dictum) were indeed the unacknowledged legislators of the world? Expertise earned in the field and conferred via the discipline of expression. The best writers could acquire an old-fashioned kind of authority; the type that conferred upon an individual the honor (and obligation) of expressing truths not beholden to party lines or privilege. The type of sensibility that was capable of creating Huckleberry Finn, for instance. Mark Twain, in short, seamlessly incorporated many of the aspects we lionize in our leaders: a populist impulse, an instinctive aversion to prejudice, skepticism of power and an unabashed zeal for democracy. This is Twain’s legacy: his country did not define him so much as he helped define it. If Hawthorne wrote about what we had been (and, in his despairing eyes, always would be), and Melville wrote about what we could be, then Twain wrote about what we were, and what we should be.

Share

Mark Twain: The Big Daddy of American Letters (Revisited)

On April 21, 1910, author Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, died in Redding, Conn.

Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.
 Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of congress. But I repeat myself.
 ‘Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read.
The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out the conservative adopts them.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.
 Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
 

Mark Twain was the heavyweight champion in a time when giants roamed the earth and our color commentary was written in ink. Twain, along with Melville and Hawthorne, represents the holy trinity of 19th Century American fiction: the great white hope. But Twain was arguably the archetypal American writer; certainly that was William Faulkner’s assessment. And if Faulkner says Twain was the “father of American literature” than Twain is the father of American literature, end of discussion. Even still, he was more than that. A lecturer, a satirist, critic, commentator; a genuine public figure and ambassador for the well-examined life.

Twain’s influence is like history itself: impossible to deny, informing everything that comes later. It’s difficult to imagine Upton Sinclair, H.L. Mencken, Paul Theroux and Christopher Hitchens existing without the model laid out by their white-haired progenitor. Has anyone mixed accessible fiction, social commentary (caustic and comic) and travel writing with more elan than the peripatetic Twain? Is anyone, with the possible exception of Oscar Wilde, more deliciously quotable? Mark Twain remains the Big Daddy; distinctly American to be sure, but American in a way that invokes the better practices and habits we used to take for granted. Twain embodies an era when exploration (physical and intellectual), engagement with the world and an insatiable appetite for experience were not rites of passage so much as imperative points of departure.

Of course it was, in many regards, a simpler time: no movie stars or radio-friendly pop singers (no radio, for that matter), no prime time news anchors sensationalizing the story of the day. But to be certain, there were still opportunistic hacks and peddlers of propaganda: as long as art remains a viable avenue of commerce and politics exist, the world will never have a scarcity of these charlatans. So what? Well, would it be too quaint by half (or whole) to propose that writers in general (and poets in particular, per Shelley’s dictum) were indeed the unacknowledged legislators of the world? Expertise earned in the field and conferred via the discipline of expression. The best writers could acquire an old-fashioned kind of authority; the type that conferred upon an individual the honor (and obligation) of expressing truths not beholden to party lines or privilege. The type of sensibility that was capable of creating Huckleberry Finn, for instance. Mark Twain, in short, seamlessly incorporated many of the aspects we lionize in our leaders: a populist impulse, an instinctive aversion to prejudice, skepticism of power and an unabashed zeal for democracy. This is Twain’s legacy: his country did not define him so much as he helped define it. If Hawthorne wrote about what we had been (and, in his despairing eyes, always would be), and Melville wrote about what we could be, then Twain wrote about what we were, and what we should be.

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A History of Violence*

I.

Fighting doesn’t solve anything. Everyone knows that. But then, the point of fighting is not usually to solve anything, it’s to settle something. There is a significant discrepancy between the two; ask anyone who used to (or still does) get into fist fights.

I was never that guy. Certainly I had some schoolyard scraps, but those were more wrestling matches at recess and I was semi-retired by fifth grade. I don’t believe I’ve thrown or received a punch since I entered middle school. It had a lot to do with self-awareness: I knew I was not a fighter, did not relish the idea of getting into fights, and did not particularly enjoy witnessing them.

I can’t overlook the role my mother played in the development of my penchant for diplomacy. Like most women, and mothers, she had an innate revulsion for cruelty and injustice. But more, she simply detested violence in all forms, the way most sensitive, evolved individuals do. Being a boy I did not, and do not, necessarily share that stance, or I do with some reservations. Hence, my tolerance and, occasionally, appreciation for realistic portrayals of mayhem in movies, or the otherwise indefensible spectacle of grown men trading blows in hockey games. But I did inherit an inability to comprehend brutality for its own sake, or the notion of deriving pleasure from someone else’s pain. Of course there is considerable ground between behavior most rational people abhor and activities (like fighting) that some people can rationalize and even celebrate.

Toward the end of S.E. Hinton’s book Rumble Fish the doomed older brother—a street legend who, like all tragic figures, sees everything clearly after it’s already too late—looks at the Siamese fighting fish and suggests that their violence is territorial, not instinctual. If they existed out in the river, they wouldn’t fight. This may or may not be true, but it’s an allegory for gang violence which is nothing if not a territorial battle.

It also, of course, speaks to the larger theme of violence being—among many other things—a consequence of timing, luck and location. My old man grew up outside of Boston, and all of my extended family still lives less than a half hour from the city. It was, and remains, a very blue collar, ethnic environment. As such, inadequate if revealing descriptors like old school, tough, and real were, and are, invoked. Even though genetics made me inclined to determine that the pen is mightier than the sword, if I had grown up in the same neighborhood my father did, there are ways I would be different. Too many ways to count, certainly. I believe it’s entirely possible I may have turned out much the same as I am today, but I also am positive circumstances would have ensured that I was harder, less reflective and more resilient. Put another way, the fact that I can even formulate such a hypothesis tends to bolster this theory, and was taught –and trained myself– to use my mind instead of my muscle, not as a calculated choice so much as an inevitable outcome of my upbringing. Mostly, I remain grateful I had the opportunity to succeed (and be allowed to succeed) without the old fashioned type of problem solving that impedes evolution.

II.

Writing is fighting, and few writers used their skills with as much focused indignation as George Orwell.

Orwell embodies an era when exploration (physical and intellectual), engagement with the world and an insatiable appetite for experience were not rites of passage so much as imperative points of departure. Of course it was, in many regards, a simpler time: no movie stars or radio-friendly pop singers; no prime time news anchors sensationalizing the story of the day. To a certain extent, we counted more on our writers (think Twain or Sinclair, or Dickens) to give us an unvarnished view of what was happening, hidden in plain sight.

In his harrowing essay “How The Poor Die” George Orwell describes his unexpected—and unpleasant—time at a non-paying hospital in Paris. It is a typically instructive discursion on the issues that obsessed Orwell, and which he wrote with more clarity than anyone else in the last century: poverty, class and the cultural machinations that perpetuate these conditions.

Having seen indigent, anonymous citizens carted in (and out) suffering from familiar and inscrutable diseases, one morning he notices that the older man across from him had passed away during the night. It occurs to Orwell, as he looks with pity at the pale, broken-down body, that he is witnessing an example of death by “natural causes”. And this manner of death, which so many of us literally pray for, is, he concludes:  “slow, smelly and painful.” The lucky ones, Orwell notes, die at home (the truly lucky ones, he proposes, die in action, with their boots on).

Well into the 20th Century, hospitals were very much like prisons (in the literal, not metaphorical sense); only worse—particularly for the impoverished. Being there, and bearing witness, made it possible for others to see what they could not otherwise understand. More importantly, it made it impossible for people to pretend that these conditions did not exist. Orwell, like Sinclair, Twain and Dickens, did his part to parade our inhumanity and force us to confront this collective shame.

So what? Well, would it be too quaint by half (or whole) to propose that writers in general (and poets in particular, per Shelley’s dictum) were indeed the unacknowledged legislators of the world? Expertise earned in the field and conferred via the discipline of expression. The best writers could acquire an old-fashioned kind of authority; the type that conferred upon an individual the honor (and obligation) of expressing truths not beholden to party lines or privilege. The type of sensibility that was capable of creating 1984, for instance.

Orwell had the courage of his convictions: he enlisted, and fought in the Spanish Civil War. He took to the streets and lived as a hobo to better understand (and subsequently articulate) what life was like for those “down and out”. Over time, he learned the hard way that there are no easy answers. Undaunted, he doubled down on his commitment, using these events to solidify a resolve that changing minds was more effective in the long run than bashing skulls.

III.

You can’t combat cancer with fists or poetry; you can try it with chemicals and prayers, but like it is with most of our earthly affairs, it all comes down to timing and luck.

We thought we were lucky, at first. In many ways, we were: the diagnosis was made in time and the operation was successful. The cancer had not spread. Ten years ago, the doctor said, I would have sent you on your way. Now, knowing what we know, we’ll do chemotherapy to be on the safe side.

Better safe than sorry, we all agreed.

We got lucky, we said, a year later when no cancer had come back. We were lucky, we said, all through ’98 and ’99, and we entered a new millennium free and clear, the cancer a thing of the past, like the Y2K bug.

A few months later we were back in the hospital. It had come back.

It was, we all agreed, time to fight. What else could we do?

My sister asked questions, took notes and worried. My father talked with my mother, lived with her and ran point regarding decisions, directions and dealing with the obligations incumbent upon anyone who has repeated the words “’til death do us part”. I did my own note-taking, question-asking and behind the scenes improvising. Above all I envisioned the worst, hoped for the best and lost sleep like it was my job.

During the summer of 2002 when it sometimes felt like the walls were closing in (literally, as anyone who has experienced crisis-induced anxiety can attest), I dropped pounds I did not necessarily need to lose. I ate some good food and I drank some good drinks, but those miserable months frequently felt like one unappetizing, ill-digested meal. The worst days were when your stomach and mind simultaneously conspired against you: not enough nourishment and too much mental unrest will cause side effects even strangers notice.

Still, I knew what was at stake, and my primary responsibility, I felt, was to keep things as upbeat and optimistic as possible. This was certainly for my mother’s sake, but it was also a fairly pragmatic strategy. What good, I thought, could possibly come from giving up hope, or letting my mother see the insecurity and the dread that on certain days reflected the weather: thick and humid and getting hotter as the afternoons dragged on.

But we all reserved the right to despise this disease that was decimating the woman we loved. It’s not especially difficult to describe, and I suppose it’s not hard to imagine the defensive feelings that boil up when you see someone close to you suffering. The fury, at times, impotently craves an outlet.

My most fervent wish, which at times became an obsession, was to swap places with my mother and take her cancer inside of me. Not in the metaphorical—or even literal—sense of preferring to struggle in another’s place, although there was obviously that. It was not merely instinctual; it was personal. It was not simply a matter of wanting my mother’s agony to cease, though there was obviously that. What I felt was an unappeasable compulsion to engage with this enemy. In short, I wanted to kick cancer’s ass.

This was not a case of reactionary bravado or calculated displacement (though there were elements of both, obviously); this was something I would have given anything to orchestrate. There I was, in the very prime of my life, physically and perhaps more importantly, mentally; I was as strong spiritually as I’d ever been. I was ready, and ravenous to step into the ring. It was as though I had been working my entire life to prepare for this, to assume this responsibility.

For the first time in my life I craved violence. I needed to step in and deal with this bullying motherfucker. I wanted to hit it, chew it, swallow it, spit it out and step on it. I wanted to laugh at it, engage it on its own terms while taking everything it had to offer, and then bury it. I saw it and I wanted it.

Of course I knew the first signs of nausea would take considerable wind out of my sails, and because I recognized it I appreciated it, and that was truly what caused me to crave some semblance of satisfaction. I am more positive of this than anything else in my entire life: if I could have done it I would have, and I would have been ecstatic.

And like everyone else who has had these exact same thoughts, I was mocked by the fact that it is impossible. Not just the fantasy of some half-assed exorcism, but the inability to do much of anything about cancer. You can’t put your hands on it; you can hardly wrap your mind around it. It humbles us, eventually (inevitably) in terms of how little we actually control despite the ways we create and organize reality with clocks, calendars, words and games. All the rituals—including faith and love—that we utilize to combat the malevolent indifference of our universe are strategies, not solutions. Cancer reminds us we are ultimately just animals in a world that promises only one outcome, and for the majority of creatures populating this planet existence is cruelly fleet and ruthlessly efficient.

The worst part? You can’t make it personal. Cancer is only an organism, staying alive the only way it knows how. What can we do about that? Make it evil, invest it with the accountability for everything that can’t be reconciled or explained. This is why we created the devil; it is the central reason so many of us must believe there is a benign force supervising our affairs. It explains why, with the best intentions, we determine that each misfortunte is all part of a larger plan; one we can’t begin to comprehend. When you go from wanting to believe to needing to believe (in something, anything) it is easier to fathom how faith can quickly lead to violence. This helps explain how—and why—knowledge was scorned or suppressed, and why men of science were burned at the stake.

It’s Nature. It’s natural. It’s our nature.

Cancer reminds us that we are part of a natural order. Billions of organisms are attacked and invaded each day, all according to the cycle of life and death, the grim ushers in Nature’s play. We are aware of it, we can use science to explain it, we may even write poems about it. But we are pretty much powerless to do anything about it. This does not mean we have to accept it. Depending on how you look at the world, we fight every second of our lives just to live. Each breath we draw defies death; each thought we have outlives oblivion. Each time we give love we are defeating fear and hatred, the twin killers of compassion and connection. When we help others suffer through their final struggle with survival we may be fighting a battle that has already been settled. At the same time, we are solving the ultimate secret of our own existence: we learn how to conquer death by anticipating—and transcending—it. This is the battle we are all born into, and it is one we are fortunate to fight as long as we are able.

*From a non-fiction work-in-progress entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

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Mark Twain: The Big Daddy of American Letters

On April 21, 1910, author Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, died in Redding, Conn.

 

Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.
Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of congress. But I repeat myself.
‘Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read.
The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out the conservative adopts them.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.
Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

 

Mark Twain was the heavyweight champion in a time when giants roamed the earth and our color commentary was written in ink. Twain, along with Melville and Hawthorne, represents the holy trinity of 19th Century American fiction: the great white hope. But Twain was arguably the archetypal American writer; certainly that was William Faulkner’s assessment. And if Faulkner says Twain was the “father of American literature” than Twain is the father of American literature, end of discussion. Even still, he was more than that. A lecturer, a satirist, critic, commentator; a genuine public figure and ambassador for the well-examined life.

Twain’s influence is like history itself: impossible to deny, informing everything that comes later. It’s difficult to imagine Upton Sinclair, H.L. Mencken, Paul Theroux and Christopher Hitchens existing without the model laid out by their white-haired progenitor. Has anyone mixed accessible fiction, social commentary (caustic and comic) and travel writing with more elan than the peripatetic Twain? Is anyone, with the possible exception of Oscar Wilde, more deliciously quotable? Mark Twain remains the Big Daddy; distinctly American to be sure, but American in a way that invokes the better practices and habits we used to take for granted. Twain embodies an era when exploration (physical and intellectual), engagement with the world and an insatiable appetite for experience were not rites of passage so much as imperative points of departure.

Of course it was, in many regards, a simpler time: no movie stars or radio-friendly pop singers (no radio, for that matter), no prime time news anchors sensationalizing the story of the day. But to be certain, there were still opportunistic hacks and peddlers of propaganda: as long as art remains a viable avenue of commerce and politics exist, the world will never have a scarcity of these charlatans. So what? Well, would it be too quaint by half (or whole) to propose that writers in general (and poets in particular, per Shelley’s dictum) were indeed the unacknowledged legislators of the world? Expertise earned in the field and conferred via the discipline of expression. The best writers could acquire an old-fashioned kind of authority; the type that conferred upon an individual the honor (and obligation) of expressing truths not beholden to party lines or privilege. The type of sensibility that was capable of creating Huckleberry Finn, for instance. Mark Twain, in short, seamlessly incorporated many of the aspects we lionize in our leaders: a populist impulse, an instinctive aversion to prejudice, skepticism of power and an unabashed zeal for democracy. This is Twain’s legacy: his country did not define him so much as he helped define it. If Hawthorne wrote about what we had been (and, in his despairing eyes, always would be), and Melville wrote about what we could be, then Twain wrote about what we were, and what we should be.

Share