Sunday, April 13, 2014

Mark My Word

One time Mark Twain told the conductor on a slow-moving train that if the locomotive was going to catch cows, the engineer would have to speed it up a bit. His joke made reference to the cow-catcher, a device on the front of train engines designed to push any cows or other animals the train might encounter to one side or the other. That kind of wit, feigned innocence that takes everything literally, is what made him famous.

For example, he once told a story about trying to help a lady who had lumbago. He informed her that he had suffered from that disease and could help her recover. Of course, she was interested in hearing about the cure. He said, “You must give up smoking and drinking and swearing and you will get well.” The lady replied, “Sir, I cannot give up those things because I have never done any of them.” His reply was a classic, “There you have it, a sinking ship without any cargo to throw overboard.”

As to smoking, Mark Twain said, “I can give it up any time I want to. I have done it a thousand times.” Some of you may remember how the Widow was always on Huckleberry Finn about his pipe smoking. Huck said, “Of course, she took snuff, but that was alright because she done it herself.” He observed that he did not want to go to Heaven if there was no smoking in it. That kind of irreverence was a hallmark of his performances and he was in demand as lecturer all over the country. Interestingly, he did not wear that famous white suit with the string tie very often. Re-enactors have made that costume the norm, not the great writer himself.

Literary history is full of contradictions between the character of the writer and the work itself. Hawthorne, for example, had every reason to be a happy Victorian-style man, having married well, attained success and outlived his children. Yet he wrote some of the most morose and some of the saddest tales in the American canon. On the other hand, Mark Twain had a very tragic life, having lost loved ones and having repeatedly suffered great financial crises. Yet he wrote some of the funniest and most joyful stories we have in our heritage. I am convinced that writers assume a persona when practicing their craft to provide a distance between their inner being and what appears on the page. Even William Faulkner hid behind his characters.

One must never ask what a writer himself or herself thinks about a subject from studying his or her work. Ideas are not opinions and the author’s state of mind is disguised in the final product. I know some of you psychoanalysts will disagree with me on that issue, but I am convinced we must appreciate the writing quite apart from the author’s biography. A story is a story, not a psychological document nor a sociological tract.

A child asked Mark Twain how he wrote stories. He replied that he created a handful of characters and turned them loose on the page: “Pretty soon I have a whole novel finished up and it never costs me an idea.”

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