Palo Alto Weekly

- July 2, 2010

Remembering the Great American novelist

'Mark Twain Anthology' rife with insight, inspiration

by Jennifer Deitz

"The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works," edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin; Library of America; 492 pp.; $35

With 2010 marking the centennial of Mark Twain's death, editor Shelley Fisher Fishkin has put together a fascinating and diverse anthology of essays and remembrances by an international cast of writers paying tribute to one of the best known and loved American authors of all time in "The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works."

Samuel Clemens, writing under the pen name of Mark Twain, was a brilliant humorist and satirist whose novels "Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" have become classics in the literary canon. For decades now, Twain's writings have been required reading in schools around the country and have become time-honored favorites of readers both young and old.

Twain also landed famously in the center of the book-banning controversy due to a vocal minority who argued that the public, particularly children, should not be exposed to the "coarse language" Twain used (mostly coming from his characters who spoke in a Southern dialect and made frequent use of the "N word") and demanded that Huck Finn be removed from public-library shelves and classrooms.

The collected voices included in this anthology offer a welcome reminder of what an immense talent Twain was as a writer and what a truly remarkable influence he has had not only on the landscape of American fiction, but internationally as well. Fishkin, who is a professor of English and the Director of the American Studies Program at Stanford University, is a highly regarded expert on Twain and his writing, having authored or edited 33 books on the man and his works, in addition to producing the Broadway play of Mark Twain's "Is He Dead?"

Her own mastery of her subject is well in evidence in the finely crafted introductions to each essay, which provide a brief context and history for the writer's own career and how their particular relationship to Twain evolved.

What will likely most surprise readers who have not studied Twain as exhaustively as Fishkin has is the sheer breadth of influence Twain had on both his contemporaries and on future generations influences spanning an incredibly diverse group of novelists, visual artists, playwrights, actors, philosophers, humorists and political activists, including Rudyard Kipling, Gore Vidal, Friedrich Nietzsche, George Orwell, T.S. Eliot, Jose Marti and John Cocteau.

Writers Toni Morrison, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, whose novels are now considered classics and are widely admired for their depictions of racism against African-Americans and racial and ethnic identity in America, all point to ways in which reading Twain's work at various points in their development as writers served alternately to comfort, disturb and inspire them. So much so that as Fishkin notes in her introduction to writer, critic and commentator David Bradley's essay Bradley surprised audiences at a 1985 speech in Hartford, Conn., by going against the grain of the generally understood definition of "black" literature as being necessarily written by black authors, to argue that "Huckleberry Finn is a black novel."

Bradley further suggested that while Samuel Clemens, the man, was white, his alter ego of Mark Twain was black and the vehicle by which the writer was able to access ideas Clemens, the man, could not have expressed. In Bradley's essay, originally published as the 1996 introduction for "How to Tell a Story and Other Essays," he describes how as a young boy reading Huck Finn he was able to find first in the protagonist and later in the quality of Twain's approach to writing itself an inspiration to shake off the religious propriety of his upbringing that had stifled his creativity and to embrace the life of a writer.

Norman Mailer, the novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning master of "new journalism" who often pooled in with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson as "man's-man" author and celebrity, was also a fan of Twain's. Mailer's is a hilarious, tongue-in-cheek essay entitled "Huck Finn, Alive at 100," about going back to read Twain and imagining how this book would be reviewed if it were the debut novel of a present-day author.

Very likely, Mailer says, Twain would be accused of having "stolen" Hemingway's style, and by way of proof, excerpts a paragraph from Huck Finn describing the river and the landscape with a diction and style that has come to be so closely defined as "Hemingway-esque" that it is startling to realize it was actually Twain who came up with it first.

There is also a delightful short essay by Chuck Jones that includes a spot-on pencil sketch of Twain with characteristically wild hair, an exaggerated moustache and a halo. In the essay excerpted from "Chuck Amuck," Jones tells of how as a little boy reading Twain's description of a coyote as a "long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolf-skin stretched over it," he felt an instant kinship to the idea of this hungry, friendless, out-of-luck creature wandering directionless if only so as to avoid lying around "doing nothing but adding to the burdens of his parents."

The image of the coyote in Jones' head as a child was ultimately the inspiration for his iconic cartoon character Wile E. Coyote, whose futile pursuit of the Road Runner entertained morning cartoon viewers for decades to come.

There are many other unexpected arguments and tributes as well. Progressive feminist writer Ericka Jong, whose novel "Fear of Flying" caused waves in the 1960s with its candid depiction of female sexuality, argues intriguingly that Twain's excursion into pornography and scatology in one of his lesser-known works, "1601," seems in hindsight a crucial exercise in liberation, freeing the writer to address in Huck Finn the even more deeply submerged conflicts in the American psyche regarding slavery, racism and oppression.

Elsewhere in the anthology, author Kurt Vonnegut, best known for his book "Slaughterhouse-Five," credits Twain (along with French writer Jules Verne) as having founded the science-fiction genre in using time travel as part of the motif for his book "Connecticut Yankee." And Cuban writer and political leader Jose Marti, who died fighting for democracy and independence in his own country, describes Twain as one of the rare writers who worked as a "miner" rather than a "gilder" in rooting out and shining light on human failings and hypocrisies, and who used his pen as a "lance" to deftly criticize the injustice brought about by the "new aristocracy" that Marti perceived as having taken root in the United States near the turn of the 20th century.

But perhaps one of the most illuminating and memorable of all the essays in this anthology is one that focuses less on the impact of Twain's writing than on the character of the man, Samuel Clemens, himself. Helen Keller writes in her essay "Our Mark Twain" of finding in Clemens a loyal friend, confidant, inspiration and mentor. Clemens was instrumental in making it possible for Keller to attend Radcliffe College, where according to Fishkin's introduction she became "the first deaf and blind person in the world to earn a bachelor of arts degree."

Keller admires and appreciates Clemens for never letting her disabilities become an obstacle in their relationship. He read aloud to her from his works while she read his lips with her fingers, and despite her lack of sight, insisted on showing her all of the rooms in his favorite old house, and once took her on a walk deep into the countryside on which they got so badly lost in the "uncharted wilderness" that they had to be rescued from the wrong side of a raging river.

As Keller writes, "He never embarrassed me by saying how terrible it is not to see, or how dull life must be always lived in the dark. He wove about my dark walls romance and adventure, which made me feel happy and important. Once when Peter Dunne, the irrepressible Mr. Dooley, exclaimed: 'God, how dull it must be for her, every day the same and every night the same as the day,' he said, 'You're damned wrong there; blindness is an exciting business, I tell you; if you don't believe it, get up some dark night on the wrong side of your bed when the house is on fire and try to find the door.'"

Elsewhere in the essay Keller concludes, "He made me laugh and feel thoroughly happy by telling some good stories ... I have forgotten a great deal more than I remember, but I shall never forget how tender he was."

Many of his readers would likely say the same.

Freelance writer Jennifer Deitz can be reached at deitzjen@gmail.com.

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