By the time he was 30 years old, Samuel Langhorne Clemens used his nom de plume of “Mark Twain” every time he went out his front door into the public life. That way, he said, Mr. Clemens could blame all of his incendiary rhetoric on his look-alike, Mr. Twain. That scheme mostly worked, and it was great fun for the rest of us.
Samuel Clemens died exactly 100 years ago, but Mark Twain seems more alive than ever. It was Twain, of course, who after a false newspaper story of his demise in Europe famously responded, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
And that is still the case.
This centennial of his actual passing has brought a new batch of books, celebrations, and reconsiderations of the man whom many have called “The Father of American Literature.” I have had an affinity for Twain since my barefoot days, since I first read “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and totally identified with them, especially with the wild boy Huck.
I once played Mark Twain onstage, and at the time I did a bit of research on the old boy as part of any actor’s due diligence. I learned a lot then and have forgotten most of it in the 30- plus years since. So I’ve been revisiting his works and the biographical mountain that surrounds him. It has been a wonderful tonic for me lately.
Like most Twainophiles or Clemensians, I continue to be astounded by the complexity of the man, and by his lasting influence. I have come to think of him not so much as a literary giant, but as the prototypical American Voice.
Most everyone knows the “Classics Illustrated” version of his life: His childhood in the river town of Hannibal, Mo., his apprenticeship as a printer’s devil, his days as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi, his misadventures as a Confederate soldier, his “lighting out for the territory,” his roisterous attempts at silver and gold mining and his equally rowdy escapades as a journalist in the wild mining camps of Nevada and California. Then came a certain respect as a curiosity from the West, success in the East on the lecture platform and the huge response to “The Innocents Abroad.” By then “Mark Twain” was 34 years old, had already lived more life than any 10 of us, and was about to become what Roy Blount, Jr. calls “The First American Superstar.”
Who was he? What was he? Well, for starters, he was a humorist, a moralist, a satirist, a journalist, an essayist, a novelist, a renowned speaker, a disastrous businessman, a compulsive traveler, a dissident’s dissident, an anti-imperialist, a subversive political pamphleteer and simultaneously a cynic and a romanticist.
Modern American and international novelists genuflect to the great “Huckleberry Finn.” Twain and his works have been criticized, scrutinized, analyzed, and deconstructed by everyone from Freudians to Marxists to feminists to post-modernists and he has evaded and confounded them all. He wrote everything from travel books to science fiction, from “boy’s books” to ribald pornography. And unabashedly, he wrote for money. Samuel Clemens could be as ambitious as Mark Twain could be acerbic.
Which is all to say that Mr. Clemens and his creation Mark Twain were as American as it gets. He was self-educated, self-created, self-reliant and self-sufficient.
He was of the Old South, the Wild West, and the East of the Gilded Age (a term he invented). He despised sham, punctured pomposity and pretense, ridiculed grandiosity, and used his “pen warmed up in Hell” to make war on behalf of underdogs everywhere.
So who was Mark Twain? Perhaps you have seen Hal Holbrook do his recreation of Twain’s stage persona. It is certainly well done, so well done that we think that he has captured his essence. But Holbrook knows better. He knows from years of research that what he plays is the tip of the iceberg.
Twain is still an elusive enigma and the most human of our heroes. Yes, he was a complicated and often cantankerous sort, but he was the kind of man America needed — and still needs — to make us look at ourselves.
When Mr. Clemens died 100 years ago, he was very tired and very sick. His creation, Mark Twain, is more modern and meaningful right now than 99 percent of the pundits, preachers and politicians who now dominate public discourse.
Quite an opinion, that one, huh? Maybe I should have listened to Twain when he said, “It is better to keep you mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”