Archive for ‘Mark Twain’


“River, I’ve never seen the sea…”

As the teacher in my household prepares to steer her ninth-graders through tricky literary currents, she’s revisiting The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; I’ve hopped aboard and joined her on the raft. I read Twain’s novel when I was 14, but returning to it more than three decades later has been a revelation. I hadn’t expected to find that the natural focus on slavery and race had obscured Twain’s other related ideas.

I’m probably the last adult reader to notice what makes it such a rich and challenging book: the perfect ease of the narrative voice, the tender passages about life on the river, and the wrenching moments when Huck starts to comprehend Jim’s humanity. And holy crow, Huck Finn is an epic catalog of the deficiencies and absurdities of the antebellum South: family feuds of long-forgotten origin; the poisonous grafting of codes of honor to lawlessness and mob violence; and grifters peddling phrenology, cynical revivalism, and mutilated Shakespeare to yokels who fully deserve to be conned. I can’t be the first person to imagine that the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? owes far more to Huck Finn than to The Odyssey for its episodic mythologizing of Southern culture.

What leaped out at me the most, though, is Twain’s full-on satire of people who take their entertainment way too seriously. I’ve written before about the chapter in Life on the Mississippi where the state capitol in Baton Rouge ignites Twain’s rant about the South’s destructive obsession with the Middle Ages:

Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the Capitol building; for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances. The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books. Admiration of his fantastic heroes and their grotesque “chivalry” doings and romantic juvenilities still survives here, in an atmosphere in which is already perceptible the wholesome and practical nineteenth-century smell of cotton-factories and locomotives; and traces of its inflated language and other windy humbuggeries survive along with it. It is pathetic enough, that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things—materials all ungenuine within and without, pretending to be what they are not—should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place; but it is much more pathetic to see this architectural falsehood undergoing restoration and perpetuation in our day, when it would have been so easy to let dynamite finish what a charitable fire began, and then devote this restoration-money to the building of something genuine.

[…]

By itself the imitation castle is doubtless harmless, and well enough; but as a symbol and breeder and sustainer of maudlin Middle-Age romanticism here in the midst of the plainest and sturdiest and infinitely greatest and worthiest of all the centuries the world has seen, it is necessarily a hurtful thing and a mistake.

Twain is sincere in his loathing of romanticism, but in Life on the Mississippi he’s too blunt and unfunny about it to sound like anything but a crank. In Huck Finn, published two years later, he more effectively vents his ire through the excesses of Tom Sawyer, whose mania for tales of adventure tests the patience of his more practical friend:

We played robber now and then about a month, and then I resigned. All the boys did. We hadn’t robbed nobody, hadn’t killed any people, but only just pretended. We used to hop out of the woods and go charging down on hog-drivers and women in carts taking garden stuff to market, but we never hived any of them. Tom Sawyer called the hogs “ingots,” and he called the turnips and stuff “julery,” and we would go to the cave and powwow over what we had done, and how many people we had killed and marked. But I couldn’t see no profit in it.

One time Tom sent a boy to run about town with a blazing stick, which he called a slogan (which was the sign for the Gang to get together), and then he said he had got secret news by his spies that next day a whole parcel of Spanish merchants and rich A-rabs was going to camp in Cave Hollow with two hundred elephants, and six hundred camels, and over a thousand “sumter” mules, all loaded down with di’monds, and they didn’t have only a guard of four hundred soldiers, and so we would lay in ambuscade, as he called it, and kill the lot and scoop the things. He said we must slick up our swords and guns, and get ready.  He never could go after even a turnip-cart but he must have the swords and guns all scoured up for it, though they was only lath and broomsticks, and you might scour at them till you rotted, and then they warn’t worth a mouthful of ashes more than what they was before. I didn’t believe we could lick such a crowd of Spaniards and A-rabs, but I wanted to see the camels and elephants, so I was on hand next day, Saturday, in the ambuscade; and when we got the word we rushed out of the woods and down the hill. But there warn’t no Spaniards and A-rabs, and there warn’t no camels nor no elephants. It warn’t anything but a Sunday-school picnic, and only a primer-class at that. We busted it up, and chased the children up the hollow; but we never got anything but some doughnuts and jam, though Ben Rogers got a rag doll, and Jo Harper got a hymn-book and a tract; and then the teacher charged in, and made us drop everything and cut.

I didn’t see no di’monds, and I told Tom Sawyer so. He said there was loads of them there, anyway; and he said there was A-rabs there, too, and elephants and things. I said, why couldn’t we see them, then?  He said if I warn’t so ignorant, but had read a book called Don Quixote, I would know without asking. He said it was all done by enchantment. He said there was hundreds of soldiers there, and elephants and treasure, and so on, but we had enemies which he called magicians; and they had turned the whole thing into an infant Sunday-school, just out of spite. I said, all right; then the thing for us to do was to go for the magicians. Tom Sawyer said I was a numskull.

Huck and Tom argue about wizards and genies, and Huck decides to test his friend’s claims. It’s one of many times when he tries on the world-views of others as he struggles to work out his own:

I thought all this over for two or three days, and then I reckoned I would see if there was anything in it. I got an old tin lamp and an iron ring, and went out in the woods and rubbed and rubbed till I sweat like an Injun, calculating to build a palace and sell it; but it warn’t no use, none of the genies come. So then I judged that all that stuff was only just one of Tom Sawyer’s lies. I reckoned he believed in the A-rabs and the elephants, but as for me I think different. It had all the marks of a Sunday-school.

Of course—spoiler alert for time-traveling readers from the 1880s—Tom Sawyer plays a huge role in the climax of Huck Finn when he agrees to help free Jim from imprisonment in a shack. Tom and Huck could easily break him out in a moment, but the liberation has to happen on Tom’s convoluted terms. Day after day, Tom draws out Jim’s captivity by insisting on all the elaborate trappings of a swashbuckling adventure novel: a secret tunnel, a coat of arms, snakes and rats, a rope ladder baked in a pie—there’s even talk of sawing off Jim’s leg even though he could free himself from his chain simply by lifting the leg of his bed.

Many readers find the whole episode tedious and cruel, but the cruelty is the point. It would be easy to see the better-educated, middle-class Tom Sawyer as a lovable scamp who just wants others to share his bookish whims, but in Huck Finn he embodies a trend that Twain found troubling: the triumph of fantasy over reason and reality. Whatever the character meant to him elsewhere, Tom Sawyer is a figure of dangerous foolishness here. Wouldn’t Twain glower disapprovingly at the emergence of fandoms so all-encompassing that they inspire cosplay, cultural squabbling, and vicarious reinterpretations of history? He might have said that what our geeky age has wrought from harmless escapism will someday prove harmful to people who won’t play along. I guess we’ll see.

Jim is held captive for far longer than he needs to be because of storybook romanticism. You could see the whole Civil War in that, if you want.

“Catch the mist, catch the myth…”

Mark Twain was beguiled by medieval minds. Most Americans remember his satiric use of medieval spolia in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but Twain returned to the Middle Ages with telling regularity. He celebrated the jubilee of Queen Victoria by writing in the voice of a noble at a 1415 Agincourt victory parade, and he considered Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc his favorite of his own books. Like many late 19th-century Americans, even non-Catholics, Twain was obsessed with the French saint, finding “no blemish in that rounded and beautiful character” and calling her “easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.”

Later, Twain taught his children medieval English history by linking pictures to pathways in his yard, and he even journeyed to Bayreuth, where his only mild appreciation of Wagner’s Tannhauser and Parsifal made him feel “like a heretic in heaven,” even as he declared the pilgrimage “one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.”

As Twain knocked around Europe, he sometimes grumbled when the Middle Ages intruded on his vision of a more rational world. In Switzerland, after hearing a tale about a skeleton who testified in a medieval trial, he spat that it spoke of “a time so remote, so far back toward the beginning of original idiocy, that the difference between a bench of judges and a basket of vegetables was as yet so slight that we may say with all confidence that it didn’t really exist.” Still, even Sam Clemens, hostile to notions of nobility, could get swept up in the romanticism of Europe’s medieval past, provided it stayed on the far side of the Atlantic.

I pondered Twain’s medievalism last week while passing through Baton Rouge, a city he knew from his riverboat days. In Chapter 40 of Life on the Mississippi, Twain revisits the city, alive with magnolia blossoms: “For we were in the absolute South now—no modifications, no compromises, no half-way measures.” Like Twain, I found “a tropical sun overhead and a tropical swelter in the air,” and one of his more memorable rants still hanging in the August haze:

And at this point, also, begins the pilot’s paradise: a wide river hence to New Orleans, abundance of water from shore to shore, and no bars, snags, sawyers, or wrecks in his road.

Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the Capitol building; for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances.

The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books. Admiration of his fantastic heroes and their grotesque “chivalry” doings and romantic juvenilities still survives here, in an atmosphere in which is already perceptible the wholesome and practical nineteenth-century smell of cotton-factories and locomotives; and traces of its inflated language and other windy humbuggeries survive along with it.

It is pathetic enough, that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things—materials all ungenuine within and without, pretending to be what they are not—should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place; but it is much more pathetic to see this architectural falsehood undergoing restoration and perpetuation in our day, when it would have been so easy to let dynamite finish what a charitable fire began, and then devote this restoration-money to the building of something genuine.


[. . .]

By itself the imitation castle is doubtless harmless, and well enough; but as a symbol and breeder and sustainer of maudlin Middle-Age romanticism here in the midst of the plainest and sturdiest and infinitely greatest and worthiest of all the centuries the world has seen, it is necessarily a hurtful thing and a mistake.

* * *

That’s Louisiana’s Old State Capitol, designed in a “castellated Gothic” style by New York-born James Harrison Dakin in 1847 and open for business (albeit 400 percent over-budget) by 1850. The designer of several neo-Gothic churches and college buildings, Dakin hated the idea of another derivative neoclassical statehouse and opted for a Capitol with “a decided distinctive, classic, and commanding character.”

Since the Civil War, the Old State Capitol, occupied and almost accidentally burned down by Union troops, has been stuck in a cycle of abandonment, decay, destruction, renovation, and rebirth. Although Twain recalled a “whitewashed castle,” Louisianans who picked up Life on the Mississippi between 1883 and 1902 knew a bolder folly, painted red and festooned with iron turrets that even I find excessive.

The people of Louisiana appear to have adored the Old State Capitol, but one political giant shared Twain’s hatred of the place: Huey Long. As governor, Long left the building’s fire insurance unrenewed, believing—perhaps hoping—that “it was about to fall down, and there was nothing left to patch,” according to Carol K. Haase. “He said there wasn’t another building in the whole country that was such a disgrace and that he wouldn’t pay twenty-five dollars for the whole thing.”

By 1932, a new capitol, an art-deco skyscraper, loomed over Baton Rouge. Twain would have been pleased. Infuriated by the stubborn Southern medievalism exemplified by plantation owners’ obsession with the works of Sir Walter Scott—more on that in a future post!—he wanted to see Americans spell out their culture in a homegrown, progressive idiom, shorn of courtiers and kings. After sighting the emperor’s daughter-in-law in Bavaria in 1891, Twain found her beautiful, kind, and humane, which troubled him all the more. “There are many kinds of princesses,” he sighed, “but this kind is the most harmful of all, for wherever they go they reconcile people to monarchy and set back the clock of progress.”

Browsing Life on the Mississippi and The Complete Essays in recent days, I’ve been impressed by the breadth of Twain’s knowledge and insistent rationality—but I’m also struck by also by how badly he misjudged the grip of medievalism on the American mind. Even as Twain mocked, in that same chapter of Life on the Mississippi, an advertisement for a Tennessee finishing school that played up its “resemblance to the old castles of song and story, with its towers, turreted walls, and ivy-mantled porches,” the United States was on the verge of a 40-year “collegiate Gothic” building binge that makes Twain seem far from prescient about his era and the culture of the century since. Were Twain to hear my four-year-old niece swooning over the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge, he’d be despondent. “It’s like a real castle, where princesses live,” she gushed to an amazed friend. “I wish I could go back tomorrow. I wish I lived there.”

Like many Americans, Twain wandered the medieval world of his own imagination; it’s both humanizing and absurd that he thought he could write new lives for saints and kings without stirring the waves of medievalism that ceaselessly lap at American shores. His ambivalence also shows that you don’t need to like the Middle Ages to be a medievalist, as long as you fancy yourself that rare, rational aesthete who can thrill to monarchical pageantry without endorsing monarchies themselves. “One can enjoy a rainbow,” Twain claimed, suppressing a romantic twinge, “without necessarily forgetting the forces that made it.”