Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Man In The Moon White Suit

"Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody."
~~Mark Twain

I caught a blurb in Entertainment Weekly that said a memoir was coming out this November: "The University of California Press will publish Volume I of Mark Twain’s autobiography (volumes II and III are to come at later dates).Twain himself gave the university some 5,000 pages but stipulated that the work had to remain unpublished until the 100th anniversary of his death, so the manuscript has been languishing in the vault all this time — available to scholars (who have been able to use the work for their own Twain biographies) but no one else. On its' website, UCP says that “the strict instruction that these texts remain unpublished for 100 years meant that when they came out, he would be "dead, and unaware, and indifferent’ and therefore free to speak his ‘whole frank mind."

Oddly enough, I had been thinking of re-reading Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn just in the past weeks: both books not read by me in quite some time. On my regular trip to the library I went into the children's section with it's reduced shelves and tiny tables and minute chairs and while there was no Tom Sawyer (off whitewashing a fence, I reckon,) they did have a recently published Huckleberry with some interesting illustrations, so I checked it out, thinking, "A lazy summer read meandering down the river on a raft." I settled into bed. In the introduction, there was what I would call a "disclaimer" about the dialect (Read: "Don't take offense that he has black people talking this way,") and another disclaimer about the use of the "N" word. Lawdy.

I begin. Chapter One. Wait. I have to ask. Have any of you returned to these books in oh...the past twenty years? Hep me Jebus. I was....floored. The dialogue? Not just Jim the runaway slave, but everyone. I suppose this regional dialect writing passed for humor in 1885. I read on Wikipedia that when the novel came out, there was controversy over the "coarse language," (that would be the swearing,) which is minor to what more modern eyes now see. I also Wiki read, "...it became even more controversial in the 20th century because of its perceived use of racial stereotypes and because of its frequent use of the racial slur _____." If I say "racial slur used every five words," I think I would be understating it.

When I was checking the library shelves for the book, and picked it up, I noted that it seemed remarkably "clean," as in "children haven't been chewing, doodling, or dripping their Creamsicles down the pages." I think a modern child would find it impossible to read what William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and many other noted authors have labeled "The Great American Novel." Thematically? Perhaps. But the written word? I'm going to be honest. I have read some really dreadful stuff in my time and stuck with it to the bitter end. I couldn't finish Huckleberry Finn. Finn did me in. I swirled in the currents of the Mississippi and sank.

That same day in the library, I stumbled on a tiny book entitled Who is Mark Twain? by "Mark Twain Himself," Never Before Published. What this book consists of is a lot of essays that never saw the light of day, and I might add, Twain was a shrewd editor in leaving them unpublished. To his credit, I do believe that Twain, like many a writer, felt that if you had a calling for writing, then you did it, come what may and let it fall for posterity.

In an 1865 letter to his brother, Twain wrote, "You had better shove this in the stove, for I don't want any absurd "literary remains and unpublished letters of "Mark Twain" published after I am planted." Obviously his brother didn't obey him, nor did many others who received similar requests over the years. Considering that he wrote his brother those words before he had his first big publishing success, and two years before his first book, it was a remarkably prescient thing to say, even jokingly.

When Twain died in 1910, he left behind the largest cache (over half a million pages,) of personal papers of any 19th-century author. How did he really feel about posterity poking through his stuff? I think it is clear that, unlike many writers, Twain wasn't embarrassed by his "literary remains even if they were failures." It is very unusual for a writer to expose his efforts that might caste ill on his posterity, or even something as simple as an unwillingness to let the world see how he worked. Many a time I have read "The letters of...." or..."The journal of..." and it is obvious that every line was carefully written, or correspondence saved, which did not reflect poorly on the deceased.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a woman who had a heightened perception of her own role in history, and knowing she was dying, called her former school chum (and social secretary) and they sat in front of the fireplace, re-reading and laughing, but burning and destroying page after page of personal papers. Let the walls of Camelot remain sound.

When social commentator and judicial investigator Dominick Dunne died, in his last novel his protagonist (himself,) revealed that he was bi-sexual and had been involved with other men. Mr. Dunne said, just a short time before his death. "You have got to tell the truth at the end. No lies. You have got to tell the truth." I am also of the school, "Let the truth prevail. For better or worse." There's something profoundly sad in someone wanting to control what their life seemingly was--when it wasn't. I say there is more to be gained in telling the truth, because we are all part of this process. Another way of saying, "Be prideful of your scars with your successes," I suppose.
Referring back to these memoirs on Twain that will be coming out (and the delay in their release,) I want to mention that this subject crops up in this book of essays, quoting from Twain's autobiography of 1906 (four years before his death) that the full publication of his life would not occur until 100 years after his death. He makes this precondition explicit, and then explains why he thought he was taking no real risk in the matter:
"I can speak more frankly from the grave than most historians would be able to do, for the reason that whereas they would not be able to feel dead, however hard they might try, I myself am able to do that. They would be making believe to be dead. With me, it is not make-believe. They would all the time be feeling, in a tolerably definite way, that that things in the grave which represents them is a conscious entity; conscious of what was saying about people, an entity capable of feeling shame; an entity capable of shrinking from full and frank expression, for they believe in immortality. They believe that death is only a sleep, followed by an immediate waking, and that their spirits are conscious of what is going on here below and take a deep and continuous interest in the joys and sorrows of the survivors whom they love and don't."

"But I have long ago lost my belief in immortality--also my interest in it. I can say, now, what I could not say while alive--things which would shock people to hear; things which I could not say when alive because I should be aware of that shock and would certainly spare myself the personal pain of inflicting it."

...in other words, Twain was perfectly willing to let us read his most intimate manuscripts precisely because he knew that when we did so, he would no longer exist. Think for a moment, about "...things which would shock people to hear." A world and society where there were still checks and boundaries that prohibited laying it all out there. Is it silly to long for the day when we weren't blasted by the minute with every burp, blat and blather on Twitter? Gee. Should I really write that I have a wart on my labia? Oh...go ahead. Be honest. Tell us what you are really thinking. What would Mark Twain tweet? "My moustache is yellow from smoking these dang nabbit ceegars." The problem is, there are no qualifiers on what is worth reporting. Have you read Courtney Love's Facebook page? Be still my heart. Code blue.

The book wasn't a total waste of rejects. I found an amusing essay about standards Twain set "Whenever I Am About To Publish A Book." His means of jumping the critics by using the verdict of the general public. He states he always showed his manuscripts to a private group of friends composed as follows:

1. Man and woman with no sense of humor.
2. Man and woman with medium sense of humor.
3. Man and woman with prodigious sense of humor.
4. An intensely practical person.
5. A sentimental person.
6. Person who must have a moral in, and a purpose.
7. Hypercritical person--natural flaw-picker and fault-finder.
8. Enthusiast. Person who enjoys anything and everything, almost.
9. Person who watches the others, and applauds or condemns with the majority.
10. Half a dozen bright young girls and boys, unclassified.
11. Person who relishes slang and familiar flippancy.
12. Person who detests them.
13. Person of evenly balanced judicial mind.
14. Man who always goes to sleep.

...and for those who didn't agree with him on any of this?.....

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Blogger Loralee said...

I always wonder what writers think of their work, and just how long it takes to have their freedom of expression be freely expressed. I think it's good that some writing is shocking (or over the top) to help illustrate a point. I don't remember the ending of either of those books, just the bits which are over used in other media. Your review didn't inspire me to want to revisit ;)

11:07 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Miss Thi: :D. I wouldn't bother revisiting. Learn from my mistake. I'm going to be curious, reading his memoirs, just how well his work has weathered over time. I have a book of essays he wrote called "Letters From the Earth," that have held up, but some of his stuff...not so much. Then again, who talks about William Dean Howells anymore?

11:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reread "A Connecticutt Yankee in King Arthur's Court"; Twain was angry, angry, angry. His memoirs must be a doozy.

I wonder what Jane Austen's letters, burned by her sister after Jane's death, contained?


9:55 AM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...


Emily Dickinson's sister Lavania trashed a lot, too. Not the poetry, per se, but correspondence. You may recall Emily had a mystery man in her life. "Master." And I just typed "email" instead of "Emily." HA.

As for Twain, yes to the anger and yes to the sadness. He lost a beloved child. He went bankrupt (more than once I think,) so poverty weighed heavily on his mind. He was full of rage. Those essays I mentioned, "Letters From The Earth," were written during one of his really low spells, and they reflect that rage/sadness we speak of.

I am still reeling from the re-reading of Huckleberry Finn. It's horrible. Unreadable, really. There was a book in my elementary school library from the 1920's called "Little Brown Baby." Yanked while I was still at school. And they sure don't jump through hoops to show Disney's "Song of the South" on tv, do they? I can't even imagine a contemporary teacher offering up Twain for reading, he's that politically incorrect.

And you and I have gotten into some infamous Jane Austen discussions. Didn't I blog one conversation we had on my older journal? I think it's wrong to destroy that part of the person's history, because of some embarrassment it might cause the family. Soon enough, the family will be ashes, but that famous relative's legacy goes on. And why not have the truth out there?

The other day I was talking with someone, and I said, "I think every single family has at least one dysfunctional family member," and then today I got an email from a friend, discussing the problems in "their" family, so you see? No one escapes those problems, not if they have a fully lived life.

10:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Politically incorrect? That's what keeps the boys of South Park going.

Think of the trashier politically incorrect pieces of work -- try "Valley of the Dolls".

I'll have to reread Finn. Wasn't Twain playing out the hateful streak he so detested in the U.S. of his day in the words of Huck? The friendship between Huck and Jim was the subversive theme he was pushing on a reluctant public, I thought, but I will reread it.

I reread Treasure Island two summers ago and was startled by the blatent classs structure it depicted and, yes, the n word and other similar words were used.


10:26 AM  
Anonymous ma said...

This is just brilliant. I now want to read Twain's biography. I wouldn't have before. You are back, Cube. Back with all of the smarts, grace and brilliance!

1:28 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

K? Don't bother. Seriously. You will make it through three chapters and the dialect writing alone will make you question wasting your time. Oddly enough (and Tony would say "not" knowing how conjoined you and I are) I was thinking of returning to Stevenson as well and doing Treasure Island and/or Kidnapped. Hold off and read the Twain memoirs. I think you'll be in for a better read.

M.A. I want to see YOU writing again, as well. When I scan the blog rosters, it's just more of the same ole same ole. Someone cut me off in traffic. Let's get drunk and party. Dating rules. All that "stuff" that I have zero interest in. I was leaving a comment on Jordan Baker's blog, saw your name and thought, "Yeah...Where has SHE been?" Again, hold out for this Twain trilogy in November. I think it will be a better read.

1:56 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

You know I would love it if Twain's writings had utterly unspeakable things within them.

"It was 1862, and I had taken a shine to this Tennessee Walking Horse named Jehosephat. One night, I slipped into his stall under cover of dark, and we made sweet love all night long."

4:55 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Phil: Shame on you. You made me laugh. Or something involving his steamboat days and the promise to a young sailor that he could "toot his horn." Actually, and I haven't read Twain anything in a while, I do remember (vaguely) that he became a very suspicious, embittered man after some deaths of children and a few bankruptcies (that'll do it.) So "kindly ole grandpa" doesn't fly.

5:45 PM  
Anonymous Travis said...

I read a LOT of Twain in high school and early college, and I've visited him now and then since, and yet with all the time I put in, I was never confident that I had a particularly accurate read on what he really thought about a lot of the grand questions. Jaded, bitter, dark, caustic, etc. - sure. But entirely so? Nah. How much so? Hell if I know, and I don't trust the autobiography to improve anybody's guess all that much. There was always a tingle in the back of my head telling me that the last chapter of The Mysterious Stranger rang true to his own philosophies, but it's not much more than a hunch. The man wrote (and lived) with an audience in mind from first day he took up the pen.

I've looked back a few times at all those unpublished drafts from the old blog, of which that are appoximately 3.5 metric ass-tons, and I don't regret not publishing a one of them. The posts that don't work don't work for a reason, and trying to rescue them is about as productive as refurbishing broken particleboard furniture that you dug out of a dumpster.

I'm curious as to what Twain hoped would happen when we read his words so long after his passing. The kind of reaction(s) he was secretly hoping for. We'll read all this, we'll guess, and I'm sure that we'll guess wrong. We'll get close maybe, but we won't quite nail it.

To Twain, maybe part of the point was to deliver one last inside joke. To speak his mind for a piece, as all good hillbillies like to do, but to also send us on a bit of a literary snipe hunt, to watch with amusement from afar, and to have a cigar and a chuckle from beyond the grave as he stands on a platform and tells Tesla's ghost to turn it all the way up to eleven.

11:18 AM  
Blogger IcyAll Ican said...

Eugene O'Neill did the same thing with his wife, before he died that you describe JKO doing -- he burned all his early drafts and half-finished writings. He wanted to be judged on his finished products only. I can understand that. It's a pisser when someone says "you said XXX" to have to say "But I changed my mind later; I clarified, I revised" ... especially since as EB White and Strunk said "All good writing is rewriting" ... nevertheless, I can barely get through O'Neill's finished stuff, so I don't give a crap what he burned.

12:16 AM  
Blogger Maria said...

I always watch him in T.V wearing casual and white suit I admire him so much for his work.

10:43 AM  

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