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For a few nights over the weekend I played short stage bits as Mark Twain, using mostly my material but all of his style, which in aping manner I try to imitate. His style seems to suit me. It’s said imitation is a sincere form of flattery. I hope the dead author would feel flattered rather than mocked. The answer would likely depend on how the audience received the effort, which I admit had certain weaknesses at each show or rehearsal. Liquor was served where we performed. That was a help to me, as I’ve been told in past that when a person has finally drunk enough, they indeed find me funny. With great modesty I accept that compliment, knowing it is but a small part of what’s deserved. To that end I will often write my own critical reviews because I am more intimately familiar with the essential facts and can do a far better job of criticism than is common. I believe that in my own small way I’ve elevated modesty to a new level of brilliance, one it lacked before I came along to help it out.
Doing a great worthy in American letters such as Mark Twain is both gift and burden. Hemingway, a self-pitying drunk who too seldom knew when to end a sentence, was, however, correct in his placement of Huckleberry Finn in the front seat of modern American writing. As Twain described Huckleberry, he was unwashed and unschooled. But more importantly in the development of an American style of writing, he was authentic and real, a sharp contrast from the often pompous and expected formality of earlier characters who spoke and acted with all the convincing style of manikins moved around on sticks. Huck smoked, scratched, and swam in the Mississippi, the perfect element to give youthful freedom between propriety and convention on shore and untamed nature in the rolling river. That model of the American persona has stuck. The characters we often admire and hate are those with strong individuality often at conflict with the limits of society. Put in three words: We Value Rebellion. That tradition existed before Sam Clemens cast his Huck Finn, though he (I think) put it into a fine and enduring form.
When a minor light like me works with a great light such as Mark Twain, I can’t help but feel discomfort from the contrast between that brilliance and my guttering candle. But the American spirit of someone like Huck says, “Who cares?” Why should I allow small things such as lack of talent or ability stop me from either rising upward or demonstrating the degree of my foolishness? I’ve grown content with the idea that if I’m a dolt anyway, I may as well develop that end of my talents to the fullest extent and prove myself the idiot able to do all three stooges simultaneously. I take comfort knowing not everyone is fool enough to turn so quickly they’ll be hit by their own two by four.
I’ve heard passionate argument to remove Mark Twain from our libraries based on his use of racist language. The language or terminology is certainly there. A person cannot look at the periods before, during, and after the American Civil War and not find either shouts or echoes of racism. That is not the same as saying a particular person was especially racist or did any more (than is true of most of us) to follow along in the conventions of their day. Being human is not a form of perfection individually, societally, or culturally. So, was Sam Clemens a racist? I think the answer is yes and no. It is yes in the sense he undoubtedly accepted blacks filling certain slots in the society of his day, and no in any sense he wished it to stay that way. Clemens’ adult associations were with a distinctly abolitionist part of society. He was a harsh and loud critic of barbarous and cruel Belgian handling of blacks in the Congo. I don’t think a person is much of a racist for attacking racist activities. A similar accusation is sometimes made that Mark Twain was anti-Semitic. There are some very damning things with his name on them. It appears, however, he did not write them. In contrast, we do know he was repeatedly critical of France and the French system for its anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus case. Again, it’s a poor anti-Semite who attacks the thing he supposedly favors or supports.
I don’t know in detail Sam Clemens’ position on free speech, but I like to think he’d have been as sarcastically critical of its abridgement for some of the reasons offered for doing so these days. Let us not offend others in word or cartoon because it makes them angry and violent. Weakening free speech for such causes, seems to me, is kissing kin to telling a battered woman, “If you’d done the dishes when told, then this wouldn’t have happened.” Do we kindly pat abused children on the back and tell them, “If only you hadn’t needed shoes and so much food, you wouldn’t have brought this down on yourself”? Meekness in free speech allows bullying of the worst kind, by which I mean it favors the orthodoxy that permits racism and sexism and other forms of excess to go unchallenged and protected under the shield of submission to authority and the status quo.
Of course, I do not know what Sam Clemens would say or do today. Times change and with them circumstance and situation alter. The challenges a century after Twain’s death are different, but humanity itself hasn’t changed much. There are still those who will go along with near anything for the sake of peace. There are still those who cling to ancient manners and those who wish for reform. We are people who through good intentions yet can achieve very sad ends. How can we hope to face challenges if we’re trussed up, vision obscured and gagged like sacks of potatoes? When’s the last time you saw a sack of potatoes accomplish anything other than be peeled and cooked?