Posted by: Ray Olson
One hundred years ago today, on April 21, 1910, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, world-famous then as he still is by his pen-name, Mark Twain, died. Curiously enough—at least for ponderers of the possibly, if improbably, portentous—in one respect 1910 exactly resembled the year of his birth, 1835. In both years, the comet called Halley’s after the Englishman who first calculated its periodicity of 75/6 years passed Earth, for which it is the only short-period comet visible to the naked eye. Compounding curiosity, if you’ve a mind to doing so, is the fact that Twain had predicted that as he arrived with the comet, so he would leave—a “prediction” that proved accurate.
Back in 1985, the last time Halley’s came to wow us, David Carkeet was ready. He’d written—and arranged to publish when the comet would be most visible that year—a novel answering the question, What if Halley’s brought Twain back the next time around, in 1985? I reviewed that book, I Been There Before, when it was new. It was a terrific commemoration of the comet as well as Twain then, and one fine way to observe this year’s Twain centennial would be to read it, or read it again.
I called it a “tour-de-force of scholarship, parody, and tomfoolery”—but how I avoided words like antic, madcap, cracked, and so forth I’ll never know. I adore funny books, and I Been There Before is one of the funniest it’s been my pleasure to review. It’s authentically Twainish, full of outsized characters pretending to be what they’re not or being what they fancy they are with ludicrous propriety; that is, of con artists and marks. Only Twain and, through him, the reader, ostensibly knows enough to laugh at idiotic concepts like “delirium Clemens.”
So you could read Carkeet to celebrate. Or you could read more of the real Twain. Ah, but watch out. If you’re like me, the latter course may topple an idol. Like most good American English majors, I left college firmly convinced that Mark Twain was the greatest American novelist, whom it would be folly not to read more of. And I did—A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Pudd’nhead Wilson, The Mysterious Stranger, several dozen short stories and extracts from the travel books, the comico-critical demolition of “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” and “Fenimore Cooper’s Further Literary Offenses.” And . . .
I put Twain aside. Oh, I still think Huckleberry Finn may be the greatest American novel. Old Times on the Mississippi is a passionate and beautiful memoir, and The Gilded Age, written with Charles Dudley Warner, is a template for the American novel of political satire, but I tired of Twain’s scorn for the past, his bratty iconoclasm, his village-atheist moral superiority vis-à-vis Christianity. Much later, I learned that his dismissal of Walter Scott was entirely unjust, and I suspect Cooper is less offensive than Twain found him.
Twain’s profound only when he informs a boy’s perspective with an older but not old man’s wisdom, and he’s sublimely funny only when lampooning, ridiculing, and slumming (see the peerless anecdote, “Jim Blaine and His Grandfather’s Ram,” chapter 53 of Roughing It). Melodramatic contrivance haunts his serious work apart from Huck Finn, in which he openly derides it, and his prose stops singing when the Mississippi’s far behind him.
There are still a few of Twain’s books I mean to crack—The Prince and the Pauper, perhaps The American Claimant—but after many tries, I fear Tom Sawyer will remain off my lifetime reading list (well, I read and still have the Classics Illustrated comic book version). And I well might return again to Huck Finn because, you see, I been there before.