Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 52

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 52

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This is the grave of Mark Twain.

2016-09-30-11-11-28

I don’t think I need to give a biography of Samuel Clemens, i.e,, Mark Twain. Twain may or may not be American’s greatest fiction writer. It my somewhat limited surveying of literature professors, they somewhat tend to look down on him a bit in comparison to Melville or Faulkner. And maybe those writers were more sophisticated in their literary merit. But I do think Twain was an amazing seer into the American condition of the 19th century, a condition that was basically Trumpism running out of control in terms of open racism, the prioritizing of idiocy over knowledge, and the raw, uncouth nature of the nation’s white people. In other words, Andrew Jackson’s America. Sure, the end of Huckleberry Finn is a disaster when that frat boy Tom Sawyer (I think it was Philip Roth who called Sawyer “America’s first frat boy” or something like that in The Great American Novel). But the first 2/3 is the most cutting satire into what it meant to be an American written at that time. Some of the early humor pieces don’t quite age that well. And he got really maudlin at the end of life and wrote some sappy stuff around then too. But whatever. Puddin’head Wilson is fantastic on both race and 19th century white society. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court ages really well. And Life on the Mississippi is a wonderful work.

And hell, he coined the term Gilded Age. Plus he was pro-union, once giving a speech to a group of Knights of Labor that said, “Who are the oppressors? The few: the King, the capitalist, and a handful of other overseers and superintendents. Who are the oppressed? The many: the nations of the earth; the valuable personages; the workers; they that make the bread that the soft-handed and idle eat.”

Who can’t like that other than capitalists? The fact that maintained a healthy skepticism of capitalism at a time when even his hero Ulysses S. Grant was getting personally fleeced by every scam he could also makes him a special seer of his time.

Mark Twain is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira, New York.

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  • David Hunt

    I appreciate how neither Clemons nor his family erected some gaudy tomb to serve as a monument. That somehow fits with my overall impression of him.

  • N__B

    Twain also gave us hundreds of individual lines of genius that [ahem] some of us mine regularly to appear wittier than we are.

    “Barring the natural expression of villainy which we all have, the man looked honest enough.”

    • Colin Day

      “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”

      • (((Hogan)))

        “I haven’t heard anything like it since the orphanage burned down.”

      • dn

        “A gentleman is a man who knows how to play the banjo, but chooses not to.”

    • (((Hogan)))

      If I were planning to be buried, I would seriously consider “All right then, I’ll GO to hell” as my epitaph.

      • hypersphericalcow

        +1

      • psychomath

        I reread Huck Finn every now and again, and I always get chills during that passage. Hell, I’ve got chills just thinking about it now. Had a very good conversation with my daughter about it once, explaining just how twisted religion can be. It is hard to forgive something that makes people feel evil for doing the right thing.

    • Cheap Wino

      It’s worth reading through his letters, many of which are hilarious for either one-liners or brilliant sarcasm.

    • DrDick

      His Letters from the Earth and “Fenmore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” are worth their weight in gold.

  • N__B

    One can also make an argument that Huck saying “All right then, I’ll go to hell” is the most powerful moment in the thousands of coming-of-age stories published in this country.

    • (((Hogan)))

      DAMNIT MAN

    • Karen24

      I wrote an entire chapter in my honors thesis for undergrad on those words. That and the line in Tom Sawyer about “they had almost as much fun at the funeral as they would have had at the hanging” are the two best lines ever written by any American.

      • N__B

        Apparently you are “one.”

    • vic rattlehead

      I think I read Huckleberry Finn and Connecticut Yankee a thousand years ago. What should I read by Twain?

      • (((Hogan)))

        You’d do all right by rereading Huck and Yankee.

        In no particular order and other than what’s already been mentioned:

        Letters from the Earth
        The Gilded Age
        The Prince and the Pauper
        The Mysterious Stranger
        Life on the Mississippi

        • DrDick

          Second all those.

        • I personally really enjoy A Tramp Abroad, at least in parts. Some of the later parts are straight parody of contemporary adventure and travel writing, which hasn’t aged well, but the chapters about German academic society and dueling are great, as well as the diatribes about European food and the German language. Chapter 30, where Twain hires a guy to go on an adventure and then write about it, and then critiques the result, is really funny.

      • randy khan

        Innocents Abroad.

      • joel hanes

        Roughing It

    • Davis X. Machina

      I wish I could say ‘megadittos’, but I can’t, not even ironically.

      Right up there with “They were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” in the Best-One-Liner-of-the-19th-Century sweepstakes.

  • bender

    Two editing errors. The Tom Sawyer sentence lacks a predicate. Last phrase needs to be deleted.

    Thank you for this post and this series. I need to reread Puddin’head Wilson. IIRC, Twain was perhaps the first writer to analyze cognitive dissonance, writing about a house slave’s “love” for her master.

    • Ahenobarbus

      I think that last phrase is an attempt to be poetic.

      “Mark Twain is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira, New York.
      Mark Twain is buried”

      • Srsly Dad Y

        “Mark Twain is.
        Mark Twain.
        Mark!”

        • Dilan Esper

          The reports of his death were highly exaggerated.

    • Bill Murray

      The Tom Sawyer sentence lacks a predicate.

      Sure, the end of Huckleberry Finn is a disaster when that frat boy Tom Sawyer (I think it was Philip Roth who called Sawyer “America’s first frat boy” or something like that in The Great American Novel).

      If this is to what you refer, it’s the adverbial clause that is lacking the verb. That darn frat boy has to do something to make the ending a disaster. In a later, more advanced age, he would probably grab hisself some lady parts

  • Cheap Wino

    Plus, he wrote Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses, the Mt. Everest of written comedy. I laugh to tears every time I read it (it’s been 4 or 5 years, I’m due for another read). Someday somebody just may write something as funny but I don’t think it has happened yet.

    • (((Hogan)))

      The conversations in the Cooper books have a curious sound in our modern ears. To believe that such talk really ever came out of people’s mouths would be to believe that there was a time when time was of no value to a person who thought he had something to say; when it was the custom to spread a two-minute remark out to ten; when a man’s mouth was a rolling-mill, and busied itself all day long in turning four-foot pigs of thought into thirty-foot bars of conversational railroad iron by attenuation; when subjects were seldom faithfully stuck to, but the talk wandered all around and arrived nowhere; when conversations consisted mainly of irrelevancies, with here and there a relevancy, a relevancy with an embarrassed look, as not being able to explain how it got there.

      That bit has gotten me through many a committee and board meeting.

    • hypersphericalcow

      Somebody said that Twain “never forgot an insult, real or perceived, and never forgave an enemy, living or dead”. Fenimore Cooper was definitely in the latter category.

    • DrDick

      Many years ago, when I was teaching a writing class, I had the students read that.

  • bender

    I read Roughing It as a teenager and what stuck in my mind were material details of traveling on the frontier such as the monotonous diet of pork and cornbread. Not a great literary work but probably valuable as social history.

    • busker type

      Aside from the anti-native racism, Roughing It is a highly underrated book

      • Thom

        I agree, on both counts.

  • Srsly Dad Y

    The Roth line is “pricky little Tom Sawyer, America’s first fraternity boy.” Good memory!

  • N__B

    I’ll also take this opportunity to say that we desperately need a good film-maker to do a biopic of the Emperor Norton. Twain gets some cameos!

    • Keaaukane

      And a sociologist to explain why San Francisco, still one of the most tolerant places on the planet, is not crawling with self appointed successors, Nortons II – XX.

  • CrunchyFrog

    He also had some great observations during his time in Europe. “The Awful German Language” remains a favorite among multi-lingual Germans.

  • hypersphericalcow

    “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

    – Ernest Hemingway

  • mikeSchilling

    Mark Twain fleeced himself. He invested in an automated typesetter that was far too complicated and never worked, and lost every cent he had made from writing and more. He only got out from under by handing over control of his finances to H. H. Rogers [1], one of the principals of Standard Oil, and going on a round-the-world lecture tour to earn enough money to pay back his creditors.

    1. No, Rogers did not take advantage of Twain. He held off the creditors, helped Twain file for bankruptcy without losing his copyrights, and stopped him from overspending his way back into debt.

    • Ahuitzotl

      No, Rogers did not take advantage of Twain

      That, I assume, induced John Rockefeller to castigate Rogers

  • Matt McIrvin

    Mark Twain had some bad luck with investments himself, didn’t he? My impression is that he was the 19th-century version of an enthusiastic gadget geek and sunk a bunch of money into tech startups that went nowhere.

    …I see mikeSchilling beat me there.

  • rm

    I don’t think literature professors anywhere deny that Mark Twain is central in American Lit, it’s more that the question of “who’s #1” has been passé for a long time.

    Thanks to Hogan, the bear, and Karen for pointing out the greatest moment in American literature, one that sadly remains crucially relevant, and which probably could be used as a test of character according to whether a person is able to tell what’s happening. The kinds of people who cannot understand the idea of consent are probably also the kinds of people who don’t get Huck’s moment.

    • JB2

      the question of “who’s #1” has been passé for a long time.

      True. But, that said, F. Scott Fitzgerald is #1. Especially the dozen or so of his best short stories.

      • Don’t forget Gatsby. It may be a clichéd choice, but there’s a really good reason it’s become one. But yes, Fitzgerald is probably Twain’s only competition here.

      • rm

        Thread’s too old to reply, but I cannot restrain myself. I have to respectfully disagree.

        If I were to rank, and I’m not saying I do rank authors, I hate to do it, I won’t even say it, but I’m saying that if I ranked authors I would put Fitzgerald around #50 of the top 100. I don’t know, I just think I can see the gears turning too clearly in Gatsby. Even choosing only from Modernist fiction writers contemporary to Fitzgerald, you’ve got Faulkner, Hemingway, Hurston, Wright, and Gertrude Fucking Stein who are better. Not that Fitzgerald isn’t great, but we are ranking here. Because it’s a contest.

        This is why we no longer rank.

  • Nathan Goldwag

    Don’t forget his anti-Imperialist writings! His essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” is a truly amazing indictment of American missionary activity in China during the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion, and imperialism in general.

    “Mr. Ament’s financial feat of squeezing a thirteen-fold indemnity out of the pauper peasants to square other people’s offenses, thus condemning them and their women and innocent little children to inevitable starvation and lingering death, in order that the blood-money so acquired might be ‘used for the propagation of the Gospel’, does not flatter my serenity, although the act and the words, taken together, concrete a blasphemy so hideous and so colossal that, without doubt, it’s mate is not findable in the history of this or any other age.”

    • N__B

      Yes. Also, King Leopold’s Soliloquy.

    • rm

      And The War Prayer.

      • Bloix

        Twain’s mockery of religion often bubbles right up to the edge of atheism but never quite reaches the surface.

        “Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If the Eiffel Tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; and anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would, I dunno.”

        Was the World Made for Man? (a response to Alfred Russell Wallace), 1903

  • Bruce Vail

    I had the pleasure of visiting the Mark Twain House museum in Hartford, Conn., a couple of years ago.

    http://www.marktwainhouse.org/

    It was very good. I recommend it.

  • Ruviana

    Dang! What were you doing in Elmira? Sorry I missed that!

    • Srsly Dad Y

      Obviously was en route to Endicott.

  • I like almost every single thing I’ve ever read about Twain, with the very notable exception of his profoundly wrongheaded opinion on the writings of Jane Austen. You’d think one great humorist would be able to recognize another.

    • bender

      IIRC George Bernard Shaw wasn’t impressed by Shakespeare.

  • Bruce Vail

    Does anybody still think that Faulkner was the greatest American novelist? I thought he was out of fashion now…

  • Jake the antisoshul soshulist

    Clemens started me on the road to skepticism of religion, along with ER Burroughs (with whom Clemens would have had almost as much fun as he did with Cooper).

    The Gods of Mars is a bitter satire of religious establishment, if you are not familiar with ERB’s views on religion.

    • Bruce Vail

      As a teenager, I read about 15 of his Tarzan novels. I can’t remember a blessed thing about any of them, but I enjoyed them back then…

  • Bruce Vail

    Just in case Sam Clemens needs further cred from LGM fans, Mark Twain also admitted to being a deserter from the Confederate army.

    http://civilwarsaga.com/mark-twains-civil-war-experience/

  • mccallco

    Erik: Next time, you should visit Quarry Farm, his wife’s estate where Twain did a lot of his writing in the summers. Elmira College owns it now and hosts lectures and visiting scholars there. It’s not open to the public, but I can arrange a visit if you’re interested.

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