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One Book Sacramento: In Twain

First off, the props: Congratulations and gratitude to the Sacramento Public Library, the Sacramento Bee Book Club, and the National Endowment for the Arts (House Tea Party Republicans, take note)—in whatever measures are appropriate to each—for making Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer this year’s Big Read/One Book Sacramento selection.

Second, thanks again to Robert H. Hirst, editor-in-charge and curator of the Mark Twain Papers and the Mark Twain Project at Cal, and McAvoy Lane, our region’s redoubtable “Ghost of Mark Twain,” for their imaginative interplay, using the artifacts in Volume I of his Autobiography and their own skill and devotion, to bring America’s Shakespeare back to Earth so vividly last Thursday night at the Library’s Tsakopoulos Galleria. It was magical.

 

Third, full disclosure: I am an unabashed, lifelong acolyte to Samuel Langhorne Clemens, starting with Tom and Huck formally in Sixth Grade, sooner at home. (I’m old enough that we were introduced to the Great Books before television.) Being one of 10 finalists in the International Category of 2001’s Mark Twain Writing Competition: “A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage,” sponsored by New York’s Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, provided the opportunity to hang out with Bob Hirst and a couple hundred other Twain geeks—giving me the gumption to adopt a nom de plume, like my hero, and try my own hand at short fiction since. (In preparing my entry, I spent a week, all told, immersed in the Master’s papers down at Bancroft Library. Seeing his words in his own hand and reading his non-literary correspondence was transformative. Now, everyone has that opportunity as his Autobiography rolls out—without having to try to park in Berkeley.)

Downer: Most all worshippers in attendance were my demographic and up: Boomer cotton-tops. (I’m currently cringing behind “salt-and-pepper.”) Children and grandchildren were sparse, and those in attendance had their pocket/purse divertiseements, to which they referred frequently. Fellow progenitors: I trust you’re planning on taking your kids, grandkids, and their eligible peers to one of the many Big Read/One Book Sacramento events scheduled at the Central and satellite libraries.

Though I’ve gone back to Twain frequently—mostly to his sketches, stories, and essays—I hadn’t been back to Tom since high school, so I jumped at the chance to dive back into those exotic cultural pools of antebellum southwestern Missouri. Its pleasures returned in a vivid rush:

  • The richness and dimension of each character, and the narrator’s respectful revelation of their every aspect:
    • Tom, the class clown, neighborhood field marshal, and Sunday-school apostate, whose encounters thrust on him a deepening moral dimension.
    • Huck, the peripatetic philosopher and keen social observer, in spite of himself, whose true heart becomes the compass for them both.
    • Becky Thatcher, the approachable, fickle, and vaguely unattainable love interest, who drives her hapless suitor out of flirty familiarity into the wilderness of hormones and emotions.
    • Aunt Polly, the outwardly Puritanical surrogate mother who sustains a constant argument with her malleable heart over her dead sister’s child and troublesome ward.
    • Mary, the relentlessly sympathetic older “sister,” and Sid, the nettlesome but congenitally loyal “little brother,” that every sibling endures and later treasures. (I am experienced in both—three sisters, two older and the baby, and four brothers; two older, two younger. It was delicious to discover as a pre-adolescent that I was not alone in my sometimes dark and always conflicting feelings.)
    • The perfidy and terror that is Injun Joe, made darker by the machinations of his tragicomic confederates.
    • And, last but not least, a bevy of assorted grownup overlords and authority figures every kid believes are put on this Earth mainly to interrupt our earnest pursuits of happiness—until the chips are down. (Tom stands for the proposition that, if not vanquished, they can be charmed; after his dramatic testimony rescued Muff Potter, some in the village “believed he would be President, yet, if he could escape hanging.” Best part: though Clemens uses satire like a saber to slash away at pretense, there’s not a gratuitous caricature in the bunch.
  • The challenge and beauty of the language. I’ve heard others dismiss Twain’s structure, vocabulary, and accents as peculiar to their time and, therefore, archaic and, by implication, marginal or irrelevant. Granted, we are all creatures of our times, but I suspect there are two factors at work here: a smaller dose of political correctness (region- and race-peculiar dialects; the “N-word”) and a much larger dose of difficult. Character and plot necessaries aside, it’s hard not only making nouns, adjectives, and verbs cooperate in single and compound sentences, but also making them melodious in the mind’s ear. And almost never resorting to the first refuge of scoundrels: adverbs. (I confess I had an advantage here: with the Sisters of the Holy Cross in elementary school, the cursive R was the sum of these parts: vocabulary; spelling; grammar; and punctuation—in that order. Diagramming sentences, I believe, makes them as organic as vivisection does for other critters. They have spines; limbs; sinew; and plumage; therefore, they can live and sing.) Choose a narrative passage of middling length, followed by an equal amount of consequential dialogue, and read it aloud, deliberately. See? That’s why he’s called America’s Shakespeare—and it’s more akin to blank verse, which is harder. Suffer an example, where Tom persuades Huck to repatriate to the civilizing but personally suffocating Widow Douglas, but only on the promise that Tom will revive their gang—not as mere pirates, but robbers, with due initiation rites. Here’s Huck’s and the novel’s valedictory:

“Now, that’s something like! Why, it’s a million times bullier than pirating. I’ll stick to the wider till I rot, Tom; and if I get to be a reg’lar ripper of a robber, and everybody talking ‘bout it, I reckon she’ll be proud she snaked me in out of the wet.”

  • The structure, pace, and power of the narrative. It was from Twain that I acquired my own story-telling bias in favor of a neutral but engaged, third-party narrator and leaving it to the characters themselves to carry the “point of view” load in their own words. (Without benefit of thorough review, the only time I recall that he indulged the first person was in The Mysterious Stranger, which is its own case.) Thirty-five sequential chapters, propelled one into the next by a fresh and foreseeable but disquieting turn in the supposedly simple arc of a boy’s village life. Sharp circumstances arise in the same context in each: by buffeting steady, unremarkable folks in somnambulant St. Petersburg in an unexpected direction. To me, the effect is as getting from one end of a mighty riverboat to the other on a stormy, swollen Mississippi bystriding through all its staterooms. The task’s immediacy and the common peril without are omnipresent,but the charms and conceits of the various occupants are compelling enough to risk and enjoy distraction. We stifle our impatience to get to the end because we’re intrigued to know how they’re responding to this latest threat to their good order. By the dock, we are exhausted. Life-death. Love-hate. Liberty-discipline. Murder-redemption. Defeat-triumph. Rags-riches-(rags?). As the author acknowledges in his Conclusion, the lives of his subjects are finished only in the sense that the child is father to the man or woman; nonetheless, further exploration is better left to another time and place. They prosper, he says, which is as simple and elegant a moral as need be.

NEA’s Big Read Guide also notes that Ernest Hemingway observed, in Green Hills of Africa in 1935, that “(a)ll modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” first introduced as Tom’s partner in crime. Thursday night, in character, Lane made another interesting observation: “Until 10 or 12
years ago, when Harry Potter came along and pushed him off the shelf, Tom Sawyer was the Number One outside reading source for 12-year-old boys. At hundred twenty-four years: that’s a pretty good shelf life.”

Not that I have anything against wizards, vampires, and zombies—quite the contrary. I know people who would benefit from corporeal rather than psychological explanations for their appearances and behavior. What I have an argument with is our contemporary need to find a construct or artifice independent of us humans, other than the “inferior” species who suffer under us, to illuminate the conflict that already lives within us. To me, Twain’s greatest gift—not just in Tom but in all his work—is that he confronts us with ourselves, because we can be our own worst enemy, alone or in concert. I learned about slavery and racial hatred not as an abstraction, but viscerally, watching Huck, Tom, and Jim talk, move, and live. Its bastards, Jim Crow and racial discrimination, legal and de facto, weren’t taught in school, weren’t apparent in my small town, and didn’t rear their ugly heads in my life until years later, when Dr. King brought them into our living rooms. At that moment, thanks to those barefoot boys and man, at age 15 I understood.

Through all his work—even in Letters from the Earth, written near his death and not published until 1960—I found my hero’s faith in our better selves, and our eventual redemption, intact, even if his confidence in our willingness to stop, counsel with, and abide by them had been shaken after two decades of financial reversals and harrowing personal loss. The gift of his Autobiography, with its portals into the depth and richness of his intellect and respect for creation and our just place in it, only reinforces that notion with me.

So, read on, Sacramento, and don’t stop at Tom. Here’s to another 100 years.

 

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