Cultural Cohesion, p.38Clive James
Even As We Speak, 2001
Two volumes of the Library of America containing all that matters of Mark Twain’s journalism—Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays is the title—came out last autumn, and have kept at least one reader going ever since, with the occasional pause to consult the two volumes of Twain’s major writings which were published in the same format a decade or so ago. There is an almost audible clicking into place: this covetable quartet of books gangs up like gauge blocks, those machine-shop measures that don’t need anything except their trueness to keep them together. At least two more Twain volumes are yet to come, but for now it’s hard to imagine a set more satisfactory than this—four volumes just as neat as all the others in the Library of America, and even more solid, energetic, genial and creative: it makes a good gift suggestion for the new administration. If President Clinton is a better speechmaker than President Bush, it is mainly because he steals better stuff. He should steal from the best: Mark Twain, who could rock the room for an hour while talking nothing except sense, and would have staved off Arsenio Hall without needing a saxophone.
For some years, it has been becoming clearer that the Library of America is the symbol for itself that the United States has long been in search of. Colonial Williamsburg is too Disneyfied to stand for tradition, Disneyland too childish to stand for innovation, Mt. Rushmore too big to stand in your living room. You can line up the Library of America on a few shelves. Of course, the French could do the same sort of thing earlier. The Pléiade was the library that Edmund Wilson had in mind when he caned the Modern Language Association for burying the country’s intellectual heritage while pretending to preserve it, sponsoring volumes that owed too much to pedantry, not enough to readability, weighed a ton and looked like hell. Wilson kept up the campaign for a long time but seemed to stand no better chance of winning it than of beating his income-tax rap. Then the Library of America made Wilson’s dream happen. From its first few volumes it was obvious that the Library of America had struck the ideal balance between authority and portability. Its volumes begged irresistibly to be picked up, like brilliant children.
Remarkably, they didn’t lose this unthreatening quality even as they multiplied. If you own more than about thirty of the sixty-five volumes so far, monumentality becomes a present danger: the massed black jackets loom like midnight, and it starts to look as if the Pléiade had chosen better—first, to wear white, and then, when that started looking like a cliff of snow, to let the horizontally striped gold-blocked spines show through a transparent jacket, like scaling ladders to a Fabergé Bastille of imprisoned wisdom. But you can always alleviate the pangs of gazing at a wall of uniformity by taking one of the Library of America volumes down and letting it fall open in the hand. If this is dignity, it is user-friendly. And with these two volumes of Twain’s minor writings here is the original, unashamed vitality that lies at the heart of the whole enterprise. You could just about convince yourself that Huckleberry Finn was a work of literature in the Old World style, aimed at a refined public—after all, it certainly has the rank, if not the manner. But Twain’s journalism is a daunting reminder that he was ready to lavish everything he had on everybody, every time. He was democratic all the way down to his metabolism. For Twain, there was no division between democracy and creativity. They were versions of the same thing: exuberance.
Twain’s fugitive pieces have been collected before; but now we have, with just the right amount of critical apparatus, the authoritative texts, and all arranged chronologically, so that we can watch him grow. He grew like bamboo in the rain. His first hit was a newspaper sketch called “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog.” Twain wasn’t the first American journalist to write tall tales under a pen name; Petroleum V. Nasby, whom Twain knew and admired, was one of several practitioners already in the field. Nor was Twain the first to combine the high style with the low, squandering highfalutin resources on a shaggy-dog story. What was new, attention-getting and instantly popular was the quality of the evocation when he worked the switch out of mandarin diction into the concrete vernacular.
The story of the Jumping Frog is told to Twain by a yarn-spinner—”good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler”—who isn’t afraid to be boring: “Simon Wheeler backed me into a corner and blockaded me there with his chair—and then sat down and reeled off the monotonous narrative which follows this paragraph.” Twain is true to his word: Wheeler is what the British would call a crasher. His story of Jim Smiley and the Jumping Frog goes on for pages before it even gets to the frog. Much more of it would put the reader to sleep, even though Twain the narrator makes it clear that the verbosity belongs to his interlocutor, not to him. But Wheeler’s drone goes on just long enough to ensure that we are given the set-up for the story without suspecting how funny it’s going to get. We hear that Jim Smiley, who owns the champion jumping frog, suckers himself into a bet with a hustler who appears to know nothing about frogs. But while Smiley is out of the room (Twain rather muffs this bit: we don’t find out Smiley has left the room until after we are told about how the stranger works his trick) the stranger fills Jim’s precious frog with a meal of lead shot. At just the moment when the champion frog gets the cue to unleash its usual stunning jump, Wheeler’s long-winded vocabulary snaps into focus. The champion frog “give a heave, and hysted up his shoulders—so—like a Frenchman, but it wasn’t no use—he couldn’t budge; he was planted as solid as a anvil.” The anvil is good, but Twain’s mentor, Artemus Ward, might have done it. The Frenchman’s shrug is what makes it Twain. You can see it happening.
The Jumping Frog story was reprinted in periodicals all over the United States following its publication in 1865, and two years later it was the keynote piece of Twain’s first collection, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches. Twain was disappointed with the way the book’s publication was handled, and was further miffed to find that it didn’t sell very well, but the Jumping Frog had already done its job in the periodicals. The young Mark Twain was made, and so was a tradition. It was a comic tradition, but now more than ever that shouldn’t be taken to mean that it was merely humorous. Every subsequent American humour writer writes in the range of tones established by Twain. When Thurber says of his fellow economics student the football player Bolenciecwcz that “while he was not dumber than an ox he was not any smarter,” he is in touch with Twain. Even so cosmopolitan a pasticheur as S. J. Perelman, whose macaronic vocabulary seems bent on superseding provincialism as its first impulse, sounds, when he has a picture to evoke, like Twain talking. There is a Perelman story that begins with the narrator waiting for his date to show up. The story goes off somewhere else, and long after we have forgotten about the date she finally appears, “sobbing drunk with a Marine on either arm.”
That instant of clarity, with all the baroque vocabulary suddenly forgotten, wouldn’t have been the same if Twain hadn’t first written such pieces as his tour-de-force diatribe of 1882, “The McWilliamses and the Burglar Alarm,” in which the new burglar-alarm system makes the house so attractive to burglars that they come to live there, until there is “not a spare bed in the house; all occupied by burglars.” The burglars take the alarm system, along with everything else. You could be watching the characters accumulate in the New Old Lompoc House, W. C. Fields’s favoured hostel in The Bank Dick, or—to go beyond America, as Twain’s influence almost immediately did—you could be listening to Stephen Leacock talking about his first bank account, or Henry Lawson telling his story about the Loaded Dog, the dog that got its teeth fastened into a bomb and terrorized a mining camp. Leacock was active in Canada and Lawson was an Australian determined to free the natural speech of his countrymen from the thralldom of literary preciosity. Twain’s style had reached both of them, and in America it was all-pervasive almost from the start.
Unfortunately, American humour, like every other American product, has long since paid the ine
. . .
Perhaps re-creating would be a better word. Like Shakespeare arriving after Bloody Mary left, Twain was lucky in his timing. The new nation looked as if it had just finished destroying itself, in the Civil War. The young Twain had managed to stay out of the war’s way. In “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed,” a piece written in 1885, he looks back twenty-five years to the young man he was when history suddenly boiled up all around him. As slave-owners went, Twain’s family had been liberal and even enlightened, but when the war started Twain didn’t hesitate to join a small volunteer group of Confederate riders hiding out in the woods. He just hesitated about what to do next. So did they all. One night, a strange rider materialized from the direction of the Union camp. Twain had a sixth share in shooting him down—or, anyway, he remembered it that way. That was enough for him. He faded away to the West. If President Clinton gets this set of books as a birthday gift from his wife, he will find consolation here, because if Twain didn’t know what to do about a war that split the nation’s heart he did know what to do about healing the wound. When that war was over and he started to publish in earnest, he treated the two sides as if they belonged together. Not that he spread any soft soap. He was fierce on the liberal issues. Mrs. Clinton will find her spirit here, too: perhaps the President should give her the gift.
Twain’s journalism is full of contempt for racism in all its forms. Like Swift, he had a low opinion of the human race in general, reserving his admiration for individuals. He was not much given to admiring ethnic authenticity, but he condescended on a cultural basis rather than a racial one. For any creed or colour that was being persecuted he was a vocal champion. Chinese immigrants given a bad time by the locals could count on one kind voice, at least. His initial sympathy for America’s Cuba adventure was based on his contempt for Spain’s horrific colonial record, which was almost as bad as its domestic record. When the United States began to show Spanish tendencies in the Philippines, Twain soon started condemning American colonialism, too. As with the Spanish, so with any other European nation: he was always ready to point out that the Old World had dirty hands. Belgium’s depredations in the Congo survived the invective of Roger Casement, but King Leopold II’s reputation was settled forever by Twain’s “King Leopold’s Soliloquy,” which had Leopold performing absurd mental gymnastics to disown the atrocities committed in his name.
Twain knew that the brute facts of imperialism undid all pretensions to civilization on the part of the old countries. But he never lost sight of the great crime at home. In view of recent suggestions, inspired by the dubious spirit of political correctness, that Huckleberry Finn and other major works of Twain should be swept from the library shelves because of the picture they paint of black people, it is useful to read through Twain’s journalism and see just how much time and effort he put into fighting Jim Crow. When the first lynchings occurred in Missouri, he wept for his home state in a plangent threnody called “The United States of Lyncherdom.” It is all written in one long sob: “And so Missouri has fallen, that great state! Certain of her children have joined the lynchers, and the smirch is upon the rest of us.” In another essay, Twain reminded the evangelists that their fathers had thumped the same Bibles while perpetrating the same blasphemy, “closing their doors against the hunted slave.”
There is enough said outright in the journalism to remind us, if we needed reminding, that Twain speaking in story form was and remains the great post-bellum writer about the condition of whites and blacks in the America they share. Only his vocabulary can blur the point, and it is a nice question whether the fault is his rather than ours. In the fictional South inhabited by Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson, even the blacks call blacks niggers. It was the way things were. But if you can see past what you hear, the great message of those books is about human equality, and how racism violates it, reducing everyone to servitude, and no one more than the supposed master. The emotional centre of Huckleberry Finn is Jim’s story of how he escaped. Huck listens silently, as well he might, because it is only by grace that Jim is not including him in the vast system rigged against a slave’s bid for freedom—the whole white civilization.
In Pudd’nhead Wilson, the sixteenth-black Roxy is an invention that Toni Morrison might have been proud of: indeed, it is hard to read Beloved without wondering whether Roxy might have been one of the models for its heroine. Roxy has a boy baby—only a thirty-second black, but that’s enough. Twain shirks the probability, which the modern reader instantly suspects, that Roxy’s owner must have been the father, but he doesn’t shirk anything else. Roxy’s boy, black even though he doesn’t look it, is doomed to be a chattel. So she swaps him for the owner’s all-white baby of the same age. What happens to the changelings gives no comfort to the sentimental, for whom a more satisfactory story would have centred on the white boy turned into a black, in the way that Kipling’s Captains Courageous made the rich boy poor, and so revealed the actual world to him. Twain concentrates on the black boy turned into a white. He grows up as a wastrel, thief, liar and cheat. We are at liberty to suppose that he got the seeds of these characteristics from his white father, but we would have to ignore what Twain spells out: Twain is saying that a slave-owning household is a bad one to grow up in—even worse for the personality than the shack where the slaves live, with the fear of being sold down the river.
Reading Pudd’nhead Wilson, we would like to rewrite it so that the slave boy’s natural goodness reforms the whole system by example. But one of Twain’s points—and the point that, apart from his vocabulary, is most likely to irritate the politically correct—is that natural goodness doesn’t come any more easily to the oppressed than it does to the oppressor. The only person of noble character in the book is Roxy, and she is no genius: she can’t tell that the bank she puts her hard-earned money into will fold; she doesn’t know how to avoid being whipped until her back looks “like a washboard.” (Toni Morrison’s terrifying descriptions of Sethe’s wounds from whipping in Beloved deserve their high reputation, but as a climactic passage in a horror story they can’t hope to have the unexpected impact of Twain’s quiet phrase slipped into a light narrative, like a bite in a kiss.)
Twain thought that the Negro question was the biggest issue facing America both past and present, and he gave it his best efforts, in his private life as in his public work. His personal conduct on the issue was impeccable. It is well known that Twain helped finance the education of Helen Keller. Less well known is that he supported one of the first black students to attend Yale all the way through college without meeting him more than once. Twain thought that to do such a thing was a white man’s plain duty and shouldn’t depend on the personal qualities of the beneficiary. Twain thought that the white man’s debt was endless. He didn’t come out on the side of the Union just because it won. The Southern cause had depended on repressing a minority, and that made the caus
Twain had the same sympathy for all oppressed minorities, including (this would have got him into trouble if he had lived later) the workers. Harbouring no illusions about the benevolence of unrestrained capital or the innate wisdom of the free market, Twain guessed that there would have to be an organized union movement to secure elementary rights for those who had to sweat. But he allowed no crude prejudice against those who made money from them. Accepting human villainy to be even more fundamental than human decency, Twain didn’t believe you needed a conspiracy theory to explain piracy. He deplored anti-Semitism, and pointed out that the Jews were good at making money because so many of them were honest. He was one of the most vocal Dreyfusards after Zola.
Cultural Cohesion by Clive James / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes