My hero, Mark Twain
May 2, 2010 by Bill
We are now in the year of the MARK TWAIN CENTENNIAL CELEBRATIONS. These celebrations honoring this unique and brilliant man are going on across the United States in schools and libraries. It gives me great joy to join that celebration with this, the first of three columns about this man who has been my hero for all the years going back to the birth of my serious reading.
Directly above my computer, framed, are these words about a writer’s “worthy calling” by Mark Twain: “Ours is a useful trade…a worthy calling…and it has one serious purpose, one aim, one specialty, and it is constant to it…the deriding of shams…the exposure of pretentious falsities…the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence. Whoso is engaged in this sort of warfare is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges, and all kindred swindles, and is the natural friend of human rights and human liberties.”
Ken Burns, the Executive Producer of that magnificent television documentary on the “Civil War” has finished production of what he said was the most important work of his long and distinguished career, his real “labor of love.” It was on THE LIFE AND LITERATURE OF MARK TWAIN. It was shown on PBS, and I ordered both the video and the book that goes with it. I have been absorbing them like a sponge, even though I was familiar with the majority of the material.
I think that I have in my personal library every book written by, or about, Twain. He is easily in the top three of my “role models,” to use a popular phrase of the day. Ernest Hemingway paid his tribute to Twain in these words: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain, called Huckleberry Finn. There was nothing before. There has been nothing so good since.” T.S. Eliot called it “one of the permanent symbolic figures of fiction.” William Dean Howells called Mark Twain “the Abraham Lincoln of American literature.”
The word “brilliant” may be overused, but surely in the case of Twain it applies. He is forever contemporary. His linguistic needles are as sharp, his observations on the human race as precise, and his sarcasm and humor as glittering today as they were when he originally placed pen to paper.
And yet today, we have parents of the hysterical Christian right wing trying to remove Twain’s books from the libraries of public schools, if you can imagine. And so, the questions:
- Do parents have a right to insist that their children grow up to be as ignorant as they are? In a democracy the answer is “yes.” So, the next question:
- Do the public schools have to be a party to this tragic process of promotion and cooperating with bigotry and ignorance? In a democracy founded on the separation of church and state, the answer is a loud, resounding “NO”.
Easily, one of the most outstanding stage shows in America is Mark Twain Tonight with Hal Holbrook. My wife and I have seen it six times around the country. Holbrook walks on to the stage with his cigar and goes into two hours of Twain’s observations on everything from religion to politics. The audience is mesmerized. When the show played here at the McCallum theatre, my wife and I were invited to go back stage after the show. What a joy! Holbrook told us he had over 15 hours of Twain committed to memory and when he walked out on stage he just let the spirit of Twain take over for the evening.
Everyone has heard about “Huckleberry Finn” but I find few who have heard about, or read, Twain’s “Letters From the Earth,” a book that is filled with his observations on this disease called “religion.” I will never forget the summer that I spent with this book. For five glorious weeks I lived in a teepee high on an Alpine meadow in the mountains of Montana. After getting my new home in order, I lay down under a mountain sun, bathed by cool afternoon breezes, and started reading Twain on “religion”. Perhaps some samples will whet your appetite for more.
“The bible tells about creation. God did it. He did not call it the universe. That name is modern. His whole attention was upon our world. He constructed it in five days…and then it took him only the one remaining day to make 20 million suns and 80 million planets and 8 billion galaxies.” (Twain would have had a field day with today’s creationists.)
“Now, I am going to really put a strain upon you. Man thinks he is the noblest work of God. This is the truth I am telling you. Man really, actually, believes that. He hires preachers to tell him so once a week. And very few even laugh out loud. Man, the special pet, whom God has given mumps, measles, whooping cough, croup, colds, asthma, bronchitis, itch, cancer, cholera, typhus, piles, constipation, warts, pimples, boils, corns, tumors, insanity, jaundice, bunions, abscesses, diseases of every organ in the body…but why continue the list that God has given his pet?”
“Man is a religious animal. The ONLY religious animal. The only animal that blushes…or needs to. The only animal that has true religion, dozens of true religions, and who will cut your throat for the true religion. The higher animals, the apes, have been blessed with no religion.”
There is a classic, especially for our times, that you must read. It is Twain’s The War Prayer. You will need at least one box of Kleenex. It is about Christian hypocrisy.
“O Lord our God, thou who art love and compassion. Help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds. Help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain. O Thou who art love and compassion, help us to wring the heart of the widows with unavailing grief.” “O Thou who art love, be with us as we water their way with tears and stain the white snow with the blood of their children. We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him, who is the source of love. Amen.”
You may want to read the entire prayer, if you can bear it.
At Oxford University on June 26, 1907, dressed in the famous scarlet and gray robe, his name was called to receive his academic honors, an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. It was reported by the London newspapers that when his name was called, “a veritable cyclone of applause flooded the entire University.”
A glorious ending to the life of one of the most courageous and brilliant free thinkers and humanists in the entire history of civilization.