I dont know anything that mars good literature so completely as too much truth."
- Mark Twain
It must be the Midwest, that plain-spoken, homespun art of conversation shared by former President Harry Truman, legendary humorist Will Rogers, and most certainly, Americas most popular writer of the 19th-century, Mark Twain.
I wasnt allowed to think too highly of Truman - my Republican roots, you know - and about all I remember of Will Rogers is that he died the week I was born. But maybe its the writer in me, or that Ive read so much of his work and been to Virginia City, Nev., where he had his first newspaper job that Ive always loved Mark Twain. (Alas, when I compare my newspaper job with his, I can only conclude that never the twain shall meet.)
So its understandable that when PBS produced a recent documentary on my heros life I would spend all four hours taking the revered information in - and at least one columns worth of effort sharing what I learned.
To make sure I had plenty of material I also combed the Internet for more. To my surprise, after checking the first page of information I found I had read only the first 10 of 246,874 entries on this one man! Obviously Im not is only fan. Obviously at least 246,874 people know more about Mark Twain than I do.
But what I really wanted to do was look behind the humor to see if he had another, unfunny side which formed the person he showed to the world. By the time I finished my quest, I had some idea why, near the end of his life, this very successful man would say, It is not the least likely that any life has ever been lived which was not a failure in the secret judgment of the person who lived it.
Twain was no stranger to failure. The same traits which made him successful had a built-in capacity for failure: adventure, risk-taking, and an aversion to what we call today political correctness.
For example, when his first job on a Mississippi riverboat was interrupted by the Civil War, he made a stab at patriotism by joining a ranger company - and promptly deserted. He called it retiring. His older brother had just been appointed secretary of the Nevada Territory, and he begged to go along.
What was in Nevada? Gold, silver, and unending wealth just for the price of getting down and dirty in the mines. Twain got dirty but he didnt get rich; he was a colossal failure as a miner.
But he shook the gold dust from his feet and applied for a job at a newspaper in nearby Virginia City where the editor didnt check resumes. By his own admission his reporting was a mixture of tall tales, hoaxes and outright lies. Readers called it good writing. Today we could say he excelled in creative non-fiction, but to his fans and profiting editor, his reputation as a journalist soared.
Not all his editors had such a high opinion of him, nor he of them. I am not the editor of a newspaper, he wrote after being fired by one, and I shall always try to do right so God wont make me one.
The literary masses didnt like him, either, but the masses loved him, not only for his writing but for his humorous lectures which, if anything, brought him more acclaim than his books.
Some say he wrote humor to mask a deep sadness. Its true he lost his younger brother in a riverboat accident after he, Mark, had urged him to take the trip. His first child also died, and he blamed himself for both deaths.
Additionally, his favorite daughter would die in her early 20s, and his wife wouldnt be able to mask her sorrow with humor. Much of their marriage was spent trying to overcome her depression. Twain also used humor to send a social message.
Huck Finn, for example, portrayed the evils of slavery far more effectively than a frontal attack, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court, barely disguised his disdain for political and social injustice.
He amassed a great fortune, and lost it all to poor investing and high living. Though he had all but retired, he returned to the lecture circuit and renewed his writing career, not because making people laugh was still a way to laugh himself, but to support his family.
Though not attributed to Twain, the saying, What you see is what you get, is rarely true, at least where the rich and famous are concerned. Those who wear their masks well usually have motives that go beyond their own wealth or success. Mark Twain carried heavy burdens -for his family, and for a country who, having suffered through a terrible civil war and its aftermath needed a reason to laugh.
Though spoken in jest, theres something autobiographical in this bit of vintage Twain: Be respectful of your superiors, if you have any.
In wit, and telling it like he saw it, there can only be few.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.