Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On Becoming Twain

Lighting Out for the Territory:
How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain

by Roy Morris, Jr.
Simon & Schuster, 2010
America Collection
ISBN: 978-1-4165-9866-4
ISBN 978-1-4165-9867-1 (pbk)
ISBN 978-1-4391-0137-7 (ebook)

There are lots of books about Mark Twain, about his travels, his lectures, his short stories and books, but this one has an added element.  Roy Morris, Jr is, in addition to being a biographer, a former news reporter, and an author of 5 other books about the Civil War and Post-Civil War years.  In fact, there is another book about Clemens, by another author, published in 1998 with the same title.  This one, however, has more of the historical context of the times, especially the Civil War influence on Clements' life.  Morris also attempts to identify the facts by checking other historical sources, because so much of the Clemens mystique came from the “stretched” stories of his life found in his autobiography and writings.

Morris is able to present clearly the background against which Samuel Clemens' life was lived.  His most formative years were the ramp-up to the Civil War, where even in Hannibal, Missouri, the battle lines were beginning to form, folks were arguing hotly about the issues, some even sparking violent confrontations.  When the war finally arrived, Clemens was a riverboat captain, suddenly facing the possibility of having his boat or  his person, or both, commandeered to serve either side in the fray, which was a terrifying thought for someone really not cut out for politics or soldiering. He headed West.

Clemens is described, warts and all, as a free spirit, a wise-guy lover of practical jokes, tall tales and outright fantastic fabrications (even when writing news stories), a man with a lifelong urge to verbally castigate those in authority (especially the hypocrites), and a penchant for strong drink. He shared the intolerant racist views of his time, even while calling out those in charge who allowed outrageous incidents of violence against minorities. He was by no means perfect, genius or not. He failed to pay hotel bills, avoided conscription into the army, looked for easy money during the gold rush, got swindled buying stocks in silver mines, and moved on when things got too hot for him. Not the 19th century's ideal example of a man.

But the world he lived in was hardly an ideal world. Morris does a good job of depicting the flux into which the Civil War threw the country. Since there were territories that were still pretty open and where the war was not an issue, plenty of folks left the East to seek their fortune further West. Some had hopes of striking it rich, some wanted farm land, some were running from the law and proceeded to bring their illegal activities where they could less easily be caught. The wide open West, even in the larger cities, was full of everything you see in modern cities today, without the veneer of civilization; alcoholism, prostitution, drugs (then mostly opium), gunslingers, swindlers, fakers, and opportunists of every stripe. Clemens was not the exception to the rule, but he also managed to write about the people he met in a way that makes that history real to us (albeit, in his words, “stretched” a bit).

Life was harder, and many folks died going West, from the elements, the Indians, the wilderness dangers, childbirth, illness and even starvation. Miners worked long and danger-filled hours and often never found a thing. Someone with a quick wit who could make people laugh was deeply appreciated.

What Clemens could do was write; it was somewhat unclear that he could stop himself from writing, and in doing so, he documented his life and his times. Wherever he was, he wrote, either journals or notes for news stories, or material for stories later on. His observations on people and their foibles were keen (and sometimes more than sharp), and his life is testament to the fact that no matter how many false starts, bad choices, and useless side trips, intelligence, charm and wit can still bring success. 

If you didn't know it was Mark Twain we were talking about, a list of his misadventures would seem to lead to the conclusion that this ne'er do well would never find his place in life, and all the schemes (writing under different aliases, telling tall-tale news stories, stiffing those he owed money to, etc.) would lead to a life of crime or uselessness. Yet those experiences would form the basis of a long and distinguished career. Samuel Clemens left that unfulfilled young man behind, when he decided that writing (especially humor) was his best skill, and went on to use those experiences to become the internationally well-known character, “Mark Twain,” writer, lecturer, and social commentator.

While we may think, reading all of this, that Twain was unique,a creature of the wild and woolly 19th century West, the 20th century has certainly had its share of wild-child brilliant writers (Hunter Thompson comes to mind) who did outrageous things yet had a huge fan base. Today, Twain would easily be a regular on “Saturday Night Live” doing the fake news, or be a stand-up comedian, but it's not much of a stretch to say that without him, some of the most interesting comedic elements would not have entered our culture. The art of “timing a joke” was new when he took the stage back in 1864 to begin his lectures/comedy routines. Poking fun at the powers that be and the hypocrites of this world was his specialty, and that inspiration continues to this day.

His books told of a time very different from our own, when boys could also “light out for the territory” like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, and have the courage and gumption to rely on their own resources at a very young age. The characters in his books all came from those he met in the old West boom towns, traveling the world, or from his small Hannibal, Missouri childhood, and some of them are so clearly drawn, we feel we'd recognize them if we saw them on the street. Sure, they were all participants in some very tall tales, but through Mark Twain's tall tales, they helped us take a closer look at ourselves and our history, and taught us to laugh at the self-important stuffed shirts, politicians, and ourselves.

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