Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

Who Is Mark Twain?Who Is Mark Twain? by Mark Twain

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My experience with Mark Twain is (I suspect) similar to many others: I was forced to read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in school*. To say that I didn’t care for them would be an understatement (to this day, Tom Sawyer is my least favorite book in the world because all I can remember about it is forcing myself to read it page-by-agonizing-page in fourth grade).

This shouldn’t be a surprise of course. My reading tastes have always leaned more towards swords and sorcery or laser guns and spaceships (or, in the case of Star Wars, laser swords and sorcery). I found the plodding pace of life on the Mississippi a terrible bore. And, of course, since these are Twain’s most celebrated works, I’d mostly just assumed that this sort of thing was all he had to offer and he must be the most overrated author to ever call America home.

Fortunately, the release of his autobiography has spurred a great deal of interest in this “father of American literature”, and this book was given away free on Amazon’s Kindle store (alas, at the time of this writing, it is a whole $10; that deal has evaporated). Never one to turn down a free book, I downloaded it. Given all the hype surrounding the release of his autobiography, I was somewhat eager to see if maybe I hadn’t misjudged the man. So I started reading.

I quickly found the answer to my question: yes, I had gravely misjudged Mark Twain. He’s clever, has a sharp wit, and is genuinely funny. This book contains a sample of previously unpublished work (according to the editor, at least) and it covers a wide range of genres and styles. There’s a lecture or speech that he was to give, newspaper columns and letters to editors, short stories, reminiscences, and all sorts of other things. Some of them are even unfinished which is both fascinating (how often do you get to read unfinished, unpolished drafts from your favorite authors) and a little infuriating (“WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT JUST STOPS?!”).

Sometimes I agree with him (“Interviewing The Interviewer” is a little scary in how accurately it portrays our modern media. I guess this has always been a problem.), sometimes I disagree with him (I’m a fan of Jane Austin. Mr. Twain was not.), and sometimes I’m not really sure what point he was trying to make (as in “The Quarrel in the Strong-Box” where I’m not sure what he was getting at, but I’m pretty sure I disagree with it. At any rate, this is probably the weakest piece in the collection.).

But through it all, he writes with great style. As with all great authors, it’s nice to just sit back and examine how he uses the words. And I think I understand now how it is that he defined the American literary tradition for so long (separate, of course, from the great English writers).

I’m glad that I got to read this. It’s changed my mind about one of the greatest literary figures of my nation. And it’s given me cause to seek out more of his work (at least the ones that have nothing to do with the Mississippi River).

*This review is filled with parentheticals. So I decided to add a foot-note star as well. I re-read Huck Finn in college and I found it was much improved. I don’t know if this is because I was a mature reader or if I just had a better teacher. The college teacher made a comparison between Huck and Ferris Bueller. I maintain that Ferris is a better character in every respect. If only because he got to drive a Ferrari.

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