Grasshopper Soup: Mark Twain speaks from the grave
June 7, 2011
TRUCKEE/TAHOE and#8212; Rumor has it that Mark Twain is alive and well and living on the north shore of Lake Tahoe. Whoever this skilled imposter may be, I hope it does not grieve him to know that his autobiography, the one he didnand#8217;t want published until one hundred years after his death, was published last year. His brilliant, triumphant hoax has been discovered.
The book, which is as thick as a brick, cost $37.83 for 736 pages total, if you include the 181 pages of and#8220;explanatory notes,and#8221; a long, inoperable appendix, references, notes on the text and a page explaining the use of hyphens. That comes to more than five cents a page.
When I came to the explanatory notes I thought I still had a few hundred pages to go of Twain’s exquisite wit, humor, eloquent criticisms, masterful story telling, descriptions and poetry to savor, perhaps well into the summer. Explanatory notes? Had Twain’s perfectly enjoyable literature, and my understanding of it, been completely suspect all along? I thought I had understood every word, and now the publisher is telling me it will take 181 pages to explain. How do you explain Mark Twain? I was completely disappointed. I still had 467 pages to go. I was barely halfway through, with $23.35 remaining on my investment. More than half of what I paid for the book had gone to waste. For history nerds and the publisher it was a gold mine.
As far as I was concerned, and#8220;explanatoryand#8221; may as well have meant and#8220;beyond our solar system.and#8221; I paid nine dollars and five cents for the explanatory notes, which I will never read and didn’t really want to buy, unless they were written by Mark Twain.
The explanatory notes will take a good long time to read. Like the begats in the Bible, they never end. No matter how many pages the begats take up, all you ever get is the short version, because everyone knows the begetting never ends. I’m afraid if I embarked on a prolific journey of begetting for that long I’d never have time to get a drink of water or take a shower for the rest of my life. Twain is a joy to know, but not to that extent.
I’m really not completely sure why Twain didn’t want his final autobiography published until he had been dead for one hundred years. I’ll leave that to the chief explanator.
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Twain did have some very critical things to say about certain people, social and political practices and human foibles, but nothing I wouldn’t be afraid to say, and have said, while still alive. Mark Twain’s superior talent, his proud and self-deprecating humor, his heart and soul, his love of family and profound understanding of humanity, his entire character (at least what he gave us) is to be admired and loved. But he was a bit of a chicken, or perhaps just much less of a fool, or more high-brow, definitely much smarter, than I.
Please allow me to share with you a few excerpts from his book. They may even help to shed some light on why Twain didn’t want certain things to be heard while he was alive:
and#8220;In the matter of slavish imitation, man is the monkey’s superior all the time. The average man is destitute of independence of opinion. He is not interested in contriving an opinion of his own, by study and reflection, but is only anxious to find out what his neighbor’s opinion is, and slavishly adopt it.and#8221;
Albert Einstein made the same observation. An average man like me is in good company.
Of a dear old friend of his Twain said, and#8220;he was great, and fine, and blemishless in character, a creature to adoreand#8221;, but was also, as Twain put it, and#8220;doomed to grind out his livingand#8221; as editor of a daily political newspaper, which Twain said made him and#8220;a singing bird in a menagerie of monkeys, macaws and hyenas.and#8221;
Some Tahoe writers and editors know about that. But Twain lived among American high society. Tahoe has high society people, but there are no macaws in the mountains.
Bob Sweigert is a Sierra Sun columnist, published poet, former college instructor and ski instructor. He has a B.A. and an M.A.T. from Gonzaga University. He has lived at Lake Tahoe for 28 years.