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Some impressions of Mark Twain's autobiography

April 08, 2011|By ALLAN POWELL

When the various news media reported that the first volume of the “Autobiography of Mark Twain” was to be published, there surely must have been a sense of hopeful anticipation. It has been at least 30 years since Twain’s biting — some would say acidic — satire was generously shared in “Letters From The Earth.” Only a small portion of the former sarcasm is in volume one of the life of the sage from Hannibal, Mo.

Intellectual honesty requires that at least one of his fans has some humble and cautious reservations about the book. There was an occasional burst of satire and, with the prospect of more, it is understandable why Twain made the demand to withhold publication for 100 years after his death.

This volume might lose its appeal to some because so many of its 736 pages are spent explaining how they finally settled on a plan of approach. Also, a large portion was given to notes about each topic Twain selected. Others might, without being unfair, point out that many of the essays have only a marginal interest to the modern reader.

None of those thoughts is sufficient to seriously mar the work of such a national treasure. This story of his life shows a wide range of experience, acquaintances, and accumulated wisdom, wit and brashness to give Twain the allied powers to write for the ages.

On Jan. 23, 1906, Twain wrote the essay, “The Character of Man.” This acidic rant left no doubt about Twain’s view of the human race. “I desire to contemplate him from this point of view — this premise: that he was not made for any useful purpose, for the reason that he hasn’t served any; that he most likely was not even made intentionally; and that his working himself up out of the oyster bed to his present position was probably matter of surprise and regret to the Creator.”

“That one thing (malice) puts him below the rats, the grubs, the trichinae. He is the only creature that inflicts pain for sport, knowing it to be pain. But if the cat knows she is inflicting pain when she plays with the frightened mouse, then we must make one exception here; we must grant that in one detail man is the moral peer of the cat. All creatures kill — there seems to be no exception; but of the whole list, man is the only one that kills for fun; he is the only one that kills in malice; the only one that kills for revenge.”

On the other hand, Twain has considerable respect for mankind’s capacity to think and reason. In another essay, he gives the opinion that, “However moralless man, bloody and atrocious man, is high above the other animals in his one great and shining gift — intellectuality. It took him ages and ages to demonstrate the full magnitude and majesty of his gift, but he has accomplished it at last. ... In physical talents he was a pauper when he started; by grace of his intellect he is incomparably the richest of all animals now.”

A most fascinating story is told of an event in 1906 when an invitation was extended to Twain to speak to John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s Bible class in Cleveland. Twain sent a letter that he would not accept the offer. Twain made it clear that he liked the younger Rockefeller (35 years old), whose father was the owner of the colossal Standard Oil Corp.

The reason for the rejection was that Twain saw the younger Rockefeller as a typical, well-meaning and platitude-filled believer who was the victim of clerical indoctrination. His lessons were naive, boring and popular because his father’s huge figure and influence made him worthy of notice. In fact, these lessons were printed in all of the major papers of the day. But if success was dependent on his own power, the Sunday school class might not have attracted a full room.

It was a Rockefeller who mixed his version of the Gospel with the seasoning of social Darwinism and applied natural selection to the creation of corporate monopoly. “The American Beauty rose was created only by snipping off all of the small buds below.” Twain had little patience for the clergy and the tycoon who “whitewashed” the Bible and used it for their own ends.

Hopefully, there might be others who have a different perspective of this interpretation of such a distinguished author and would share it with our community. There is certainly room for contrasting opinion that would illuminate the life and times of this great writer.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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