Wednesday, March 7, 2007
Samuel Langhorne Clemens—Mark Twain—was born in 1835 and died in 1910. By all accounts, Twain should be consigned to the history books, not the subject of one of the longest-running one-man plays in history. What is it that makes Twain such an icon of Americana, his wit and wisdom as relevant today as it was throughout his lifetime?
First, Twain embodies the pioneering spirit that every adventurer—and would-be adventurer—wishes they possessed. In "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," he wrote, "There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy's life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure."
What adventurer today, man or woman, can't relate?
Twain went west when going west was still high adventure. In the days before Hawaii came to the American consciousness, Twain sailed under canvas to the Sandwich Islands. He piloted riverboats on the Mississippi, and traveled to Europe and Asia. He wrote best-selling novels that people still read more than 100 years later. He received five-minute standing ovations by simply walking on stage. He was a rock star of his time.
Arguably his greatest achievement, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" has also been one of the most controversial novels in American literary history. At once called one of the first Great American Novels, it was also the fifth most-challenged book—i.e., had the fifth most attempts for banning—according to the American Library Association.
The second reason that Twain remains relevant is that the difficult social issues he addressed with wicked wit and satire—racism, religious divisions, political scandal, corporate greed—are all issues that we, as a country, as a society, are still grappling with today. Take this quote from his biography: "Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself." That's as fine a bit of political skewering as anything out of John Stewart's or Bill Maher's repertoires.
Twain was no stranger to sorrow. He outlived three of his four children and his beloved wife of 34 years, Olivia. In 1894, at the age of 61, Twain filed for bankruptcy when his investments went bust. He returned to the lecture stage to repay his creditors, which he did in full, although he was under no legal obligation to do so.
Such was the character of this uncommon man.
Ah... One of my favorites!