The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Cover Boy Mark Twain, Selling Magazines Again

July 25, 2008
Washington, DC

Mark Twain. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The thing about Mark Twain is, every line he ever wrote is almost as quotable as the lines everybody already quotes. After a while you get the idea that John Bartlett and his quote-truffling successors just threw up their hands and started picking Twainisms at random.

I mention this because Time magazine recently anointed Twain its cover boy for the apparently annual ?Making of America? issue. Near as I can tell, this issue is an attempt to broaden the franchise of the magazine?s signature Person of the Year cover, so as to make room for a Dead American Person of the Year too. The previous posthumous honorees have been Lewis & Clark, Ben Franklin, and presidents Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy, and Teddy Roosevelt.

Teddy instead of Franklin? In a pig?s valise!

We know what Twain would?ve thought about sharing his pedestal with TR: ?Mr. Roosevelt is the Tom Sawyer of the political world of the twentieth century; always showing off; always hunting for a chance to show off; in his frenzied imagination the Great Republic is a vast Barnum circus with him for a clown and the whole world for audience; he would go to Halifax for half a chance to show off and he would go to hell for a whole one.?

See what I mean about the quotability? For more Twain on Roosevelt, by all means check out http://www.twainquotes.com/Roosevelt.html.

The Time stories actually form a pretty fair introduction to Twain, with only one or two solecisms. Two different writers get Hemingway on Twain slightly wrong. Papa didn?t say that all modern American literature can be traced back to Mark Twain, he said ?All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.? Not a small difference, to my way of thinking.

But the comic essayist and drawling Wait, Wait, Don?t Tell Me panelist Roy Blount Jr. is always a joy to read, even if they saddle him with the heavy lifting of the package?s biographical essay (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1820166,00.html). He gets five pages, which is twice as much linage as anybody else gets and then some. Again and again, Blount makes the case for Twain as an endlessly renewable prophet, as when he quotes him on the ?quagmire? of Roosevelt?s turn-of the-century Philippine-American War. Remind me to look up in the OED whether anybody beat Twain to that particular connotation of quagmire, but I doubt it. Two sentences later, Blount echoes Twain?s recognition that occupied casualties usually outnumber occupying ones when he notes that ?more than 200,000 Filipino civilians had been killed, along with 4,200 Americans.?

Later on, Stephen L. Carter gets to the heart of Twain on race (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1820162,00.html ), even if he overstates the case a tad when he writes, ?It might be fair to call [Twain] the inventor of the American short story.? I don?t know what E.A. Poe would have said about that, but knowing him, ?I'll send my seconds with a choice of weapons and have my satisfaction? is a possibility.

Still, these are quibbles. Time has come through with a decent primer on Twain for a general readership, a readership that Twain could take for granted as almost no one can anymore. As an examplar of The Big Read?s perpetual watchword in preparing our materials ? essentially, inform the nonreader without boring the expert ? Time has got it right.

Which Big Read author rates the next Making of America cover? I realize that?s exactly the question that Time?s Luce-ites (as they used to be called, in sarcastic deference to publisher Henry Luce) want me to ask, but it?s just too much fun not to. Unfortunately, the other novelists on the Big Read list haven?t changed America in ways conspicuous enough for the public eye to discern--however better the world might be if they had.

I?d argue that Twain helped ?make America? because he wrote nonfiction as well as fiction. In his novels he created the quintessential American voice, as well as a model of bygone childhood against which we still measure the modern version. But just as important, in his essays he inveighed against a peculiar arrested adolescence that also shadows the American character.

Nonfiction can knock the world off its axis, but a good story well told can only hope to nudge it. Think of all the prose that?s changed the world: the Magna Carta, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, Silent Spring, Unsafe at Any Speed. Only the Emancipation Proclamation could be said to have drawn inspiration from fiction, specifically Uncle Tom?s Cabin -- which Jane Smiley claims to like better than Huck Finn, but believe that at your peril.

This ambidexterity between fiction and nonfiction is something I particularly admire about our Readers Circle member Wendell Berry, who throws in poetry besides, and also farms a spread of crops in Port Royal, Kentucky, in his spare time. During the Big Ride in September, I hope to look him up and ask him how he does it ?