Sunday, November 2, 2008

To Love Is To Lose: Twain's Worldview Revealed

Mark Twain, humorist, satirist, lecturer, and writer, has been described as “a figure larger than life; massive in talent, eruptive in temperament, unpredictable in his actions.”

Even as a youngster, Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) presented an intriguing personality to the world, as suggested here by his naturally good-humored mother.

Twain writes in his autobiography:

I was told that I was a sickly and precarious and tiresome and uncertain child and lived mainly on allopathic medicines during the first seven years of my life. I asked my mother about this, in her old age – she was in her eighty-eighth year – and said:

“I suppose that during all that time you were uneasy about me?”

“Yes, the whole time.”

“Afraid I wouldn’t live?”

After a reflective pause – ostensibly to think out the facts – “No – afraid you would.”

“It sounds like plagiarism, but it probably wasn’t,”
Twain adds.

All tedium aside, Twain is said to have enjoyed a pleasant childhood. Of course, his family was never wealthy. Twain’s father, purportedly highly intelligent and a stern disciplinarian, was only mildly successful as an attorney, though he died of pneumonia when Twain was only eleven. Other untimely endings include the deaths of four of Twain’s six siblings and three of his own four children, as well as his wife's death after 34 years of marriage. Twain died in 1910, at the age of 74. He was survived by his daughter Clara.

Twain has remained a thoroughly interesting character, known for writing about personal experiences and things he knew about from first-hand experience. In addition, Twain revealed his biases about mankind through stories, such as those found in his most celebrated book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

In his novel Huck Finn, for example, Twain revealed his contempt for the “damned human race,” which he said so often creates injustice. Even so, Twain also demonstrated his full appreciation for a single human being such as slave Jim, a person who would have been considered even less than human at the time of the novel’s origin.

Huck Finn's sympathy for other human beings, his shrewdness and ingenuity, his basic intelligence, his good common sense, and his grounded practicality are some of the qualities that make him one the great characters in American fiction. In fact, these are the exact same qualities that make Mark Twain one of the great writers in American literature.

Of primary interest to Thinkwriter is Twain's worldview, clearly displayed in his earliest memories. Each recollection demonstrates Twain’s obvious appreciation for a single human being and also his recognition of the inevitability of loss.

And how interesting to learn that Mark Twain’s worldview is primarily embedded in what he hears as opposed to what he sees, a discrimination of definite significance, given Twain’s renowned use of dialects in his writing. In fact, the dialects used in The Adventures of Huck Finn so captured Ernest Hemingway's admiration that he labeled the Twain's novel "the beginning of American literature" because of them.

But more about the memories!

In Twain’s first memory, he notes the heartrending sound of “moaning” coming from his mother at the bedside of his dead older brother Benjamin – “That dumb sign of anguish . . . perhaps new to me, since it made upon me a very strong impression – an impression which holds its place still with the picture which it helped to intensify and make memorable.”

By his mother's free-flowing tears and moaning, as well as her focused, unrestrained grief, Twain experiences the wretched heartbreak of her loss, a circumstance so painful she cannot even express the pain with words, and he cannot let go of the memory for a lifetime.

In fact, a secondary loss in this instance belongs to the young Twain himself, who not only loses his brother in death but also his childhood innocence, having now experienced first-hand the vulnerability and torment of a fully grieving mother.

In Twain's second memory, he talks about about the “maddening…unendurable” sounds of “singing, whistling, yelling, whooping, and laughing”– all coming from “the noisiest creature that ever was, perhaps, . . . a little slave boy whom we hired from some one, there in Hannibal.”

Similar to the first memory, loss is a clear theme. Twain wants his mother to rid the house of the boy’s noise making, and in her refusal, his mother reminds the young Twain that the slave boy has already lost everything. By singing, the boy’s pain is vanished a little, she explains; he is able to distract himself by making noise. Hearing his mother’s sincerity and seeing it punctuated with tears, the young Twain relinquishes all of his previous inability to have compassion for the “friendless” boy, admitting soon after,
“…Sandy’s noise was not a trouble to me any more.”

And finally, in the third memory, Twain recalls the stinging words of a “strapping girl of fifteen,” who states publicly about Twain, “Here’s a boy seven years old who can’t chaw tobacco.” Again, loss is depicted - Twain's loss of standing among his peers.

In fact, the perceived loss is so shameful to Twain that he determines to reform…but alas, to no avail. Even though the path to respect is known by him, Twain cannot achieve it….thus pointing to the essential characteristic of authentic loss: It is unalterable. True loss is permanent, as is the loss of his brother’s life, the loss of Twain’s innocence, the loss of the slave’s boy’s family, freedom, and previous life, and finally, the loss of Twain’s standing among his classmates

In the first memory, the mother loved deeply, but lost her son anyway. In the second, the cheerful slave boy loved his family, his freedom, and his life, but lost them all anyway. And in the third memory, Twain loved being seen as one of the gang, but lost his standing anyway. In all three memories, the love is pure and right, and the loss is painful and unalterable . . . as well as unavoidable. "Such is life," Twain would say.

Thus we see that from Twain’s worldview, to love is to lose, although Twain would certainly never suggest foregoing love because of the probability of loss. To the contrary, Twain would suggest we throw caution to the wind in the pursuit of our passions; “Put all your eggs in one basket," he would say," and WATCH THAT BASKET.”

Warm summer sun,
shine kindly here;
Warm southern wind,
blow softly here;
Green sod above,
lie light, lie light –
Good-night, dear heart,
good night, good night.

Mark Twain
Epitaph for his daughter

1 comment:

jenny said...

Most got this one right. Ben Franklin was one of my favorite posts because even though I know who Ben Franklin is I didn't really know him. Same here with Mark Twain. I got the worldview correct for once. In these past few months, all the articles, posts, etc. about our political cnadidates regarding race, gender, ageism, etc. Mark Twain was quoted so many times. I,too,wonder what his reaction would be. I think I am one of the few people who has never read Huckleberry Finn ( I'm going to though) or perhaps I have and I have it tucked away in one of those memories of mind.
Good job Candis