Friday, February 21, 2014


a leavening agent

One of the not-so-secret secrets to the success of the writing of Samuel Clemens must surely be his combination of humor and pathos.  He knew he had it; he knew it was what he wanted to present to people; he knew it formed the bedrock of his popularity.  In a letter to an editor wishing to include him in a forthcoming anthology of humorous prose, he writes (Mark Twain's Letters Volume 5 p.284):

"I have suggested both descriptive & humorous writing - that is to say the serious & the humorous, because humor cannot do credit to itself without a good background of gravity & of earnestness.  Humor unsupported rather hurts its author in the estimation of the reader.  Will you please present me in the two lights?"

Reviews and descriptions of his lecture style also tell us that the public was well aware that he addressed this apparent duality, and they approved of it wholeheartedly, in fact it was one of the keys to his success as a speaker.  From a review of his 1873 lecture, in the New York Tribune (ibid p.295):

"Every sentence may be burlesque, but the result is fact.  And what insures his success as a teacher is that his manner is so irresistibly droll that it conquers at the first moment the natural revolt of the human mind against instruction."

In words as in life - I won't go into a full-scale review of The Innocents Abroad just yet, but I will say I have never read a book quite like it.  Long, with a sustained level of humor that never quite palls or sounds inappropriate, because it is perfectly interspersed with the most beautiful wide-eyed descriptions of the world.  He seems to have trusted and paid very close attention to his first responses to whatever he encountered throughout the travels this book recounts.  I will have to track down the quote again, because I can't lay hands on it at the moment, but at one point he himself says that the secret to good, authentic, fresh writing is paying attention to that first response, and putting it down.  Not putting down what you think you should be writing instead.  Not recounting someone else's view or opinion of a certain city, or a work of art, or a stretch of landscape.  Not being ashamed or worried that your own response isn't an appropriate one.  He manages to do this again and again, for hundreds of pages, and the results are wonderful to read.  That authenticity of response, leavened with the gently wicked humor that proofs his words like baking powder, keeps me with him as a thankful reader.  I could talk about him all day, I think, but I will leave it there for now.  (I have a feeling his name will crop up here again.)

You've settled into a great winter reading project. I agree 100% with an earlier comment of yours about (I'm paraphrasing) the comfort of inhabiting another world for awhile. Best wishes.
Thanks, Dan - the best books (heck, even the not-so-good books) sure do bring comfort and relief, don't they. They also show us the way. Long live books!
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