Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mark Twain on Thanksgiving...among other things

      Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1

I've been reading Mark Twain's autobiography. It's been a bit of a challenge, because the editors have included notes and letters and dictations of Twain's and included them in the book. When I heard he had an autobiography, I thought it would be a more of a piece. Instead, it seems to be lots and lots of little pieces.

However, this was Twain's intention - not necessarily to include all the letters and references, but to have it be an autobiography made up of pieces...

"So you see the result is that this narrative of mine is sure to begin every morning in diary form, because it is sure to begin with something which I have just read, or something which I have just been talking about. That text, when I am done with it and I don't seem to get done with any text - but it doesn't matter, I am not interested in getting done with anything. I am only interested in talking along and wandering around as much as I want to, regardless of results to the future reader. By consequence, here we have diary and history combined; because as soon as I wander from the present text - the thought of to-day - that digression takes me far and wide over an uncharted sea of recollection, and the result of that is history. Consequently my autobiography is diary and history combined."

I realize that including all the letters and all the transcripts and so on allow it to be a more complete and scholarly tome. Except it kind of FEELS like a scholarly endeavor, rather than a more friendly and inviting autobiography. Its heft alone, the thing is over 950 pages (and this is only volume 1!), makes it rather off-putting. It's just harder to get to the good bits, is all.

That said, there ARE good bits. Yes, it meandered. It wandered. I didn't read all the references and footnotes. There were some bits I wasn't all that interested in reading. AND...there were some that were absolutely delightful...

"But the main difficulty is the flies. They like it up there (on his shaved head) better than anywhere else; on account of the view, I suppose. It seems to me that I have never seen any flies before that were shod like these. These appear to have talons. Wherever they put their foot down they grab. They walk over my head all the time, and cause me infinite torture. It is their park, their club, their summer resort."

Twain gets his own social commentary in there as well. This passage illuminates his thoughts and observations of Thanksgiving...

"...reminds me that my own seventieth (birthday) arrived recently - that is to say, it arrived on the 30th of November, but Colonel Harvey was not able to celebrate it on that date because that date had been preempted by the President to be used as Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for - annually, not oftener - if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man's side, consequently on the Lord's side, consequently it was proper to thank the Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments. The original reason for a Thanksgiving Day has long ago ceased to exist - the Indians have long ago been comprehensively and satisfactorily exterminated and the account closed with Heaven, with the thanks due. But, from old habit, Thanksgiving Day has remained with us, and every year the President of the United States and Governors of all the several States and the territories set themselves the task, every November, to advertise for something to be thankful for, and then they put those thanks into a few crisp and reverent phrases, in the form of a Proclamation, and that is read from all the pulpits in the land, the national conscience is wiped clean with one swipe and sin is resumed at the old stand."

He also talks at length about his daughter, Susy, who died in her early 20's of meningitis. Twain loved her much and missed her greatly, even as he wrote over 30 years after her death..."She was our wonder and our worship."

Whether he talks about the death of his wife or his daughter, a news item of the day, flies, Italian architecture, or commenting on political or social happenings, it is thrilling to read Twain's previously unpublished words 100 years after his death.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Thanks for reading!

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