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Citizen Twain #16: Final Chapter

The cover of the new Twain autobiography. Click to see full-size.
The cover of the new Twain autobiography. Click to see full-size.

Twain was as many-sided as a man can be, and probably more many-sided than it is possible for any American to be now, in our more specialized age. And a glittering profusion of those facets are displayed in the Autobiography.

There are wonderful little offbeat human glimpses of the man behind the white linen suit. One of my favorites is when Twain plaintively laments – in a section in which he excoriates critics -- that some ass of a critic once described him as ugly, and the rest of the wretched herd of newsmen repeated that untruth forever. “To this day, it hurts me to the heart. I was always handsome. Anybody but a critic could have seen it," Twain groans. 

The most significant theme for Twain here is not war, patriotism or politics, but his beloved daughter Susy, who died at age 24 of meningitis. Throughout much of these dictations, Twain quotes extensively from her “biography” of him, and recalls their life together. Susie lived on in her father’s heart until the day he died. His affectionate, loving, bemused recollections of her are like a sublime home movie.

Twain remembers that at age seven, Susy once asked, “Mamma, what is it all for?” Twain returns to this question again and again. “Hickman is dead – it is the old story. As Susy said, ‘What is it for?’”

Twain had no answer. “A myriad of men are born; they labor and sweat and struggle for bread; they squabble and scold and fight…age creeps upon them; infirmities follow; shames and humiliations bring down their prides and their vanities; those they love are taken from them, and the joy of life is turned to aching grief…It comes at last, the only unpoisoned gift earth ever had for them – and they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence; where they achieved nothing; where they were a failure and a mistake and a foolishness; where they have left no sign that they existed – a world which will lament them a day and forget them forever. Then another myriad takes their place, and copies all they did…and all the myriads that came after it accomplished – nothing!”

But perhaps the last word should belong not to Twain but to Helen Keller, the famous blind, deaf and mute girl whom Twain greatly admired.

In the last entry in this volume, dated March 30, 1906, Twain describes how he presided over the first meeting of a charitable organization to help the adult blind. Helen Keller was supposed to attend, but was unable to. Instead she sent a letter, which Twain read to the gathering. “It was lucky for me that she didn’t reserve it and send it to me on the platform last night, for in that case I could not have gotten through with it. I read it to the house without a break in my voice…but that was because I had read it aloud to Miss Lyon at mid-afternoon, and I knew the dangerous places and how to be prepared for them.”

At the end of her letter, Helen Keller writes: “You once told me you were a pessimist, Mr. Clemens; but great men are usually mistaken about themselves. You are an optimist. If you were not, you would not preside at the meeting. For it is an answer to pessimism.”

Mark Twain was many things. He was a pessimist, but he never gave up fighting injustice, or trying to help those in need. He was haunted by a nihilistic dread of darkness – and an irrepressible soul who kept sending out green shoots of humor, breaking through into the light. He was a Southerner who overcame his native racism to create two characters, Huck and Jim, who tower above all others in American literature, and whose friendship remains a beacon this country has yet to live up to. He grew up in a state that was the dividing-line between North and South, East and West, on the banks of the great river that cuts through the heart of America. He left home still a boy,

and lived out the ultimate boyhood dream, becoming a pilot on that great river. He headed West when that was the last frontier, reinvented himself as a wild comic writer, conquered the world, and returned East rich and famous to live in a fairy-tale mansion. He lost all his money trying to get even richer. He pulled himself out of debt in a Homeric odyssey he undertook as an old man. He was a husband and father who was forced to endure the tragic deaths of the people he loved most.

And through it all, he wrote books that are still kicking and alive and heartbreaking and angry and beautiful and funny as hell.

No one man can embody America, its divisions, its strivings, its innocence, its folly, its power, its unknowable heart. But Mark Twain comes as close as anyone ever has, or ever will.

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