Mark Twain Speaks Again (original version)
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Perhaps I should introduce myself. I am Samuel Langhorne Clemens, perhaps better known to you as Mark Twain. It's wonderful to be back here on this God-forsaken rock of a planet with you today, although I must admit that I feel a little cramped. I've grown used to the wide open spaces of heaven, so finite Earth is rather a shock. I must say, it's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live here.
Heaven, you ask? Oh, yes, I can tell what you're thinking. What's that unregenerate Twain character doing among the angels and the saved? I would guess that the Archbishop of Canterbury must be wondering the same thing while sitting in his warm and cozy seat down south--afterlife-speaking, that is. He ought to have known better that to fall asleep while seated next to Mark Twain on the train to eternity!
But who am I anyway, Mark Twain or Samuel L. Clemens? Well, I was born Sam Clemens on November 30, 1835, in the small town of Florida, Missouri. However, I spent most of my childhood in Hannibal, Missouri, the town I later made famous as the setting for Tom Sawyer and parts of Huck Finn. I am known principally as an author, humorist, lecturer, and downright public institution. Yet many people know me as a famous iconoclast....Personally, I think that I'm normal, and it's the rest of the "damned human race" that's trying to knock down my beliefs and ideals!
The "damned human race"...you know who you are, don't try to deny it. Every one of you is a member of this ill-favored institution. And in truth, I don't really exclude myself from your number, for my life was not always easy. Sometimes, I felt that the God so unjustly revered by the rest of the world had inflicted a plague upon me.
As a young man I had difficulty settling on a career. I engaged in a several get-rich-quick schemes which invariably failed. But I started out as an apprentice to a printer back in Hannibal and later worked with my brother, Orion, in his publishing business. I traveled quite a bit throughout my life and career, too, and in 1856 I began working on a riverboat on the Mississippi. I actually became a certified pilot, something I'd always wanted to achieve. The nom-de-plume I later used for my major works, Mark Twain, was actually inspired by this profession, as it means, to a riverboat pilot at least, "two fathoms deep" or "safe water."
"Safe water?" Obviously, this was an inappropriate choice for the author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the most evil, dangerous book presently poisoning our good Christian library shelves! I don't really understand the fuss, or rather, knowing the human race's propensity for despising the things it doesn't take the time to understand, I do understand the fuss, but I prefer to think it should be incomprehensible. Huck Finn was originally just going to be a sequel to my great American boys' book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but the sequel really took on a life of its own. In writing the novel I tried to capture the pre-Civil War South just like it was, warts and all, and apparently that makes some people uncomfortable. Well, it should! Many aspects of Old Southern society weren't pretty, and it wasn't my responsibility to doll them up so dyspeptic readers would find them more digestible. If you can't step back from the words and make your own intelligent judgment of the society that used them, then don't read my book. It wasn't written for you. But to deny that such things existed at one time is to deny this country's history and would make the novel unrealistic.
But I digress. During and after the Civil War I was out West, hoping as always to make my fortune but usually just publishing some journalistic pieces in various papers. Out of this kind of work came my first major book, The Innocents Abroad. It was a success on the whole, capturing Americans' hearts in two ways: making them laugh and making them feel justly superior to their European counterparts still mired in the undemocratic remnants of the Middle Ages. So began an illustrious writing career, climaxed, most argue, by Huck Finn and all tragic decline from there. Poor Mark Twain, they say, after 50 the effects of old age started kicking in, stealing all the fire and brilliance from his writing.
Well, all I can say is that I certainly thought it was pretty good at the time. Besides, how much can a man be expected to absorb and recover from but still produce grand masterpieces? Near the end of my life, I had to write, even if everyone hated the resulting works. And the critics could be damned unappreciative. But writing was my one true constant, something I knew I could do well, and the method through which I could vent my blackest feelings about God and the human race. For nobody knows the trouble I've seen!
I tried several times throughout my life to gain great wealth, and though I was usually pretty well off, I was never really satisfied. I favored risky investments, which, I am sad to say, did not pay off for me in the end. I tried at one time to set up my own publishing company. I saw two potential benefits: I could make money off of other people's books, and I could make a good deal more money off of my own! It was not to be, however; the firm had only one successful book, the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, a personal hero of mine at the time.
Of course, this soured investment was nothing compared to the Paige typesetter debacle. Speculating on that failed machine caused me to go bankrupt back in the Panic of 1893. I eventually had to go on a worldwide lecture tour to pay off all my debts. And now it seems I'm lecturing again to pay off my spiritual debt to the Grand Poobah of Heaven for being a blaspheming old fool all my life. I always thought he suspected that I wasn't the Archbishop.
Any amount would be worth it, however, to be reunited with my own personal "Angel," my wife, Olivia. She was always in delicate health and declined for a long time prior to her eventual death. Her death, plus the deaths of my daughter Susy from meningitis while Livy and I were in Europe and my daughter Jean, an epileptic, left me devastated. By taking into account these dreadful losses and financial woes, people might find it easier to understand why my late writing is so dark and bitter.
Despite all my black feelings, people amazingly never stopped liking me. Although I was no longer publishing major new novels, I was much in demand as a lecturer and my opinions were highly valued by the press. "Mark Twain" was no longer just an author's name, it denoted an American institution. Even today, many people can conjure up the image of the crotchety old man with the bushy hair, full moustache, and immaculate white suit.
When I died on April 21, 1910, Halley's Comet was traveling the night skies. The very same comet visited the earth the year I was born. What significance this held for my life is unknowable, but it does seem appropriate for the man who wrote what has been called "the greatest American book," Huck Finn. While I would try, at least in the presence of others, not to flatter myself so, I do think that I did make some contributions to American literature, especially in the area of realistic, regionalist writing. Choosing a common, uneducated boy for a narrator was extremely unconventional at the time, but he gives the book a special, innocent quality this world sorely needs more of. I only hope the human race can absorb some of Huck's qualities before it is completely unredeemable.
Thank you for your kind attention. As I must be heading back up north, spiritually-speaking, I must leave you now. If you'd like, I'll put in a good word for you with the Almighty, but somehow, I don't think I'm the proper messenger. You might be better served to talk to the Archbishop. I could get you access to him, I have an in with Satan. He and I go way back...but that's really a story for another time.
Copyright © 2002 Colleen Fischer | Last updated October 7, 2002