A river runs through him

Mark Twain died 100 years ago this April.  His life as well as his stories revolved around the Mississippi. In the spirit of a centennial review of sorts, Laura Barton follows the river across 10 states to see it through the author’s eyes, and document her ‘journey’ in Intelligent Life.

Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 40 miles from this spot, in Florida, Missouri, in 1835. He seemed to steal into writing, first as a composer of humorous verse, then as a travel writer, before he wrote “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, which drew heavily on his youth here in Hannibal.

For millions of school children around the world, “Tom Sawyer” was a first encounter with Twain, where they were swept up by tales of playing pirates on river islands, murders in graveyards, hidden treasure and getting lost in underground caves. But even at that stage, it was his tone as much as his material that made an impression: he tugged at your sleeve and wheedled his way past your reservations with a naive, bobbing enthusiasm. Like Sawyer himself, he was the best kind of bad influence.

When Barton was way beyond her childhood and studying American Literature with a capital L, she returned to Twain — to Sawyer and his partner-in-crime Huck Finn, as well as to the political satire “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”, to his journalism, commentary and his travel writing—“Innocents Abroad”, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and “Life on the Mississippi”.

She notes that Twain could be verbose, a grouch, and at times he was all elbows and sharp teeth, but he was also piercingly funny, and few could turn a phrase quite so neatly: “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds,” for example, or “Sometimes I wonder, whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.”

He was a great social commentator too, an opponent of imperialism and racism, a supporter of women’s rights and labour unions. But more than anything it was his voice that caught me; like that of Walt Whitman, it rang out as something new, something uniquely and compellingly American.

Read the full essay at Intelligent Life …