Going Home With Mark Twain

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MARK TWAIN WAS BORN ALMOST EXACTLY A century before I was into a small-town Mississippi Valley culture that, despite the centennial difference, bore remarkable resemblances to my own. I took his work to my heart at an early age and have retained my regard for the best of it ever since. Shortly before my sixtieth birthday I returned to Life on the Mississippi for the first time since high school in my little town in Mississippi. It rings even more striking and true for me now, not least, I think, because I too became a writer, and I learned immeasurably from him. If good literature embraces the dreams of young readers over the many years, then Mark Twain reappears to me dreamlike as I age; he was magic to me as a fledgling writer, and still is.

His words have ineluctable resonance for my own life and my own times. He caught the essence behind things; he taught me that a writer should be a good “reporter” and that he must go with his own intuitions. When I was the editor of Harper’s Magazine in the 1960s, the framed original posters of the Harper’s serial of Joan of Arc hung on the walls of my office (by some accounts he considered it his finest work, but in this case he may have been mistaken). The magazine and its writers grew in esteem together during the 1870s and 1880s. The biographer Justin Kaplan reports that an English tour guide told some tourists in 1882: “You Americans have Mark Twain and Harper’s Magazine .”

Sometimes, when working on weekends, I would tarry before the ancient cabinet containing the individual cards on the articles and stories going back to 1850, catalogued by author and title, with date of acceptance and publication and amount of payment, and look under “C” for Clemens. On one such lonely winter’s afternoon it mystically occurred to me that if I had been the editor of this magazine then rather than now , I might have been a friend of Mark Twain!

Once, in a later Mississippi twilight, from the work-room of my cabin on the Bogue Chitto River, I heard vociferous voices from the riverbank. They were coming from my son and a friend of his, and it suggests something, I suppose, about the tenacity and endurance of Mark Twain that they were reciting from memory the raftsman’s peroration from Life on the Mississippi , their shouts blending with the summertime cicadas and echoing down the river: “Whoo-oop! I’m the old original iron-jawed, brass-mounted, copper-bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansaw! Look at me! I’m the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation! Sired by a hurricane, dam’d by an earthquake, half-brother to the cholera, nearly related to the small-pox on the mother’s side! Look at me! I take nineteen alligators and a bar’l of whiskey for breakfast when I’m in robust health, and a bushel of rattlesnakes and a dead body when I’mailing! I split the everlasting rocks with my glance, and I squench the thunder when I speak! Whoo-oop! Stand back and give me room according to my strength! Blood’s my natural drink, and the wails of the dying is music to my ear! Cast your eye on me, gentlemen!—and lay low and hold your breath, for I’m bout to turn myself loose!”

Life on the Mississippi , in the most lasting sense, “carries the news” to my generation, and shall to those after mine, of what his people and places were like, the way things looked and felt in the locales of his growing up and his later return to them in maturity. Life on the Mississippi is written with flamboyance and beauty and the affecting precision of a craftsman. How can one compete with this? “Some of these chutes were utter solitudes. The dense, untouched forest overhung both banks of the crooked little crack, and one could believe that human creatures had never intruded there before. The swinging grape-vines, the grassy nooks and vistas glimpsed as we swept by, the flowering creepers waving their red blossoms from the tops of dead trunks, and all the spendthrift richness of the forest foliage, were wasted and thrown away there. The chutes were lovely places to steer in; they were deep, except at the head; the current was gentle; under the ‘points’ the water was absolutely dead, and the invisible banks so bluff that where the tender willow thickets projected you could bury your boat’s broadside in them as you tore along, and then you seemed fairly to fly. …”