Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mark Twain at the Morgan

In his journal of November 6, 1953, Alfred Kazin remarked that both Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield didn’t like "phonies." The passage is part of the recent Mark Twain: A Skeptic’s Progress exhibition at the Morgan Library, where the curators also quote Kerouac, another Twain admirer, as saying, "[Twain] was an uncomplicated man, a man who did not believe that literature is a constant tale of sorrow and nothing else. Mark Twain piloted steamboats, dug for silver in Nevada, roamed the West, 'roughed it'…worked as a foreign correspondent, newspaper editor, lecturer, and was a family man—and yet, he did not have to sacrifice all that to his 'art'…. He was just writing what he felt like writing, not what he thought 'literature' demanded of him." The exhibit also devotes some time to Hank Morgan, the firearms foreman who is the hero of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It’s Hank’s love of empiricism and pragmatism that makes him the enemy of the inequalities of the chivalric world into which he is thrust. However, it’s the same traits that enable him to use all his capabilities to destroy himself and Camelot too. That contrariety of motive, which is so aptly underlined in the Morgan Library’s presentation, hardly reflects the workings of an uncomplicated man. Garrison Keillor’s unflattering front-page New York Times Book Review critique of Twain’s recently released autobiography, the sleeper bestseller of the current season, further complicates the question of Twain’s personality by pointing to the disingenuousness of an author whose reputation was based on honesty. As Keillor comments,  "He speaks from the grave, he writes, so that he can speak freely — 'as frank and free and unembarrassed as a love letter' — but there’s precious little frankness and freedom here and plenty of proof that Mark Twain, in the hands of academics, can be just as tedious as anybody else when he is under the burden of his own reputation" ("Mark Twain's Riverboat Ramblings," NYT, 12/16/10).

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