My recent visit to the Mark Twain house and museum in Hartford, CT, possessed something of the quality of a pilgrimage. Over the past few years I’ve read several of Twain’s books, but certainly not all — the canon runs to seven thick volumes of about 1,000 pages each in the Library of America edition, perhaps the most reliable and available of contemporary editions, and even this omits thousands of letters as well as the gargantuan, unedited autobiography that the University of California Press issued in three bulky tomes over the past decade. So my own reading — The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, “Old Times on the Mississippi,” Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and No. 44: The Mysterious Stranger (and a few shorter pieces, biographies, and critical works) — has been far from comprehensive and complete, though happily this leaves me with more to anticipate. Wandering the rooms and halls of Twain’s mansion, where he spent many of his happiest and most productive years, was to be plunged into the late 19th-century world which produced some of this country’s most extraordinary literature. The museum, too, was an enlightening institution. Really, you should get up to Hartford sometime yourself and have a look. You won’t be disappointed.
This visit and the new release of a digitized version of the Huckleberry Finn manuscript by the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library sent me to Mark Twain & Huck Finn, Walter Blair’s excellent 1960 study of Twain’s masterpiece, in which the scholar of American humor put his finger on one of the main strands — and, for some of us, appeals — of Twain’s work as a whole. He begins by discussing Twain’s 1867 The Innocents Abroad, his first book, but spins this strand out to the rest of Twain’s work as well:
The full title, The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress, shows that “an innocent” — “a new pilgrim” — was the chief character. Since the author was debunking tourists, his hero’s “progress” took the form of disillusionment concerning Europe and the East. In the part of Roughing It which was a continuous narrative, another sort of innocent — a greenhorn — was disillusioned about the West of romance. “Old Times” follows a similar pattern: journeying on the river, the cub is disillusioned concerning its romance. Such educational journeyings would figure in The Prince and the Pauper and in Part II of Life on the Mississippi. … Tom Sawyer and The Prince and the Pauper similarly would show an irresponsible boy moving toward respectable maturity. In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain would again deal with the educational journey leading to disillusionment … (48-49)
Of course, this disillusionment has its saving grace in that it’s being offered by a humorist, more specifically a satirist. Like the great satirist Jonathan Swift before him and the great satirist H.L. Mencken after him, Twain roots his essentially misanthropic vision in the genre of comedy. Among the many rewards of this disillusionment, perhaps the greatest is laughter. Another, of course, is the courage to live in truth, not merely about the cosmos but about one’s self as well (for the true misanthrope confesses that he’s as guilty as the rest of his race of his faults), and in this there’s a certain pleasure to be had. To quote Florence King, another misanthrope and much missed, “If we take as one definition of a misanthrope, ‘Someone who does not suffer fools and likes to see fools suffer,’ we realize at once that we are dealing with an individual who has something to look forward to.”
There’s more, of course — Twain was a conscious literary artist, and experimented more with the structures and techniques of fiction than perhaps any other American writer of his time; his brilliant assimilation of the American vernacular into his prose may be the most obvious and important, though not his only achievement by far. But if I may be so bold as to build upon Blair’s catalog, I cite the concluding paragraphs of Twain’s final major work of fiction, The Mysterious Stranger, perhaps his final, damning statement of disillusionment. Written in 1902-1908 and first published posthumously in a corrupt edition in 1916, it was neglected for decades before it began to enjoy something of a renaissance, and critical attention has slowly been turning to it as a major Twain work. As novelist William Gaddis said of it, “We all came out of Mark Twain’s vest pocket. No one has ever beaten ‘The Mysterious Stranger.'”
“Will a day come when the race will detect the funniness of these juvenilities and laugh at them — and by laughing at them destroy them? For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon — laughter. Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution — these can lift at a colossal humbug, — push it a little — crowd it a little — weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand. …
“Strange! that you should not have suspected years ago—centuries, ages, eons, ago! — for you have existed, companionless, through all the eternities. Strange, indeed, that you should not have suspected that your universe and its contents were only dreams, visions, fiction! Strange, because they are so frankly and hysterically insane — like all dreams: a God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice and invented hell — mouths mercy and invented hell — mouths Golden Rules, and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship him! …
“You perceive, now, that these things are all impossible except in a dream. You perceive that they are pure and puerile insanities, the silly creations of an imagination that is not conscious of its freaks — in a word, that they are a dream, and you the maker of it. The dream-marks are all present; you should have recognized them earlier.
“It is true, that which I have revealed to you; there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream — a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought — a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!”
He vanished, and left me appalled; for I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true.
A pilgrimage to the house of the man who wrote this is more than due respect to a great writer. It’s inspiration itself.