Last year, the good people at W.W. Norton released Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. Among the contents are a few essays about why I — as a 57-year-old middle class white man living on the Lower East Side in the early 21st century and certainly not the target demographic for Louisa May Alcott’s novel — should spend a few hours in the company of the March sisters. (Well, not specifically me, but you get the idea.) As it happens, I visited the Orchard House, Alcott’s home, on a recent visit to Concord, MA, and I doubt that anybody of the dozens of visitors there really need any reason to read Little Women; they’d already done so, and enthusiastically enough to seek out the rooms where Alcott wrote the book.
A few days before I’d taken a tour of Mark Twain’s home in Hartford, CT, enthusiasm for Twain’s writing having drawn me there as well. And it led me to muse about Huckleberry Finn and why that novel, along with the rest of Twain’s work, still matters. Of course, those like myself who visited the Twain house needed little rationale for either their visit or their enthusiasm for the book. We were the converted and had already heard the evangel. But it did pose the question: Where was everybody else? What did Twain have to offer those who hadn’t read a word of him since high school, if at all? For such people do exist.
Admittedly, I’ve had qualms myself, and recently. To read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 2019 — with its dead cats, its adventures on Mississippi River islands, the role-playing of its characters as pirates or Robin Hood, and its complete and total lack of iPhones, television sets, and electricity — is to wonder what it would have to offer even today’s boys, to whom the book was originally addressed in part. Set in the antebellum South, it was somewhat anachronistic even when it was first published in 1876. These days it reads like science fiction. What could that world offer today’s ten- and eleven-year-olds, who prefer to spend their time on YouTube and Fortnite? (Not to mention that any Department of Child Services worthy of the name would have run the adults of the entire town of St. Petersburg into jail for parental neglect with nary a thought.) The appeal of the book for adults is clearer. All of them were children once, and the book recalls a general nostalgia for the independence, the imagination, and the innocence associated with childhood, before they were assimilated into mature, adult society.
All great writers have the ability to find the universal in the particular, and I think this gives us a clue as to what Mark Twain can offer us today. For even during his own time, one of Twain’s central concerns was the ability of men and women to govern themselves and others, the central issue of democracy itself. Though Twain was an American writer, ultimately that concern cuts to the universal qualities of human nature.
What our treatment of other races says about those qualities can only lead to bitter conclusions. It’s a fool’s game to determine what Mark Twain might say about this or that in our own time, but I’ll play the fool and imagine that Twain would have lauded the New York Times‘ recent “1619 Project,” which posits slavery as America’s original sin. “It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are,” the Times says in an introductory paragraph, and the controversy that the project has generated, especially on the right, indicates that the issue remains sensitive. Backdating American identity from 1776 to 1619 is, I believe, just the kind of subversive irreverence that Twain would have welcomed.
A central question about next year’s election will be what America itself means — the duties and obligations of a citizen in an imperfect republic. Here, too, history has demonstrated that the distance between our ideals and our behavior, as well as those of our politicians, is so gapingly wide as to be open to ridicule, and ridicule was Twain’s stock in trade. So far as Donald Trump goes, you needn’t ask what Twain would say about the man; he’s already said it in depicting such characters as the Duke and the Dauphin. Indeed, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, is a witty, comic encyclopedia of human iniquity; anybody reading those three books will be ready for the upcoming election season; nothing will be surprising then. You can’t say that about Little Women. And as to whether technology can ameliorate some of these iniquities — well, Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court has already had the last word on that as well.
Do human beings have the ability to govern themselves to their best, most compassionate advantage? Do human beings have the ability to govern each other, for that matter? Optimists will say that it’s an open question, and the jury’s still out. But in 2019, Mark Twain’s closing argument, laid out in all his books, may be impossible to refute. There is comfort in misanthropy and pessimism after all; not the comfort of optimism, but the comfort of being right. “The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it, he knows too little,” said the man itself. And, as Mark Twain also proves, there can be undeniable, liberating joy in knowing it.