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Tom Chaney. No. R769: Summer adventure with Mark Twain

Of Writers and Their Books No. R769: Summer adventure with Mark Twain First appeared 1 July 2007
The next earlier Tom Chaney column :Tom Chaney: Oral History - behind the scene - Ed Prichard

By Tom Chaney

Summer Adventure with Mark Twain

Summer is well underway. We have had much heat and some rain. The young literary ignabits are scouring the bookstores and libraries for to fill the summer reading lists.

Here at The Bookstore in Horse Cave youngsters have been asking for To Kill a Mockingbird, various titles by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway and, of course, for Mark Twain.

Two or three of these folks have come in lately led by their mothers with a firm grip on an ear. Mostly the little scholars are mute.

Often asked what my favorite books are and who are my favorite writers, I hesitate. The question is a difficult one, and my answer may change from time to time. But Mark Twain always makes the list.

In trying to decide just which is the Great American Novel, I have swung from Melville's Moby Dick to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn to Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again to Huckleberry Finn to Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men to Huckleberry Finn to William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and back to Huckleberry Finn.

When Mark Twain published Tom Sawyer in 1876, the story of the civilized boy did not sell as well as his earlier Innocents Abroad. Nine years later Huckleberry Finn sold more than 50,000 copies. Huck's escape from "sivilazation" has been on the best seller list ever since.

While Mark Twain is mostly classified as a nineteenth century humorist, he is far more. His skepticism, his cynical puncturing of America's hypocrisies, his lambasting of reigning political, religious and literary illusions still ring true today.

Huck Finn's affection for the slave, Jim, as they boom down the Mississippi River to head for freedom is a great contrast with the hatred they find ashore. You may recall that one dark night a gang of slave catchers approach Huck and Jim's raft. Unable to see who was aboard, they call out, "Is your man white or black?"

Huck replies, "He's white!" And his guilt at his own lie is in sharp contrast to the good sense of the humanity that caused him to lie. Huck decides that if liars go to hell, he would prefer that place to the company of the slave catchers and Aunt Polly, who threatens perdition if he doesn't quit smoking and attend Sunday school.

Once Mark Twain told the story of the man who worked all his life to achieve heaven. When he died and entered the pearly gates, the first man he met was a man he despised and whom he thought for sure would be in a warmer climate. He picked up his satchel, inquired the way to hell and left. "There you have it," Mark Twain said, "heaven for climate, hell for society."

We were fortunate in summer 2007. Not only did we have Mark Twain for reading in cool maple shade -- lemonade close at hand -- we also had a chance to confront Mark Twain on stage at Kentucky Repertory Theatre.

Robert Brock performed Mark Twain beginning July 5, 2007. Brock selected a number of pieces from the massive works of Mark Twain.

We had a chance to see many sides of Mark Twain. The humorist, of course, but humor used in biting social criticism, the pathos of a rather tragic life, and the rollicking adventures of a humble cup bearer in the salon of Queen Elizabeth I in "1601" offended by the crude language and behavior of the queen and her courtesans.

Those of us who have appreciated Brock's earlier one-man shows -- The Gospel of Mark, Revelation, and The Gospel of John -- and his skill at adapting Charles Dickens were eager to see his take on one of the saints of American literature.

Mark Twain earned a living on the lecture circuit as well as by his writing. One of my favorite stories about his lecturing involves Ulysses S. Grant. Mark Twain was engaged to speak at a banquet honoring Grant a few years before the former President's death from cancer. The humorist took out after Grant with his usual barbed tongue but worried about Grant's reaction to such irreverence.

But President Grant was delighted. After the speech he and Mark Twain got together as friends. Mark Twain was also a publisher. Grant told him about the difficulty he was having getting his memoirs published. Prospective publishers had offered no more than forty thousand dollars for his manuscript.

Money was important to Grant. As he approached certain death, he was nearly impoverished. His memoirs were his last hope for leaving his family free of debt. Sensing the potential popularity of the memoirs, Mark Twain offered an advance of half a million dollars. Grant finished his book only days before his death. His family was secure and we have one of the finest autobiographies in American letters.

Audiences in these parts had an unusual chance to get to know this complex American writer.

Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney Note: References to the then forthcoming show at KRT have been edited or deleted. RHS

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