Saturday, September 18, 2010

Forget What You Know of Twain, Then Delight in Your Rediscovery

New York Times
September 17, 2010

Mark Twain’s heroes tend to land in unexpected places: caves, locked cabins, long-gone eras, the Czar’s palace, a Tasmanian jungle, Southern drawing rooms. Whether it’s Huck Finn floating on a raft with an escaped slave or Hank Morgan thrust into the court of King Arthur, they are generally good-humored about their quandary and come out in pretty decent condition, tossing off a few wisecracks, learning a few things, maybe even making a fortune.

But puzzling it all out isn’t easy: how do you make sense of an alien or changing world? Can you make judgments based on what you’ve been taught or what you think you already know, whether as prince or pauper? People are different there: what are we to make of them? How are we to act?

Samuel Clemens, of course, must have often felt the same way, his 74-year life arcing from rural poverty to world renown, from the antebellum South to 20th-century industrial New England, from Confederate sympathies to the rationalist skepticism of liberal modernity. He created a persona so familiar to us, so amiably congenial and sardonic, at once so folksy and high-toned with its attempt to cudgel and cajole the sense out of things, that we may think we understand him too. He landed squarely on his feet late in life, a modern man. And 100 years after his death and 175 after his birth, he still comfortably stands in our company. But in this year of dual birth and death commemorations, go to the Morgan Library & Museum, where a major new exhibition, Mark Twain: A Skeptic’s Progress, draws from two great collections of books and manuscripts at the Morgan and the New York Public Library.


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