He had a dream and it shot him.
Mark Twain once said he went into writing because it was the easiest job going, and adding it up after fifty years, he hadn’t worked a minute the whole time as it had all been play. He told the story of his brother Orion, who would cool his head by kneeling in a bathtub filled with cold water and immersing himself to the neck for as long as he could hold his breath. One afternoon the maid happened in through the unlocked bathroom door and ran to alert the house, screaming “Mr. Orion is drowning!” begging the question from his wife; “However did you recognise Mr. Orion?”
It’s probably comments like these that landed Twain in the place we know him at now, jokester, satirist, children’s author, but one of my most cherished moments with a book and one which still resonates, is reading the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the back-seat of a long-distance bus trip across Southern Spain and alternating between actually laughing out loud and feeling chills over the horror at the human condition. The unfortunates trying to sleep must’ve hated me. Vonnegut brings on a similar impression but I always felt less shaken by his juxtapositions of Dresden and aliens and time travel maybe because I was never handed his books in school. It was Twain’s inversion of Homer’s old Greek myth that hit so hard, I think. Odysseus, the lone beacon of reason and civilisation, traversing his vast ocean of monstrous wilderness and drawing a curtain on the age of gods and giants looks down into the water to see the horrible reflection of a young boy and a runaway slave acting anything but civilised and beset on all sides by the nightmare of a society crumbling to pieces under the weight of the social lie. Scylla, Circe and Calypso can only watch as the new world sails right up to pass them by, but there on the banks of the Mississippi, the King and Duke, the Shepardson/Gangerford feud and the convenient fantasist outlook of Tom Sawyer all thrive in a sophisticated society dependent completely on exploitation and fear. The only sanctuary is the raft itself, where a person’s moral compass is within and the brotherhood of man only has a shot the further two disenfranchised souls can get from the shoreline.
The proposed re-edit of the book (not to say prohibition in some places) to remove words considered unpalatable today is both a Pandora’s box and an interesting reflection on a society where the question of racial inequality is so doggedly side-stepped that it asks the actual murder of black children by police before anyone thinks to discuss it. To dwell on a detail like this is to miss the whole point. Homer’s myth chronicles the march of intellect and logic over chaos, Mark Twain’s children’s story records a civilisation’s descent into despair, corruption and scenes of officially endorsed public brutality of the kind we’ve grown familiar with on American news channels.
It’s a strange but common assumption that a book making these kinds of points ought to be impenetrable and scholarly. Literary social critics are so often at pains to come over wounded, isolated against their society down to their biology. What I like about Mark Twain is his ease within it while remaining at odds. I’d venture only someone graced with an outlook like his could have turned out a book as complete.