I’ve been debating what to write a Mark Twain essay on. At the one hand, I could take on truth versus lie in his works, which would be fascinating and engaging and entirely inappropriate for only four pages; on the other, I could critique a paper of my own following the 19 literary offenses of Fenimore Cooper. The latter option is certainly more wounding, but I think it will actually stretch me furthest. I’ve picked a fairly well-written paper (one on the codifying of gendered language in Japan) to make it even more challenging. There will probably be a good deal written under the lightning versus lightning bug category!

As for truth and lie, I have a few nagging ideas that I need to get out of my mind before I can concentrate on another Twain subject. Clemens walks a tricky tightrope in all of his work. As he says, a good storyteller is (seemingly) unaware of the irony, humor, and discord within his tale. The audience must participate in the story then, as much or more than the teller. However, there must be the suggestion, whether in certain juxtapositions or in the twinkle of an eye, to allow the audience to cotton on. When it comes to straight up lies, it seems Clemens looks to their effects to settle his opinion of their worth and appropriateness. His pseudonym is a good example to start with. Clemens does not write under his own name, nor even necessarily with his own character. The writer, author, and narrator are three separate species doing their best to appear as two. Twain exposes himself occasionally though slips in the character of the narrator, but knowing where he stops and Clemens begins is not so easy. Nevertheless, this deception is so well crafted and essential to the story that it falls under the protective label of art. In stark contrast to this literary nudge-and-a-wink are the malicious lies of some of Twain’s characters. Twain’s Parisian guide, for one, attempts deception for his gain and his employers’ detriment. One man tries to take in Twain and have him make an ass of himself by telling him all the wrong names for riverboat parts (Twain’s revenge, on the other hand, counts as an artful riposte). Capping that all is Tom Sawyer’s unwitting cruelty in the final chapters of Huck Finn – an instance where he has all the art of the story and nub, but an evil premise.

Twain was right about the general perception of truth, and he shows it in his camel story. That beast could and did eat everything, but when it tried to digest a few cellulose reams of the “purest” truth Twain had ever written, it up and died. All things considered, I think it fared better than most of the public.

Advertisements