Michael Fanning, who taught me American literature in college, liked sharing the story of how Mark Twain had once caused a rift at the Fanning family dinner table.
As a young scholar out on his own, Fanning learned much about Twain’s life, including a phase toward the end when the writer, touched deeply by loss, took an especially dark view of existence. It was a fact Fanning felt compelled to share on his next visit back home with his mother.
But Mrs. Fanning would hear nothing of it. She preferred to think of Twain as she had always regarded him — the cheerfully dry wit with white suit and equally white whiskers, extolling on human foibles with an eye that, while sharply wry, wasn’t quite jaundiced.
I think Fanning told that Twain story as a way of reminding students that writers, like the rest of us, are complicated souls, often full of conflicting impulses, not easily reduced to a simple portrait. Twain, perhaps more than most authors, contained multitudes, which gives his readers the luxury of picking the version they most want to hear.
What we probably want most right now, in this season of discontent, is the affirming Twain of Mrs. Fanning’s imagination — our national curmudgeon, chortling, defiant, yet undefeated.
All of this came to mind last week after I offered a few words here on last month’s passing of Hal Holbrook, the actor whose long-running portrayal of Twain in a one-man production became a cultural institution. I’d seen Holbrook’s Twain show in Baton Rouge, across the street from the Old State Capitol Twain had famously lambasted as a “sham castle.” As I pointed out last week, Twain’s credentials as a critic of architecture were subject to question; his own home in Hartford, Connecticut, was so odd that it had been compared to a cuckoo clock.
But if Twain’s inconsistencies invited criticism, it was also true that he often beat readers to the punch by criticizing himself. Holbrook put it this way about the man who became his most famous role: “What makes Twain so palatable even when he’s beating up on us? I think it’s that he includes himself in the beating. … He, too, is culpable; that, together with his honesty and his passion, helps us swallow his harshest criticism of us. It also allows him to put a lemon twist of humor into it.”
Which is why, I guess, Twain remains such a particular comfort in a gray time — and why I’ve found such solace in fetching him from the shelf.
Here, again, I’ll let Holbrook sum it up: “The great thing about Mark Twain is that he makes you smile, because he speaks the truth so well even when it has a bitter taste. And it goes to your heart. Sometimes it makes you cry. Perhaps this is why he survives and why people still want to listen to him.”