Mark Twain: Still Teaching


Posted on April 10, 2012 by Blake Leath

102 years after his death, Samuel Langhorne Clemens ("Mark Twain") is still lecturing and teaching as effectively as if he were here. 

Sunday afternoon, I stumbled across Ken Burns' 2001 PBS documentary:

I finished watching it last night, and it's still reverberating.

I've stood in his Hannibal, MO home—which is unfit for a hobbit, whereas his Hartford, CT home (splendid in every way) and Stormfield (the home of his passing in Redding, CT) both show how far he progressed.  He began as a journeyman printer and cub-pilot on the Mississippi, then proceeded to become a reporter earning $25/week in Nevada, then $40/week in San Francisco...penultimately becoming the nation's most well-known writer (spending $30,000/year on household expenses at a time when most Americans earned less than $500/year) and ultimately the world's most well-known writer (the result of a 'round the world lecture circuit conceived to help him climb out from under $200,000 in staggering debt created through a number of ill-conceived 'get rich quick' schemes and speculative NYSE investments). 

Along the way, he lost his infant son...his eldest daughter...his wife...and a second daughter.  He is heralded today as "The Lincoln of Literature," primarily because he stands (figuratively) head and shoulders above other writers.  But I can't help but attribute a portion of this title to their shared number of tragedies. 

His work, as everyone notes, became darker and angrier and more bitter in his final years.  Gone was the Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog author of 1865. 

The pen-name he chose for himself, "Mark Twain," is a river term meaning "two fathoms," or twelve feet...the depth at which a boat can proceed and safely navigate.  But interestingly, the term can be looked at conversely, as well.  Two fathoms is, depending on one's perspective, also the depth at which water becomes too shallow to navigate.  After all, 12' is the demarcation and, depending on one's perspective, it's deep enough...or just this side of sufficiently deep. 

Were he all knowing, I'm confident Sam couldn't have chosen a more perfect pseudonym for himself.  After all, his writing, like his life, was a confluence of joyous highs and cataclysmic lows.  On the one hand, his name was a household name the world over.  At the same time, he was financially bankrupt.  And one year, he, his wife and three of their four surviving children are celebrating a magical Christmas in their Hartford home, and the very next Christmas they are continents apartand Camelot is lost. 

As a morality tale, Clemens' life is rather banal. Sure, he had a volcanic temper, a frequently depressive mood, drank too much and smoked 40 cigars a day for most of his adult life. But other than losing his wife's inheritance and his own personal fortune through a handful of bizarre 'inventions,' he was a straight arrow. 

More to the point, I believe, he is a reminder of the ephemeral nature of life, how elusive 'success,' and how precious and fragile our time on this tiny orb.  Though I might imagine he'd remark, "I'm merely signpost 1.75 billion, so far." 

I see the series re-broadcasts on Thursday, April 12th.  Do yourself a favor and record it.  Or, if so inclined and anachronistic enough to still own a player, snag yourself a copy of the DVD and enjoy.  It's 3+ hours of brilliant quips and quotes that, with the exception of Will Rogers, are one of a kind.