Wednesday, April 21, 2010

100 Years Gone, but Ever Present

It was 100 years ago today that writer, humorist and social commentator Mark Twain (né Samuel Clemens) died of a heart attack in Redding, Connecticut, at age 74. He’d supposedly predicted his demise a year earlier, linking it to the reappearance of Halley’s Comet: “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’”

In commemoration of this occasion, I just purchased a new biography of the author, Mark Twain: Man in White: The Grand Adventure of his Final Years (Random House), by Michael Shelden, to add to my shelf of books by and about the 19th century’s most famous American man of letters. Like many people, I began reading Twain’s work in high school, beginning with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, though I recall a couple of his books (among them The Prince and the Pauper) being read to my class in grade school. Eventually, I made my way through all of his novels, most of his short stories and a few of his non-fiction works. If his prose wasn’t always mellifluous, his dialogue was never less than rich and precise, his political opinions never less than biting and revealing. And his stories captured the United States at a point where the old, agrarian and wilderness nation was disappearing under the demands of a growing population, to be replaced by a country that had to battle its tendencies toward narrow-mindedness, greed and dishonesty (battles that we continue to fight today). As Robert Middlekauff, a professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Berkeley once said, Twain was “incapable of writing a dull sentence.”

Not long ago, I stumbled across some rare footage of Twain, shot in 1909 by Thomas Edison at Stormfield, the author’s Redding, Connecticut, estate. There’s no sound, of course, but the film shows his two remaining daughters, Clara and Jean. I don’t remember ever seeing the author in action, and it’s likely you never have either. So I’ve embedded that film below.

Sail on, Mr. Twain. We’re all the better for your having once walked and talked among us.

(The image of Twain at the top of this post is a chromolithograph from the 1898 oil portrait by Ignace Spiridon.)

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