One sometimes winces, or at least this one does, when one learns of a "new" book by an author who has been as read, as collected, as analyzed, as criticized, as reviewed, as adored, as lionized as the great Mark Twain. How can there be anything "new" to say or reprint?
But the Mark Twain Project (of the Bancroft library of the University of California at Berkeley) is having a good inning. This book is one of a series -- new wine in old glasses -- and it seeks to make Twain relevant to a modern readership by putting his work in nice comfy categories. Culled, excerpted and well-quoted, we have here a sense of how Mr. Clemens thought of his neighbors and his fellow humans. It is to be remembered that he failed at most every thing he turned his hand to early on, or figured he had, and led a peripatetic job and country-hopping existence that would be entirely comprehensible to your average twentieth-century hippie. But he was a nineteenth-century man, and that made a huge difference. He was one of but a few remarkable writers of his time, or of any, and one of the few to make a fair success at just being himself. His prose was plain and correct (except when he used it to exaggerate or parody the excesses of others). His output was prodigious, almost hourly at some periods, such as during his travels abroad.
He was a keen and rather cynical observer of his companions. He adored his own family and his writings about his daughters are charming: "Perceiving that her shoes were damaging her feet, from being too small, I got (Susie) a very ample pair...she made no complaint when they were put on her, but looked injured, and degraded...at night, when she knelt at her mother's knee to say her prayers, the former gave her the usual admonition: Now Susie, think about God. Mamma, I can't, with these shoes." Of his wife's soirees he wrote affectionately, "Mrs. Clemens gathered little dinner companies together once or twice a week, and it goes without saying that in these circumstances my defects had a large chance for display."
Explaining why he preferred his white suit, he said that it was "the uniform of the American Association of Purity and Perfection" and that at age seventy-one, "dark colored clothing is likely to have a depressing effect."
Many of the writings gathered herein are complaints. Twain seemed to have hated the telephone and endlessly maligned it, even expressing a Christmas wish that all of us - "the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the admired, the despised, the loved, the hated, the civilized, the savage -- may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss -- except the inventor of the telephone."
On food, Twain found European coffee "feeble, characterless, uninspiring," the bread "cold and tough," the butter, "sham and tasteless." He rhapsodizes about the American porter-house steak "hot and sputtering from the griddle," and "ice-water -- not prepared in the ineffectual goblet, but in the sincere and capable refrigerator."
Twain was at his best when he isolated a commonplace event and escalated into hyperbole and beyond, as when he described the wagonload of folk drowned in mud on a street a-swamp in road works: "thousands and ten of thousands of people gathered to the scene of danger and openly sympathized...they could do no more, for it would have been foolhardy in the extreme to venture into the street, the mud being at that place from thirty to ninety feet deep on a level, to say nothing of the water." Or the interruptions he was prey to by a passing lightning rod salesman, which he deals with, or so he thinks, by ordering hundreds of the things: in the course of a thunderstorm, "not a member of my family stuck his head out of the window but he got the hair snatched off it as smooth as a billiard-ball."
The book has evocative photos of the man and his family, one of the best being his seaboard pose, feet on the railing, chair tipped back, journal in hand. He looks as though he is planning his next dispatch as he gazes out at the ocean.
In short, this is a welcome new way of seeing Twain see himself, and we are grateful to the Mark Twain Project for visualizing and organizing it so well. One conjectures that the great man himself would have approved.