Review: Who is Mark Twain? by Mark Twain

Who is Mark Twain? By Mark Twain
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 14

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impacful

Who is Mark Twain? is a collection of short stories, essays and letters, published posthumously by Twain’s editors.  It encompasses a wide range of political, social, and educational ideals, as well as some insight into Twain’s personal and family life, as well as funny anecdotes about his journey from San Francisco nobody to over-night sensation.  As usual, I connected strongly with Twain’s pieces – I tend to be aligned well with his philosophical points of view (when he praises the U.S. Journalists for being irreverent, except where actual reverence is due, as opposed to foreign presses which pay reverence to pretty much everything, I about shouted with joy), but I did disagree with him in one respect: he completely bashes Jane Austen, in the short essay “Jane Austen.”  Now, I had heard that Twain wasn’t a fan, and it’s not hard to imagine why – when you compare Twain’s world and work to Austen’s, it’s almost polar-opposite – almost.  Twain touches on Austen’s satire and parody, but only briefly – and in a way which indicates that Twain didn’t think Austen really knew what she was doing, and her later critics made it appear as if she was being satirical when, in fact, she really believed what she was writing.  Now, I don’t know how far Twain went to familiarize himself with Austen’s works or personal writings – he mentions two books, which he tried to read repeatedly, but couldn’t get into. That’s fine and dandy, but I do think Twain was off on this one, because Jane Austen was a brilliant comedienne who, I believe, truly knew what she was doing and saying.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

This section really only applies to those works of short fiction in this collection – the essays and letters due have characters, because Twain tends to respond to everything with a story.  Still, his characters really shine in stories like “A Group of Servants,” “The Undertaker’s Tale,” and “The Snow-Shovelers” (which was also a brilliant statement on politics and ethics hypocrisy).   Some of the strongest characterization, in my opinion, is found in two stories whose main characters are animals: “The Jungle Discusses Man” and “Telegraph Dog.”  Here, Twain uses animals in human situations to discuss human nature – which was fascinating (and the first, “Jungle” reminded me of a twisted retelling or foreshadowing of The Lion King, actually). 

Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Twain’s prose is fluid and easy to follow.  Whether he is writing a fictional story, a letter to an editor, or a biographical letter to a friend, his language is effortless and his ability with puns and world-play is uncontested (the only class of writers I can compare him to are Shakespeare, Swift, and Vonnegut).  I adore the satirists, but they have to be brilliant if they are going to get it right, and Twain definitely gets it right (most of the time).  Reading his pieces is like conversing with a charming old friend, who just wants to catch up after the years, chat about how things have been going, and tell you how completely wrong you are about everything, but all the while offering you candy and cigarettes, fluffing your pillow and refilling your drink.  He cares deeply about people, and he cares about giving the proper kind of respect to the people who have earned it.  All of this, the sentiment of his convictions and virtues, comes across in the tone of the language, and through the undercurrent of the words – the actual words often saying the opposite of what Twain really means. 

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What I enjoy so much about Twain is the way he tackles difficult issues, be they politics, religion, education, or social ideals, boldly and confidently, but with a reassuring and refreshing sense of whimsy and fun, as if to say “there’s no reason to be bothered about any of this, really.”  He is serious, but calm – he can put the “smack down” on anybody he finds in the wrong, and he does in quite a few instances in this collection, but one gets the feeling that Twain finds all arguing in general, rather silly – he just wants to live a good life, and to encourage that in others, and he gets most dangerous and powerful when he is writing against any attack on people’s rights to happiness and well-being.  He pokes-fun at people in a brilliantly endearing way, but he does the same to himself, which makes the reader comfortable in knowing that, at the very least, Twain is a man who can take an honest look at himself and criticize where critique is due. 

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School and above

Interest: Satire, Non-Fiction, Memoir, Auto-biography, Short Story, Politics, History

Notable Quotes:

“I asked the British Government to tell me what head I came under.  . . . Now you will never believe it, but I give you my honor that this – this, which you see before you- was actually taxed as a Gas Works.”  – Twain discussing taxes imposed upon his published fiction in England, before copyright laws.

“It seemed to sort of recognize me as one of the Friendly Powers – not on a large scale, of course – not like Russia and China and those, but on a – well, on a secondary scale – New Jersey.”

 

 

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