Monday, October 24, 2005

Life on the Mississi

Life on the Mississippi

This is a book that, without the contextual essay in the beginning, would have formed a great question mark in my mind—perhaps on its way back to the library in a big hurry. Johnathan Raban writes that Clemens had a terrible time writing a travel book that William Dean Howells proposed to him from a series of articles he originally had written for the Atlantic Monthly. Problem was, making more than the existing seven chapters proved to be more difficult, apparently, than he thought.

As a result, Raban explains so aptly, “Reading Life on the Mississippi, it is not the river one sees first, but the writer’s desk—a desk littered with magazines, books, brochures, writing pads” (xiii). In other words, as readers we feel Twain’s struggle to find enough material to speak about. We can picture him surrounding himself in the research. He tells folktales, relies on maps, other people’s stories, too much material that is, in effect, outside of himself. The result is disjointed—quite literally it needs a major revision. Says Raban, “Few books expose the halting progress of their own authorship so plainly” (xiii-xiv). Truly we see both the best and the worst days of Twain’s writing in this book.

It’s a great one for me to read as a model for a few reasons: surely parts of it are quite funny, so it’s evidence of American humor writing; also, it’s either a model of a travel book or a model of how not to do a travel book, depending on which way I want to read it; but perhaps most interesting, the book is at least in places an attempt to define and distinguish among the regions of the U.S. Parts of the book, for that reason, are particularly fascinating, because even if what Twain says is true only historically, they’re interesting and relevant to what I’m about to write.

First, though, it might help to look at the way he structures the book as a travelogue; Twain deals with the history of the river, which is appropriate within the purpose of his book. We also find out about his experiences as a “cub pilot” of a steam boat, also important historical information – but the appeal of it has some interesting connections. First, of course, we as readers of the present relate to the persona of Mark Twain/Sam Clemens as a mythical figure of American Literature/History; the stories are clearly exaggerated—they’re as tall as the tales about Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan or any of the others we’ve heard for ever and ever. Even if we shrink the tales down a size or two, though, reading about Twain’s life experience has a voyeuristic appeal. Maybe “voyeur” is too strong a word—but we like to see inside him. To a certain extent, I think the appeal of the narrative criticism I’m interested in is the revelation-of-self of the critic. We’re interested in the person who’s talking, even if s/he isn’t a mythical persona. An invisible, omniscient voice is authoritative and, ultimately soporific—kind of like Ben Stein’s bland teacher voice-over in The Wonder Years “…anyone?...anyone?” What I’m saying, if I’m saying anything at all that makes sense, is that indeed we do like to find out about Mark Twain’s life—but we like to find out about the traveling writer, even if s/he isn’t a mythical person, because the person is a key part of the journey.

And/but/so….later, Twain begins to examine regional differences, which is interesting, but sort of disappointingly dated and not helpful. He was writing shortly after the Civil War, when such regional differences were painful. In a chapter, “Southern Sports,” Twain takes up the topic of conversation about the war to illustrate just how the tensions regarding the war show up in the various regions. He says that in the North people might mention the war once a week or as much as once in four weeks because, in “dinner company of six gentlemen [...] it can easily happen that four of them [...] were not in the field at all” (275). However, in the South, “every man you meet was in the war; and every lady you meet saw the war.” Thus, the “war is the great chief topic of conversation” (275). So we shouldn’t surprised when things are “’placed’ as having happened since the waw; or du’in’ the waw’ or befo’ the waw’ or right aftah the waw;” because that is evidence of how much everyone was affected by the events of the war (275). He goes on to tell a few stories about why all the southern men are called Colonel, and so on, but for the most part, he’s going for local color and that’s all.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Diaries of Adam and Eve

I never even knew about this soft-hearted little book Twain/Clemens wrote. The first part he wrote in the late 1890s from the point of view of Adam, discovering the effusive, garrulous Eve, frustrated with her mystifying habits as well as those of the bizarre creature she spawns (good old Cain), which he mistakes at first for a kangaroo, and later rules out that he is a fish, though Eve will not allow him to throw baby into the river as a test. This Adam is a comical, fin de siecle Deborah Tannen, only in this case men are from Eden and so are women. But, while Eve bothers and distracts him at first, Adam concludes, “After all these years, I see that I was mistaken about Eve….it is better to live outside the Garden with her than inside it without her” (31).

The poignancy comes from reading the part that is Eve’s diary. I’m not sure one even really has to know that Clemens wrote this part about fifteen years later, in 1904, shortly after his wife, Livvy, died. The style of Eve’s diary is entirely different, more lyrical. While Adam’s short sentences communicate merely the events that occurred (on one day, his report is merely “Pulled through.”), Eve describes her surroundings enthusiastically, loving even the stars, saying “I wish I could get some to put into my hair” (36). But in her descriptions, Eve reveals that she knows the way she chases after Adam, always naming things before he can get around to it, always talking and disturbing him, annoys him. Nevertheless, she says, “this kind of love is not a product of reasonings and statistics. It just comes” (62). Most poignantly, though, she wants to stay with him, to “pass from this life together” (62). The most heart-wrenching part, though, if we know that Livvy died before old Sam Clemens, is the last passage, where she says (you’ll forgive the long quote):

But if one of us must go first, it is my prayer that it shall be I; for he is strong. I am weak, I am not so necessary to him as he is to me—life without him would not be life; how could I endure it? This prayer is also immortal, and will not cease from being offered up while my race continues. I am the first wife; and in the last wife I shall be repeated. (63)

Oh sure, we can write it off as nineteenth (more accurately early twentieth) century sentimentality, but it’s very sad. The last line is from Adam’s point of view, “Wheresoever she was there was Eden” (63).

The Diaries stretch out over the great intertext to Don Delillo’s White Noise, in which the protagonist worries throughout the story, as he thinks of his wife, “Who will die first?” (Delillo 30). Maybe it’s a universal thought; inherent in commitment is the end of commitment. A happy thought as the leaves fall on a rainy day.