Saturday, April 17, 2010

Maybe ...

... Mark Twain: 'the true father of all American literature'? (Hat tip, Paul Davis.)

He isn't for me, though I enjoy him enough.


  1. Permit me to ramble a bit about your linked article.

    Sutherland says of Twain, "Of all the nation’s writers he is still considered the greatest." The key word in that hyperbole is "considered" because we need to understand who "considers" Twain to be the "greatest" American writer.

    Off the top of my head, I can think of at least a dozen others who I would "consider" ought to be placed higher on a list of "great" American writers (whatever the words "great" or "greatest" must mean). If, however, Sutherland had said "most popular," "best known," or "most widely internationally recognized," then he would be more correct because Twain, for better or worse, seems to fit into those categories; however, I think that other American writers also would be more appropriate in those categories.

    If we are going to designated someone as the "greatest," then perhaps we ought to qualify the nomination process by saying that the eligible author(s) ought to have a body of work that deserves regularly rereading. Except for Twain's HUCKLEBERRY FINN, none of his other works, in my humble opinion, measure up to that standard.

    Another standard might be speculation on which American writer(s) we would want people to read several centuries from now. Twain, again with the exception of HUCK FINN, does not make the cut.

    With respect to Mr. Sutherland, my own reading of American literature compels me to put writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, and William Faulkner ahead of Twain. No one in the last half century, however, makes the list. That, however, may say more about me than it does about American literature.

  2. In addition to Twain's novel Huckleberry Finn, I highly value his nonfiction books, like Roughing It and his autobiography...

  3. Pedantry aside, Twain wrote the best critiques of American culture, for his time—and for ours. I posted his piece "The War Prayer" not too long ago, and it's still as pithy, relevant, and controversial as ever. His non-fiction, his lectures, his essays on politics and culture, all contain some of the best satire I've ever read. Certainly meaner in spirit than Oscar Wilde, and smarter in some ways than Jonathon Swift. Twain was an American original, in many ways still not equalled. Especially in terms of political satire and observation; maybe de Tocqueville, maybe Barzun. I find it interesting that I naturally think of Twain in relation to historians rather than novelists; perhaps that's because I do think his greatest writing was in his cultural observations. Certainly those observations are in his novels, too, even the ones that seem dated due to their language now.

    As for comparisons with other American writers, most of those opinions will devolve to taste—comparing Twain to Faulkner is absurd, because there's almost nothing in common there. Comparing Twain to Hemingway makes a bit more sense, because of the journalistic parallels, and also because both writers were active travelers and experiencers of life away from the writer's armchair. I think it more interesting to compare Twain to Whitman, perhaps, as they were near-contemporaries. I might concede that Hawthorne was the greater writer of short fiction tales; but then, pretty much everybody had to stand up to comparison with Hawthorne, starting with Melville. I'd rather read Twain than Dickens any day, as Twain is more relevant to my own lived life as an American who's lived rurally as well as in San Francisco.

    Do these comparisons do us any good? I doubt it. As for Sutherland's article, I found it interesting; it succeeded in making me want to read those new books about Twain.

  4. "Pedantry aside," says Art Durkee. "Ouch," says a teacher of literature.