The following speech was delivered this spring at Mark Twain's house in Hartford.
To every American writer this is a haunted house. My hair may turn white before this very short speech is done.
I now quote a previous owner of this house: "When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that have known him before–met him on the river."
I submit to you that this is a profoundly Christian statement, an echo of the Beatitudes. It is constructed, as many jokes are, incidentally, with a disarmingly pedestrian beginning and an unexpectedly provoking conclusion.
I will repeat it, for we are surely here to repeat ourselves. Lovers do almost nothing but repeat themselves.
"When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have known him before–met him on the river."
Three words, in my opinion, make this a holy joke: They are "warm" and "personal" and "river." The river, of course, is life–and not just to river pilots, but even to desert people, to people who have never even seen water in that long and narrow form. Mark Twain is saying what Christ said in so many ways: that he could not help loving anyone in the midst of life.
I am of course a skeptic about the divinity of Christ and a scorner of the notion that there is a God who cares how we are or what we do. I was raised this way–in the midst of what provincial Easterners imagine to be a Bible Belt. I was confirmed in my skepticism by Mark Twain during my formative years, and by some other good people, too. I have since bequeathed this lack of faith and my love for the body of literature which supports it to my children.
I am moved on this occasion to put into a few words the ideal my parents and Twain and the rest held before me, arid which I have now passed on.
The ideal, achieved by few, is this: "Live so, that you can say to God on Judgment Day, 'I was a very good person, even though I did not believe in You.'" The word "God," incidentally, is capitalized throughout this speech, as are all nouns referring to Him.
We religious skeptics would like to swagger some in Heaven, saying to others who spent a lot of time quaking in churches down here, "I was never worried about pleasing or angering God–never took Him into my calculations at all."
Religious skeptics often become very bitter toward the end, as did Mark Twain. I do not propose to guess now as to why he became so bitter. I know why I will become bitter. I will finally realize that have had it right all along: that I will not see God, that there is no Heaven or Judgment Day.
I have used the word "calculations." It is a relative of that elegant Missouri verb, "to calculate." In Twain's time, and the frontier, a person who calculated this or that was asking that his lies be respected, since they had been arrived at by means of arithmetic. He wanted you 'to acknowledge that the arithmetic, the logic of his lies, was sound.
I know a rowdy joke which is not fit to tell in mixed company in a Victorian home like this one. I can reveal the final line of it, however, without giving offense. This is it: "Keep your hat on. We may wind miles from here." Any writer beginning a story might well say that to himself "Keep your hat on. We may wind up miles from here."
This is the secret of good storytelling: to lie, but to keep the arithmetic sound. A storyteller, like any other sort of enthusiastic liar, is on an unpredictable adventure. His initial lie, his premise, will suggest many new lies of its own. The storyteller must choose among them, seeking those which are most believable, which keep the arithmetic sound. Thus does a story generate itself.
The wildest adventure with storytelling, with Missouri calculation, of which I know is A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. It was written in this sacredly absurd monument–as were Tom Sawyer, A Tramp Abroad, The Prince and the Pauper, Life on the Mississippi, from which I have quoted, and the world masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn. Twain's most productive years were spent here–from the time he was 39 until he was my age, which, is 56. He was my age when he left here to live in Europe and Redding and New York, his greatest work behind him.
That is haw far down the river of life he was when he left here. He could not afford to live here anymore. He very bad at business.
About A Connecticut Yankee: its premise, its first lie, seemed to promise a lark. What could more comical than sending back into the Dark Ages late nineteenth-century optimist and technocrat? Such a premise was surely the key to a treasure chest of screamingly funny jokes and situations. Mark Twain would have been wise to say to himself as he picked that glittering key, "Keep your hat on. We may wind up miles from here."
I will refresh your memories as where he wound up, with or without his hat. The Yankee and his little band of electricians and mechanics and what-have-yous are being attacked by thousands of English warriors armed with swords and spears and axes. The Yankee has fortified his position with a series of electric fences and a moat. He also has several precursors to modern machine guns, which are Gatling guns.
Comically enough, thousands of early attackers have already been electrocuted. Ten thousand of the greatest knights in England have been held in reserve. Now they come. I quote, and I invite you to chuckle along with me as I read:
"The thirteen gatlings began to vomit death into the fated ten thousand. They halted,they stood their ground a moment against that withering deluge of fire, and then they broke, faced about, and swept toward the ditch like chaff before a gale. A full fourth part of their force never reached the top of the lofty embankment; the three-fourths it and plunged over-to death by drowning.
"Within ten short minutes after we had opened fire, armed resistance was totally annihilated, the campaign was ended, we fifty-four were masters of England! Twenty-five thousand men lay dead around us."
What a funny ending.
Mark Twain died in 1910, at the age of 75 and four years before the start of World War I. I have heard it said that he predicted that war and all the wars after that in A Connecticut Yankee. It was not Twain who did that. It was his premise.
How appalled this entertainer must have been to have his innocent joking about technology and superstition lead him inexorably to such a ghastly end. Suddenly and horrifyingly, what had seemed, so clear throughout the book was not clear at all–who was good, who was bad, who was wise, who was foolish. I ask you: "Who was most crazed by superstition and bloodlust, the men with the swords or the men with the Gatling guns?"
And I suggest to you that the fatal premise of A Connecticut Yankee remains a chief premise of Western civilization, and increasingly of world civilization, to wit: the sanest, most likable persons, employing superior technology, will enforce sanity throughout the world.
Shall I read the ending of A Connecticut Yankee to you yet again?
To return to mere storytelling, which never harmed anyone: it is the premise which shapes each story, yes, but the author must furnish the language and the mood.
It seems clear me, as an American, writing l00 years after this house was built, that we would not be known as a nation with a supple, amusing and often beautiful language of our own, if it were not for the genius of Mark Twain. Only a genius could have misrepresented our speech and our wittiness and our common sense and our common decency so handsomely to ourselves and the outside world.
He himself was the most enchanting American at the heart of each of his tales. We can forgive this easily, for he managed to imply that the reader was enough like him to be his brother. He did this most strikingly in the personae of the riverboat pilot and Huckleberry Finn. He did this so well that the newest arrival to these shores, very likely a Vietnamese refugee, can, by reading him begin to imagine that he has some of idiosyncratically American charm of Mark Twain.
This is a miracle. There is a name for such miracles, which is "myths."
Imagine, if you will, the opinion we would now hold of ourselves and the opinions others would hold of us, if it were not for the myths about us created by Mark Twain. You can then begin to calculate our debt to this one man.
One man, Just one man.
I named my first-born son after him.
I thank you for your attention.