|Samuel Clemens in all his glory|
Happy 176th birthday, Mr. Twain. As I mentioned on Twitter earlier today, it is very difficult for me to believe that Sam Clemens has been dead for over 101 years now or that he was born so early in the nineteenth century (1835). Even though the dates make perfect sense when I look at them (after all, Clemens was a Confederate army deserter during the Civil War), his work is still fresh and readable to modern fans of his work. Too, the man was about my age (63) when my own grandparents were born – meaning that they shared space on this planet for about a dozen years. Oh, and there is a video of Clemens and his daughters on YouTube, something few Civil War veterans can claim, I suspect.
Mark Twain, as he is best known, is truly one of the finest novelists ever, and most scholars still call him the “greatest American humorist” we have ever seen. His most influential novel (whether it was his best work might be debated, I suppose), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been called one of the most influential of all time.
Twain was not the wisest of personal investors and, in fact, was more likely to lose money than make any from the inventions he backed with his fortune. However, he was a man with a great deal of compassion. I was reminded of this by my recent reading of Charles Flood’s new book, Grant’s Final Victory in which Flood details Twain’s critical involvement in the publication of Grant’s memoirs. Twain’s (as well as Grant’s) main concern in that relationship was to make sure that Mrs. Grant was left with enough money to sustain her standard of living for the rest of her life. Grant was dying of throat/tongue cancer and had to race the clock to get the work finished before the illness claimed his life. Twain published the two-volumes himself, making sure to give Grant the most favorable royalty terms ever seen. At the same time, he took all of the risk and limited his own profits from the deal by granting the Grants such a generous deal.
So, Happy Birthday, Sam…wherever you are. Your work will live forever, as will your image. You were a serious novelist when you wanted to be, though always a wit, and you created a personae that many after you have failed miserably in trying to copy for themselves.
For those who have never seen it, here is the video I mentioned. This was apparently shot in 1909 by Thomas Edison.