Thursday, November 25, 2010

Mark Twain's Birthday Bumper Cars

Just before I slipped into my Van Winkle "sleep" back in September, it was announced that the University of California Press would be publishing the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. One.

In the world of literature and Twain scholarship this was big news about America's best known and most beloved author. It even made the cover of Newsweek, when I was still reading Newsweek. Without hesitation, and knowing that the book was already done and "in the pipeline" and therefore all right for me to read during the course of the VWP, I pre-ordered it from Amazon. I've had it in the house for a few weeks now.

The editors' introduction tells me that Samuel Clemens (better known as "Mark Twain") labored at his life's story for more than two decades only to have it released in partial form several times after his death in 1910. Clemens himself said that the "unexpurgated" version, in which all his opinions were expressed without reservation, should not be published for "a hundred years." Only then could he speak without fear of consequences as a "voice from the grave."

So far the first volume of the evenutal totality of what Clemens has to say about himself amounts to a lavishly rendered, weighty book containing 737 pages of small type, its dimensions the same as my Webster's dictionary. Two more volumes are forthcoming, so we can expect a mega-autobiography.

How big is this book? Compare it to the 12-pound turkey
we'll be consuming today... 
This definitive version of Clemen's story includes false starts he made in the late 19th Century and the more assured writing he dictated to a secretary a few years before his death. The story is not told in chronological order, a feat of which Clemens was proud. He found the standard "born-lived-died" historical approach to a subject predictable and boring. He wanted to leave for us a work that is innovative in form with one memory opening up on another.

Ever Thankful For The Extermination
I've been dipping into the Autobiography, doing so with disregard for the final order Clemens' own disorder. My goal is to get to know the lay of the land before I settle down and read more systematically. In the process I've found that Mr. Clemens has something interesting to say about Thanksgiving.

...Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for -- annually, not oftener -- if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors, the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man's side, consequently on the Lord's side; hence it was proper to thank the Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments.  The original reason for a Thanksgiving Day had long ago ceased to exist--the Indians have long ago been comprehensively and satisfactorily exterminated and the account closed with Heaven, with the thanks due. But from old habit, Thanksgiving Day has remained with us, and every year the President of the United States and the Governors of all the several States and the territories set themselves the task, every November, to advertise for something to be thankful for, and then they put those thanks into a few crisp and reverent phrases, in the form of a Proclamation, and this is read from all the pulpits in the land, the national conscience is wiped clean with one swipe, and sin is resumed at the old stand. [p. 267-268]

As one might imagine, Clemens' criticism of his forebears' behavior toward Native Americans was bound to be received with less than enthusiasm by some if not most in his lifetime. Even today it has the power to disturb one's idealized Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving mood more than a tad.

But the Autobiography reveals more about why Clemens is peeved by this most American of holidays.

The 70th birthday dinner held,
NOT on Mr. Clemens date of birth!
When Clemens dictated the above, the date of the Thanksgiving holiday was, as he notes, still set by the President and governors. A few years earlier, in 1904 the date was fixed as the fourth Thursday in November which happened to fall on the 30th. The significance? It was Clemens' birthday, his 70th, as a matter of fact. A friend wished to throw Clemens a nice dinner party, but because of the conflict with Thanksgiving, it had to be put off until December 5. Mr. Clemens was not happy!

Birthday Bumper Cars
Well, it's a fact. Sometimes a person's birthday collides with a holiday. Wham, bam! Too much fun happening in one space simultaneously.

The most abused of this bunch are those I meet who were born on or near Christmas. These unlucky ones include my wife who entered this world just over a week before someone decided Jesus of Nazareth did. The children with Christmas-time birthdays suffer from a well recognized overall festivity dilution and diminuition. I think it's quite likely the same holds true for those who arrived not via the careful placement of the stork but on the wings of a turkey.

However, until I read the Autobiography I'd never thought of the probably semi-numerous people out there trying to combine turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy with birthday cake and presents. I suppose one way to look at it positively is that on the years when their birthdays fall directly and hard on the holiday they have significantly more to be thankful for than the rest of us.

My own birthday very much falls on a holiday and it always will. I'm actually fine with that. That's because there's one exception to the general rule that being born on a holiday impinges on one's own nuptial anniversary festivities.

New Year's babies.

In my experience, New Year's Day is celebrated intensely right up until midnight. But like the fireworks, as day dawns on the new year there's not much left of the holiday exuberance. The people around me rise and are rather subdued (if not hungover). Everyone stays at home. Perfect! We throw together a little celebration in afternoon or evening as they gradually recover and recognize another year of my life. The presents are brought out which seem like a fine echo of Christmas one week ago to the very day.

What Shall We Give Thanks For?

Olivia "Susy" Clemens
Whether Samuel Clemens wished he were born on New Year's or some other date is open to debate, but he did seem to regard Thanksgiving as in large measure a feel-good sham. Still, I don't have to read much of the Autobiography to realize that he was a man who was capable of thanks every other day of the year, indeed who felt sincere gratitude for where he'd ended up in life, especially for having a home with his wife and four children. He lost all but one of those children, including his beloved Susy who died at age 24 of meningitis while Clemens was in England and was helpless to cross the ocean and get to her bedside in time. His heartbreak is palpable as he writes about this episode, but his keen memory also serves to memorialize a young woman with a fine intellect whose life was cut off before she could realize all her potential.

Susy Clemens 1872-1896
Clemens relates instances of a young Susy asking hard questions such as why if there are many religions and therefore many gods how do we know ours is right and theirs is wrong? and when Mama says don't fret over "little things" how am I to know what is "little" and what is not? I don't think Clemens is exaggerating when he writes that they laid to rest...

"...she that had been our wonder and our worship." 

Just as Clemens felt fortunate to have had such a child, he was perfectly willing to express thanks for the entire bountiful life that came to a small-town boy from Hannibal, Missouri. He had much that he treasured--the opportunity to write books, his world-wide travels, his friends, his children, and a wife he adored. Curmudgeon and skeptic that he was,though, Samuel Clemens wasn't going to give thanks at the behest and on the say-so of any elected official nor direct such thanks to a divine entity. And definitely he would not do it on his birthday. - V.W.


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