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Who Is Mark Twain?

1 rating: -1.0
A book by Mark Twain

“As funny and insightful as any of [Twain’s] published and well-known works, these essays take on the federal government, religion, race, fame, and even the literary canon with a sharp-eyed clarity we can chuckle over as we read while feeling … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: Mark Twain
Publisher: Harper
1 review about Who Is Mark Twain?

Rifling Twain's Waste Basket

  • Feb 7, 2010
Rating:
-1
If you find yourself with a copy of "Who Is Mark Twain?", do yourself a favor and skip immediately to "The Undertaker's Tale" in the middle of the book. If you start from the beginning, chances are good you will lose interest long before you reach this hilarious Dickens send-up.

It's a tough slog even if you are a Twain fan. I'm not particularly, but I like some of his work a lot and admire his style. It bears stating up front that "Who Is Mark Twain?" is a book he had no input in, published in 2009 by the Mark Twain Foundation and drawing from pieces he left unpublished and often unfinished. If it works for Tupac, the foundation must have thought...

We get a loyalty test early with a 1895 draft for a speech he never gave, a rambling address in which Twain whines about his tax problems, talks up famous people he knows, and finishes by asking the audience to rise in respect for the long-dead General Ulysses Grant. Twain even raises the question that makes for the book's title, though he doesn't answer it except to quote a friend saying: "God knows - I don't." Gee, thanks for the insight, Sam!

There's a fair bit of Twain in Germany, buying a music box and struggling with domestic servants for stretched attempts at comedy. He holds a conversation with the Devil that devolves into talk of German stoves and cigars, ridicules a friend's professed religious sensibilities in light of his enthusiasm for fishing, and tells a sad story about a loyal dog that left me unmoved (and I have a weakness for sad stories about dogs Stephen Crane pinged me on once.) Twain confesses to feeling like a bartender at the gates of Paradise when reading Jane Austen, though that promising start fizzles into a bitty breakdown of which characters of hers he dislikes most.

You feel time and again Twain casting about on paper for a theme, an idea, a hook, and it's painful because the end result is something he never saw fit to publish.

So when you get to "The Undertaker's Tale", what would seem an enjoyable lark delivers instead like a Slurpie in the Sahara. The Oliver Twist-like protagonist finds himself taken in by a loving family of undertakers. Only there's a problem: Death has taken a holiday, and they have a big loan to pay. "Coffins rotting away without sale, a graveyard that's becoming a grazing ground, a gang of convalescents that the lightning couldn't make marketable!" The joke is carried wonderfully all the way to its satisfying O. Henry-ish end.

Two other pieces here approach "Tale" for enjoyability. "Happy Memories Of The Dental Chair" scrapes a rich vein for humor later jabbed by everyone from Bob Hope to "Marathon Man", though it stops abruptly. "The Grand Prix" is Twain in a rare, genuinely appreciative mood, describing a day spent at an outdoor event in Paris that comes off rather well.

An introduction by Twain scholar Robert Hirst makes a strained case for the pieces' importance, noting they represent a kind of tour of Twain's workshop. That's a valid point, if one that also speaks to the limited nature of this book's literary value and appeal.

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