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The Incomparable and Unending Mark Twain

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Editor-in-Chief, ISHLT Links Newsletter

For this issue it is just plain simply impossible to sum up this year's focus on Mark Twain. This is no surprise with nearly two centuries of material to work with therefore I will pour in much of "his" words for our entertainment. Mark Twain who lived in a thousand places all around the world exclaimed,

"I was made merely in the image of God, but not otherwise resembling him enough to be mistaken for Him by anybody but a very near-sighted person."

He was a printer's apprentice, a steamboat pilot, a prospector who never struck gold and a confederate soldier who never fought a battle. He was considered the funniest man on earth, a brilliant performer on the lecture circuit, a failed businessman, but above all he was a writer, a natural born story teller, a self-taught genius with words. He idealized the American language. He wrote constantly: newspaper stories, travel pieces, books, political diatribes, irreverent musings about religion, and flawless letters. Above all, Mark Twain told the truth. He was not afraid to deal with things that other people were afraid to deal with, particularly on the topics of racism, religion and politics. He became the voice of the American people. From an early age, he was deeply scarred-a sister and a brother who each died of childhood disease. He suffered from terrifying nightmares.

Being a printer's apprentice, he was given a tactile possession of words. He was able to lay his hands on the letters, set them in type, and literally feel his way to make words. On ambition he wrote,

"When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition ... That was, to be a steamboat man. We had transient ambitions of other sorts, but they were only transient. When a circus came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns; the first negro minstrel show that came to our section left us all suffering to try that kind of life; now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. These ambitions faded out, each in its turn; but the ambition to be a steamboat man always remained."

Sam persuaded his younger brother Henry to work on the steamboats. One day, Henry was fatally burned when boilers exploded on another ship. Sam wrote,

"...the horrors of three days have swept over me they have blasted my youth and left me an old man before my time. For 48 hours, I labored at the bedside of my poor burned and bruised but uncomplaining brother. My poor Henry will have finished his blameless career, and the light of my life will have gone out in utter darkness."

He obviously blamed himself for luring Henry onto the river and by the time Sam Clemens was 22-years-old he had endured the deaths of his three siblings and his father. In many ways these deaths and the responsibility he had put on himself for these deaths annealed the great sense of remorse he carried to his own grave. On healing, he later wrote, "...the source of all humor is not laughter, but sorrow," and he said "there is no laughter in heaven."

This brings home the point about the most cost-efficient and effective remedies in medicine, laughter.

His time on the river was his schooling in which, "I got personally acquainted with about all the different types of human nature that are to be found in fiction, biography, or history." The Mississippi River became for Mark Twain his Harvard and his Yale, the way that Melville says the whaling boat was his Harvard and his Yale.

"Every character I had ever written about and created in my literature, I met on the Mississippi River."

His piloting days abruptly stopped on April 12, 1861 because of the Civil War. Instead of joining the confederate army, Sam Clemens jumped into a stagecoach and went west, leaving the states behind. "There was a freshness and breeziness and an exhilarating sense of emancipation." Sam brought along his pipes, 5 pounds of tobacco, and a pistol that had only one fault—"you could not hit anything with it." During his stagecoach ride he noticed it was the first time that he had ever seen a man's front yard on top of his house and that,

" was a comfort to sit up and contemplate the majestic panorama of mountains and valleys spread out below us and eat ham and hard-boiled eggs while our spiritual natures reveled alternately in rainbows, thunderstorms and peerless sunsets. Nothing helps scenery like ham and eggs—ham and eggs and after these, a pipe, an old, rank, delicious pipe."

For a moment here, I picture Jack Nicholson in the movie, As Good As It Gets. I see Jack in the character of Melvin Udall making a similar sarcastic comment about blissful happiness as in the scene with Carol the waitress and Simon. During their drive to Baltimore in a convertible and after Simon bares his soul to Carol, Melvin responds with the usual charm that only Jack Nicholson or perhaps Mark Twain can get away with as follows: "Some of us have great stories ... pretty stories that take place at lakes with boats and friends and noodle salad ... and that's what makes it hard. Not that you had it bad but being pissed that so many had it good."

As I link these thoughts together this is no different than Sam Clemens' "ham and eggs, a downgrade, a flying stagecoach, a fragrant pipe, and a contented heart, it's what all the ages have struggled for."

After he arrives to Carson City, the capital of the Nevada Territory, he writes his mother.

"My Dear Mother, the country is fabulously rich in gold, silver, copper, lead, coal, iron, quicksilver, thieves, murderers, desperadoes, lawyers, Christians, Indians, Chinamen, Spaniards, gamblers, Sharpers, coyotes, poets, preachers, and jackass rabbits."

Going west accidentally brought him into the company of a great proto-psychedelic, counterculture newspaper society out west in Nevada&mash;a bunch of talented wild men improvising a whole new newspaper art form with tall tales and lies and hoaxes and great writing. He was later carousing with the leading writers and intellectuals after he landed a writer's job in San Francisco. His editor quietly let him go after a libel lawsuit and an arrest for public drunkenness. He was literally down to his last silver 10-cent piece—"and I held to it and would not spend it on any account, lest the consciousness coming strong upon me that I was entirely penniless might suggest suicide." One day, he put a revolver to his head and almost pulled the trigger. "...many times, I have been sorry I did not succeed," he wrote years later, "but I was never ashamed of having tried."

It was from this low point where he got a break and went back to the Sierras and penned his first story about the jumping frog of Calaveras County. Soon after that in early 1866 he landed a plum assignment writing about the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) for the Sacramento Union and he writes,

" noon, I observed a bevy of nude native young ladies bathing in the sea and went and sat down on their clothes to keep them from being stolen. I begged them to come out, for the sea was rising and I was satisfied that they were running some risk. But they were not afraid and presently went on with their sport."

He then gently lampooned American missionaries' efforts to convert these islanders. "How sad it is to think of the multitudes who have gone to their graves on this beautiful island and never knew there was a hell."

By the suggestion from a friend Twain reluctantly turned these articles into lectures earning $400 from his first lecture—more than he earned as a steamboat pilot in a month. He became an unintentional genius of the stage. Because he was petrified with anxiety over the prospect of failing in front of a live audience, at the beginning of his first performance he held a stammering pause then later that evening he recognized his success. As his performances or lectures went on, he began to see that these pauses were great formulations. These pauses were the great preludes to the cascade of humor, so the silence onstage led to something else. He developed it into a great art form. He understood the pause. It was later from his pilgrimage to the Holy Land when he questioned the $8.00 charge by a boatman for a short sail on the Sea of Galilee, "do you wonder now that Christ walked?"

Sam became thunderstruck and uncontrollably drawn to the love of his life, Olivia (Livy). He courted her for 17 months with 184 letters, carefully numbered by Livy. Clemens found an opportunity formally to ask Jervis Langdon (Livy's father) for his daughter's hand. Jervis gave Sam conditional approval, provided he could supply him with some names of friends out west who could attest to his character. Sam writes,

"...they said with one accord that I got drunk oftener than was necessary and that I was wild and godless, idle, lecherous, and a discontented and an unsettled rover, and they could not recommend any girl of high character and social position to marry me. But as I had already said all that about myself beforehand, there was nothing shocking or surprising about it to the family."

They were married. After the success of his first book, The Innocents Abroad, and the two bundles of joy, Langdon and later Olivia Susan (Susy), tragedy struck. Langdon contracted diphtheria and died in his mother's arms. Just as he had blamed himself for the death of his brother Henry, Clemens held himself responsible for his son's death. It is from this depth of despair where he creates humor to balance his life.

On building a home for his family,

"I have been bullyragged all day by the builder, by his foreman, by the architect, by the tapestry devil who is to upholster the furniture, by the idiot who is putting down the carpets, by the scoundrel who is setting up the billiard table and has left the balls in New York, by a book agent whose body is in the backyard and the coroner notified. Just think of this going on the whole day long, and I am a man who loathes details with all my heart! But I haven't lost my temper."

His family grew with the addition of Clara and Jean. Now the Clemens family included three adoring daughters living in their home, the Hartford House. But they would travel to Elmira, NY to be with Livy's sister, Susan Crane, at her country place called Quarry Farm for 20 summers. In one of these early summers, his sister-in-law surprised him with a writing place all his own. Twain later wrote:

"It is the loveliest study you ever saw, octagonal with a peaked roof, each face filled with a spacious window, perched in complete isolation on the top of an elevation that commands leagues of valley and city and retreating ranges of distant blue hills. It is a cozy nest and just room in it for a sofa, table, and 3 or 4 chairs. And when the storms sweep down the remote valley and the lightning flashes behind the hills beyond and the rain beats upon the roof over my head, imagine the luxury of it."

From here is the birth of all American modern literature. In a manner of 20 years he went from a penniless, friendless, self-loathing loser who contemplated suicide in California to the best known writer in America, now rich enough for his family to live like millionaires.

The years 1885-1895 defined Clemens' times of commercial struggle and collapse. He lost money through many ventures including his publishing company, but the devastating blow to his riches was the failure of the Paige typesetting machine. He was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1894. He did recover financially but never emotionally and imaginatively. He went on the world lecture tour to repay his debt and maintain his character which he did. Later, the final two deaths in his family, his favorite daughter, Susy in 1896 and his wife, Livy in 1904 brought out his darkest, sharpest and most pessimistic writings.

Olivia Susan Clemens died of spinal meningitis. She was only 24 years old. Just as he held himself guilty for his younger brother's death, just as he had blamed himself for the loss of his 19-month old son Langdon in 1872, Clemens now blamed himself for Susy's death. The strain of his bankruptcy and the world lecture tour that tore his family apart were his own doings, and he was sure that together they had killed his beloved daughter. Meanwhile Livy was on a boat halfway across the Atlantic still unaware of Susy's death. It was August 19, 1896 when he poured his heart out into a stream of letters to his wife.

Dearest Livy,
Oh my heartbroken darling. No not heartbroken yet for you still do not know. But what tidings are in store for you. What a bitter world, what a shameful world it is. I love you my darling. I wish you could have been spared this unutterable sorrow.

Dearest Livy,
I have spent the day alone thinking bitter thoughts, sometimes only sad ones, reproaching myself for laying the foundation of all our troubles. Reproaching myself for a million things whereby I have brought misfortune and sorrow to this family. It rains all day. No, it drizzles. It is somber and dark. I would not have it otherwise. I could not welcome the sun today. Be comforted my darling. We shall have our release in time. Be comforted remembering how much hardship, grief, pain she is spared and that her heart can never be broken now for the loss of a child. I seem to see her in her coffin. I do not know in which room, in the library I hope for there she, Jean, Clara and I mostly played when they were children together and happy.
She died in our own house not in another's. She died where every little thing was familiar and beloved. She died where she had spent all her life 'til my crimes have made her a pauper and an exile. How good it is that she got home again.
Give my love to Clara and Jean. We have that much of our fortune left.

Susy's death brought on the grief that trumped all other griefs in his life. Work then became his solace. He wrote more and more but now not to just entertain us, he was just trying to keep from killing himself. The one-time Nevadan Mark Twain said of writers:

"Ours is a useful trade, a worthy calling. With all its lightness and frivolity, it has one serious purpose, one aim, one specialty--and it is constant to it: the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence. And that whoso is by instinct engaged in this sort of warfare is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges and all kindred swindles, and the natural friend of human rights and human liberties."

Despite his losses, he did repay all his deaths. Now the press, writers and reporters came seeking his opinions on every imaginable topic. He loved the attention.

On laziness,
"I have seen slower people than I am and more deliberate ... and even quieter, and more listless, and lazier people than I am. But they were dead."

On moderation,
" an example to others and not that I care for moderation myself, it has always been my rule never to smoke when asleep and never to refrain when awake and I have made it a rule, never to smoke more than one cigar at a time."

On crime,
"It could probably be shone by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class, except Congress."

On fools,
"The trouble is not that the world is full of fools, it is just that lightning is not distributed right."

On the two of the greatest characters of the 19th Century, Napoleon and Helen Keller, Twain stated,

"Napoleon tried to conquer the world by physical force and failed. Helen tried to conquer the world by power of mind—and succeeded!"

In Villa di Quarto Florence Italy on June 5, 1904 on his wife's death:
"An hour ago the best heart that ever beat for me and mine went silent out of this house, and I am as one who wanders and has lost his way."

On death,
"Life was not a valuable gift, but death was. Life was a fever-dream made up of joys embittered by sorrows, pleasure poisoned by pain; a dream that was a nightmare-confusion of spasmodic and fleeting delights, ecstasies, exultations, happinesses, interspersed with long-drawn miseries, griefs, perils, horrors, disappointments, defeats, humiliations, and despairs - the heaviest curse devisable by divine ingenuity; but death was sweet, death was gentle, death was kind; death healed the bruised spirit and the broken heart, and gave them rest and forgetfulness; death was man's best friend; when man could endure life no longer, death came and set him free."

With his deep despair his opinion on the Bible is understandable:
"Our Bible reveals to us the character of our God with minute and remorseless exactness. The portrait is substantially that of a man. If one can imagine a man charged and overcharged with evil impulses far beyond the human limit. His acts expose his vindictive, unjust, ungenerous, pitiless and vengeful nature constantly. He is always punishing, punishing innocent children for the misdeeds of their parents, punishing unoffending populations for the misdeeds of their rulers. It is perhaps the most damnatory biography that exists in print anywhere. It makes Nero an angel of light by contrast."

Nevertheless, his despair was balanced by his humor and his love for attention. He became the most conspicuous person on the planet. He loved the celebrity status.

On reaching age 70:
"...before 70 we are merely respected at best and we have to behave all the time. But after 70, we are respected, esteemed, admitted, revered and don't have to behave unless we want to."

When offered an honorary doctorate of letters at Oxford, he eagerly set sail for London and chatted with the King and Queen. He made headlines in London simply by strolling across the street in his bathrobe.

On being a great author:
"I was sorry to have my name mentioned as one of the great authors because they have a sad habit of dying off. Chaucer is dead, so is Milton, so is Shakespeare and I'm not feeling very well myself."

In 1909, he began suffering with chest pain. He called it his tobacco heart so he cut back from 40 cigars per day to four. He was beginning a holiday "whose other end was the cemetery." "Dear Madam, I try every remedy sent to me. I am now on No. 87. Yours is No. 2653. I am looking forward to its beneficial results." As his conditioned worsened he received morphine in increasing amounts. "I had a picturesque night. Every pain I had was on exhibition and I am losing enough sleep to supply a worn out army."

On April 21, 1910, Samuel Clemens died peacefully. His daughter Clara wrote, "While the sun dimmed out on the horizon, his great soul melted into that speechless state of majesty and calm he had so fervently yearned for."

Twain's final words of advice:

"I think we never become really and genuinely our entire and honest selves until we are dead. And not then until we have been dead years and years. People ought to start dead and then they would be honest so much earlier."

"Upon arrival in heaven, do not speak to Saint Peter until spoken to. It is not your place to begin. You can ask him for his autograph. There is no harm in that. But, be careful. And don't remark that it is one of the penalties of greatness. He has heard that before. Don't try to Kodak him. Hell is full of people who have made that mistake. And leave your dog outside. Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out, and the dog would go in."

His longtime friend William Dean Howells writes as he gazed upon Samuel Clemens in his coffin, "I looked a moment at the face I knew so well; and it was patient with the patience I had so often seen in it, something of a puzzle; a great silent dignity, an ascent to what must be from the depths of nature whose tragical seriousness broke in laughter which the unwise took for the whole of him. links imageEmerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes - I knew them all and all the rest of our sages, poets, seers, critics, humorists; they were like one another and like other literary men, but Clemens was sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our Literature."

His works will go on altering human consciences forever.

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Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

Dr. Valentine is a Professor of Pulmonary Medicine and Critical Care Medicine, Medical Director of the UTMB Texas Transplant Center, and Director of Lung Transplantation at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, USA.