Our Mysterious Stranger

By Jones, Malcolm | Newsweek, August 9, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Our Mysterious Stranger


Jones, Malcolm, Newsweek


Byline: Malcolm Jones

Twain made us wait 100 years for this memoir. He's still an enigma shrouded in a white suit.

Mark Twain is surely America's best-known author. It is tempting to say he is also the country's favorite writer, but that can't be true. Too many grandparents have given too many copies of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or The Prince and the Pauper to too many grandchildren, who then went about for the rest of childhood under a cloud of undischarged obligation while those books sat on numberless shelves, unread. If that didn't finish off any appetite for Twain, there was always the high-school ritual of force-feeding The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Lucky the adolescent who lives in a school district that has banned Huck. There is nothing like a banned book to turn a teenager into a devoted reader.

All that pales, however, beside the worst crime ever committed against children in the name of Twain: the Claymation version of No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger. In this 1986 film, Twain's nihilistic little novel gets boiled down to a brief episode in a movie that also extracts material from several other Twain works, including Tom Sawyer and Letters From the Earth. But The Mysterious Stranger outdoes them all. In less than five minutes a Claymation Satan visits with Tom, Becky Thatcher, and Huck; builds them a village; then destroys it with lightning and an earthquake that swallows up all the cute little clay villagers, farmers, soldiers, and one particularly pitiful cow. It is altogether terrifying. One can only shudder at the thought of countless impressionable, unsuspecting children curled up in front of the television and being scarred for life after blithely stumbling across this ink-dark work. Anyone who thinks that there is no such thing as too much Twain has not seen it. Sometimes you truly can take a good thing too far.

The Claymation Stranger doesn't have much in common with Twain's story except for it's nihilism. But it's the best possible proof that you shouldn't foist Twain off on the young just because he wrote books with children in them. If you take Twain for granted, if you think he's nothing but a kindly, harmless old gent (and even more harmless for being dead), you're not only wrong--you're going to get hurt. A dead bee can sting you and, even from the grave, Twain still knows how to sting.

When he was alive, Twain was well known twice over--as a monologuist on the lecture circuit and again as a writer. His life and work have inspired dozens of plays, movies, television specials, puppet shows, and at least one Broadway musical. And yet, while no American author may be better known, none is more elusive. Every time you think you know him, you read something new that rearranges your opinion. Did the same man really write Huck and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc? Did the author of Tom Sawyer, one of the sunniest books in our literature, also write No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, one of the darkest? The more you read, the more complicated he seems.

Now we must get reacquainted all over again. In November the University of California Press publishes the first installment of Twain's three-volume autobiography. This edition will be nothing like the previously published versions cobbled together by the author's editors and executors after he died. Instead, for the first time, it will be the autobiography he wanted--a disorganized, almost stream-of-consciousness set of recollections unlike any memoir ever seen, but pure, uncut Twain from start to finish. (For a sample, check out the hilariously subversive excerpt on page 41.) Just don't think that this settles the issue of his identity. On the contrary, as delightful as it is, the autobiography only compounds his protean elusiveness. He is still a mystery, a riddle wrapped in an enigma shrouded in a white suit.

The mystery begins with what to call him, Mark Twain or Samuel L. Clemens?

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