Mark Twain and Human Nature

Mark Twain and Human Nature

Mark Twain and Human Nature

Mark Twain and Human Nature

Synopsis

Mark Twain once claimed that he could read human character as well as he could read the Mississippi River, and he studied his fellow humans with the same devoted attention. In both his fiction and his nonfiction, he was disposed to dramatize how the human creature acts in a given environment - and to understand why. Now one of America's preeminent Twain scholars takes a closer look at this icon's abiding interest in his fellow creatures. In seeking to account for how Twain might have reasonably believed the things he said he believed, Tom Quirk has interwoven the author's inner life with his writings to produce a meditation on how Twain's understanding of human nature evolved and deepened and to show that this was one of the central preoccupations of his life. Quirk charts the ways in which this humorist and occasional philosopher contemplated the subject of human nature from early adulthood until the end of his life, revealing how his outlook changed over the years. His travels, his readings in history and science, his political and social commitments, and his own pragmatic testing of human nature in his writing contributed to Twain's mature view of his kind. Quirk establishes the social and scientific contexts that clarify Twain's thinking, and he considers not only Twain's stated intentions about his purposes in his published works but also his ad hoc remarks about the human condition. Viewing both major and minor works through the lens of Twain's shifting attitude, Quirk provides refreshing new perspectives on the master's oeuvre. He offers a detailed look at the travel writings, including The Innocents Abroad and Following the Equator, the novels, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Pudd'nhead Wilson; and an important review of works from Twain's last decade, including fantasies centering on man's insignificance in Creation, works preoccupied with isolation - notably No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger and Eve's Diary - and polemical writings such as What is Man? Comprising the well-seasoned reflections of a mature scholar, this persuasive and eminently readable study comes to terms with the life-shaping ideas and attitudes of one of America's best-loved writers. Mark Twain and Human Nature offers readers a better understanding of Twain's intellect as it enriches our understanding of his craft and his ineluctable humor.

Excerpt

I begin with an unsubstantiated anecdote: “Mr. Twain,” an interviewer is supposed to have asked sometime around 1900, “do you believe in infant baptism?” the question had comic opportunity written all over it, and Twain did not hesitate: “Believe it? Hell! I’ve seen it done.”

I have not been able to verify that Twain actually said this. the jest feels and smells like Mark Twain, but, for my purposes, it is better not to know the authenticity of the remark because one can inspect it that much more minutely without inviting the entirely legitimate complaint that Twain’s living humor is too often killed by the solvent of analysis. in any event, the witticism possesses the signature qualities of Twainian humor. the adroit maneuvering of his persona; the tacit collaboration of the unnamed interviewer and Clemens in the service of some yet to be disclosed joke; the succinct conflation of two incongruous frames of reference (the realms of religious belief and sense experience); and the compressed but still masterful manipulation of ambiguities: all these supply at least circumstantial evidence that Twain is the likely author of the remark.

Having been on both sides of the reporter’s notepad, Clemens understood thoroughly the near absurd drama of the genre of the interview, and he made comic hay out of it in his “An Encounter with an Interviewer” (1874). the interview is a formulaic performance. a reporter seeks information from an authority or a celebrity; the subject (who in a real sense is . . .

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