by William H. Benson
April 22, 1999
Months before Mark Twain’s demise, a newspaper erroneously ran an article announcing that he had already died. Invariably ready with a quick remark, he responded, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” He then sent a humorous paragraph by telephone to the Associated Press denying the charge that he was dying and saying, “I would not do such a thing at my time of life.” Even about the morbid, he kidded; his wit never ran to empty.
But then at age 74, he was awakened on December 24, 1909 and was told that his deeply loved daughter, Jean, in the midst of an epileptic seizure, had passed away there in his home in Connecticut. Her passing jolted him. The final chapter of his autobiography was devoted to her. “Has any one ever tried to put upon paper all the little happenings connected with a dear one–happenings of the twenty-four hours preceding the sudden and unexpected death of that dear one? Would a book contain them? Would two books contain them? I think not. They pour into the mind in a flood.”
The passing away of loved ones–family and friends, figured prominently throughout Mark Twain’s life. When he was four years old, his sister, Margaret, just five years older than he died. Then, four years later, his older brother, Benjamin, died. Then, three years later his father, the Judge John Marshall Clemens of Hannibal, Missour, died when Samuel Clemens was eleven years. At age 22 he discovered that his younger brother, Henry, was aboard the steamship, the Pennsylvania, when she exploded. Mark Twain that night watched Henry die. Then, years later he buried first his daughter Susy, then his wife, Olivia, and finally Jean.
Is is any wonder that his attitude late in life deteriorated into a pessimism, a depression, and a nihilism that left him bitter towards life and living? A skeptic, uncommitted to any particular religious persuasion, he preferred to play the part of the outside critic; neither dogmatic in belief nor in unbelief, he lived uncommitted. Throughout his life curiousity led to intrigue, and then to fascination, but never to a complete leap into commitment to any religious belief. Eventually, his particular brand of skepticism bore its fruit, when he wrote, “Nothing exists; all is a dream.”
And yet, during virtually all of his life he was such a dazzling personality–more attractive than even his literary art, which was the ultimate in American-syle, without a shred of European influence. Heralded by princes and paupers alike, loved by millions all over the world, he relished the limelight, choosing to dress in a white suit, vest, and hat, while chomping furiously away on a series of cigars. After-dinner speeches at banquets became his second career. People just simply loved to hear him rant and swear and serve up that volcano of opinions on all subjects crossing the American cultural landscape.
He gave us picturesque slices of life along the Mississippi River in a town called Hannibal, Missouri filled with people like Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Becky Thatcher, Sid, Aunt Polly, and In’jun Joe. And the steamboat skidded gently along the river’s surface with Captain Bixby at the wheel and Mark Twain at his side, stopping ocassionally at ports like Hannibal. Although he only lived there until he was seventeen, he brought the town to life for everybody.
Yes. He did become a bitter old man, flailing away at windmills created in his own mind, deeply hurt by the passing of his family members and close friends, but he gave us so much more: an irreverent attitude, a charming wit, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.