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by William H. Benson

February 19, 2011

     Mark Twain is a bestseller—number 4 last week on the New York Times Book Review list—for the publication of the first volume of his autobiography. He would be proud, for that work has never been one of his readers’ favorites. It is a muddled mess, a tangled hodgepodge, without structure, and written in a stream-of-consciousness style. Writers have attempted to organize it over the past 100 years, ever since his passing, but now the University of California has published it, just as he wrote it.

     Readers beware.

     Last month, an Alabama-based publisher, NewSouth Books, announced that they would publish the best of Twain’s books, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but a revised, censored, and expurgated version, one without the derogatory slurs, the one published on February 18, 1885.

     I would suggest that some author should rework the last quarter of the book, for once Mark Twain placed Huck Finn and the runaway slave Jim on their makeshift raft and let them sail down the Mississippi River into the Old South, he did not know how to retrieve them.

     A good question: How does one extricate themselves from as feudalistic and as vicious a society as was the Old South prior to the Civil War, once you have floated unwittingly into it? The book delivers a poor answer to the question and thus the ending is weak, but, who knows, perhaps Mark Twain may boast of two books on the bestseller list this year, one as he wrote it and the other as he should have.

     Mark Twain’s autobiography reveals a human being, a man, one filled to the brim with energy: a riverboat pilot, a silver miner, a journalist, a comedian, a writer of several literary genre, and a publisher. One critic said that “his energy was so ferocious in its effect on people and events as to distort the best-willed observer’s perspective.”

     But he had a dark side, a side that came out too frequently after he buried first his son, then his wife, and two of his three daughters. Late in life, he was bent and twisted into a greedy, lonely, brooding, and suspicious old man, at war with God, and wildly angry at having to live life. In such a state, he existed, a mixture of “rage and gentleness, of malice and affection, of creative genius and financial idiocy.”

     He was too human, all to human.   

     Switching gears, it was on February 17, 1979 that Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, his live musical radio show premiered for the first time on National Public Radio. Keillor had begun the show in July of 1974 on Minnesota Public Radio, and with the introduction of his comic monologues featuring the news from Lake Wobegon, his mythical hometown, the show became wildly popular and gained a well-deserved national reputation.

     I disregard Keillor’s music and his silly ads for local businesses, such as those for Bertha Kitty’s Boutique and the Chatterbox Cafe, for the heart and soul of Keillor’s radio program is the “News from Lake Wobegone.” Every week Garrison Keillor tells a story involving fictional citizens of this small Minnesota town, such as Einar Tingovld, Florian Krebsbach, or Wally (“Old Hard Hands”) Bunsen. The stories are warm, humorous, and so ordinarily human.

     He ends them the same every week: “And that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, my hometown out there on the prairie, a place where the women are so very strong, the men are so good-looking, and the children are way above average.” The listener knows that it cannot be true but appreciates it the same.

     In 1985, he tied together some of these comic monologues and published them as Lake Wobegone Days, and his reputation as a writer of serious / humorous fiction was assured. In the book’s preface, Keillor wrote, “Somehow the radio show kept going, perhaps because I had no illusion that I was good at it, and I brought in Lake Wobegon as the home of a weekly monologue. . . . It has been a good run and I’m a very lucky man, I think. One pretty good idea for gainful employment is still my livelihood.”   

     Certain of his later books, though, are in need of an expurgation, of a censor, for his steep slide into vulgarity distracts from the story itself.

     Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor, their best books are separated by exactly a hundred years. Both mined deep into their childhood experiences: one from the banks of the Mississippi River at Hannibal, Missouri, and the other from the small town of Anoka, Minnesota, just north of the twin cities. Twain was of the river, and Keillor was of the northern prairie, but each instinctively knew how to create vivid scenes with a multiplicity of sensory details, both verbally and on paper, and the overall effect is that audiences and readers will, invariably and without hesitation, laugh.


     Yes, we still laugh at Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer and their antics, but especially we laugh at Mark Twain, the man whom Samuel Clemens never could have been. We laugh at Garrison Keillor’s Leonard Tollefson and Pastor Tommerdahl, all trying to do their best while living “in Lake Wobegon, where smart doesn’t count for so much.” Perhaps Keillor too has a dark side, but if so he certainly keeps it well hidden.