By Thomas Best
In the last two segments, I drew from a booklet by Alex Ayers, simply entitled: “The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain.” I picked his up during our most recent visit to Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. Today, I want to address similar thoughts from and about Twain in a recent 2017 publication: “Mark Twain: His Words, Wit, and Wisdom” by Gary Bloomfield and Michael Richards. In their introduction, they note that to appreciate the breadth of Twain’s thoughts in a brief collection of his letters, speeches, essays, short stories, travelogues, and novels is nearly impossible. As these authors advance: His “blatant, yet hilarious, fabrications of his own life experiences, including many of which happened only in his dreams” are the stuff of wild merriment and, at times, toxic criticism.
Today, I am going to remark about one insight into Bloomfield and Richards’ assessment of Twain’s thoughts and writing. First, know that Twain wrote with the goal to have most of his literary outputs read out loud with a seriousness or fun that would both capture the listener’s attention, while likewise causing them to better ponder Twain’s ideas. In particular, I would note that these authors elevate Twain to the level of genius when he captured dialogue with all of “its slang and gruffness.” Consider this account from Huck Finn. Huck and Jim, the slave, are floating down the Mississippi when they come in range of a boat. Huck, curious of their crew and mission, decides to swim over and listen to the deckhands. Listening to their banter he recites one of men’s bravado: “The biggest man there jumped up and says, ‘Whoo-oop! I’m the original iron-jawed, brass-mounted, copper-bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansaw! Look at me! I’m the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation! Sired by a hurricane, dam’d by an earthquake, half-brother to cholera, nearly related to the smallpox on my mother’s side! Look at me! I taken nineteen alligators and a bar’l of whiskey for breakfast when I’m in robust health, and a bushel of rattlesnakes and a dead body when I’m ailing. I split the everlasting rocks with my glance, and I squelch the thunder when I speak! Whoo-oop!”
Such dialogue is impetuous and rings of both imaginative and part-truths. Twain’s literary skills for capturing the flamboyant culture of the riverboat men and their outlandish language is magnificently on display here. Both rip-roaring laughter and strange wonderment is what Twain has achieved here for Huck’s amusement and education. Doesn’t Twain constantly make you want to read more of his books? I know I do!