Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Straws in the wind

The days grow cold in late November, dark with low clouds and hints of snow, and I get chilled as I read another late November reminder: a previously unpublished Nov. 26, 1902, letter by Mark Twain (in the December issue of Harper's). Twain was responding to a Danish writer, Carl Thalbitzer, who found dark thoughts between the lines of the American's works and wondered whether he would write about the pros and cons of civilization. (How can you not think of the close of "Huckleberry Finn," where Huck plans to escape from "sivilization"?)

Twain replied that he believed that many people in all ages have "examined man with a microscope," and "found that he did not even resemble the creature he was pretending to be," and have "perceived that a civilization not proper matter for derision has always been and must always remain impossible." But almost every one of these observers over history, he said, has "put away his microscope and kept his mouth shut."

Like them, said Twain in the letter, he wouldn't write such a book unless his much-loved wife, who forbade it, were to die before him. And besides, he wrote, 99 percent of his reluctance was just cowardice. Well, she did die before him, in 1904, and in 1906, putting his "cowardice" aside, he published "What Is Man?" Mark Twain couldn't keep his mouth shut.

(Twain told Thalbizer in the 1902 letter that he had started the book several years before, and "Whenever I wish to account for any new outbreak of hypocrisy, stupidity, or crime on the part of the race, I get out that manuscript and read it, and am consoled, perceiving that the outbreak was in obedience to the law of man's make, and was not preventable.")

Mankind, and not just its leaders, seldom fails to live down to Twain's expectations. But I'd rather grasp at those straws that rise higher. For just one example, today an excellent organization called the Lewis and Clark Library Foundation sent me a solicitation. The group does wonderful things besides raising money for the library, including providing books for school kids and great programs for adults. I'm gonna make a donation. I'm a sucker for straws in the wind when it comes to "man's make."

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