Before I begin, I’d like to thank the person who made it possible for me to be here with you all today. President Bill Clinton. By scheduling his trip to Moscow just so, I had enough of a pause between my trips to Japan and Oklahoma city and Russia that it was possible to make it to Hartford today.
I’d also like to thank John Boyer. Somehow he got it into his head that I like Twain — which I do — and that I might know something about him — which I don’t. At least I am honest about it.
However, you may want to consider that Mark Twain and I share certain unshakable philosphical similarities. We both lived in Connecticut for a while. We both like to fish. We both like to play hooky. We both like cigars. But Mark Twain’s wife allowed him to light his cigars. (You can only imagine the sort of career I might’ve had if my wife let me light my cigars.owever, like the President, I am only permitted to chew mine.)
I’m not unaware that the giving of lectures on Mark Twain is more commonly the sphere of academics. To be enjoyed by other academics. Academics can ask questions such as, “Was Huck black?” To which the rest of us would merely reply, “No.” Academics prefer debate over simple questions. Academics aren’t like you and me. At least, they’re not like me. Such things are way over my head. I am a proud graduate of Sam Houston State Teachers College Huntsville, Texas. While those of us who went there know it to be the Yale or UConn of our part of the world, we’re perfectly well aware that most people this far north have never heard of the place. Sam Houston State has about as much ivy growing on it as your average Burger King or McDonald’s. I say all these things to underscore one thing. There may be great experts on the work of Mark Twain — perhaps there are several in this room. But very few if any such great experts are graduates of Sam Houston State Teachers College. And I am not such a one. It’s with that understanding that I proceed today. I don’t pretend any expertise in the works of Mark Twain. I tend not to interpret much. I enjoy.
In preparing for my visit I did a lot of reading and re-reading, and I did a lot of laughing out loud. I gulped with surprise when I’d be reminded that Mark Twain met the Tsar or read Italian or (published) the autobiography of Ulysses Grant or performed any of his other less celebrated miracles. I even found myself blinking back a few tears. I wondered how I could justify devoting my time and energy to anything other than Mark Twain.
I’m not alone in enjoying Mark Twain. People come up to you and talk to you when you’re reading Mark Twain. They feel a warm affection almost as if they knew the old boy personally. And I daresay very few of the flight attendants on my trip from Saipan to the Sandwich Islands actually did know Mark Twain personally. I doubt more than two of them have even met Hal Holbrook.
So here we are, galloping toward the centennial of Twain’s death. Mark Twain has become something like Benjamin Franklin to us, an almost huggable icon, a catch-all for national pride and school day memories. And Mark Twain has become something like an old relative. We still enjoy his company, and feel nostalgia for the times we’ve spent with him in the past. But we keep saying to ourselves that we just don’t see enough of him.
He rewards the time spent. He is full of surprises. He is tricky. He is always springing things on you. He keeps you on your toes. This is good exercise. It is also good for the character. It teaches you something.
We may be surprised to realize that Mark Twain was a newspaperman — a reporter — something as conventional as that. After all, he was himself so singular that we feel he ought to have held singular jobs, if any jobs at all. Something like Lecturer. Or Commentator. These jobs he did hold. But it’s my contention that Mark Twain could not have been all the things he was without having first been a reporter.
We must first consider what kind of reporter Mark Twain was. I don’t mean whether he wrote hard news or features — he wrote both. I mean, was he good or bad? The answer is that, as a reporter, Mark Twain was not very good. And ther reason is, he lied a lot. Well, lying is a strong word. Let’s just say, he exaggerated.
Let me take an example, from a piece of journalism he wrote — the reports back from the first American package tour to Europe and the Middle East, which we now know as “The Innocents Abroad.” Unlike Mark Twain, I am not kidding when I seem to be a rough and unsophisticated American who speaks no language other than country-and-western. So I won’t try to pronounce the name of the Italian neighborhood — near Rome — which Mark Twain describes in this passage:
The people here live in alleys two yards wide, which have a smell about them which is peculiar — but not entertaining. It is well the alleys are not wider, because they hold as much smell now as a peson could stand. And of course, if they were wider, they would hold more. And then the people would die. These alleys are paved with stone, and carpeted with deceased cats, and decayed rags, and decomposed vegetable-tops, and remnants of old boots (all soaked with dishwater). And the people sit around on stools. And enjoy it. They are indolent, as a general thing, and yet have a few pastimes. They work two or three hours at a time, but not hard, and then they knock off and catch flies. This does not require any talent, because they only (need) to grab — if they do not get the one they are after, they get another. It is all the same to them. They have no partialities. Which ever one they get is the kind they want. They have other kinds of insects, too, but it does not make them arrogant. They are very quiet, unpretending people. They have more of these kinds of things than other communities, but they do not boast.
You see what I mean. This is excellent observation — if more reporters brought to work every day the powers of observation of a Mark Twain, you would see ratings and subscription figures rise like rockets.
The best among us have always known this. My late teacher, mentor, and friend, Eric Sevareid, used to get letters from viewers praising the beauty of his language — how many reporters today do you expect receive such letters?
What a paltry thing a television camera is, compared to such language — for taking you there, letting you see it, hear it, feel it, smell it, The one wee, small catch in this particular case is, it isn’t true. Mark Twain is committing the worst of all journalistic sins. He isn’t telling the truth.
Now, you may well be saying to yourselves, “Dan, how do you know it isn’t true? You weren’t alive in 1869. Mark Twain may be exaggerating — surely he is. But you don’t know that he’s lying.”
Anticipating exactly this question, I did what any CBS News reporter would do under the circumstances. I asked Andy Rooney. Andy Rooney knows everything. If you don’t believe that, just ask him. He will tell you. He is the world’s leading expert on every subject. Especially on how I do my job. Rooney informs me that, without question, the worst-smelling street in world history is right by his house. So there you have it.
Mark Twain is aware of his liabilities. In “Roughing It,” he confesses:
I moralize well, but I did not always practice well. I let fancy get the upper hand of fact too often when there was a dearth of news. I can never forget my first day’s experience as a reporter. I wandered about town questioning everybody, boring everybody, and finding out that nobody knew anything.
On that first day, Twain finds some settlers coming through town and hears that they’ve had trouble in hostile Indian country. Finding some settlers who are certain not to be in town when the next edition comes out, Twain promptly reports that they’ve been massacred.
My two columns were filled. When I read them over in the morning I felt that I had found my legitimate occupation at last. I reasoned within myself that news, and stirring news, too, was what a paper needed, and I felt that I was peculiarly endowed with the ability to furnish it. Mr. Goodman said that I was as good a reporter as Dan. I desired no higher commendation.
With encouragement like that, I felt that I could take my pen and murder all the immigrants on the plains — if need be — and the interest of the paper demanded it.
I didn’t invent that stuff about “Dan” — you can look it up. It is not for me to speculate that, although I may not be the brightest network anchor in the world, I may be the only one cited as an inspiration, a professional role model, to Mark Twain. As Mark Twain once said, “I was born modest — but it wore off.”
For Twain as an author of Literature, a sometime lack of truthfulness isn’t a failing. Mostly because Twain somehow manages to be accurate even when he isn’t being truthful. We know exactly what that little street near Rome was like, even though Twain exaggerated. We suspect he’s even exaggerating the degree to which he exaggerated when he reported. It’s the rare man whose lies inspire confidence.
I think the only time we even begin to regret Twain’s tendency to tell whoppers is when he’s describing a real event of which we otherwise would have limited or no knowledge.
In “Roughing It,” there’s a wonderful account of a meeting with Brigham Young, who comes across as every bit the dynamic, charismatic leder who really could found a new nation in a desert — and who is also a humorous, cantankerous old character. But it isn’t real — Twain doesn’t even claim to have conducted the interview. He blames a fellow named Mr. Johnson.
Wouldn’t we love to know that this rich comic portrait of a historic American was true? But we don’t and can’t. There are similar instnaces of the liability of dishonesty in Twain’s reporting.
Having covered a few earthquakes, I’d love to know that the tall tales were true in his account of an earthquake in San Francisco — also remembered from “Roughing It.” There’s a lesson here for reporters, but I don’t want to make too much of it. Exaggeration and invention make for more interesting copy, but they will catch up with any reporter. Even a reporter named Mark Twain.
However, we should give Twain credit for his sensitivities. I don’t intend to go into it, but I hear a lot of debate now as to whether Twain was racist, much of it holding him accountable for contemporary standards. Whether you like his racial attitudes or not, I think you can agree that he was remarkably attuned to the ways in which groups of Americans did and didn’t get along. It’s for this reason especially that I miss him today.
He’d have been in high clover with the O.J. Simpson trial. He wouldn’t have missed a trick. And we’d all have learned from his reporting. Let’s also give Twain the Reporter some credit for his instincts, for having a good nose for news — a certain notion of what a story is and needs, and how to report it.
An example: Early in his career with the Sacramento Union, he was dispatched to Hawaii for a time, as Special Correspondent to the Sandwich Islands. There was not a great deal going on, there being very little government or politics to report. So young Sam Clemens hired a horse and went out in search of news. Nowadays he’d probably use a van or a helicopter with a minicam and satellite transmission capability. But a horse was all Twain had.
Nevertheless, he immediately identified the lead story in the area: he found some local girls bathing in the sea. Naked. This was the sort of local color he was after. For his newspaper. It was a heartwarming spectacle.
When he turned to go, he found his horse was asleep. Which shows there is some difference between a man and a horse. You cannot rely on a horse to gather news.
I persist in maintaining that it was absolutely essential that Mark Twain be a reporter. I believe that reporting is the most American of professions. Think of it — do you know the name of one non-American reporter prior to our times?
From Benjamin Franklin and John Peter Zenger through Horace Greeley and Mark Sullivan, ours has been a nation most distinguished by good journalists. It’s in our Constitution. America was the first nation to experiment with that most dangerous object, a free press, and thus we were the first to find it liberating and necessary. Mark Twain was our most American author; of course he would be attracted to our most American institution.
Mark Twain is consumed — perhaps even obsessed — by the question of what it means to be an American. That’s a question Americans used to ask themselves a great deal, when this country was newer. Now that we are an older country, I don’t believe we ask it as often. It’s rare even for our politicians to put forward any kind of philosophical vision of who we are as Americans. Speaker Gingrich has come close to expressing who the American government ought to be.
For Mark Twain, the question of Americanness extends to politics — he was adamantly anti-imperialist, for example — but also to art. Twain observed that American art was less pretentious than European art, and that it communicated more because it was not hired by wealthy benefactors, as European art was.
But art, especially literature, is only as good as the philosophy it expresses. Without philosophy, “Moby Dick” would be another fish story, “The Great Gatsby” would be just a book about a guy who wasn’t really that great.
Philosophically, Mark Twain’s study of Americanness concentrated especially on moral character. For Twain, the American character was open, honest, and above all energetic — but that energy can be corrupted, turned away from good and abused by greed, violence, and ignorance.
Twain’s American is always an individual who takes an active role in the world around him — in the history that takes place around him. “Forrest Gump” would never have been written by Mark Twain: he would have been offended by the notion that an American could be present at so many great moments of history, yet have no effect on that history. Twain’s Americans even have an effect on other people’s history — most notable demonstrated in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” I’m not the first person to compare Twain with Henry James.
James was also consumed by what it meant to be an American. He wanted to show that Americans could be as good as Europeans. He flaunted his erudition, his cultivation, and ultimately he became a British citizen. Twain played the frontiersman, disguising the fact that he spoke several foreign languages, wrote poetry, and read widely. His aim was to show that the American wasn’t merely as good as the European — he knew he could show that the American was different from the European, and he hoped to show that the American was better.
That kind of advocacy meant a turn away from reporting on the news pages and toward writing editorials and features — which is another indication of Mark Twain’s signal wisdom.
Life being what it is, I don’t doubt that most of you could — and may — run home to your Collected Works and cite me sixteen different instances of Twain’s dislike of reporters. I don’t doubt that they were deserved. Bad reporters deserve as much scorn as sanctimonious spinsters of phony dukes; it makes sense that Twain would take aim at them as he did at any purveyors of cant and superstition and injustice.
But good reporting is a free voice, offered freely, heard freely. It is free because it has responsibilities, not restraints. It is independent. We heed it because we trust it, whether the news is good or bad. So, too, is the voice of Mark Twain.
It’s my firm conviction that you couldn’t have great reporting if you hadn’t first had the United States. I believe equally that Mark Twain and good reporting are quintessentially American. I suggest that Mark Twain knew these things and held to them as devoutly as did Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, or Russell Baker, or any other great American reporter; I suggest that, whether he was writing fiction or essay or (publishing) the autobiography of Ulysses Grant, Mark Twain was reporting. It’s up to us to read his reports, to treat them as dispatches from our own past — not musty headlines but urgent bulletins, speaking not of our ancestors, but of ourselves.