Nov. 30, 2006
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Poem: "Yes" by Catherine Doty, from Momentum. © Cavan Kerry Press. Reprinted with permission.
It's about the blood
banging in the body,
and the brain
lolling in its bed
like a happy baby.
At your touch, the nerve,
that volatile spook tree,
vibrates. The lungs
take up their work
with a giddy vigor.
Tremors in the joints
in the canister of sugar.
The coil of ribs
heats up, begins
to glow. Come
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the man who wrote under the name Mark Twain, (books by this author) Samuel Langhorne Clemens, born in Florida, Missouri (1835). He's best known to us today for his novels about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but in his own lifetime his best-selling books were his travel books, such as Roughing It (1872), A Tramp Abroad (1880), and Life on the Mississippi (1883).
He spent most of his life traveling. He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi, and he loved observing the people who flowed in from the river: the gamblers, confidence men, boat captains, pioneers, and slave traders. He traveled east to try to make a living as a printer, but eventually came back to Missouri and took a job as an apprentice pilot on a riverboat. He would later say that his years working on the Mississippi River were his happiest.
When Civil War broke out and tied up traffic on the river Clemens followed his brother west to Nevada. He rode out on a stagecoach. While his brother worked for the governor, Clemens loafed around, drinking and playing poker all night long. He tried his hand at mining, but it was hard work and he didn't like it. He was running out of money, so he started writing freelance stories for the Territorial Enterprise. They offered him a full-time job and he moved to Virginia City, Nevada.
He was supposed to cover the mining industry for the newspaper, but he found that he preferred writing about accidents, street fights, barroom shootings, and parties. Virginia City was a rough town. Clemens interrupted one of his letters to his mother to write, "I have just heard five pistol shots down the street. ... I will go and see about it." It turned out that two policemen had been murdered a few blocks away.
He had always written entertaining letters to his family, and he treated his newspaper work like those letters: humorous, exaggerated, entertaining, but always conversational. He took the name "Mark Twain" from his riverboat experience. The phrase "Mark Twain" means two fathoms deep, which for a riverboat captain is just deep enough water to navigate.
In 1867, Clemens persuaded a San Francisco newspaper to send him on a steamboat pleasure cruise to Europe, and he got paid 20 dollars for each letter he sent home. Those letters brought him significant recognition, and in 1868 he published them in a book called Innocents Abroad, and that was the book that made him famous.
Clemens wrote about his travels in Europe, his travels in the West, and his boating days on the Mississippi. But some of the most beautiful passages in his writing come from his descriptions of Huckleberry Finn traveling down the river with Jim. He wrote, "It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to MAKE so many. Jim said the moon could a LAID them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn't say nothing against it, because I've seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they'd got spoiled and was hove out of the nest."
It the middle of writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Clemens decided he needed to do some research on his hometown, so he traveled back to Hannibal, Missouri, for the first time since he was a teenager. It was the most depressing trip of his life, because all the romanticized ideas about the place where he'd grown up were shattered. He met old women who had been just young girls when he was a child. He saw how poverty-stricken the townspeople were.
Samuel Clemens said, "The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in Heaven."
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