Mark Twain: A Life
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Read between August 30, 2017 - November 20, 2018
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It was, in short, exactly the sort of moment when a fugitive from one version of America, the nasty and brutish West, could intrude into the settled, exclusionary East and make a pitch for a piece of the action—provided that the fugitive observed the courtesies and deferred to the standards of Brahmin delicacy in manners and language.
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a torrential literary voice more truly, more enduringly its own than any then existing or being conceived by the reigning gods of New England probity and taste.
Len Edgerly
Who has that voice in 2017?
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he gained the foundation for international status as America’s Shakespeare and struck a template for the nation’s voice into the 20th century and beyond.
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Mark Twain’s baton began to mute the Anglican symphony, and strike up the rhythms of American jazz.
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He lived his life on the edges of self-control; he was quick to anger, hounded by guilt and anxiety, and subject to seismic shifts of mood.
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Mark Twain found many surrogates for John Marshall Clemens in his books.
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The New England Transcendentalists felt obliged to bestow the soul-enhancing benefits of eloquence, transcendence, and politeness on the new nation, ready or not. They proposed building a perfect society on the scaffolding of golden sentences.
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McGuffey’s Reader made literacy available by mass production after two centuries as a special privilege of the elite.
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No reading of Mark Twain’s literature can miss the inexhaustible evidence of the Bible as a source.
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Mark Twain never became a scholar of literature; but he became a passionate amateur scholar of language
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“IF CHRIST were here now,” reads an entry in Mark Twain’s notebook, “There is one thing he would not be—a Christian.”
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Newspapering held a natural attraction for eccentric misfits, whether in a rural outpost or a great city.
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[T]he difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning-bug and
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Len Edgerly
Indeed.
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With that surrogate punch in the Dandy’s snoot, the sixteen-year-old Missouri truant had shown some bare knuckles to the fancy folks in Boston.
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He would never again be as integrated with a holy place as he had been with Hannibal. He would return to the town just six more times in his life, and he would never live there again, except in his literature and in his dreams.
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He strengthened his skills in travel and self-expression.
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Sam was in the mood to strut; he had flabbergasted even himself with his blitzkrieg of the East.
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Probably on that downriver trip, he began a practice that would prove incalculably useful to his literary career: he started keeping a notebook,
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The nickname hung on the nativist American party by Horace Greeley, in reference to members’ penchant for saying, “I know nothing,” in response to all questions about their organization. Greeley intended the label as an indictment, but party members grew to like it.
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In an exquisite aria that forever enshrined his passion for the life of a Mississippi steamboat pilot, Mark Twain wedded water and words.
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Steamboats reshaped much of America, economically and structurally. New Orleans was but the most dramatic creation.
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Most big boats drew at least nine feet and therefore needed about twelve feet—two fathoms—“mark twain”—to float safely.
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it is impossible to conceive a story more derogatory to the Almighty, more inconsistent with his wisdom, more contradictory to his power, than [the Bible] story
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Death always lurked not far beneath the surface of his writing, even the satire, especially the satire; Mark Twain insisted that the secret source of humor was not joy, but sorrow.
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In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Hank Morgan is ordered burned at the stake on June 21, the date of Henry’s death; but he is saved from death by the distraction of an eclipse of the sun.
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Dreams, reality, fact, fiction—it was all part of a seamless universe to Mark Twain, increasingly so as he aged.
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Sam had learned the guitar in Hannibal from his sister Pamela and played the instrument frequently in later years.
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the war-tempered nation whose soul he never quite grasped, even as he helped create it.
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“YOU MAY not be interested in war,” as Leon Trotsky later famously remarked, “but war is interested in you.”
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Certain passages in each letter revealed how quickly the West was turning Sam from a modest boy into a man.
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He also wrote letters, now and throughout his time in the West, to his beautiful eidolon of regret and yearning, Laura Wright.
Len Edgerly
Great word.
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Out west, there were no rules, no frowning Calvinist pieties—only energy and freedom.
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Sprung from the humdrum, Sam was alive again, and poured his reawakened zest into his writing.
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Sam was perfecting a consistent, arresting voice supple enough to embrace the essentials of the classic 19th-century newspaper “letter”: personal intimacy, comic flair, and sharply observed journalism.
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His indifference to the boundary between fact and fantasy became a hallmark of his literature, and later, of his consciousness.
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This first Carson City letter, which ran in the Enterprise on February 3, 1863, included two other notable features. One was its arresting lead sentence: “I feel very much as if I had just awakened out of a long sleep.”17 The other was the signature at the bottom of the letter, a signature Sam had never used before, but one that gave especial resonance to the opening sentence: “Mark Twain.”18
Len Edgerly
Electrifying passage.
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He blurted into print whatever was on his mind, heedless of its effect on others, his reputation, his safety.
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The encounter between Sam and Charles Farrar Browne, known to the world as Artemus Ward, pointed Mark Twain toward national recognition, while at the same time nearly destroying him in the flames of his inner furies and despair.
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It was Whitman’s unrhymed, unmetered Leaves of Grass, in 1855, which first answered Emerson’s call for a new American voice.
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Only two years older than Sam, Ward had been born in a small town (Waterville, Maine);
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American literature as it had been understood roughly from the mythmaking age of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper through the great Anglican-influenced flowering of Hawthorne, Emerson, Melville, and Thoreau, was about to be changed, changed utterly.
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The others noticed that he had begun to scribble into a notebook.
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This is the kind of semidivine intervention that Mark Twain loved to ascribe to decisive moments in his life—the scrap of text from the Joan of Arc book he came upon in Hannibal, the fifty-dollar bill that he discovered in Keokuk.
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The sketch scored a direct hit upon the American postwar funny bone.
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At the close of the Civil War, Americans were ready for a good cleansing laugh, untethered to bitter political argument.
Len Edgerly
Same as now? 1/13/18
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his life, he was usually able to work through periods of anxiety or depression.
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Mark Twain was at the docks to greet the passengers with a new journalistic form: the interview. Horace Greeley had conducted the first newspaper interview only seven years earlier, recording the verbatim remarks of the Mormon leader Brigham Young in Salt Lake City.
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he maintained a saving distance that allowed him to write about his sojourns with the detached irony of the self-possessed artist.
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Mark Twain would move quickly to a national and then to a world stage, and his words would yield unimaginable global fame and wealth.
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