Friday, October 20, 2006

Blasphemous Book Reviews II: Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth

Grade: B

I don't want to mislead you. If this were a novel, or a coherent collection of complete works, it would be pure gold, but Letters from the Earth is not that. It's a collection of fragments, cleaned from the master's desk upon his death, and pasted together by his (probably well-meaning) editor and biographer for the purposes of making a posthumous buck. Said editor made a noble effort to hold the "Papers of the Adam Family" section together, and, to my delight, the titular section holds together quite well on its own, but that doesn't excuse the man for scrabbling together the middle third of this volume. There's great prose in it, but no unity of purpose, and too often it's comprised of the unpublished bits of things that had already grown legs and hiked themselves out of the protoplasm, leaving shed tails behind only for the consumption of completists. It tears my heart out, but I'm afraid the mere passing grade must stand.

But since I'm into blasphemy this time around I'll limit what's left of the review to the section "Letters from the Earth," and similar pieces, which happen to be the good ones anyway. Near the back of the book, there's an essay collection called "The Damned Human Race" which, saying the same thing in more prototypical form, bookends the volume nicely.

When I think of Mark Twain, I consider roughly equal parts schmaltzy Americana, humor, wonderful prose cadence, and negativity. The first thing obviously battles the last, and who can deny that that conflict helped make the man great? The spotlighted satire is probably what delayed the publication of Letters until 1962. Unlike Morrow below, Mark Twain took a dim view of humanity at heart, and a dimmer view of its creator. The letters are from Satan (on leave for his loose tounge) to the other archangels describing the peculiarity of man. Among them: the implausibility of creation; the ridiculousness of devising an afterlife we hate (and other assorted "sarcasms" regarding our view of God and his of us); the description of man as God's lowliest but most prized creation, and the superlative evil we're capable of. People suck, and yet....and yet, here we are.

It's good stuff, and this time around, just what Doctor Downer ordered. Back to my usually jolly self next time around.

[Up next, I go Greek. (Not like that, you perv.) Been looking forward to this pair.]


LentenStuffe said...

Hi K,

A nice one, and I agree with your assessment of the cobbled-togetherness of it all. But, for my money, the essay, "The Damned Human Race" made it more than worth the dearth of cohesion.

Being humorous all the time isn't possible, and so when Twain or Shaw or Mencken are off they're really quite terrible.

But, how about the wonderful Josh Billings? He seems less 'canonized' than the others, and unfairly so in my judgment. Have you read him?

Again, a good job.

Keifus said...

Dammit, no, I haven't. I could follow your blog for all the stuff I ought to be reading (or should have read). I'm not a big poetry buff, but you've intrigued me greatly about Mr. Kavanaugh.

But yeah. My wife was looking at me funny, wondering what the hell I was snickering at.