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Friday, March 12, 2010

Listening to Mark Twain travelogues while travelling

When my husband and I travel we enjoy listening to books on tape. Two of my favorites have been travelogues by an author I love, Mark Twain. Two years ago on a trip to Texas we listened to Life on the Mississippi. Passing through Memphis, we decided to stop at Mud Island which has a model of the mighty Mississip. Only one problem. It was January and the park didn't open until Spring. We passed through Memphis again today on our way home from Texas and tried again -- two weeks too early. The island doesn't open until April 12. A big sigh of disappointment again. But perhaps we'll plan a visit sometime when it's sure to be open and refresh our memories by listening again to Twain's adventure as a riverboat pilot with all the colorful descriptions of the river and the many interesting characters who populated his river world.

We are coming to the final leg of another Texas trip (we make them once or twice a year because we have two children in Texas, in Houston and Austin). On this visit we've been listening to Roughing It, Twain's description of his seven years in the wild west. He started out as an unpaid secretary to his brother who was secretary to the Governor of the Nevada territory, but his further adventures took him to the silver mines and a series of disappointing excavations along with some near-death adventures. Then he was offered a job as a reporter which probably began his literary career. The book begins with the journey form St. Louis, MO up river to St. Joseph and from their by stagecoach on the nearly three-week trip to Nevada. The stage changed teams every ten miles at stations along the way and took 19 days to make the trip. We cover in a few hours what took those travellers days. But, oh how much we miss as we hurry through the world.

To hear Twain describe the jackass rabbit, the coyote, the sage grass, the coach driver and his assistant (called the conductor), Lake Tahoe, Virginia City, etc. is entertaining and fascinating. I think Mark Twain could make ai riveting story out of buttoning up his coat. He did at one point describe a desperado who had it in for a man and bragged that he could take out the third button on his jacket from a distance. He did and dispatched his victim at the same time. Twain shares many stories of the rough life of the 19th century west. And the only boring part of the tale is his several chapters reading excerpts from the Book of Mormon which he debunks as a shameless theft from the Bible with many repetitions of "It came to pass" and other phrases added to make it sound archaic. His imaginative conversation with Brigham Young complaining about his large family with wives (identified by number) who all want a stick pin because he gave one to number six, is hilarious.

So if you are off on a trip and looking for an enjoyable companion take along Mark Twain. I guarantee the miles go faster with such a passenger.


Old Bob said...

Thank you, thank you! One can hardly do better than Mark Twain!

Ray Schneider said...

I like "No American is safe while Congress is in session."

Anonymous said...

Clemens/Twain was a kook and an atheist (as atheists often are) who had an hatred for the Bible as profound as that for the Book of Mormon. He can be funny, but never elevating.

Mary Ann Kreitzer said...

He certainly was a character (Does that make him a kook?) with a ready wit and fine-tuned sense of humor. And, despite being an atheist, in Roughing It he praises the missionaries who converted the natives of the Hawaiian Islands.

I think Twain had a profound sense of justice. Huckleberry Finn shows his belief in the dignity of man, no matter the color of his skin. Tom Sawyer is a rascal and a con artist who symbolizes the hypocrisy of Twain's culture compared to Huck, the moralist who defends the underdog.

Twain's Letters from the Earth is a terrifying picture of his rejection of God. After I read it I began praying for him and even having an occasional Mass said for the repose of his soul. It seems to me that he rejected the God of the bigoted fundamentalists - the same ones who call the Catholic Church the whore of Babylon. I wonder what would have happened if he had ever experienced the close friendship of a holy Catholic priest (or layman for that matter).

I disagree that he is never elevating. I think Huckleberry Finn has many fine moments that challenge the cultural values of his day. Had he lived during the debate over segregation, he would have had plenty to say about the injustice.

And how can someone who said the following not be seen as elevating?
"Always do right. That will gratify some of the people, and astonish the rest."

And I absolutely love this quote: "The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter."

Ray Schneider said...

Twain was not an atheist, at least I don't see him that way at all. He was a searcher and one who didn't much care for hypocrisy.

He wrote a biography of St. Joan of Arc which isn't exactly the act of an atheist. He regarded it as one of if not his best books. So it seems to me that finecrown has read very biased accounts. It is always best to read the man himself rather than the idiots that follow to defame him. "The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones." In fact Twain was an abolitionist and Huckleberry Finn is a very spiritual book. Try reading it.

Anonymous said...

If Mr. Schneider doesn't "see" Twain as an aetheist, it doesn't make the latter any less so. His presentation of an adequate social gospel (justice now!) and his failure to find good catechesis don't do it either. He spent his latter years in a bitter pursuit of a spiritualist contact with his dead daughter. Awful people can be entertaining because they appeal to our weaknesses: their finding our badness doesn't make them good. I'm not saying he's down there with Judas, but there are certainly many worthier (and funnier) people to praise on a Catholic website.

Mary Ann Kreitzer said...

No doubt his mother loved him. And the scripture comes to mind of Jesus talking about the prostitutes and tax collectors getting into heaven before the pharisees.

As Ray says, his book on St. Joan of Arc is a masterpiece. I'm betting the saint was praying for him at his death.

Some of the best books in print were written by non-believers, atheists, and people who we would not offer as role models to our children. Brave New World is one of the most insightful books about the horrors of sexual license that has ever been written. It was incredibly prophetic with its picture of the drug culture (soma), test tube babies (IVF, cloning, etc.), motion picture "feelies" (virtual reality), sexual orgies, etc. While Huxley admired Margaret Sanger, his chilling dystopia is certainly no recommendation for her philosophy.

I'm reading a book by E. Michael Jones, a faithful Catholic of whom I think you would approve, called Monsters from the Id. In it, he discusses the link between the Enlightenment embrace of sexual immorality and the growth of horror fiction and, later, horror movies. Much of the fiction was written by those whose lifestyles were immoral and yet the truths that are revealed by their works (unconsciously on their parts) indicates St. Augustine's truth that "our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee." That goes for everyone among us, the saints and the prodigals.

But I'm curious, finecrown. Are you saying that Catholics should only read those who are orthodox Catholics leading exemplary lives? Pretty limiting, I think (especially for an English major like me with eclectic interest).

Ray Schneider said...

The nature of faith is such that it is given by God and not something you choose for yourself. Mark Twain, as I read him, was a searcher as I said. He saw enough hypocrisy to question the God followed by those he was exposed to. He didn't react against God but against the poor witness he received.
It is obvious that he was a spiritual man. If he was not a Christian or not a Catholic it was largely because the Body of Christ failed him. You do not write a sensitive book about Joan of Arc and be too far from the God whom Joan served. The kind of judgment "finecrown" is offering is the kind that imagines it has the license to judge in the first place. We are not given that charism. "Why do you call be good?" the God man asked, "Only God is good." Insofar as I can judge, I judge Mark Twain to be a seeker of truth which is a high and Godly calling. "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." The path is difficult that leads through the narrow gate. Mark Twain lived a difficult life and called'em as he saw'em. What more can you ask?

Robert Kumpel said...

I found The Innocents Abroad, his account of visiting Europe after the Civil War, fascinating and hilarious. Perhaps it just appeals to my weaknesses.

Martina said...

**I'm not saying he's down there with Judas, but there are certainly many worthier (and funnier) people to praise on a Catholic website.**

I'm not sure about this comment. Are you suggesting Judas is in hell? As far as I know, the Catholic Church has never said she knows who goes to hell, even the most likely candidate, Judas.

Maybe finecrown knows something we don't?