The Celebrated Yarn Spinner of Whatagenius County

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Ben Tarnoff takes an insightful look at Mark Twain’s push to employ his humor for something deeper than mere entertainment.

Mark Twain loved frontier humor, the impish wit and yeasty vernacular, its fondness for the gargantuan and the grotesque. He also understood its deeper value: not merely as entertainment but as a survival tactic. Twain once defined humor as the “kindly veil” that makes life endurable. “The hard and sordid things of life are too hard and too sordid and too cruel for us to know and touch them year after year without some mitigating influence,” he said, and he spoke from experience. In his early thirties, he put a gun to his head and almost pulled the trigger; in his seventies, he was still wondering whether he’d made the right choice.

Twain found it easy to tap into the rich vein of frontier humor, which offered both a content and a style perfect for him:

The dark comedy of the frontier fit his temperament and his talent. Tall talk showed him how to make language more expressive, by embracing a vernacular that reflected the regional varieties of American speech and gave words a more imaginative relationship to the things they described. One famous frontier humorist put it this way: you could ladle out “words at randum, like a calf kickin’ at yaller-jackids,” or you could roll “em out tu the pint, like a feller a-layin bricks—every one fits.” The point was to avoid being a mere bricklayer of language, to break free from the patterns prescribed by tradition and congealed by cliché and to find more original ways to build sentences. What distinguished Twain was his willingness to do so, and by so doing to turn frontier humor into literature.

Literature? Anyone who’s read Huckleberry Finn knows where Twain wound up. Tarnoff’s essay shines light on how he got there. And

It wasn’t easy. The notion that literature could emerge from the frontier’s barbaric yawp encountered violent resistance from America’s literary establishment. It didn’t help that tall tales abounded in vulgarity, drunkenness, and depravity, not to mention perversions of proper English that would make a schoolteacher gasp. Proving the literary power of the frontier would be a central part of Twain’s legacy, and a pie in the face of the New England dons who had dominated the country’s high culture for much of the nineteenth century. He wasn’t immune to wanting their approval, but he came from a very different tradition. His ear hadn’t been trained at Harvard or Yale; it was tuned to the myriad voices of slaves and scoundrels, boatmen and gamblers.

While this is interesting, it seems fairly intuitive to me. I would enjoy the essay because I like reading about Mark Twain, but it’s not something I’d necessarily highlight for you, my loyal blog readers.

It’s this part that made me sit up in my chair:

His anxiety about humor’s lowness worked to his advantage, pushing him to improve on the more buffoonish antics of predecessors like Ward and find a more literary key for his work. Since he couldn’t renounce humor, he enriched it.

How did he pull that off? I’ll send you to Tarnoff’s essay to read the full story. But let me just say: there’s something instructive in turning expectations upside down. Humor may rely on surprise and inversion – but so does good literature. When you combine the two, you can achieve a special kind of greatness. Popular in your own time, admired forever after.

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