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But what Brooks thought great in 1920 is what’s thought to be great now.
Twain is still the Twain of “Huck” and “Life on the Mississippi,” and, while various suppressed manuscripts have come out—notably the semi-obscene “Letters from the Earth,” published in 1962—they tell not so much about Twain’s inner life, the secret workings of his heart and conscience, as about his lower life, the inner pressings of his genitals and bowels.
But caginess, or self-consciousness, quickly set in, and he wrote to Howells that “an autobiography is the truest of all books: for while it inevitably consists mainly of extinctions of the truth, shirkings of the truth, partial revealments of the truth, with hardly an instance of plain straight truth, the remorseless truth there, between the lines.” What was to have been, briefly, life as it is became an endless squirt of squid ink, with the creature making his getaway under its cover.
Having given up on candor, Twain invested his literary hopes for the book in its structureless structure: it would be the first book to have incidents set down out of order, not as they happened to the boy and the man but as they occur now to the remembering writer.
Only about five per cent of the new volume, prepared with immense diligence by Harriet Elinor Smith, is new; perhaps subsequent volumes will surprise, but this one reads about the same as the versions we’ve already seen.
In a memorable episode in “Huck Finn,” the rapscallion Duke and Dauphin—two backwoods fraudsters posing as European aristocrats—decide, after a failed go at pseudo-Shakespeare in a small town, to hype another performance, advertised as titillating (“Women and Children Not Admitted”) and called “The Royal Nonesuch”: it turns out to be only the Dauphin, painted in rainbow-colored stripes and crawling around onstage.
The furious audience members laugh, then become outraged, and are about to lynch the pair when someone points out that if they do they’ll be known forever as dupes; wait a night and they can see their fellow-townspeople swindled, too.
Hemingway’s assertion that all modern American literature comes from “Huck” seems even more nearly true now than when he said it, back in the nineteen-thirties.
Twain’s belief that plain American speech, the dumb American demotic, was an instrument flexible and rich enough for a major moral literature is one that—while it just remotely touched Hemingway’s own stylized simplicity—inspired writers as unlike as Salinger and Toni Morrison.And then we are always kinder to “partial” achievements in the long run of history than we are in the lifetime of the artist, when we keep wanting more.