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Charlie's Introduction to TwainFest (San Diego, August 20, 2011)

Welcome to TwainFest — WriteOutLoud's annual celebration of Mark Twain's life and words.

Let me begin by saying that it is a wonderful thing, a miraculous and heartwarming thing, in this digitally throttled age of computers and cellphones and iPods and iPads and Kindles and all manner of portable hand-held devices, to address an audience that has gathered for the sole purpose of being read to.

Mark Twain could appreciate that.

Does anyone know where Twain took his future wife, Olivia Langdon, on their first date?
. . . To listen to a writer by the name of Charles Dickens read from his work. It was on New Year’s Eve, 1867, and Dickens was on his valedictory tour of the United States. It did not go well (the reading, that is, not the date). Twain was disappointed because Dickens mumbled.

We are here today to celebrate the wit and wisdom of a man that many have called America’s funniest writer and that some have called America’s greatest writer; certainly no one would dispute that he is America’s most famous one. Mark Twain’s singular visage — with its drooping mop of a mustache, aquiline nose, raging eyebrows, and splendid shock of unruly white hair — is familiar the world over.

Though the revered raconteur from Hannibal, Missouri, died a hundred-and-one years ago, on April 21, 1910, his witticisms, stories, and characters remain fresh in our minds and linger in our hearts. Since Twain’s death, scarcely a year has gone by where something about him or by him — some revelation about his life or a newly discovered manuscript — has not come to light.

“I am speaking from the grave,” Twain proclaimed in the preface to his autobiography; and, indeed, the man has an uncanny way of continuing to prove that the news of his death was greatly exaggerated.

Mark Twain’s satirical and often self-effacing humor was his calling card as a writer. He liked to say that he was born modest, but it wore off. He once joked that most of his ancestors were born to be hanged. And he claimed he never told a lie, except for practice.

Twain was a keen observer of human nature who specialized in deriding all kinds of human folly: pomposity, greed, selfishness, stupidity, hypocrisy, mindless conformity, smug respectability, and bigotry. He fulminated against the cruelty and futility of war and marveled at how human beings were the only creatures in all Creation capable of malice.

He also made no secret of his low opinion of humanity, which he often expressed in brilliantly misanthropic epigrams: “Man was made at the end of the week’s work, when God was tired”; “Concerning the difference between man and the jackass: some observers hold that there isn’t any. But this wrongs the jackass.”

Twain once said, “I am not an American. I am the American.” That statement may sound like a boast, but it wasn’t. It was the truth, mainly, as only Mark Twain could express it.

Twain was the American because he wrote literature with the first pure American voice — a voice that Ursula K. Le Guin described as “one of hyperbole and absurdity and wild invention and absolute truth.”

Twain was the American because beneath the humorous facade of nearly everything he wrote was a profound meditation on American identity and a blistering indictment of American society and American values.

When we think of the word patriotism and hear it bandied about in the national discourse, it is all too easy for us to forget that the first American patriots were rebels. Mark Twain continually reminds us that to be a patriot you must be a rebel in your heart. “Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its only true defense,” he wrote.

In the selections that you will hear today, you will no doubt discern multiple Mark Twains. You will hear the humorous and irreverent Twain, of course, and Twain the biting satirist. You will hear Twain the sociologist, Twain the moralist, Twain the skeptic, and Twain the sage.

The one Twain you will not hear, however, is Twain the racist. That’s because that Mark Twain does not exist except in the minds of those who willfully misread him. That Mark Twain is a fabrication of the same parochialism and prejudice that the real Mark Twain spent his entire life ridiculing and scorning.

I could tell you about how Twain learned to write by listening to the speech of the black folks he knew as a boy. I could tell you about the many African-American writers who have praised Twain and called him their muse. But since I’ve already told you about that, I’ll tell you something else — the little-known story of an extraordinary man named Warner T. McGuinn and his connection with Mark Twain.

It’s a story that I incorporated into Test of Time, my comedy-adventure novel starring a time-traveling Mark Twain, and it’s a story that I think once again proves that Twain was not just an American, but the American.

In 1885 a young man named Warner T. McGuinn was enrolled at Yale, where he was one of the law school’s first black students. He was a promising scholar, but he had to board with the college carpenter and work three part-time jobs to make ends meet. Somehow he managed to find time to participate in the Kent Club, the school’s debating society, which elected him president that fall. One of McGuinn’s duties was to meet the club’s guest speakers at the railroad station and introduce them before their lectures. The first speaker that year was Mark Twain.

Twain was so impressed with the young law student and his eloquent introduction that on Christmas Eve he wrote to the dean of the law school offering to pay McGuinn’s board.

“I do not believe I would very cheerfully help a white student who would ask a benevolence of a stranger,” Twain wrote, “but I do not feel so about the other color. We have ground the manhood out of them, & the shame is ours, not theirs, & we should pay for it.

“If this young man lives as economically as it is & should be the pride of one to do who is straitened, I would like to know what the cost is, so that I may send 6, 12, or 24 months’ board, as the size of the bill may determine.”

Twain’s continued support enabled McGuinn to quit his jobs and focus entirely on his studies. McGuinn graduated at the top of his class, winning the coveted Townsend Oration prize, and went on to become one of the most influential citizens of Baltimore.

He served as a member of the city council, helped found the local chapter of the NAACP, and in 1917 he won a landmark civil rights victory in federal court that struck down the city’s housing segregation law.

As if that weren’t enough, McGuinn was also a mentor to a young lawyer who worked in the office next door. That lawyer’s name was Thurgood Marshall.

Have fun at TwainFest, and long live Mark Twain!


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Copyright (c) 2010, 2011 by Charles Harrington Elster.
All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is prohibited.
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