Marking Twain

Had Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known to the world as Mark Twain, only authored Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, his historical and literary legacy would be secured.

April 21st marks the 100th anniversary of Twain's death, and the whole world is taking note. In fact, November 30th will mark the 175th anniversary of his birth, making 2010 the "Year of Mark Twain" to devotees. Towns that have little or nothing to do with Twain are honoring his legacy with events, performances, readings, and more.

Why? How did this redheaded boy from Hannibal, Missouri become the most beloved and influential American author both at home and abroad, published in more than sixty languages? His major works continue to outsell those transient titles on the New York Times bestseller lists, and readers young and old make the pilgrimage to the boyhood home in Hannibal each year from all fifty states and sixty or seventy countries to experience the locale where the stories started.

Twain scholar Tom Quirk describes Twain's laser beam accuracy in assessing human nature; Twain biographer Ron Powers pinpoints Twain's uncanny ability to have found himself at the front and center of every major historical event of the day. Couple these two elements, infuse with Twain's unique genius, and Twain was the right time, right place, right word guy. And he still is.

Consider a sampling of cultural literacy bestowed by Twain. Cartoonist Chuck Jones created "Wile E. Coyote" based on Twain's first encounter with a "cayote" in Roughing It, arguably Twain's best kept literary secret. The reader's nostrils fill with the wretched stench of the creature Twain dubbed a "living, breathing allegory of Want." When queried by a reporter as to the origin of the "New Deal," FDR acknowledged Twain's Connecticut Yankee as the source. Even Jimmy Buffett has written three songs based on Twain's travelogue, Following the Equator, and nods frequently to Twain in his own literary endeavors.

Clemens' father, John Marshall Clemens, once co-signed a loan for a friend. The friend defaulted, and the elder Clemens paid in full. Forced to rent out their home and board with Dr. Grant across the street, John Clemens died shortly thereafter, and eleven-year-old Sam was forced to leave school and earn his room and board as a printer's apprentice. All these years later, Americans are still defaulting on loans and losing homes, although social safety nets are keeping more children fed, clothed and in school.

Twain declared that people arrive at their religion and politics "second-hand and without examination," and proclaimed himself a Mugwump and anti-Imperialist. Those of all political persuasions quote and misquote him and claim him as a spokesman for their opposing views. Although there are no direct descendants of Sam Clemens, one could argue that there are descendants of the persona "Mark Twain," such as satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Twain poked us with a sharp stick and made us squirm. He still does. That he makes us laugh in so doing may be his greatest legacy.

The year 2010 is rife with books and films and tributes focused on that redheaded boy. Fans are not merely celebrating, they are marking the year with reverence. The Hannibal museum is calling attention to their preservation efforts to restore and preserve eight important Twain sites, including Dr. Grant's Drug Store, a building placed on Missouri Preservation's Most Endangered Buildings list. The birthplace in Florida, Missouri is wondering how to pay for a new roof and reopen the shrine to the public. And the caretakers of the Hartford home are breathing a sigh of relief at having finally turned the financial corner in their efforts to maintain the lavish home Twain built with his wife, Livy, and where the couple raised three daughters.

These buildings are important historical relics. They allow visitors to time travel and whisper to their children, "There's the window where Tom Sawyer would sneak out to go adventuring with Huck." They are national treasures. And whether donors step forward to write badly needed checks or state budget committees find a few extra dollars to support not-for-profit preservation efforts, let there be no doubt: Twain's legacy is secure. Priceless buildings may crumble and disappear, they may burn to the ground or be carried away by a tornado, but Twain's gifts of nostalgic innocence and childhood, social conscience, and scathing satire both justify and assure his place in American culture for at least the next hundred years.

Still, donations are welcomed.