PENOBSCOT — I wish Mark Twain were still alive. Perhaps he is. Our times demand his observational clarity and wit, while at the same time exuding the American outlandishness of a Twain story. He was an arch commentator on American foibles, as well as creator of uniquely American plots and characters, confections of American archetypes.

Today’s pundits and talking heads universally refer to our being in “uncharted territory.” I feel it’s not uncharted at all. We have simply stepped into the realm of our national fiction. Our writers forewarned us and previewed these swamp waters. It does, however, take an altered reality to trump fiction. Perhaps that is a working redefinition of “uncharted.”

Who else but Twain, the inventor of American humor, could have imagined a comic-tragic plot like the Trump presidency? Only a Twain novel rivals the irony, hypocrisy, wicked reversals, manipulations, huckster rhetoric, bogus maxims and nefarious subtextual dog whistles we are experiencing. A Twain villain gives piercing insight into American values and character; his heroes access our better, not baser, angels. His best-known observer, Huck Finn, elucidated our potential while being clear sighted about our flaws on his journey down the Big River in the heart of the nation.

Twain might sympathize with the president formerly known as The Donald. His own business ventures and catastrophes were legend. Had he backed the typewriter only a few years later than he did, he might have made a killing. He was ahead of his time. Twain would have ribbed Trump’s failed ventures – steak, vodka, airline, casino, even a graduate school. A perfect, chaotic storm of ego-inflated greed. But he would not have brooked the criminal escapades of the family business. He would not have wailed, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Cohn was Trump’s dark Merlin from “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” an acrid later work about the human condition.

Humor, as we know, is only a shade lighter than some of our darkest, tragic ideations. Humor thwarts self-destruction. But when humor is overattenuated with tragedy it’s toxic. The knives turn inward. Real people bleed real blood.

Twain would have the words and phrases to fetch us back across the line from our acrimonious fratricidal tribalism. Fake news? The enemy of the people? Twain presided over a permissible application of such terms: literary sleight of hand.

I can laugh imagining Twain writing the March Oval Office scene reported by The New York Times in which President Trump pushes his Cabinet-level advisers to fill a border moat with snakes and alligators, shoot migrants in the legs, top the border wall with flesh-piercing spikes. It is unhinged whingeing right out of “A Connecticut Yankee.” I cannot laugh at the scene as written in the nation’s newspaper of record.

I offer a more sinister Twain correlative. In “Huckleberry Finn,” Twain defines the soul of mob action. Colonel Sherburn shoots a man dead for slander – Trump’s proverbial Fifth Avenue homicide-go-free – and the question becomes, what will the townspeople do about it?

The mob surges toward Sherburn, who stands his ground: “Why, a man’s safe in the hands of ten thousand of your kind – as long as it’s daytime and you’re not behind him.”

He continues his excoriation: “The pitifulest thing out is a mob; that’s what an army is – a mob; they don’t fight with courage that’s born in them, but with courage that’s borrowed from their mass, and from their officers. But a mob without any man at the head of it is beneath pitifulness. Now the thing for you to do is to droop your tails and go home and crawl in a hole.”

And that’s just what they do. And what will we do with our Sherburn?

Huck, through whose eyes we witness the scene, has seen enough. “I could ‘a’ stayed if I wanted to,” he says,” but I didn’t want to.”

Ultimately, Twain delivers us from ourselves by delivering us to ourselves. And we hardly know that’s what he’s about. Is our president doing the same thing? Sherburn-like, he shoots a man and dares us to do something about it.

We gotta light out for the territory, as Huck finally does, where freedom awaits. We just gotta.

 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.