Saint Mark and the church of literature
This is a post about influences, and how we become what we are. It is homage to four people who shaped or warped me, depending on your perspective.
Recently, while noodling around with the Stanza app for iPhones/Pods, I downloaded a few free e-books to read. One that popped into my head while searching for titles was Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It seems, sadly, that more people are familiar with the Looney Tunes retelling of the story than with Twain’s book. It is often mentioned only as an afterthought, while Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer shape the common view of Twain. Those are great books, but Yankee is a masterpiece of humor joined to savage criticism of human nature and institutions.
Way back in high school, our English teachers asked those of us in the honors English classes to end our sophomore and junior years by writing a long study of an American (10th grade) and English (11th grade) author. Having had the notion of non-conformity beaten into me in junior high by my late friend Shannon McGee (major influence number one–she later turned me into a feminist), I went the contrarian route and chose Mark Twain (number two) and Evelyn Waugh (number three). Have there ever been two more dyspeptic and wickedly devious anglophone writers? Unlikely. I devoured Waugh, reading nearly everything he wrote, save for Brideshead Revisited, since it was on PBS and was the one book of his that gets read (resist co-option, said Shannon). Paul Pennyfeather and Basil Seal were too divinely bizarre to be true, and the ostensibly drug-induced weirdness of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is burned into my consciousness. At first reading, I found speaking into flower vases shockingly odd; a few years down the road it made a lot more sense.
But it was and is Twain that speaks to my soul. Whenever Europeans begin to ramble on about the “fact” that America has no culture (bosh!), Twain is our armor and his prose is our sword. My father–a deeply religious man and the fourth influence–felt that faith based on ignorance is a worthless faith, thus he encouraged me to read broadly and find my own answers. That I did so is testimony to his method, even if from his point of view it backfired somewhat. I have no faith whatsoever (and no longer have issues with clearly stating that I am an atheist), but he gave me the moral compass that even my dear wife finds excessive at times. Two of the books he gave me in high school to read were C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters and Twain’s posthumous Letters from the Earth. The former was a good read, but the latter made Twain into my own personal saint, and I have never ceased to sing his praises.
Until I picked up that copy recently for Stanza, I had not taken Twain’s Yankee into my hands for over two decades. Time had softened its blow, and I even considered reading it to my nine year old. Thankfully I desisted, for it is a grim and brutal tale at times, and certainly a bit too much for her as yet. For my part, I am reveling in nearly every page, as I see, 28 years after first reading it, how much it shaped my political philosophy and defined my ethical center. Entire passages have me nodding my head in agreement and get me fired up to start the revolution, since revolution is pretty much what the book is about.
So, thank you, Shannon, for cursing me with the gift of always choosing the harder path. Thank you, Waugh and Twain, for putting your humanity into eternal form, and lacing it with wit and sarcasm, the spices that make even the grimmest fare palatable. And thanks, Dad, for teaching me to make my own choices and giving me moral footing.