The book could have been written nowhere but in America and by no American but Mark Twain, but it has passed out of our keeping. Huckleberry Finn has become a universal possession.
–Bernard De Voto, Historian, THE PORTABLE MARK TWAIN (1946)
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It’s hard for me to believe, on this his birthday, that Mark Twain was born almost 200 years ago (Nov. 30, 1835). Beyond the fact that his writing is timeless, our lives, his and mine, are but a generation apart — I was born a mere 26 years after he died. It’s almost as if he could’ve been the grandfather who passed away before I knew him, yet I came to know him by the stories passed down to me as a boy….and through the recollections of a ten year old girl named Dorothy, who met Mark Twain on an ocean liner in 1907, when he was 72.
Dorothy Quick wrote of their meeting in a book I own, titled MARK TWAIN & ME. It begins: A little girl walked round and round the deck of an ocean liner. When she turned the corner and came to the port side of the vessel, she walked slowly and her feet dragged while her eyes were fixed in admiration on a man standing beside the rail talking to another man. They didn’t see the little girl whose gaze was riveted on the older of the two, the man who had a great mass of snow-white hair.
I was fascinated by that crop of snowy hair. It was soft and whiter than the gleaming feathers of a swan. Beneath it, bushy eyebrows stuck out in a quizzical manner. He had a drooping mustache, slightly yellowed at the ends, which almost hid his mouth, and in his hand was a long black cigar which every now and then he would place between his lips and draw upon luxuriously.
I walked past him five times. On my sixth trip I saw that his companion was gone. Just as I came abreast of him, he turned suddenly and to my utter amazement held out his hand and said in a slow, drawly voice, “Aren’t you going to speak to me, little girl?”
I couldn’t have been more astonished! I put my hand in his and managed to say, “I’d love to” through the lump of excitement in my throat.
“Do you know who I am?” There was a twinkle in his blue eyes as he asked the question.
“Of course. You’re Mark Twain.” I said it as though he were Santa Claus, Solomon, Napoleon, and the Archangel Gabriel welled into one.
It was indeed Mark Twain, and thus began a great friendship which lasted until his death in 1910. MARK TWAIN & ME is a recounting of that friendship, revealing him as warm and fun-loving in his last years, in contrast to his image as a bitter pessimist in his old age. More than likely, he was both. No law says complex thinkers must have single-minded thoughts. If you want to see the human side of Mark Twain, I highly recommend this book.
For a more scholarly view, I close where I began, quoting Bernard De Voto in THE PORTABLE MARK TWAIN:
There are striking affinities between [Abraham] Lincoln and Mark Twain. Both spent their boyhoods in a society that was still essentially frontier; both were rivermen. Both absorbed the midcontinental heritage: fiercely equalitarian democracy, hatred of injustice and oppression. Both were deeply acquainted with melancholy and despair; both were fatalists. On the other hand, both were instinct with the humor of the common life. As humorists, both felt the basic gravity of humor; with both it was an adaptation of the mind, a reflex of the struggle to be sane; both knew, and Mark Twain said, that there is no humor in heaven.
God forbid there should be no humor on earth.