Saturday, September 27, 2008

Banned Books Week: Day One
The Works of Mark Twain

by Pa Rock
Cultural Commentator

American literary scoundrel, Mark Twain, has been dead for nearly a century, yet his works stir as much controversy today as they did during his lifetime.

Of the enormous body of work left by Twain, he considered his masterwork to be The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which also happens to be his most widely banned tome. The tale of Huck's voyage down the Mississippi River with the escaped slave, Jim, was thought to be crass and vulgar at the time of its publication, and there were certainly people around at that time who were offended by a friendship between a black man and a white boy. Today it is still being banned, but now for its accurate depiction of the language of the times (such as the commonplace use of the "n" word), and the portrayal of Jim as uneducated and somewhat dependent on the white boy's intellect to help him make it to freedom - again, an accurate portrayal of the times. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has also hit the banned books lists many times for essentially the same reasons.

But there is so much more of Twain's work that could easily be banned by the morons who try to control our access to ideas - if only they took the time to read them and the intellect to understand what the rascal was saying. A wonderful (and often overlooked) novel by Mark Twain is Pudd'nhead Wilson, the tale of a light skinned slave baby boy who was born on the same day as the Master's baby boy. The babies looked very similar (and probably shared quite a bit of the same family tree), so the slave baby's mother decided to switch them shortly after their birth. When the duplicity is discovered after they become adults, the result is a suddenly "white" man of privilege who is illiterate and lacks the skills that he needs to operate in "civilized" circles, and a well-educated and socially skilled man of color who must now function as a slave.

Mark Twain's dead-on commentary on America's social conventions and absurdities earned him a loyal following in the Soviet Union. (Those ardent socialists were also enamored of Jack London, another sharp-eyed social critic.)

Twain was piercingly critical of religion. While in college I purchased a copy of Letters from the Earth, a heady collection of his views on religion that was not released until about fifty years after his death. The old lady who took my money literally picked the book up by two fingers (like it was covered with vomit or some equally foul substance) and placed it in a bag. "This is the book where he says he doesn't believe in God," she said with obvious disgust. I'm sure that the hateful Christian fundamentalists have added it to their lists of filth by now.

My favorite piece of Mark Twain's work is The War Prayer. It is a short tale of a minister who exhorts his parishioners with a long prayer to support the troops. The minister spoke from the pulpit praying that

"an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work, bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory..."

As the minister finishes his patriotic prayer, and old man (a stranger) steps up to the pulpit and motions for the minister to step aside. He explains to the congregation that he has been sent by God to explain to them the import of what they had just prayed for. His rewording of the minister's prayer follows:

"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle -- be Thou near them! With them -- in spirit -- we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it -- for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

Mark Twain was unable to get The War Prayer published during his lifetime. It is a wonder that timeless and powerful piece ever made it into print at all.

Let us pray for our troops and their families, the children of Iraq and Afghanistan and their families, world peace, and the positive power of unfettered words and ideas. Amen.

No comments: