Friday, April 2, 2010

Was Mark Twain America's Most Important Novelist?

This month's cover story of Knowledge (a BBC magazine) is yours truly - no, not me. Mark Twain. Though I don't see why they shouldn't do a story on me, but that's another story. There is a great six page spread on Twain, his influence, his writing and what he still means to us today. In this, the month of his death, Twain is gracing the cover of more than one publication. He's also featured on Hartford Magazine's cover. I haven't gotten my hands on Hartford Magazine yet, but Peter Messent, the author of the article in Knowledge sent us a copy. It's a well-written piece on Twain's life and legacy, including a time line of major events in Twain's life. At the end there is a section called "For & Against" where two scholars go head-to-head on a topic. This month's question: "Was Mark Twain America's Most Important Novelist?". In one corner for the FOR argument is Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Professor of English at Stamford Univ., Twain scholar and friend of the Twain House. In the opposite corner with the AGAINST argument, Paul Giles, Challis Professor of English at the Univ. of Sydney.

For the yes argument, Ms. Fisher Fishkin uses quotes from authors and world leaders to make her point. She quotes Ernest Hemingway with his famous line, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain..." She also uses Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe as an example, saying that HUCKLEBERRY FINN inspired him to write his first novel. Also, the term "New Deal" used by FDR came from Twain's A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT. She finishes saying, "Humane, sardonic, compassionate, impatient, hilarious, appalling, keenly observant and complex, Twain inspired great writers in the 20th century to become the writers they became...The generative power of the writer Eugene O'Neill called "The true father of all American literature" is unrivaled.

For the no argument, Mr Giles says that "For all of Twain's innovative aspects, did he have the encylopedic range of Herman Melville, the crystalline clarity of F Scott Fitzgerald, or the political impact of Harriet Beecher Stowe?" It seems as though Mr. Giles believes that there really can be no argument for any one writer to be given the credit of being the most important novelist. He says that in universities today, to discuss which novelist is greater than another is "absurd". He finishes by saying that "to call [Twain] the most important American novelist is like calling Chrysler the most important American automobile manufacturer: it's a sonorous statement, but not an especially meaningful one."

So now I ask you, loyal Twainiacs, for your thoughts. And so does KNOWLEDGE! If you have thoughts on this subject I encourage you to share them here but also to email them to!


"Everybody's private motto: It's better to be popular than right." -Mark Twain, Notebook, 1902

1 comment:

Brent M. Colley said...

Humor is the hardest to write, easiest to sell, and best rewarded. There are only a few who are able to do it. If you are able, do it by all means. You will find it a Klondike and a Rand rolled into one. Look at Mark Twain.
- Jack London, "Getting into Print," The Editor, March 1903

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There is nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.
- Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa, 1935

He has always impressed me as a blacksmith who stands at his anvil with the fire burning and strikes hard and hits the mark every time.
- Maxim Gorky, speech 4/11/1906