EDITOR’S NOTE: Some of the best writings of National Review’s house curmudgeon were her outstanding book reviews, one of which is presented here–you will delight in Miss King’s masterful take on the Library of America’s Mark Twain collection. For the record, the review was first published in the January 18, 1993, edition of your favorite conservative magazine.
As for collections which are musts for your own library and thorough enjoyment, you will want to know that each and every one of Miss King’s eye-poking back-page NR columns have been faithfully republished in STET, Damnit, The Misanthrope’s Corner, 1991 to 2002. It is available only from NR, and may/must be ordered (securely!) here.
THE NOBLE WHITE MAN
(Library of America, 2,126 pp., $70)
The Incredulous, accusatory question, “You don’t like Mark Twain?” is one I heard throughout my young womanhood. The shocked inquisitor was always male. This particular gender gap has its roots in the way our schools teach Twain. In my day, junior-high English classes read Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and the story about the frog. Little girls despise little boys and frogs–the distinction is minimal at that age–so the damage is done. Whatever Twain we are forced to read in college invariably runs up against the pubertal mental block, so we spend the best years of our lives going around saying, “I can’t stand Mark Twain.”
I changed my mind in my thirties when l began to prefer non-fiction to novels and discovered Twain’s essays. All of my old favorites, as well as some new ones, are contained in this superbly presented collection.
These books are secular bibles for our times–and not merely because they are printed on elegantly thin paper. Bill Clinton’s living obituary is contained in the 1901 essay “Corn-Pone Opinions,” a dissection of the man who “can’t bear to be outside the pale; can’t bear to be in disfavor; can’t endure the averted face and the cold shoulder; wants to stand well with friends, wants to be smiled upon, wants to be welcome, wants to hear the precious words ‘he’s on the right track!’”
The trendy masses out buying the movie edition of The Last of the Mohicans should first read Twain’s critique of Fenimore Cooper, who “saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly,” and hid his lack of inventiveness under tired plot tricks.
“A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of the moccasined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick.” Another was the broken twig. “It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn’t step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig.”
Examining The Deerslayer, which he calls “a literary delirium tremens,” Twain reckons that on a single page, Cooper scored 114 literary offenses out of a possible 115–a record. Of the 19 rules governing the writing of romantic fiction, Cooper violated 18–another record. Among the latter: “The talk . . . shall have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.”
Cooper strained credulity, both out of ignorance and to suit his plot needs. In the shooting match in The Pathfinder, the hero hits the head of a nail driven into a tree from a hundred yards away, making him, says Twain, “a man who could hunt flies with a rifle.” On another occasion, six Indians who have managed somehow to hide in a “sapling” overhanging a river try to drop silently onto a passing boat, and all six miss; “the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar shop is not spacious.”
In sum: “There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English, but they are all dead now.”
Twain believed in women’s equality as long as it sprang from the kind of specialness he detected in Joan of Arc, “easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.” What he could not abide were mediocrities, the Eleanor Smeals and Gloria Steinems of his day, whose bollixed logic he satirized in a mock letter to the editor from a typical suffragette:
For long years I have collected buttons, and door-plates and dictionaries, and all such things as I thought would make the poor savages of the South Seas contented with their lot and lift them out of their ignorance and degradation–and no longer than a month ago I sent them Horace Greeley’s speeches and some other cheerful literature, and the pure delight I felt was only marred by the reflection that the poor creatures could not read them–and yet I may not vote!
He was devastatingly prescient about the feminization of politics that we call “negative campaigning.” If women entered public life, he predicted, they “would go straight for each other’s private moral character . . . it would be an established proposition that every women in the state was ‘no better than she ought to be.’” The future slogans he imagines (“Vote for Judy McGinniss, the incorruptible! Nine children–one at the breast!”) are close to present truth, and his anticipation of the blow-dried candidate has been realized: “And also in that day the man who hath beautiful whiskers shall beat the homely man of wisdom for Governor, and the youth who waltzes with exquisite grace shall be Chief of Police, in preference to the man of practiced sagacity and determined energy.”
For peerless political incorrectness try “The Noble Red Man” (1870), which describes the Indian:
His “wisdom” conferred upon an idiot would leave that idiot helpless indeed. . . . All history and honest observation will show that the Red Man is a skulking coward and a windy braggart . . . a creature devoid of brave or generous qualities, but cruel, treacherous, and brutal. During the Pi-Ute war the Indians often dug the sinews out of the backs of white men before they were dead. (The sinews are used for bowstrings.) But their favorite mutilations cannot be put into print. Yet it is this same Noble Red Man who is always greeted with a wail of humanitarian sympathy from the Atlantic seaboard whenever he gets into trouble; the maids and matrons throw up their hands in horror at the bloody vengeance wreaked upon him, and the newspapers clamor for a court of inquiry to examine into the conduct of the inhuman officer who inflicted the little pleasantry upon the “poor abused Indian.” (They always look at the matter from the abused-Indian point of view, never from that of the bereaved white widow and orphan.)
A last word is in order. Since few of us are in top form on our deathbeds, Twain writes in “The Last Words of Famous Men,” we should prepare a memorable clincher ahead of time. His suggestion for Secretary of State Seward: “Alas!—ka.”