SPEAKING OF BOOKS
By J. DONALD ADAMS
This, as most of us have recently become aware, is a Mark Twain year. The calendar reminds us that April 21 marked the fiftieth anniversary of his death, and that the 125th anniversary of his birth occurs on Nov. 30. How much these anniversaries have had to do with the attention he has been getting on the printed page, on television, and, presently on the screen, I do not know - I suspect little. We have had in recent months Kenneth Lynn's interesting study, "Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor," and Charles Neider's edition of his Autobiography; he was paid much attention, if of a lugubrious kind, in Leslie Fiedler's "Love and Death in the American Novel." He has been interestingly and effectively treated on TV, in some of its more literate moments, and there is in the works a new movie version of "Huckleberry Finn."
He was also, in the manner to which he was accustomed during his lifetime, been hitting the front pages of the daily press. This newspaper among others gave prominent attention last November to the fact that a Soviet literary journal, the Literaturnaya Gazeta, the official voice of Russian letters, had actually - after a request made by Mr. Neider to Mr. Khrushchev - invited Mr. Neider to reply in its pages to an adverse criticism it had published of his edition of the Autobiography. This news noteworthy in itself, was soon followed by the announcement that Mr. Neider had to his amazement, received a check for $49, in payment for his reply, drawn on the Morgan Guaranty Trust Company of New York by order of the Bank of Foreign Trade of the U.S.S.R. in Moscow. Mr. Neider also announced his intention to spend the money on paperback editions of the works of contemporary American writers with whom he thinks the Russians are not overly familiar.
Now Mr. Neider, in a pamphlet published by Hill & Wang in their American Century Series of paperbacks (50 cents), has given us much more than the bare bones provided by the newspaper stories. He has brought together, with a running commentary, a translation of the review of his edition of the Autobiography as it appeared in Literaturnaya Gazeta last August, his answer to this review ( by Y. Bereznitsky) which was accompanied in the Soviet literary journal by a considerably tempered rebuttal from the reviewer. Mr. Neider sought to answer this also, but was informed by the Gazeta's foreign editor that "It seems you and Mr. Bereznitsky expressed your views about Mark Twain and his works in full. That is why we do not consider it necessary to continue this discussion any longer.
Now what was this tempest in a literary teapot all about? It would seem, from the evidence Mr. Neider submits, that Soviet literary officialdom assumes that, as in their land, American writers are not free agents, and that there is a dreadful conspiracy on the part of the American Government to hide from the American people the true nature of Mark Twain's contribution to the literature of the United States. The literary dictators of the Soviets conceive of him as one of our severest social critics, whereas, they protest, American writers try to present him as merely a funny man - a humorist. They see him as a thinker, a conception which might have amused Mark.
True, as his life went on, he became a deeply disillusioned and profoundly skeptical man about the present and future of the human race, including its American representatives, but some of us know that, for all his fulminations and cantankerous attacks on some of his American contemporaries in public life, his chief value in American literature lives not so much, even in his qualities as a humorist, (a role which he came to abhor, and which is sometimes, in retrospect, not too funny now) as in his beautifully recaptured memories of an earlier American age - the Mark Twain who reveals himself, and ourselves, in his account of Huck's journey down the great river of his youth, as well as in the pages of "Life on the Mississippi" itself.
Even Mr. Neider seems to overlook the fact that although the Russians are finding Mark Twain useful now as a stick with which to beat American complacency, he was valued in Russia long before the descent of the Iron Curtain, in the days preceding the Soviet tyranny, as one of the most humanely rewarding writers which this country had yet produced. Russian humor is not far removed from our own, and Russians could also understand a boyhood like Mark Twain's, nor was the transition from the Volga and the Dnieper to the Mississippi too hard to make.
It is typical of the Soviet mentality that not only Mark Twain is presented as a thinker; there is the same praise for Dreiser's muddled mind. Mr. Bereznitsky speaks of those "few authentically great thinkers whom America has created - Poe, Whitman, Twain" - none of whom, whatever his other merits, can be regarded as a thinker. But as Mr. Neider observes, Mark Twain is useful to the Soviet spokesman - and to most Americans as well - as a critic of certain aspects of American life. What the spokesmen fail to acknowledge is that his criticism of America was a department of a larger criticism, his criticism of man, and that under that heading he would now be criticizing the Russian form of government as well as various lapses in the American way of life.
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