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The First Truly American Writer

from the LA Times

 

‘Who Is Mark Twain?’

Previous uncollected stories and essays drawn mostly from his papers and correspondence show why he is so beloved.

By Tim Rutten
April 22, 2009

When he died 99 years ago this week, Mark Twain was this country’s most beloved writer, yet his status as both an author and protean example of the now-familiar pop cultural celebrity seems to grow with each passing decade.

Twain’s death of heart disease at the age of 74 came as such a blow to the country that it evoked an expression of official White House regret from President William Howard Taft: “Mark Twain gave pleasure — real intellectual enjoyment — to millions, and his works will continue to give such pleasure to millions yet to come. . . . His humor was American, but he was nearly as much appreciated by Englishmen and people of other countries as by his own countrymen. He has made an enduring part of American literature.”

Ernest Hemingway famously argued that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ ” though even he conceded that the great novel’s disastrous final section is “just cheating.” (To this critic’s mind, a canonical case also can be made for Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “The Confidence-Man.” Still, what other 19th century American novel so controversial in its own time — though for different reasons — remains so today?)

William Faulkner, to whom praise of other novelists did not come easily, called Twain the “first truly American writer” and said he “wrote the first American sentences.”

[ click to continue reading at The LA Times ]

Posted on April 22, 2009 by Editor

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