The Moment

The Moment
[Photo by Michelle Agins]

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Who Shall I Say is Calling?

I love this Leonard Cohen song--a mix of cheeky irreverence and the deepest roots of Cohen's faith. And we are all wondering who is calling at ties, I think--opportunities that present themselves can be a purely fortuitous, or can change a life by the saying the word "yes."

I'm reading, as you may know, the Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript, Mark Twain's great, angry confession of sin against his daughters, and scathing indictment of Isabel Lyon (who sometimes emerges from the torrent of invective with a glimpse of what led him to care for her in the first place. It's not the ravings of a senile old man as Hamlin Hill intimated, it's not reliable history any more than Isabel's altered diaries are--Clemens's sense of betrayal and his own lacerating feeling of loss make his mood swing from judicious to rage-filled, to hurt far too quickly for it to be that.

It is, though, what Clemens wanted his Autobiography to be: naked to life.

What does this have to do with calling, or Cohen for that matter?

Clemens saw his creation of "Mark Twain" as a calling, I think--a burden attires, but a vocation to go deeper and deeper into what he found to be true, and to express it, despite the conventions of his age, his own inhibitions, the dictates of good taste. he longed, this teller of tall tales and yarns, to speak truth. That was, in the end, his final calling. To speak truth as he saw it.

He succeeded. he failed. He failed better.

And, I think, that is how I feel about my callings, professional and vocational. I'll let out a little secret, here: I recently found myself in a sudden, chaotic, and daunting situation where I had to perform as a deacon on no notice, with no aid but the crucifix I wear around my neck, hanging under my dress shirt. I did the best I could, whatever that was. Can't tell, really; you don't always get feedback in ordained ministry. Sometimes you just plunge in, hoping to God (literally, not profanely) that your instincts are right. And leave it up to God.

No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

And--here's the part Beckett wouldn't sign on to--leave the rest to God.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

"Stuff Happens"

In the wake of Thursday's mass shooting in Oregon, President Obama expressed (above) his frustration at how mass shootings have become "routine" in America. He decried the political kabuki theater (my words, not his) that surrounds them and the resultant political inaction.

Meanwhile, Jeb Bush had his own response: "Stuff happens."

The President responded:

Now, it would be easy here to portray Bush's response as uniquely callous or uncaring, but I don't actually think that's fair. I think he's reflecting the political consensus of his own party, and, alas, of a good chunk of mine. And, to the extent that we keep voting them in after Sandy Hook, he is reflecting the consensus of the American people: Ultimately, we don't care. Not, at any rate, enough to do anything.

It's a hard one to take, isn't it?

But with some exceptions--my own home state of New York for one--by and large, it's been business as usual, and, nationally, mass shootings every few weeks.

For those who say that no action can be effective,the Australian experience begs to differ.

For those who say the Second Amendment prevents action, let me point out that in District of Columbia v Heller, the very decision finding that the Amendment created an individual right to own weapons, the Court left a panoply of options on the legislative table:
Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.

We also recognize another important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms. Miller said, as we have explained, that the sorts of weapons protected were those “in common use at the time.” 307 U. S., at 179. We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of “dangerous and unusual weapons.” [citations omitted]
It may be objected that if weapons that are most useful in military service—M-16 rifles and the like—may be banned, then the Second Amendment right is completely detached from the prefatory clause. But as we have said, the conception of the militia at the time of the Second Amendment ’s ratification was the body of all citizens capable of military service, who would bring the sorts of lawful weapons that they possessed at home to militia duty. It may well be true today that a militia, to be as effective as militias in the 18th century, would require sophisticated arms that are highly unusual in society at large. Indeed, it may be true that no amount of small arms could be useful against modern-day bombers and tanks. But the fact that modern developments have limited the degree of fit between the prefatory clause and the protected right cannot change our interpretation of the right.
So, no, the Congress and the state legislatures are not helpless here.

As I said above, the situation has gotten worse, not better since Sandy Hook. Because in the wake of that massacre, Open Carry activists have taken to trying to force their way into every kind of public space, with the express purpose "[t]o educate and desensitize the public and members of the law enforcement community about the legality of the open carry of a handgun in public" and "[t]o demonstrate to the public at large that gun owners are one of the most lawful segments of society and they have nothing to fear from the lawful carry of a firearm." The NRA, of all entities, briefly pushed back against open carry extremists, only to back down--can't be outflanked, after all.

Are the open carry activists right? As I pointed out in 2012 (citing Ezra Klein and Mother Jones),in mass shootings from 1982-2012, "[o]f the 139 guns possessed by the killers, more than three quarters were obtained legally." In fact, as the NYT reports, "Oregon is one of seven states with provisions, either from state legislation or court rulings, that allow the carrying of concealed weapons on public postsecondary campuses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The other states are Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Utah and Wisconsin."

As Kurt Vonnegut might say, "So it goes."

For those who decry legislation on principle, file--legislation isn't the only vehicle; social mores, among the gun-owning community could help; to again quote myself:
Gun owners, you want to sever that link between your hobby and death. Step up. Draw lines of what is and isn't acceptable behavior. Don't be afraid of bucking the NRA, and keep guns out of places where they don't belong--schools, churches, etc. Shame people who think it's ok to bring guns where they don't belong, and those among you who feel that the omnipresence of guns is the only way to be sure your rights won't be taken away.

As to those who say guns don't kill people, people kill people? Cut it out. Do you have any idea how inane that is? Guns make the difference between working hard to kill one person, or two, and being able to, without discernible skill, talent, or physical or mental stamina, indiscriminately slaughter. It's the difference between retail and wholesale murder, and if you don't know the difference--why, I just don't want to know you.
Hasn't happened.

So blaming Jeb Bush might feel good. But he's not the problem. We are, my fellow citizens. As Walt Kelly we have met the enemy, and he is us.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"The friend inside the enemy, the enemy inside the friend"--Thoughts on The Witch's Familiar

Well, the second part of the story that began with The Magician's Apprentice did not disappoint. On the whole, I thought it was a superb episode, following up neatly from the first part. Dismissing (albeit with an imaginatively set explanation) the "extermination" of Missy and Clara at the end of Part 1, the story moves briskly on from there, with Missy taking the role of the Doctor for much of the episode, and Clara functioning as her familiar.

These two episodes are as Doctor-ish as we've ever seen the Master, and it works beautifully; while Missy admits her old friend thinks faster than she does ("What a swot!"), she handles matters cleverly, scrupulously keeping Clara alive, though playing with her throughout. (Note that she throws Clara down the shaft after Clara's thrown the stone.) And the Missy-Clara team are critical to the plot's resolution. By secreting Clara within a Dalek casing, Missy is able to regain entry to the Dalek citadel and--

--well, wait. While the Mistress and her companion are working their way to rescue the captive Doctor, the Doctor and Davros are having another conversation, like last week's the most philosophical they've had since Genesis of the Daleks in 1974. From the transcript:
The Doctor is apparently gazing at his reflection in a wall screen.)
DAVROS: Make your confession, Doctor. Why did you really leave Gallifrey?
DOCTOR: How long has it been, you and I?
DAVROS: Long enough. Galaxies have burned.
DOCTOR: And now you ask me a personal question?
DAVROS: You have slaughtered billions of my children, as I have slaughtered billions of your race. We have exhausted the conventional means of communication.
(The Doctor removes his sunglasses.)
DOCTOR: My people are alive. They didn't die. I brought them back. I found a way.
DAVROS: Is this true?
DOCTOR: Gallifrey is back in the sky. I don't know where, I may never know. But Gallifrey is back and it is safe from both of us.
DAVROS: Doctor, my most sincere congratulations.
DOCTOR: I'm sorry?
DAVROS: This is wonderful news. Beyond all hope. I congratulate you.
DOCTOR: Why are you saying that?
DAVROS: A man should have a race, a people, an allegiance. A man should belong, Doctor. Believe me, please. I am happy for you. So happy.
DOCTOR: I don't, I don't understand this. Why are you
(The Doctor is speechless.)
DAVROS: Come closer again. Let me see your face.
DOCTOR: You've seen it often enough.
DAVROS: Let me see it again with my own eyes.
(The blue light in his forehead goes out. The Doctor leans forward as Davros opens his rheumy eyes.)
DAVROS: Closer, please.
(Their eyes meet.)
DAVROS: If you have redeemed the Time Lords from the fire, do not lose them again. Take the darkest path into the deepest hell, but protect your own as I have sought to protect mine. Did I do right, Doctor? Tell me.
(Davros puts his hand on the Doctor's.)
DAVROS: Was I right? I need to know before the end. Am I a good man?
DOCTOR: You really are dying, aren't you?
DAVROS: Look at me. Did you doubt it?
DAVROS: Then we have established one thing only.
DAVROS: You are not a good doctor.
(They both chuckle, then Davros struggles to breathe.)
I've seen several people compare this moment to the end of Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, and fair enough. But Capaldi and Bleach absolutely sell this exchange. This grace period (if it is one) comes between Davros's two efforts to get the Doctor to touch the cables (i.e., Colony Sarff), first by an open invitation, second by eliciting the Doctor's compassion. But, interestingly, this doesn't negate the exchange. Davros has earlier warned the Doctor about his compassion:
DAVROS: Why do you hesitate? No one would know. Clara Oswald is dead. Is this the conscience of the Doctor, or his shame? The shame that brought you here.
DOCTOR: There's no such thing as the Doctor. I'm just a bloke in a box, telling stories. And I didn't come here because I'm ashamed. A bit of shame never hurt anyone. I came because you're sick and you asked. And because sometimes, on a good day, if I try very hard, I'm not some old Time Lord who ran away. I'm the Doctor.
DAVROS: Compassion then.
DOCTOR: Always.
DAVROS: It grows strong and fierce in you, like a cancer.
DOCTOR: I hope so.
DAVROS: It will kill you in the end.
DOCTOR: I wouldn't die of anything else.
DAVROS: You may rely on it.
Davros then works the Doctor's compassion--the Doctor helps him to see a last sunrise, pointedly remarking "I'm not helping you. I'm helping a little boy I abandoned on a battlefield. I think I owe him a sunrise." And he is caught, regeneration energy streaming out of him, Davros becoming healed, the Daleks changing. Now, I am quite prepared to believe that the Doctor knew about the sewers (after all, Missy did), and anticipated the results. But here's the thing--he has no escape plan this time. Hence Missy's comment about the Doctor without hope--he left his confession behind because he didn't expect to survive, but felt an obligation to respond to Davros's call--"because you were sick and you asked." But he has no way out; the regeneration energy is being torn out of him, and the revived mutants in the sewer are not getting to him anytime soon. So the Doctor is really for it here--

Until the primary Doctor-figure of this episode, the Mistress, comes bursting through the door, Dalek gun in hand, destroying the machinery (and, seemingly Colony Sarff in the process), and saving the Doctor's life. In 1983's The Five Doctors, the Master said, musingly, that "a cosmos without The Doctor scarcely bears thinking about." Here, she makes good on that thought. In her own, sociopathic, amusing way, Missy has saved the Doctor and the day.

That's why I'm not sure how I feel about the ending, possibly the one major flaw in this episode. Missy's effort to get the Doctor to kill Clara, and his grating out warnings to her to "run" are in character for both of them, but somehow cheapen this story. Not because Missy has "turned guid." No, because it feels a little petty for her to try to off a companion--the "puppy" as she cuttingly described Clara last week--after demonstrating her friendship for the Doctor in stunningly dramatic terms. As before in The Five Doctors, Missy came--not even a little unwillingly this time--and this time actually succeeds in saving the Doctor. Her low-grade (though quite cruel) treachery for a little laugh, and his stranding her on Skaro, feel a bit forced. Missy's jealousy of Clara (if that's what motivated the trick at the end) seems out of place (the Delgado Master had rather a fondness for Jo Grant), and the Doctor, who has been slighting Missy throughout (notice how he only demands the production of one of his two friends from the Daleks--Clara), is pretty ungrateful to the old friend-turned-enemy who's just saved his bacon. It's a sour note, though believably played by both actors, not quite redeemed by our last sight of Missy, surrounded by Daleks, musing "ou know what? I've just had a very clever idea."

Yes, she'll be fine. Of course she will be. And she even got to poke Davros in the eye (well, she did say last week that she'd "scratch his eye out"). But this once, just this one, Missy is owed more by the Doctor and by the story. Because by her actions prior to her last minute semi-betrayal, she's proven the truth of her words, the real explanation of why she put Clara and the Doctor together: "In a way, this is why I gave her to you in the first place. To make you see. The friend inside the enemy, the enemy inside the friend."

A great episode nonetheless.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Is the Pope Catholic? (Answer: Yes.)

Above, a melange of conservative pundits denouncing Pope Francis.

Meanwhile, this is harshing some liberals' mellow feelings toward Pope Francis:
Pope Francis met privately in Washington last week with Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who defied a court order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, adding a new element to an American tour that saw Francis attract huge crowds and articulate left-leaning positions on poverty, immigration, the environment and inequality.

Vatican officials initially would not confirm that the meeting occurred, finally doing so on Wednesday afternoon, while refusing to discuss any details.

Ms. Davis, the clerk in Rowan County, Ky., has been at the center of a nationwide controversy over whether government employees and private businesses have a legal right to refuse to serve same-sex couples. She spent five days in jail for disobeying a federal court order to issue the licenses.

Kim Davis, the clerk for Rowan County in Kentucky, on her first day back to work after being released from jail earlier this month.Kentucky Clerk in Gay Marriage Dispute, Kim Davis, Joining G.O.P.SEPT. 25, 2015
Kim Davis, center, with her son, Nathan Davis, by her side, spoke on Monday outside the courthouse in Morehead,

On Tuesday night, her lawyer, Mathew D. Staver, said that Ms. Davis and her husband, Joe, were sneaked into the Vatican Embassy by car on Thursday afternoon. Francis gave her rosaries and told her to “stay strong,” the lawyer said. The couple met for about 15 minutes with the pope, who was accompanied by security guards, aides and photographers.

“I put my hand out and he reached and he grabbed it, and I hugged him and he hugged me,” Ms. Davis said Wednesday in an interview with ABC News. ‘Thank you for your courage.’”
To each side of this debate, I can only ask: What did you expect? Francis is not an American politician; he is the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, an ecclesial body that has strong, long-held views on subjects that do not fit the orthodoxy of either American political party, or of American polity in general.

As I acknowledged in a 2011 article about Anglo-Catholic theologian Charles Gore, Roman Catholic social teaching has been strongly pro-worker, critical of unfettered capitalism, and advocating for the poor since the late 19th Century when Pope Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum 1 Encyclical on Capital and Labor (1891). Pope Benedict and John Paul II don't get credit for it, but they hewed to this line, too, and I've written elsewhere of the late Edward Cardinal Egan's impatience with dismissal of Catholic Social teaching by conservatives, as well as his pronounced distaste for America's Mideast exploits. It's true that Robert P. George shamefully sought to limit the bishops to "“making utter nuisances of themselves” about poverty and injustice, like the Old Testament prophets, as long as they did not advocate specific remedies," but what success he had there reflects poorly on him and the individual bishops who followed his lead. Neither John Paul II, Benedict, nor Francis backed away from the Church's social teaching.

Likewise, liberals need to take onboard that Francis is not one of us. I don't say that with dislike--I think Francis has been a success in changing the tone so that ecumenical dialogue is possible again, and so that disagreement need not poison relationships. But he has upheld the Church's traditional teaching on marriage, and I strongly suspect he will continue to do so. If he can--and this has not happened yet--convince the clergy and laity of the Roman Catholic Church to abate the hostility some--far from all--display toward their gay and lesbian brother and sisters, he will have again achieved something worth doing. because the status quo, with traditionalists and liberals locked into unproductive hostility gets in the way of the work of the Spirit. And that's where Francis is working. He's trying to turn down the temperature while remaining faithful to the truth as he sees it. That is, in itself, worth doing.

Look, if you believe in a Christianity that recognizes the love and ministry of those in same sex relationships, as an Episcopal Deacon, let me just say "The Episcopal Church welcomes you." As do several other churches. Pope Francis's traditionalism here isn't a surprise, or a betrayal. He was never our guy. And he's not the political conservative's guy, either. He's a good man, walking the Way by the light he has, one within the strictures and structures of the Roman Catholic Church. He's trying to do it in an irenic and community building way, one that damps down conflicts, and allows conversations to happen. And when that happens, the Holy Spirit has room to do wonderful things we can't predict.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Mystery of Mark Twain's Lioness Part 1 Redux

[I don't normally do reposts, but what follows is a revised version of a post from March 17, 2010, in which I address issues that would be illuminated by the publication, as part of the complete Autobiography of Mark Twain, of the long-suppressed Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript, in which Mark Twain gives his perspective of the events discussed below. Ironically, while Jean Clemens and Isabel Lyon have had the tale told from their perspective, each by an able scholar, only now, more than 5 years after the post I optimistically labelled Part 1, can the great writer's voice be heard. So this post will provide context for my reaction to the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript, which I hope to post by Friday, if not before.]

The recent (2010) publication of Laura Skandera-Trombley's book,
Mark Twain's Other Woman is significant in that it presents a well-sourced, sympathetic account of Twain's relationship with Isabel Lyon who started out as his wife's social secretary, and subsequently became his personal secretary in a relationship that was both unconventional and intense--on both sides. The relationship ended with charges of embezzlement and more on Twain's part, and ferocious countercharges by Lyon's recently-acquired husband, Twain's business manager, Ralph Ashcroft. Lyon, interstingly, never spoke out against the man she called "the King." After making the papers, and causing a social scandal, it was forgotten for 60 years after Mark Twain's death.

Trombley's book is well written, and her use of Lyon's voluminous papers adds details to a period in Twain's life that his too often been relegated to the unremitting darkness portrayed by Hamlin Hill's overtly hostile biography God's Fool (1973) (which revived the Lyon story) or the equally unrealistic sunniness of Albert Bigelow Paine's important but hagiographical authorized biography, published in 1912. Hill's bleakness and blithe assumption that the unfortunate Miss Lyon was herself without any flaw is a lovely myth, with Twain as a doddering, drunken Lear and Clara and Jean Clemens vying for the roles of Goneril and Regan. Trombley's book is not myth; it cuts the story down to mortall side, and works in shades other than primary colors. Trombley is, like Hill, a supporter of Lyon's, but, unlike Hill, has an abiding affection for Twain.

Still, Trombley to some extent buys into Hill's paradigm; she is rather prone to disparage Twain's later writings in a way that denies their political influence on antiwar protestors as late as the Vietnam era. Where she disparages these works, such as "The War Prayer" and "King Leopold's Soliloquy" as "shrill" and marred by a "constant note of misanthropy" (pp. 64, 62), writers such as Maxwell Geismar found them bracing and inspirational enough to compile a book length anthology of them, which I have owned since I was a teenager, and which helped me form my own political outlook.

More to the point, though, Trombley's overt championship of Lyon leads her to make all credibility calls in Lyon's favor, even though Lyon's own diaries (as Trombley notes) were heavily edited by her, and her 1906 daily reminder, at least, exists in multiple, inconsistent forms, devised "with the intention of either misleading anyone who would read he reminder or as a backup in case the original was stolen." (Trombley, p. xvi). Lyon is thus that well-recognized literary (and legal) figure, the unreliable narrator (or witness). Yet Trombley by and large trusts her, in a manner that in places borders on the naive. The same can be said for the actual financial transactions at issue. For example, Trombley dismisses the Clemens's statement that a power of attorney Twain executed in favor of Lyon and Ashcroft (before their marriage) had been given to him to sign among a batch of papers, and he had just done it, relying on his business manager and secretary, like Henry Blake relying on Radar O'Reilly. She dismisses this account relying on the boilerplate statement used in all notarizations that the document was signed in the presence of the notary as conclusive. Now, Trombley wrote in 2010, and although it isn't her field, the systemic prevalence of fraudulent "robo-signed" mortgage assignments and other documents--all notarized--might have given her pause.

In other words, Trombley's book, good though it is, is an advocate's piece, and needs to be read in conjunction with a corrective. Fortunately, there is one.

A more skeptical view of Lyon's account is taken by Karen Lystra in her 2004 book Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final Years. Lystra rebuts Hill's uncritical acceptance of Lyon's last version of events, and deploys the unpublished diaries and a manuscript by Twain's youngest daughter, Jean Clemens, whom she asserts Lyon banished from her father's house in order to maximize her chances of marrying him. Lystra's book is an important corrective to Trombley's championship of Lyon. In championing Jean, Lystra carefully examines the transactions between Twain, Lyon, and Twain's business manager Ralph Ashcroft (who married Lyon in 1909). Lystra is both more detailed and skeptical on these transactions than is Trombley; where Lystra asserts that Twain's notary who notarized his power of attorney in favor of Lyon routinely notarized documents without Twain's presence (an inappropriate, but not uncommon, practice even today, and one which one finds especially extended to "special" clients--the rich and famous, for example).

Another questionable move on Trombley's part which is her acceptance as if uncontroversial of Lyon's claim that Jean Clemens attacked on two occasions the family's long-time servant and friend Katy Leary. (82, 96-97) Lyon's account is questioned quite acutely by Lystra, who suggests that Lyon misinterpreted Jean's own statement of what happened, and embroidered it based on stereotypes of epileptics which were common in these years. Trombley simply treats Lyon's observations as self-evidently true, and suggests it indicates that Jean suffered from postictal psychosis. (82; see also here). Well, perhaps. If it happened--it is unhelpful that Trombley does not address Lystra's critique of Lyon's account, which is uncorroborated by Jean's papers, or Katy Leary's account of life with the Clemens family--then Trombley's explanation fits the facts. But when only Lyon establishes the facts, we have the problem of the unreliable narrator again, and those altered diaries are especially disturbing.

It doesn't do to overstate the matter; it's not that Lyon cannot be right absent corroboration; however, the fact that she is a somewhat unreliable narrator and the unpleasant denoument of her relationship with Twain suggest that Lystra's critique deserves to be considered. It's Trombley's decision not to do this which is troubling, especially as she is certainly aware of Lystra's critique--she cites Lystra as a source at least twice in her footnotes, and in fact provided a blurb for the book's jacket in 2004. And yet, she never engages with Lystra's rather powerful critique of the Hill-Lyon perspective.

While both Jean and Lyon have modern champions, the one voice which has not been heard in all of this is Mark Twain's. He left behind a 429 page manuscript, commonly known as the Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript," which has not been published to date. It is only known in snippets, when quoted by Hill, Lystra or Trombley. They have widely varying estimations of it; Hill cites it as evidence of senility, Trombley calls it "bizarre" (p. xiv), while Lystra defends Twain's accuracy and acuity in writing it, as well as depicting it as a great effort to come clean about his own guilt in banishing Jean for years while under the sway of Lyon. Until the manuscript is published, there is no way to know whose characterization is more apt; the great writer, one hundred years after his death is voiceless in this riveting drama.

One thing I'd say about his mental capacities in his last months (assailed by Hill), however is this: Twain's last essay, The Death of Jean, written in the days after her death on Christmas Eve 1909, and a mere five months before his own death, is powerful, moving, and has all the hallmarks of Twain at his finest.

(edited and expanded)

Next: A Tentative View of L'Affaire Lyon

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Death of Jean: Mark Twain's Autobiography Volume 3, Part 1

Many years ago (ok, 1987. Leave off, willya?), I wrote my senior thesis on the Autobiography of Mark Twain, which had not been, at that time, published in its entirely, but only in fragmentary editions that were either left unfinished: Albert Bigelow Paine's 2 volume Mark Twain's Autobiography (1924)--which at least tried to keep faith with the author; Bernard DeVoto's 1940 culling of excerpts Mark Twain in Eruption; Charles Neider's fundamentally fraudulent, and appallingly mislabeled The Autobiography of Mark Twain (1960),which betrayed the author by scrapping his stream of consciousness structure, political musings, and other controversial content, in favor of a warm, Reader's Digest youth-to-old-age series of anecdotes. (Since then, the late Michael J. Kiskis released an admittedly incomplete version, the sections Twain published in his own lifetime in the pass of the North American Review, called Mark Twain's Autobiography. Unlike Neider, who boasted that he had improved Twain's writing (!), Kiskis Professor referred to his own book, in a letter he kindly sent me, as a useful introduction until the definitive University of California edition was out. He also quite reasonably defended its value in its own right as the last extended piece Twain presented the public, and the most poliched version he reached of the admittedly much longer Autobiographical Dictations.)

One of the few touches I admired in Neider's volume was his addition, in its proper place, of Twain's touching--one might say heart-breaking--tribute to his daughter Jean, the essay The Death of Jean, originally published by Paine in his collection What is Man? Neider's restoration of the piece was right. In his edition--like Paine's publication of the piece--is edited. It's powerful and moving, and more full than Paine's--bit still cut, in two significant aspects.

We know that, now that The Autobiography of Mark Twain volume 3 is, at long last, out. I just received it, and flipping through, noticed that in the new edition, "The Death of Jean" begins with the author--writing on Christmas Eve, shortly after Jean's death in her bath after an epileptic seizure--writing that with her data, the Autobiography is closed, its purpose in leaving his children a source of income after his death moot, as Clara was now well off, and Jean beyond his help. (Pp. 310-311) (Clemens vacillated on the purpose of the Autobiography--at times he loved it for itself, attires he saw it as a self-help copyright extension, at times he saw it as a literary stroke of genius. He contained multitudes, what can I say?)

There are other passages that were new to me, too, including the suggestion that Jean's "disease, and its awful convulsions, wore out her gentle mother's strength with grief and watching and anxiety, and caused her death, poor Livy!" (P. 316). As Resa Willis notes, earlier he blamed himself for her death--the strain of the round-the-world tour, the loss of their Hartford home, his visiting her too often in her sickroom. Willis also notes that Jean had not had a seizure for 13 months before her mother's death.

Here, in his renewed grief, he offloads some of his guilt onto Jean, simultaneously absolving her; mourning her sincerely, but trying to shed a burden too long carried. (Again, Willis notes that Olivia Langdon Clemens had suffered from heart trouble and hyperthyroidism, among other medical problems, for years.)

All of which is to say that Clemens was a complicated man, and that his editors tried to smooth out his jagged edges. A mistake, I think; we need Mark Twain, but we need him in all his complexity and human frailty. And that's what he tried to give us, and why he was "speaking from the grave."

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Be Swift to Be Kind: In Memory of a Man I Didn't Know

Bill Tully, when he was Rector of St. Barts, often used this as the final blessing:

Life is short,
And we do not have much time
to gladden the hearts of those who
make the journey with us.
So… be swift to love,
and make haste to be kind.

I always loved this blessing, and when our new interim rector used it, my heart was lifted. But let me just add: it expresses a truth that is both inspiring and terrible.

We often pay lip service to it, but we should remember that life--this life, I mean--is terribly fragile, and that in our modern age we assume risks every day that we don't even think about. But beyond this, our mortal life is contingent. Or as a friend said to me recently, about a man who had died in an accident, "Half an hour ago, he thought he had a future."

We all do.

But my point isn't to fear-monger about death; quite the contrary, it's to remind myself (and any readers who care to read) that we have to live each day to the fullest, and not waste those we have. We don't have infinite time to make amends, we don't have infinite time to put things right, we don't have infinite time to tell the people we love that we love them, and to show that love.

So be swift to love. Make haste to be kind. Forget the tribe you belong to (left-right, reasserted-reappraiser, whatever).

Be swift to love. Make haste to be kind.