Monday, May 3, 2010

Mark Twain's Dream: a Cautionary Tale

I've been reading a biography of Mark Twain (by Justin Kaplan.)  He was a very angry man.  It's not clear to me exactly what the sources of his anger were, but he was angry at society, at certain individuals, and at himself.  Many people described him as meek, mild, and apologetic—most of the time—but prone to sudden eruptions of absolute rage.  In 1886 he wrote, "Yesterday a thunderstroke fell on me.  I found that all their lives my children have been afraid of me! have stood all their days in uneasy dread of my sharp tongue and uncertain temper."

His enemies list contained people who had cheated him, but also those who had committed such crimes as being more successful than himself, or failing to cope with his incessant and unreasonable demands.  As for society, he hated it, or claimed to hate it, because it would not let him speak the "truth."  But he censored his own writing on several occasions (for example, when he chose not to publish a book on lynching because he didn't want to lose his white Southern audience) and, even more frequently, told various lies of one kind or another:  humorous or self-justifying, as he saw fit.  His commitment to the truth was variable at best.

I came to the conclusion that he had no strong understanding of the difference between fantasy and reality.  This is also demonstrated by his susceptibility to con artists and get-rich-quick schemes.  Even though he was a great writer, he spent much of his life not writing, but chasing after diamond mines, faith healers (he was a Christian Scientist briefly, before adding Mary Baker Eddy to his list of villains), and superb inventions.  Even after his writing had made him rich, he was still looking for "the sure thing" (which writing was not, apparently) and he poured unbelievable amounts of money into a mechanical typesetter which never worked correctly and was superseded by the Linotype machine.  It almost seemed that he wanted to be taken advantage of; even in his writing career.  After discovering that his first publisher had been cheating him, Twain nonetheless stayed with him until he died, at which point Twain signed a new deal with a man whom many of his fellow writers complained about.  He could have found someone with a good reputation . . . but for whatever reason, he didn't.  (I will add here that Twain's father and older brother were also addicted to get-rich-quick schemes.)

In 1896, at the age of 61, after his oldest daughter had died (at the age of 24, of meningitis) and he had, thanks to years of diligent effort, finally achieved bankruptcy, Twain began writing about and exploring his dreams.  He had always been fascinated by the notion of "the shadow self," the forbidden self, Siamese twins (representing the two sides of a person), and impostors.  Obviously, his dual existence as "Mark Twain" and "Samuel Clemens" brings up the question, who were these two men?  The biographer also remarks on the interesting similarity between the words "twain" and "twin," as well as "Clemens" and "claimants" (as in, false claimants to an estate, another of Twain's favorite subjects.)

This was his dream:
I was suddenly in the presence of a negro wench who was sitting in grassy open country, with her left arm resting on the arm of one of those long park-sofas that are made of broad slats with cracks between, and a curve-over back.  She was very vivid to me—round black face, shiny black eyes, thick lips, very white regular teeth showing through her smile.  She was about 22, and plump—not fleshy, not fat, merely rounded and plump; and good-natured and not at all bad-looking.  She had but one garment on—a coarse tow-linen shirt that reached from her neck to her ankles without break.  She sold me a pie, a mushy apple pie—hot.  She was eating one herself with a tin teaspoon.  She made a disgusting proposition to me.  Although it was disgusting it did not surprise me—for I was young (I was never old in a dream yet) and it seemed quite natural that it should come from her.  It was disgusting, but I did not say so; I merely made a chaffing remark, brushing aside the matter—a little jeeringly—and this embarrassed her, and she made an awkward pretence that I had misunderstood her.  I made a sarcastic remark about this pretence, and asked for a spoon to eat my pie with. She had but the one, and she took it out of her mouth, in a quite matter-of-course way, and offered it to me.  My stomach rose—there everything vanished. (from Mark Twain's Notebook, edited by Albert Bigelow Paine, pp. 351-352)
This beautiful black woman is a perfect example of a Jungian archetype.  She is the Earth Mother, the ground of being, sitting in a grassy field, providing nourishment (in the form of apple pies—surely a nod to Eve.)  She is also, of course, the symbol of all that Twain's society defined as despicable:  black and female, sexual and happy, the source of all evil.  And even in a dream (where, supposedly, nothing is forbidden), he rejects her offer, which is so "disgusting" he has to use the adjective three times.  He enters into a battle of words with her; in both dreams and real life, words were his weapons—if only we could know what they actually said to each other.

Or indeed, what currency he used to pay for the pie with.  Somehow the pie is acceptable, because he did pay for it, the nourishment that he wanted, just as he wanted love, fame, and social approval from his fellow humans.  But the Black Goddess reminds him again that the only way to enjoy these things is through her.  He still needs that spoon, and it emerges from her mouth, just as other things emerge from other orifices, and this "disgusts" him so much that he has to wake up.

Twain recovered from bankruptcy (by which I mean that he paid off all his creditors, 100 cents on the dollar, and became rich again.)  Nothing could bring back his daughter, or his youngest daughter, or his wife, all of whom predeceased him.  But he still had plenty of enemies, one or two friends, and a huge number of fans.  He had his writing, his anger, and his bitterness, and as the years went by he constructed an increasingly fictional version of his life.

Personally, when people in dreams offer me things, I usually say yes.


  1. You have a real gift for writing. I am always excited when you have a new literary post up. I am sorry I do not comment more often or at more length, because your writing is worthy of much conversation over tea.
    I am trying to remember dreams now. As far as I can recall I usually accept what is offered in dreams as well.

  2. Thank you. I actually feel like writing has been getting harder, or I've been getting sloppy.

    Will send old-fashioned letter soon.