Last evening Ron Powers was our guest at William Woods. He spoke on the occasion of the centennial of Mark Twain’s death. In his lecture, Powers noted how Twain not only captured the voice of the voiceless in writing in the vernacular, but he gave America a distinct literary voice.
At age 4, little Sammy Clemens emerges from a sickbed in his family’s cabin on his Uncle John’s Quarles’s farm in Florida, MO and toddles on over to the slave quarters on the farm’s far edge. He thus enters a 300-year-old, tightly compacted subculture that within a quarter-century will be abolished. The residue of those visits will flavor his writing for the rest of his life.
Sammy can’t stay away. He plays with the children there. He listens to the speech and the singing and the storytelling of this tightly compacted subculture. He is mesmerized by the urgency of the voices and by the terrifying imagery they convey: lightning bolts, apparitions from the spirit-world, chariots swooping down from heaven, skies of blood, animals crying out.
He seems to sense that the slaves treat spoken language as a living and cherished creature, to be passed around and partaken of.
He hears music in the language. In writing Twain’s biography, I came to believe that he heard spoken language as music, and reproduced it as well as he did by calling back its tonal shifts and rhythms.
This ear for the song of the people continued throughout his life. It was out West:
where he becomes Mark Twain. He hears the vernacular speech of the West, far from the jurisdiction of Emerson and Holmes. It is pared down to the bare bones, at once factually outrageous and emotionally true. He notices the behavior of western men; outsized and risk-taking and often drunken; and imitates it, and writes about it for the Enterprise.