Is Mark Twain Dead?

Recently the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship held their annual conference at the Mark Twain Center in Hartford Connecticut, a modern adjunct to what had been the great humorist’s home for many years. Mark Twain is revered among Authorship Questioners for two things, first, the fact that he published under a pen name, if not a pun like ShakeSpear, then the next thing to it, since “Mark Twain” was the call he would make during his early years as a cub-pilot on a steamboat on the Mississippi River, to let the captain know that the water they were heading into was deep enough to proceed. The second thing for which Oxfordians must revere him is his essay on the Authorship Question, “Is Shakespeare Dead?”

Having just survived the days-long agony of watching our national government in crisis, something that might be titled “Is Democracy Dead?”––it seems fitting to share some high points from Twain’s long essay, both as a reference to the centuries it’s taking to get the truth out about who actually wrote the Shakespeare canon, and the even longer time that its taken humanity in its often backsliding efforts to rise from the purely animal level to something a little less brutal.

When we find ourselves at a painful juncture of some sort, it can help to consider how far we’ve actually come. Here’s some of what Twain had to say about the infamous Bust on the wall of the church in Stratford:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“Am I trying to convince anybody that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare’s Works? Ah, now, what do you take me for? Would I be so soft as that, after having known the human race familiarly for nearly seventy-four years? It would grieve me to know that any one could think so injuriously of me, so uncomplimentarily, so unadmiringly of me. No, no, I am aware that when even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible for that mind, in its maturity, to examine sincerely, dispassionately, and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to cast a doubt upon the validity of that superstition. . . . whenever we have been furnished a fetish, and have been taught to believe in it, and love it and worship it, and refrain from examining it, there is no evidence, howsoever clear and strong, that can persuade us to withdraw from it our loyalty and our devotion. . . .

“I haven’t any idea that Shakespeare will have to vacate his pedestal this side of the year 2209. . . ; it is a very slow process. It took several thousand years to convince our fine race––including every splendid intellect in it––that there is no such thing as a witch; it has taken several thousand years to convince the same fine race––including every splendid intellect in it––that there is no such person as Satan; it has taken several centuries to remove perdition from the Protestant Church’s program of post-mortem entertainments; it has taken a weary long time to persuade American Presbyterians to give up infant damnation and try to bear it the best they can; and it looks as if their Scotch brethren will still be burning babies in the everlasting fires when Shakespeare comes down from his perch.

“We are The Reasoning Race. . . . when we find a vague file of chipmunk-tracks stringing through the dust of Stratford village, we know by our reasoning powers that Hercules has been along there. I feel that our fetish is safe for three centuries yet. The bust, too––there in the Stratford Church. The precious bust, the priceless bust, the calm bust, the serene bust, the emotionless bust, with the dandy mustache, and the putty face, unseamed of care––that face which has looked passionlessly down upon the awed pilgrim for a hundred and fifty years and will still look down upon the awed pilgrim three hundred more, with the deep, deep, deep, subtle, subtle, subtle expression of a bladder.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Said the great ShakeSpear, “I will find where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed within the center,” a bit of wisdom which, in the great one’s ironic way he gave the very character who most personifies the enemies that, as he was painfully aware, would continue to hide his own truth until some Horatio “things standing thus unknown” would “draw his breath in pain” to clear his “wounded name.”

These things take time. It may be that the length of time they take is a rather accurate measure of how important they are.

2 thoughts on “Is Mark Twain Dead?

  1. The parallel would be complete if the Mark Twain persona were understood by his biographers never to have set eyes upon the Mississippi, but simply to have conjured it up in an act of genius.

  2. Good one, Mr. Pratte! Or perhaps he simply overheard conversations in a river side tavern. See Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” [1883] for his earliest Anti-Stratfordian views based precisely on the importance of authentic authorial presence.

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