Towards the end of his life, Mark Twain found himself no longer
able to compose long narratives. This means that the last few
books in the Oxford Mark Twain are pretty short. I read these
two in a matter of hours.
The Diaries of Adam and Eve collects two short stories
that Twain based very very loosely on the Book of Genesis. It
wouldn't be entirely inaccurate to call this a picture book, as
illustrations make up exactly half of each story: full-page
pictures on the even-numbered pages, text on the odd-numbered
ones. In "Extracts from Adam's Diary," these illustrations
are rendered as crude carvings in stone slabs, which fits the tone
of the piece; as one commentator points out, it resembles nothing
so much as "The Flintstones." It's got the same reliance on
anachronism (eg, picture of a Stone Age guy sitting in a recliner
smoking a cigar and reading a newspaper) and, like the 60s cartoon,
features a loutish protagonist. Twain's Adam just wants to relax,
and is irked at the arrival of this nattering presence in the
background that calls herself Eve. In a cruel moment, he kicks
her out into a rainstorm so he can have his shelter to himself
"in peace," noting distantly that "it shed water out of the holes
it looks with" after he has done so. The rest of the story
continues in this vein: Eve is over-eager about something; Adam
scoffs, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly; comedy supposedly
ensues. There are some funny bits but all in all it's not one of
Twain's best efforts. The ending also echoes
A Connecticut Yankee in jumping years into the future
and revealing that the protagonist, who had previously disdained
the silly female who followed him around, now cherishes her as the
author of the domestic bliss that has given his life meaning and
Yankee was first published in 1889, "Adam's Diary" in 1893,
when Twain's family was intact. "Eve's Diary" was written in 1905,
after the death of Twain's wife of thirty-four years, Livy. Livy
Langdon was of a higher social class than Twain, more educated and
more politically progressive. To a great extent "Eve's Diary" is
a eulogy for her — most clearly so on the last page, as Adam
mourns her at her grave, but really all the way through. This is
really quite a remarkable piece of work.
First of all, the illustrations by Lester Ralph are beautiful.
Frederick Strothmann's illustrations for "Adam's Diary" are
funny, and his Eve is cute, but Ralph's panels are like the best
tarot deck ever drawn. Each picture is a gorgeous landscape
that borders on the otherworldly, with a healthy admixture of
turn-of-the-century Dawn of a New Tomorrow spirit. At first,
the text of "Eve's Diary" is no match for the illustrations.
Twain is trying to be funny, giving the flip side of the story
from "Adam's Diary," this time from the point of view of the
curious chatterbox. But it seems that Twain quickly realized
he'd hit upon something good, as the story becomes a straight
character study of someone with a boundless sense of wonder.
She wonders about every aspect of the world, but above all
else she wonders about her relationship with Adam, and why
they treat each other the way they do. In the third-to-last
section of the story, "After the Fall," Eve delivers a soliloquy,
not entirely unlike Carver Fringie's, about why it is that
she loves Adam: not for his beauty, for that is questionable,
nor for his mind, for he's none too bright, nor for his grace
or his industry, for he lacks both. Chillingly, she continues,
"At bottom he is good, and I love him for that, but I could
love him without it. If he should beat me and abuse me, I
should go on loving him. I know it." So what's the answer?
"I think I love him merely because he is mine and he
is masculine." It's not rational, not a matter of
choice — it's just her nature, and she has to follow
her inborn programming.
This is what
What Is Man? is about, as it happens — it's
a Socratic dialogue, just straight philosophy, that Twain
fiddled with for thirty years before finally releasing it
anonymously in an edition of 250 copies. In this very slim
volume, Twain sets forth the reasons he thinks humans are
nothing more than machines; and by machines he means something
very much like what I said in my review of
Thirteen, that people are loci of history and biology
and statistics playing themselves out. He also harps on the
idea (brought up by the judge in Red)
that people never do anything unless it is primarily to assuage
their consciences — all charity is motivated by self-interest,
in other words, though the upshot of this is obscure since he
makes it into a tautology. Anyway, it's interesting for philosophy,
I guess, but when you have a gift for illustrating your ideas as
Twain did, it seems a waste to deliver them in this manner.
Back to Eve. Just as Adam's mournful words at Eve's grave seem
to be transparently those of Twain for his wife, it is easy to
read the "After the Fall" section of "Eve's Diary" as his (bleak)
thoughts about why someone like Livy would have put up with someone
like him for over a third of a century. But that's hardly unique.
Do we ever feel worthy of the people we love? Does it ever stop
being astonishing to be loved in return? I think this is a pretty
universal chord to strike, even for those who at least on the
surface have a healthy ego. But it's not just the ideas and
the current of feeling running through it that make "Eve's Diary"
one of Twain's greatest achievements. It's also the lyricism
of it. Lyricism is not a quality traditionally associated with
Twain, though he had his moments here and there. As "Eve's Diary"
progresses, though, the paragraphs become as poetry. The
last paragraph of the prelapsarian section of the story is
among the most beautiful things I've ever read. I think I'll
finish this off by simply reproducing it here:
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