Rough Work in Twain

The books of Mark Twain idealize leisure.  His greatest and most beloved protagonist, Tom Sawyer, is a master of shirking off labour assigned by his aunty — and the author piles respect on his mischief.  Huckleberry Finn and Jim spend the majority of their story in a state of tense slacking: while their adventures can’t be called relaxed, they have more to do with fun and freedom than they do with the bondage of school or slavery (labour of the indentured and wholly immoral variety).  Even the author’s travel narratives espouse a lifestyle of carefree enjoyment, wandering from one exotic locale to the next in a rush of excitement and, more importantly, carefree comfort.

Of course, Twain is a writer in the American tradition of multitudes and contradiction and he does produce an alternative perspective on this heavy subject of work.  Life on the Mississippi addresses the five years or so Twain spent as a riverboat pilot.  The job required him to memorize the vast, constantly evolving body of the river — state lines would shift periodically as the Mississippi cut into banks on either side, dangerous reefs would form as the flowing water carried millions of tonnes of sediment downstream — and the only way to keep up to date on this rapidly changing geography was by checking the bulletins in the community of Pilot’s Houses in port towns along the river. A good modern equivalent of this kind of training is The Knowledge, the testing process undergone by London’s hackney carriage (“black cab”) drivers — the test of memorizing the metropolis’ every twist and turn takes an average of twelve attempts over three years; though London cabbies driving around the city on their scooters, studying their mounted maps, don’t have to worry about bringing a whole ship of passengers and an entire load of cargo along for the pretty hairy training experience.

Twain describes piloting as a science, one that requires noble practitioners: “Your true pilot cares nothing about anything on earth but the river, and his pride in his occupation surpasses the pride of kings.”  The author’s description of selfless devotion to hard work prefigures the modern concept of “flow.”  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined “flow” as he researched artists and painters in the eighties and 90s to discover how individuals lose themselves in their work: Csikzentmihalyi and his team discovered that people captivated by their performance of a task — such as piloting — receive an overwhelming sense of joy, lose self-conscious reflection, and gain an instrinsic sense of reward from the work at hand.  Twain explored this concept of immersive labour in a rather sideways fashion. Tom Sawyer used the conventional understanding of flow to con an acquaintance into whitewashing a fence:

“Hello, old chap, you got to work, hey?”

Tom wheeled suddenly and said:

“Why, it’s you, Ben! I warn’t noticing.”

“Say – I’m going in a-swimming, I am. Don’t you wish you could? But of course you’d druther work – wouldn’t you? Course you would!”

Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said:

“What do you call work?”

“Why, ain’t that work?”

Tom resumed his whitewashing, and answered carelessly:

“Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know, is, it suits Tom Sawyer.”

“Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move.

“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth – stepped back to note the effect – added a touch here and there – criticised the effect again – Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:

“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”

-The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Chapter Two, 1876

Even the author’s chief layabout knows what flow is supposed to be — enough to cast the task at hand off to his gullible friend.

Leisure and work go hand in hand; and while Mark Twain often appears more in love with ease, his understanding of and admiration for motivated, rewarding labour is one of the things I most admire about his tales.  He sees work as a journey that moves along with life, like a steamboat churning its wheels within the vast environment of the Mississippi.  Labour at its most triumphant is a tireless embrace of a rapidly changing future.


Grandfather Adventure

I don’t know when I first read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; it’s such a timeless piece of of my own perspective, it seems it has always been there. The Canadian school system doesn’t force its pupils to confront Huck and Jim; it’s a happy accident that I came to them at all. The story of the two runaways, and the greater journey of America moving towards racial equality, has become an integral part of my personal canon.  The values present in the book — friendship, courage, and magnanimity — are close to my heart, and I have the heroic author of that tome to thank for it.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known more famously by his literary alias Mark Twain, stands at the pinnacle of my hero pyramid. He grew up in the provincial backwoods of Missouri; but by the time he died, he had travelled to every corner of America, seen the sights of Europe and the Middle East, and become a name (and a moustache)  everywhere he went. He greeted opportunities with a warm smile and a hearty handshake throughout his life: whether it was piloting a steamboat on the Mississippi, panning for gold in Nevada, or hightailing around San Francisco in a whirl of journalistic furor, Twain was an eternal student of adventure.

From where I stand now, picking out a living for myself composed of words and dreams, all the while dreading a world in which even our environment is undermined by human blundering, Twain inspires me to crack on through the power of laughter:

Isn’t human nature the most consummate sham & lie that was ever invented? Isn’t man a creature to be ashamed of in pretty much all its aspects? Is he really fit for anything but to be stood up on the street corner as a convenience for dogs? Man, “Know thyself –& then thou wilt despise thyself, to a dead moral certainty.” – Letter to William Dean Howells, August 31, 1884

Twain is my hero because he always seems in on the cosmic joke, and can turn any moment on its head, exposing its ridiculous quality, however black and troubling:

… life does not consist mainly — or even largely — of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.” – Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 2

His writings, Huckleberry Finn especially, encourage me to value the constantly evolving nature of the human experiment, and to my best to contribute a verse to the long song of our mutual endeavours.


Stephen Fry is a man I would do almost anything for. He privileges wit as an art form, he believes in charity as a good in and of itself, and most importantly, he’s a big Norwich FC supporter. Fry also understands the power and value of the internet; he has been on a wild ride of online celebrity these last few years, for good or ill — more than two million twitter followers can attest to this. As I have slowly come to grips with a rapidly changing world of social media, Fry’s grace and style have been an inspiration.

That is why, when Fry posted a short conversation online last January, I gave him my wrapt attention. The piece was his own tempting slab of pop philosophy, broken down into easily digestible chunks. He had me hooked. I still watch the video from time to time, whenever my routine seems to be burgeoning on the dismal and I need to inject some positive outlook into my early morning. He has a lot to say about the restrictive nature of hard line goals, and he goes on in great detail about the value of expanding your horizons; but what struck me as his strangest and most brilliant point was his argument for a “shameless” devotion to heroes.

According to Fry, heroes are the grand symbols that keep our minds fixated on the prospect of our own education — a primarily social process, as he sees it. There is a great deal of anitpathy towards the idea of the hero in our contemporary world. The recent election in the United States is a strong example of this anti-heroic attitude: a great deal of delight hid behind the skepticism of the punditocracy leading up to President Obama’s re-election. Fry’s thoughts on the importance of totemic figures, individuals who capture and colour our outlook on the world, is a tonic to such cynicism.

On the eve of a new blog, I therefore find it fitting to compose my next month’s entries on some of my own heroes. I hope you will indulge me with your own totems of humanity in the comments section below.