Re-examining Twain’s work, Clemens’ life

Ira Fistell is a familiar and even beloved figure in the Los Angeles radio market, where he long served as an exceptionally amiable, thoughtful and well-informed talk-show host on subjects ranging from politics and religion to vintage trains and Mississippi steamboats. Along with Dennis Prager, he was a host of “Religion on the Line,” a Sunday evening colloquy that brought clergy of various faiths together and proved that theological shoptalk could be compelling to a general audience.

One of Fistell’s passions, as his devoted listeners already know, is Mark Twain. Now Fistell has brought his expertise to bear on the life and work of Samuel Clemens in “Ira Fistell’s Mark Twain: Three Encounters” (Xlibris: $23.99), a wholly fascinating volume that can be approached as a biography, a work of literary criticism and a highly literate travel book.

“At first, I admired his adventurous life,” explains Fistell. “The more I became aware of the darker side of his life, however, the less I wished to stand in his shoes. If he enjoyed a public life filled with triumph and adventure, he more than paid for it in a private existence damned with adversity and tragedy.”

At the heart of Clemens’ life, according to Fistell, is “the paradox of public success and private disaster.” He may have “earned more money from his works than any other American writer of his century,” but he was bankrupt at the age of 59. He was famous for his depictions of the rural South and the Western frontier, and yet “he lived half his life in Eastern domesticity and a sixth of it in European cosmopolitanism,” a fact that can be discerned in “Tom Sawyer,” whose dialogue “is the vernacular speech of the Missouri frontier, while its narration is the diction of the educated sophisticate.” His literary efforts have always been both praised and damned, and even today the fact that he uses a crude word for African-Americans makes his masterwork, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” an object of controversy and censorship.

Fistell divides his book into three parts. First, he appraises Clemens’ literary production and reputation, thus providing his readers with a benchmark against which to measure the man himself. Then he offers a collection of essays “in which I try to make contact with the man by visiting the physical sites which were important to his life—his homes, the places where he worked, the places he visited, and his grave.” The third “encounter,” as Fistell puts it, focuses on “the processes of his mind” and the “emotional energy which drove him.”

Intriguingly, Fistell draws a distinction between Samuel Clemens, the flesh-and-blood human being behind the familiar byline, and Mark Twain, the literary persona that Clemens invented and embraced. “As I came to greater and greater familiarity with the man, I found myself liking Mark Twain more and more, and Samuel Clemens less and less,” Fistell writes. “Mark Twain exposed with devastating clarity the shallow, foolish, and corrupt values of the Gilded Age,” Fistell writes, “but Clemens could not escape from the materialism in his private life.”

The dominant factor in Clemens’ personality, according to Fistell, was guilt. Beginning in childhood with a “childish fear of divine retribution” and continuing throughout his life, his feeling of guilt “mastered him to the point of inability of function” and led him to a “philosophy of fatalism” that turned the lighthearted raconteur of “The Innocents Abroad” into the brooding author of what Fistell calls “that horrifying, powerful, bleak, destructive, dark, flawed masterpiece, ‘A Connecticut Yankee.’ ”

Still, Fistell credits Clemens (or, if we follow Fistell’s usage, Mark Twain) with achievements that surpass even the literary merit of his books. Thus, for example, “Huckleberry Finn” is not merely a “juvenile adventure story, which is probably the way most of us encounter it for the first time,” but also “a masterpiece of comedy” and, more important, “a magnificent and powerful novel of social satire and criticism having no peer in American literature in that field.”

“Ira Fistell’s Mark Twain” is, in a real sense, a daring enterprise. Fistell, after all, asks us to take another look at an author we think we know well—indeed, an author whose work we may not have opened since high school—and to entertain new and troubling insights about him.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at