Anyone in his education who has neglected to read every word Mark Twain ever wrote has simply missed the greater part of the meaning and opportunity of life. Twain is reputed to be The Great Man of American Literature, but this appreciation of him, while true, misses the mark or this truly great man.
To fathom the greatness of a truly great man, a sufficient lapse of time must pass before he is far enough away from us so that we might measure the greatness of such a great man.
Alexander the Great by this measure quickly gained his fame.
Alexander was a man who conquered the known world. It was easy to see he deserved the attribute "Great" attached to his name.
But in Alexander's time there was an even greater man than Alexander. This man lived nearly three times longer than young Alexander who died at thirty-two.
When Alexander was just a king he sought out this man who lived within Alexander's already vast, rich and immensely powerful kingdom of Greece. Alexander sought out this man to enlist him into his band of men, as Alexander was already intent upon conquering the world.
In a calculated plan to enlist this man, a philosopher of great renown, Alexander asked him, "What can I, Alexander, do for you, Diogenes?"
Alexander was then told what he could do for Diogenes.
In a moment more stunning than had ever occurred before on the face of our planet more than two-thousand years ago, and in a moment perhaps more stunning than any that will ever occur on this planet, Diogenes told Alexander what Alexander could do for Diogenes.
"You can step out of the sunshine that warms my body, Alexander."
No doubt some of Alexander's men gasped, and perhaps a few even fainted, for Alexander was the most powerful of all men who ever walked the earth.
Twain is the modern equivalent of Diogenes.
And when Twain published The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County just two years after the Civil War, the whole country knew a new era had just come upon the world. And this era had nothing to do with the insane war Americans had just fought.
The overwhelmingly unsophisticated country folk in American then perhaps thought a new and exciting author had come upon the American scene. This was true. But Twain, Samuel Clemens, when we are finally far enough away from this truly great man, will be known as one of the world's truly great philosophers, not at all unlike Diogenes.
In this story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, the premise described by Twain within the story of the Jumping Frog, is admittedly that the story is a facsimile of a story he heard another man tell. But as Twain relates it, the man who told Twain the story, told it absolutely straight-faced unaware of and quite apparently unable to see any humor in the story of the Jumping Frog.
I have a similar story to tell today for our Christmas Day readers of WRH.
About a week ago, I slipped a disc. In and by itself, this is certainly not funny. The expression, slipped disc, is an imprecise and insufficient colloquial description of what is medically known more precisely as a ruptured disc.
The calamity happened as I was pushing my pickup truck out of a spot where it had become impossibly stuck in the smallest of holes, but on slick ice. As I pushed, I noticed that between my shoulders in my spine, something went amiss. And then it happened again, as I tried once more to free my small pickup truck. There was no immediate great pain, just an unmistakable mental acknowledgment, something wasn't right. And, that I should immediately stop what I was doing, which I did.
My slipped disc only took about an hour before it started to howl, warning me of my age and the frailty of every human condition. Before long I was lying flat on my back too afraid even to visit with my Internet doctor to find out if a ruptured disc was a permanent disablement like the ones that afflict those people who can only walk bent completely over at the waist for the rest of their lives.
If you have ever broken your coccyx, or tail bone, and you remember how painful that is, you have the beginning of an awareness of the exquisite pain a slipped disc entails. It is that sort of pain. But a man hasn't used his tail bone for much of anything since about five million years ago. And men today still use their backbones, even for something as simple as sitting themselves up, a hiccup or even a small belch. And every time anything of the sort happens when you have a slipped disc, if you have just the passing thought you might have to sneeze, or if you should laugh, your recovery is seemingly thereby set back more than a month.
There then again I was laid out on my back on the couch, feet up, pillow propped, and able to resume my reading between the moments when the tears streamed down onto my reddened cheeks. Life is good, and if not perfect with a slipped disc, at least it was tolerable as long as I could remain motionless and comfortable in such a position.
I have been reading a book I bought for ten cents a few years ago along with a number of other ten cent books I came across at a yard sale. I prefer reading dated texts, not just because I am cheap, which I cannot deny, but also because I find these enlightening; their authors being sufficiently removed from my era, we are less likely to share all the same common mistaken perceptions about life.
I tried to read this book shortly after I bought it. It was a good vintage, 1922, and a likely title, A Minimum Course in Rhetoric Revised Edition, by Henry C. Edgar. He did have that suspicious name, one of those names that could go either way, Henry Edgar, or Edgar Henry, but I was confident in my purchase.
When I tried to read it the first time I paused and set it aside. Within the first three pages Henry used as one of his examples of writing clearly, a story entitled, The Gorilla Hunt, a one paragraph example-story in which a gorilla is actually killed. I thought then as I read, I might have made a financial mistake in my ten cent purchase. And I put the book aside for a couple of years to let it ferment just a bit more.
Now lying prone and disabled with a slipped disc seemed as likely a time as any to see in earnest if my ten cents was well spent. I was soon rewarded with a well-written and quite comprehensive study in rhetoric not all that different from what I imagined I purchased those few years before. I settled in, content to read, hoping to recover.
Henry or, Edgar, whichever one might wish to call this author, turned out to be quite a thoughtful grammarian. As I read I began sharing with my wife some of Henry's vintage rules of grammar. Among these were some excerpts that were interesting to this citizen of the 21st Century, where most have gone all-modern, ceasing to find even the difference between your and you're grammatically important.
Henry apparently without seeing any humor to his writing begins by telling us there are eight "PARTS OF SPEECH". And then Henry immediately goes on for eighty pages describing more than a hundred different permutations of these eight throwing in just a score of extras to help us understand better, and, more than five-hundred different exceptions to each and every one of the grammar rules he has laid out for us previously.
Being incapacitated I find all this intriguing, and perfect for piquing my intellectual curiosity with such tidbits as this:
"INFINITIVES AND GERUNDS 316. An infinitive is a noun-form derived from a verb. It may take an object, a predicate noun, and objective compliment, etc., as a verb may do; and it may be modified by an adverb, as a verb may be; but it is used like a noun. The following are its commonest noun-constructions (infinitives introduced by to are called root-infinitives; infinitives in -ing are sometimes called gerunds):
Subject: To run away would be cowardly; playing the piano was her only accomplishment.
Object: I should hate to be heard; he dreaded being seen.
Predicate noun: His chief delight is to row on the river; her hobby was collecting stamps.
Object of a preposition: He had no choice except to fight; he received the news without moving a muscle in his face.
Appositive: His principal object, to force the enemy across the river, was accomplished; he was deprived by the jailer of his only diversion, reading the newspapers."
As she was not too busy to listen, I read this and others to her. She mostly though only looked at me throughout as if I had lost my mind. But as I was incapacitated and suffering my third day with every searching twist and turn seeking in one position or another some impossible comfort, she humored me as I interrupted her surfing the net to read to her Henry's grammar rules, examples and exceptions.
I persisted in my insistence she share in my enjoyment of Henry's monumental work for which I paid cash-money. As I laid prone I managed to squeeze from my literary expenditure more reward every day.
And then I found it. Henry was an unconscious genius, like the now famous story-teller who told Twain the story about the Jumping Frog without seeing the humor in it.
"Listen to this. This is interesting," I said as I began reading to my wife, Janie.
"WORDS INTRODUCING SUBORDINATE CLAUSES
311. We thus see (sections 303-310) that a subordinate clause may be introduced by any one of five kinds of words-- by a subordinating conjunction, a conjunctive adverb, an interrogative adverb, a relative pronoun, or an interrogative pronoun."
Janie was looking my way now as I read, apparently quite interested, but also thinking about what she was reading on the net when I interrupted her. I persisted with my reading to her.
" Clauses introduced by the following words (expressed or implied) are subordinate:-- after, although, as, because, before, if, lest, provided, since, so that, than, that, though, till, until, whether, while, whilst, however (meaning whatever-way or degree), howsoever, [...]
Janie interrupted me about here, saying, "This guy is just a barrel of laughs, isn't he."
I rhetorically insisted, "Will you let me finish?"
"[...] whatever, whatsoever, whenever, whensoever, whencesoever, wherever, wheresoever, whichever, whichsoever, whithersoever, whoever, whosoever; and the following words when they do not ask a direct question: how, what, when, whence, where, whither, which, who, why, whereat, whereby, wherein, whereinto, whereof, whereon, wherethrough, whereto, whereunto, wherewith, wherewithall."
"I get it now," said Janie amazed, "This guy is the sort of guy who should die with a carving fork stuck in his forehead, right?"
As this day unfolds for you today, I hope you have something better to do with a carving fork. And if the time starts to drag today, you could begin reading everything Mark Twain ever wrote, by reading the linked story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County originally published and re-published in newspapers all over the country in 1867. Thus began a new era.