Mark Twain in Stores Today!

Volume I of the Autobiography of Mark Twain is in stores today, published 100 years after Twain’s death. He might find it especially hilarious that, while he specifically requested that this material not appear in book form until 100 years after his death, the the book is actually appearing now (more or less in accordance with his wishes) more as the result of coincidence than anything else.

I want to read this book—and the two volumes which will follow it over the next five years—because I have always felt a kinship with Twain. As far as I know, he was the first writer whose authorial voice sounds like people now living. Much of this, I think, arises from Twain’s existential sorrow. I tend to think of him as a temporal castaway, marooned in a world that was as alien to him as it would be to me.

By the time Twain died in 1910, nearly all of the people most dear to him in the world had died before him. As a castaway, however, he did not enjoy the comforts of conventional 19th century religion because he simply didn’t believe it. He was alone in his grief in ways that few of the people around him would have been able to understand.

I got the tiniest inkling of what Twain must have endured when my father died. I was told repeatedly that he had “gone to a better place” and that he was “with the Lord.” I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. In my world, however, unbelief can be spoken aloud. Unlike Twain, I wasn’t obligated to behave as if comforted by banal fictions that did not comfort me at all.

As I understand the Autobiography, it is Twain’s message in a bottle from his time to the future. He finished it just a few months before his own death. I wish he could have known how many people like me are waiting for it expectantly here in 2010.

Kind of, Sort of, Back in Business

So, I guess I’m writing a blog again, after something like eight months away from it. Highlights of those eight months were listed in my reply to a comment to the last post I wrote back in March. You get the year you get and rarely the year you want. I think I already knew that without need of its being demonstrated to me so forcefully.

In consequence, however, I have, like many bloggers, done precisely what I vowed not to do: I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing. And my intentions back in January were so pure and good.

But AIWS seems to be sputtering back to life. I can’t wait to find out whether I’m really back…

An Open Letter to Governor-Elect Paul LePage

The election is over, finally. Like most people I know, I found the campaign disappointing and profoundly upsetting, although “dirty campaigning” is relative. Here in Maine, we had five candidates for Governor. The winner, put forward by the extreme right wing of the Republican Party, is Paul LePage, the darling of the state’s Tea Partiers. He won with 38% of the vote. His campaign strategy was to throw raw meat to angry extremists. And it worked.

I spent several days pondering a question I found posted on my Facebook home page: “Do we still have to set the clocks back on Sunday, since we set the whole country back on Tuesday?”

Sunday is here, and answer is yes. Out of my concern that we’ve set the State of Maine back as well, I’ve written an open letter to our new Governor:

Dear Governor-Elect LePage,

    Congratulations on your Election Day victory. Although I was not one of your supporters during the long campaign and did not vote for you, I do understand that all Mainers are better off if your administration is successful. For this reason, I wish you the best. With this in mind, however, I want to share a few thoughts with you.

    You won the election because our electoral system doesn’t require a majority vote. Victory goes to the candidate who got the most votes. This was a five-way race. You won because three out of every eight voters chose you. If it had been a ten-way race, you might have won with only one or two votes out of every eight. The point is that you have a victory but not a mandate. Sixty-two percent of voters chose someone else. Nevertheless, you are their Governor, too. Your desire to put the people first should include those people who did not support you. You should also be prepared to meet with skepticism from the majority of the electorate.

    You are a Governor, not a CEO. Although your position is one of considerable power, you will accomplish more through persuasion than by merely giving orders. In government, opposition is not insubordination. You cannot fire either the people of Maine or their elected representatives, some of whom, even in this year of seismic shifts, are still Democrats!

    Surely you know at some level that the state budget numbers you used during the campaign don’t really add up. Many of the hard choices you will have to make as Governor will burden even your most ardent supporters because every budget cut will hurt someone. Please remember that statesmanship requires that factors besides loyalty to you be taken into account in the decisions you will be asked to make.

    You must be available to the media. The days when you can storm out of a press conference because you don’t like the questions are over. Every aspect of your life—public, private and professional—is now fair game. The lives of the members of your immediate family are also now open to 24/7 media scrutiny. You cannot argue otherwise unless, for example, you happen to believe that college antics of George W. Bush’s daughters or the events leading to Bill Clinton’s impeachment were family business only and should have been kept out of national media.

    You must respect your own high office and the high offices held by others, including those whom you may not support. If you are going to call yourself Governor LePage, you must learn to say President Obama. When you speak as Governor of Maine, you speak for the entire State of Maine. You are now the public face of the State of Maine. I hope it goes without saying that telling President Obama or President Anybody Else to go to hell is not to be considered under any circumstances. That is one campaign promise I’m hoping you’re smart enough to abandon.

    As a resident of Maine, I am mindful that you have taken on responsibilities that most of us don’t want. I thank you for your willingness to serve. I also suspect that I’m like most of the 62% of voters I mentioned above when I say I would rather be happy than right. Nothing would make me happier than to find over the next four years that I was wrong about you.

Writing the letter has made me feel a little better, although I have no illusions about its chances of making a difference. I’ve really taken more comfort from something I saw in church just this morning. A Republican friend of mine was speaking about what the congregation has meant to him through the years. When he started talking about the support he and his wife had gotten while their son served two tours in Iraq, he became emotional and his voice broke.

After church, I spoke to our minister and said, “Any time I see a Republican moved to tears, I feel a surge of hope for our nation. Conservatives try so hard to be heartless, and I’m glad when I see them fail at it.”