John Boston | Mark Twain & the Milk of Human Kindness

John Boston

On my Top Whatever Number Favorite Books List is Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Someone dear and close gave me a collector’s edition years ago. I still have it on display in my office and smile just thinking of the good prose gigging between the hardcovers. The story is about a then-modern 19th-century engineer, Hank Morgan, who gets hit on the head and is magically whisked back to the 6th-century days of King Arthur. Morgan quickly wins the favor of Artie and many Round Table knights with his common sense, practicality and sound understanding of everyday science. He pretends to be a powerful magician to the rubes of England and do a little good while transported from of his home parenthesis. 

There’s an aspect of Twain’s tale that still amuses and frustrates me. While Hank is performing all his amazing feats, dozens of phony magicians roam the English countryside, puffing out chests and boasting to be great wizards. They claim they’ve slain dragons by the boatloads. Great cheering throngs march behind them. It irks our Yankee from beyond The Great Drink that no one wants to see the pinky bone of even one of these great lizards allegedly slain in battle. The rubes just accept what loudmouth con men boast — no proof whatsoever needed. 

All the pretend magicians had to do was say it was so. 

And the dancing donkey girl scouts believed them. 

History repeats. 

Why is that so? 

It shouldn’t. History shouldn’t repeat. Well. At least bad or dumb history. People should be able to witness the folly of family and neighbors, lift their shoulders around their ears, painfully wince and, in good contrition, announce: “Cripes that was stupid. You won’t catch me or generations yet-to-be-born doing that ever again…” 

But. We do. 

We’ve certainly floundered about in our own personal, real-life Halloweens these past couple years. It used to be just the once each year we’d dress up, put on a mask and act goofy. Now? It’s daily life.  

I swear. 

If some daft bureaucrat or unasked-for public servant uttered some edict outlawing dresses and trousers, replacing them with environmentally friendly elephant trunks strapped where their naughty parts rightfully reside, you’d see Aisle 7 at the local Piggly Wiggly filled with dutiful and trumpeting followers. 

Wildebeests. Democrats. Conga line dancers at a Cuban nightclub. Some people love to get in line and follow the heinie in front. 

In my growing up days there were more books than people. I’d sneak back with Twain’s Hank Morgan centuries earlier to the heavily forested England, smile o so tickled pink at how he handled dullards. At 7, little did I know I’d grow to a smidge beyond middle age and be surrounded by them. A little light to read by. A quiet place. That’s all I needed to enjoy Samuel Clemens. I borrowed part of his soul back then, kept it in a safe and warm place. Amongst many, Clemens was part of the swashbuckling tribe that safe-kept my mischief, prepared my heart for a community supposedly adult, but really, shockingly inept. 

“Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But, I repeat myself…” Twain wrote that. 

“If voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.” Twain wrote that, too. 

“Politicians and diapers must be changed quite often.” Twain never wrote this one, but as a short chapter on the habit of humanity getting things wrong, it’s often attributed to Missouri’s father of American literature.  

The more I discover about this most-excellent wicked American soul, the more I am tickled, the more I shake my head. Twain was a cat guy. Big time. He kept as many as 19 house cats during his lifetime, taking two felines with him on every travel adventure. 

Most know about his steamboat period, but few know Twain was a moderately successful inventor. He patented the “self-pasting scrapbook,” which sold 25,000 units. I wonder if a self-pasting scrapbook works on its own at night. 

Twain had a severe allergy toward people who used the exclamation mark, feeling that using them was like laughing at your own jokes. Excuse me. I meant to type, “…laughing at your own JOKES!!!” 

Twain wrote, of course, “Huckleberry Finn,” the American classic and sequel to “Tom Sawyer.” It, of course, has been banned, from many of the country’s public high schools. Perhaps it was in revenge for one of Mark Twain’s infamous quotes: 

In 1894, Twain wrote his satirical “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar.” More than a century ago, our brilliant author scribbled an answer to that confounding question: 

“In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then, he made School Boards.” 

Back in January this year, our own Santa Clarita high school campuses didn’t ban Huck Finn. But they took it off the 11th-grade required reading list. Which was a sin. 

It’s such a profoundly rich book, relevant more than a century later, chock full of brilliant writing, profound observations and life’s common-sense lessons. Twain describes Huck as “…idle, and lawless, and vulgar, and bad, qualities for which he was admired by all the other children in the village, although their mothers ‘cordially hated and dreaded’ him.” His best friend Tom Sawyer saw him as “…the banished Romantic.” 

Jim, the runaway slave, is the timeless reminder of not only Huck’s morality and humanity, but also those oft-sleeping qualities in all of us. 

In the heart of Huck Finn beats what is in the best of us. 

I was so heartened to hear that finally, the Hart district trustees last month did an about-face and put dear Huck back on the reading list. If you want to teach anti-racism and a true heart to our kids, “Huckleberry Finn” is the book. 

“Kindness is a language the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” 

Twain? He wrote that one, too. 

John Boston is a local writer. 

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