Mark Twain Needled Me (But We’re Still Friends)

Ignore the lack of muscles—
it's Mark Twain!

I read with interest (as well as gawked at) this Boston Phoenix piece (by way of Shelf Awareness) on a new book, The Word Made Flesh, about literary tattoos and their beaming bearers.

Besides it being provocative that some fangirl is willing to inscribe Kafka’s face and passages from his writings on her arm, I’m personally touched in that I have a lit tattoo myself, seen here in all its just post-poking bloody glory. Mr. Clemens has rested on my arm for a few years now, and he’s doing well, though he would like a fresh cigar.

I haven’t read the book, so I’m unsure of all the motivations behind needling your flesh with icons of the literary pantheon, but for me, it was an easy choice. I think Twain is the greatest American writer, for the astonishing breadth, depth and quality of his work: he wrote novels, short stories, essays, travelogues, speeches, poems and even a miserable play or two. He wrote straight journalism and crooked journalism, parody and commentary. He wrote stinging satire and fiery polemics, but also sentimental sketches.

Twain the Irascible Kitten Lover
He failed at many business enterprises, and always came back from his failures to try again. He was moody, irascible and delightful. And he liked kittens. I wrote about the power of his greatest work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in an short essay that won a small writing contest some years back. I return to his writings again and again for the insights into people and their follies, the crisp, ever-quotable turns of phrase, and the out-and-out hilarity of his characters. He was a genius.

So, I stuck him on my arm. At first, I thought maybe I should put Rodney Dangerfield there, but I went with Mr. Clemens in the end.

8 thoughts on “Mark Twain Needled Me (But We’re Still Friends)

  1. Well Tom does his expression change as you buff up and un-buff down from time to time? That’s the key question here, I think.

    Lately I’m enjoying my Trollope for insights into people and their foibles, yet Twain went even farther in that sphere, and I must get back to his works that I read in my salad days, when I was green with inexperience. Or was that green stuff just some mold in the bottom of my beer glass?

    There’s also a lot of Twain that I never tackled, so thanks for reminding me to seek it out.

  2. Rick, I have made notes several times to nose about in some Trollope (that has a bit of a naughty ring, doesn’t it?), but I just haven’t done it. There’s such a tilting pile of “To Read” books in my place that I haven’t moved on Trollope, but in time I will. What’s his best?

    As for his expression changing as I buff up or down—since I’m too much of a slaggard to move in either direction, he retains an unusual mien of pacific tolerance mixed with malefic threat. Complicated guy, you know…

  3. I refuse to look up all those words; it’s late and I’m tired and I have a 12-hour drive tomorrow.

    When I read “Life on the Mississippi” it was a cheap paperback, well-worn. The front cover was loose and came off when I turned it, as did every page thereafter.

    Page by page I dismantled the book, horrified that I was committing one of the 7 Deadly Book-Related Sins, but I was transferring some of Sam’s adventurous spirit to my own and didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to stop myself.

  4. Well Tom, “The Way We Live Now” is one of Trollope’s best, a magnificent work about financial scoundrels and the meaning of honour, and also of being without honour…

    Yet for me, “The Eustace Diamonds” is an even better place to start. This novel best demonstrates that magnificent Trollopian vibe wherein his heros and heroines are quite flawed, and his bounders and bounderesses have good qualities. Gack, it’s such a refreshing break from Hollywood black-and-whiteness.

    Finally, we have the extraordinarily improbably named “Rachel Ray”, in which a kitchshy cooking show host becomes… Oh, sorry, wrong one. In which a young man, Luke Rowan, inherits half interest in a brewery (are you listening, Joel?), and the older partner wishes to just go on making bad beer when the youngster wants to set the world on fire by crafting a brew that will have everyone talking because it’s so remarkable.

    Quite Godinesque, and perhaps Gackish, is it not?

    “Rachel Ray” reads like one long Seinfeld episode, where nothing really happens in a sleepy little English town, and we are highly entertained nonetheless by a slice-of-life from another time. A time in which Rachel and Luke are timid about being seen together on a foot bridge at sunset, because it would be scandalous, as he had not yet declared his engagement to her.

  5. Joel, I have read a disintegrating book in the same way, peeling page after page; it was kind of like literary whittling. I loved a lot of Life on the Mississippi—one of the passages where he describes how lovely the water is to the unaware, but how each riffle and wave indicated potential catastrophe for the steamboat pilot was sheer poetry. I have to go look it up (I won’t ask you too, since you shepherded that volume to eternity).

  6. Rick, I’ve written down the Eustace Diamonds and will get a copy from my local jeweler as soon as I can. That one sounds like a promising intro to Trollope for me. I might wait for the others to come out as graphic novels.

    Thanks for the recommendations!

  7. Tom, I’ll see your Trollope and raise you a Twain.

    Or, since Twain means two of something (fathoms, as you know), I guess that means I raised you twice…

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