Think of this as Volume 17, Number 20 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
He was considered America's premier writer for much of his life, and remains our most famous. He worked from the unusual position of humor, but produced some of the most profound classics of the American page.
It's well-known that he liked technology. He wrote “Huckleberry Finn” on a typewriter, which was technology in the 1870s. He lost a fortune on a typesetting machine, which was the minicomputer of the 1880s. He ran his own publishing house and pioneered the selling of books by subscription. And he wasn't shy about any of it, which is a lesson more writers should take to heart.
But what I didn't realize until reading his autobiography recently was just how much of a technophile he really was.
In Jerry Seinfeld's film “Comedian” we get a good view of what Cosby is like, and what Twain himself was. Seinfeld and his crew go out to visit the man, who is working in New Jersey, and come back to their own set to talk about it.
At the time Seinfeld was trying to build a new 90 minute act following the end of his TV show. It's a struggle. We see it. It's all written down, it's all well-rehearsed, and it's typical of how a modern comedian works. Then he sees Cosby. “He's doing two shows a day, 90 minutes each set, and each one is completely different,” Jerry says, and the awe is real.
Bill Cosby can just sit on a chair, on a stage, start talking, and somehow it comes out clean, polished, complete. There are no long pauses, he doesn't have to reach into his memory for the next line. He just tells stories, about his life, about what interests him, and it's gold. All of it.
Twain was like that. From the 1860s he went on stages around the world and basically riffed for an hour or two, to tremendous applause. His writing was a cramped, low-tech way of making his work permanent. I wonder if, had he grown up in our time, he would have written anything at all.
He wrote by speaking. What came out of his mouth was amazingly fluent, complete, and graceful. He knew it. He had an ego, and praise just inflated it. He tried to capture that in his autobiography by dictating it. Imagine what he could have done with some tools, like a tape recorder. Imagine what he could have done on YouTube.
What separates Twain from Cosby, of course, and the great Groucho Marx, is that he also brought his pain to everything he did. It all had heart, like Billy Crystal's best stuff. In his "Midnight Train to Moscow" Crystal makes a Russian audience laugh for a full hour, then tells a story about how his great-grandmother supposedly came to America by telling her family she was going to Kiev by train. He ends it by getting on a train and seeing that scene, with his daughter playing the ancestor. Tears your heart out.
Twain, of course, had a lot to be torn up about. His wife and daughters pre-deceased him. He lost the fortune on the typesetter. He wasn't nearly as a good a businessman as he thought – he had this nasty streak of honesty in him.
He felt this pain – all of it – and it comes out in the autobiography. He knew he wasn't reliable witness to his own life, and knows no man really is, although most pretend to be. He struggled with the project for decades, and what finally emerged from the transcriptions is a man struggling to turn reality into art.
But the point is that Twain was alive to all the technology trends of his time. He wasn't cloistered in some office or library. He was in the world, a participant, and was constantly pushing the technology envelope to help him deliver more of himself to his fans.
We all need to be more like that. Especially our writers.