Saturday, July 27, 2013

Mark Twain, Edward Abbey, and Esophageal Aerodynamics

“Far in the empty sky a solitary esophagus slept upon motionless wing” (54).

Twain, Mark. A Double-Barrelled Detective Story. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1902.

In a review of The Autobiography of Mark Twain in the March 2011 issue of The American Spectator, Joseph Bottum calls Twain “the man who could write the perfect comedy,” and as evidence used the line above. Here it is, in complete context:

     It was a crisp and spicy morning in early October.… The sensuous fragrance      of innumerable deciduous flowers rose upon the swooning atmosphere; far in      the empty sky a solitary esophagus slept upon motionless wing; everywhere        brooded stillness, serenity, and the peace of God.

Aside from mocking the flowery and purplish prose that characterized the Victorian era (and laying the foundation upon which Ernest Hemingway would later establish the framework for American writing that endures nearly a hundred years after his first publication), Twain wanted to show how a word like esophagus could be used (or misused) without being noticed. Twain was mocking more than the overblown style of the era; he was mocking the reader.

This was bold, but it highlights something we often do to our founding literary figures: we refer to them, we celebrate them, but we don’t actually read them. As Bottum put it: “We seem to end up enjoying him as a writer more than we actually enjoy any particular thing he wrote.” The process for this deification is a human one that has basis in our cultural approach to research.

In my composition classes, when I teach research, we discuss the cycle of how something becomes a source that can be used in a student’s writing. And event may occur and be reported for a day or a week in the news. From there, if it’s important enough, it might be featured in a weekly or monthly magazine. If it affects our society, it could be studied by academics and appear in scholarly journals. Finally, it may be written about in book form. And there’s something about the shape of a book that we think solidifies and justifies the ideas within it. That’s the place that Twain occupies--and now probably transcends. He’s an untouchable, a literary god.

And yet Twain remains relevant with those of us who do read him, and lines like the one that opened this essay reflect a measure of sarcasm and parody that has established a vein in not only my writing, but my outlook on life, and, to a certain extent, my approach to innkeeping. Regular readers of this column will confirm the frequency with which I question the principles and practices of modern innkeeping, as well as the behaviors of modern travelers.

This can be risky; you’ve got to know your audience. I think I do. I see the look on their faces when they check in: “You’re the writer,” they say. Or, “I’ve read your blog.” But as opposed to “knowing” or “identifying” my audience--my customers--I’ve chosen to create them, to lure them out, to let them know that I won’t do anything it takes to separate them from their money. To many American ears, this sounds crazy. Radical. Foolish. Why do this? Isn’t making money and being successful the American way? The answer is easy: Edward Abbey.

Abbey is another writer who has deeply affected my writing, and my thinking. If Abbey wasn’t the first eco-vandal, he was certainly the first to write about it his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. But it’s Abbey’s essay “A Writer’s Credo” that informs--or should I say reflects?--my approach to writing, teaching, and innkeeping. Abbey’s thesis appears in the first line of the essay:

     It is my belief that the writer, the free-lance author, should be and must be a      critic of the society in which he lives.

Abbey argues that it’s easy to deride the foreign, the fuzziness of the far-away, and that a writer unwilling to critically examine the immediate community around him should find some other line of work, and stop bullshitting the rest of us. This is a perfect argument that explains the white noise contemporary culture that vomits a steady stream of books and film that are forgettable for their navel-gazing focus on the bottom line.

While Abbey’s impetus is on society as a whole, the template can be applied to all our sub-cultures and specialties. For me, it’s innkeeping. For another writer, it might be academia, or Hollywood. Speaking up and speaking out about the hand that feeds you is always dangerous. I realize even as I write this that there may be someone reading this who will be so turned off by what I write that they decide not to stay with us at the Auberge. That’s okay; that’s why I write this blog. While I won’t bury any lines about flying stomachs in my prose in order to dupe you, gentle reader, I will turn my pen upon my experiences in an attempt to better understand the world I live in.

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