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Nashville Scene First Love

Twain parody of creation myth reveals the writer's uncommon wit

By Michael Sims

JUNE 26, 2000:  Each of us would compose a different list of great American heroes. High on my own list--alongside Frederick Douglass, Rachel Carson, Thomas Paine, Margaret Sanger, and others--would be an uneducated Missouri country boy who grew up to become one of the most important writers in U.S. history. "Why don't people understand that Mark Twain is not merely a great humorist?" asked Thomas Hardy in 1883. "He is a remarkable fellow in every way."

Hardy understood that Mark Twain's humor was merely a side-effect of his unique point of view. He knew that Twain's legacy would not be merely droll outrageousness, but a sensibility--an overall impression of a deeply humane and civilized man who went his own way as a person and as an artist. No wonder that, more than a century after Hardy's comment, Robert Penn Warren said, "As Lincoln freed the slave, Twain freed the writer."

Twain's legacy is still impressive. Few books for children or adults are more perfectly observed, phrased, and balanced than Tom Sawyer. While the otherwise magnificent Huckleberry Finn goes all to hell when Tom Sawyer arrives to play Don Quixote, the book remains entertaining, tragic, and one of the great anti-slavery documents. Twain pilloried chivalry in Connecticut Yankee and was the first mystery writer to use fingerprints to catch a felon in Pudd'nhead Wilson. And surely few books are more courageous than Letters From the Earth, a brilliant satire on society in the form of a retelling of much of the Bible.

Recently a small publisher in San Francisco, Fair Oaks Press, published a handsome little hardback that reminds us just how remarkable a man and how free a writer Mark Twain really was. The Diaries of Adam and Eve ("translated by Mark Twain") consists of the interwoven texts of relatively brief pieces Twain originally wrote as part of Letters From the Earth. Many of Twain's books have been denounced for various reasons, but none so often as Letters. But in the sections about Adam and Eve, Twain isn't out to lampoon the smugness of Christian fundamentalism. Inevitably he works in a little of that--the topic demands it--but mostly he has other literary fish to fry. The Diaries of Adam and Eve is about a lot of things, but mostly it is about romantic love.

As every pop song, TV movie, or therapist will attest, few things in life are more important to us or more difficult to get right than romantic love. Most of us are needy, immature, unreasonable, loaded with a lifetime of emotional baggage--and yet yearning for loving companionship with another, similarly flawed human being. Mark Twain takes the confusions and troubles of love back to the stars of one of Western society's most cherished myths. In alternating first-person accounts, the first man and first woman tell the amusing, touching story of their awkward first encounters, their troubled early days, and their later devotion to each other.

Eve's first entry in her diary reads simply, "Who am I? What am I? Where am I?" These words echo the summation of the human condition that Paul Gauguin famously painted into one of his Tahitian idylls: "Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going?"

Eve's cosmic meditations contrast with Adam's more shallow and insecure musings. At first he complains about the unsolicited attentions of this new creature: "I don't like this; I am not used to company. I wish it would stay with the other animals.... The new creature eats too much fruit. We are going to run short most likely." In time, inevitably, Adam discovers his opinion changing. "Cloudy today, wind in the east; think we shall have rain," he confides to his diary. Then he adds, "We? Where did I get that word?... I remember now--the new creature uses it." Knowing that he took Eve for granted in the beginning, Adam eventually feels grateful for the Fall and their resulting troubles, which brought them so much closer together.

One of the fun things in The Diaries of Adam and Eve is the way that Eve turns out to be an early naturalist. She watches to see how milk gets into a cow, and she invents fire. When, to her astonishment, her first child is born, she writes, "Some of its details were human, but there were not enough of them to justify me in scientifically classifying it under that head." She can't stop asking "Why?"

In doing so, Eve frequently gets a hint that things are not always as they seem in the Garden, and Twain is able to wink at the reader with a forecast of troubles to come. As Adam complains to himself, "She engages herself in many foolish things: among others, trying to study out why the animals called lions and tigers live on grass and flowers when, as she says, the sort of teeth they wear would indicate that they were intended to eat each other."

Of course, Twain was a man of his time, and most of his portrayals of women--Eve included--paint them as pure-hearted and devoted to their men. There is, however, genuine affection between Adam and Eve, once Adam overcomes his initial confusion by and tepid interest in the new creature. Not surprisingly, such a story comes from Twain's own experience. He absolutely worshipped his wife, Olivia, and was devastated when she died. His letters, always some of his most amusing and observant literary productions, include 184 love letters to his Livy.

When Livy died in 1904 at the age of 58, Twain wrote to a friend, "I am a man without a country. Wherever Livy was, that was my country." Adam's last words about his beloved in The Diaries of Adam and Eve are similar: "Wheresoever she was; there was Eden."


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