Where's Mark Twain When We Need Him?

Monday has never been so hard. As we step into Nobel week, we Americans find ourselves scrambling to keep up in the most surprising areas. We knew that our economy, which used to be our ace, is in the tank. But the highest member of the Nobel Prize jury has now proclaimed us cultural Philistines. We're too insular and ignorant to produce great literature, says Horace Engdahl, whose name we'd never heard of before last Wednesday.

The judgmental Horace Engdahl. (AP)

And, not only that, but Europe's nattering classes have been laughing outright at the podium vernacular of a certain Alaskan vice presidential candidate. We're crass, vulgar and dumb, they say. Hootenany navel-gazers. Incapable of making art, brokering the peace, even maintaining our vaunted prosperity. No matter what laurels will be handed to us in chemistry, physics, or medicine this week, we'll feel it where it hurts: in the cultural department. We're like the fool who's expected to pay for dinner, but whose conversation only draws sneers.

It set me to thinking of Mark Twain, who once wondered what we'd think of the French, if all we ever saw of them was the Can-Can.

So I picked up a book on Twain and read this in one of his letters: "I have never tried, in even one single little instance, to help cultivate the cultivated classes. I was not equipped for it either by native gifts or training. And I never had any ambition in that direction, but always hunted for bigger game -- the masses. I have seldom deliberately tried to instruct them, but I have done my best to entertain them, for they can get instruction elsewhere."

The timeless Mark Twain. (AP)

It strikes me as apt wisdom for a Monday morning.

Does a great novelist strike out to instruct? Did Dickens and Dostoevsky and Balzac really think they were instructing when they were writing novels feverishly on deadline in serial installments? Perhaps great literature, particularly as perceived by "the cultivated classes," strives to do more than what Twain calls "entertain" -- other apt verbs might be "distract," "enlighten," "reflect," "fathom," or "imagine" -- but it can hardly strive to, as Engdahl put it: "participate in the big dialogue of literature." Which would mean what? Participate in dissent? Angst? Malaise? Abstraction? Perhaps that's exactly what he thinks. These are qualities the Nobel seems to honor.

My favorite authors never won the Nobel. Let me list a few here in no particular order: Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Anton Chekhov, Fernando Pessoa, Julio Cortazar, Milan Kundera, Isaac Babel, E.M. Forster, Machado de Assis, Leo Tolstoy, Mario Vargas Llosa, Iris Murdoch, Marguerite Duras. And even a few Americans: Ralph Ellison, Flannery O'Connor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Philip Roth, Edith Wharton, Cormac McCarthy, Stanley Elkin, Don DeLillo, Marilynne Robinson, Robert Hass.

And, of course, Mark Twain.

As Twain once said: "On the whole, it is better to deserve honors and not have them than to have them and not deserve them." Watching the Nobel's track record in literature in these past years, I'd say there's a gaping ravine between the having and the deserving. Mr. Engdahl can keep his prize.

Let me know what you think.

-- Marie Arana

By Marie Arana |  October 6, 2008; 7:00 AM ET Marie Arana
Previous: Bullseye! Corporate Funding for Books | Next: How the Sausage Gets Made


Please email us to report offensive comments.

I thoroughly enjoyed this article. A refreshing bit of well thought out, well phrased commentary on our current cultural circumstances. Well done!

Posted by: Jennifer | October 5, 2008 11:42 PM

Those grapes were sour anyway...

Posted by: Pagun | October 6, 2008 1:36 AM

It's political. Americans often receive rewards in the form of book sales, speaking engagements, etc. I like the idea of the 1.3 million dollar prize going to a broke and drunken poet none of us ever heard of.

Posted by: Dave | October 6, 2008 4:35 AM

"Which would mean what? Participate in dissent? Angst? Malaise? Abstraction? Perhaps that's exactly what he thinks. These are qualities the Nobel seems to honor."

There is plenty of that in American Literature I think. Gone are the days when Paris was the Greenwhich mean time of literature. Engdahl's commentary is a tired stereotype about American inferiority extended also to our most brilliant minds and authors. As for the comment about American authors receiving money: those who receive more than their European counterparts would be John Grisham style writers and fat chance that they would ever be considered for the Nobel. Also, not shattering book sales records in the airports and Barnes and Noble's does not make you drunk or broke and not being born in the U S of A does not make you obscure.

Posted by: dangie | October 6, 2008 8:54 AM

A good start for me this Monday morning.

Posted by: Adriana Degetau | October 6, 2008 11:36 AM

Thank you!I agree and well done.

Posted by: Ric | October 6, 2008 2:01 PM

And don't forget Joyce: he wrote a book or two of considerable import, to say the least - sans Nobel.

Posted by: Jack | October 6, 2008 3:21 PM

Where's Mark Twain?

Mark Twain came into this Vale of Tears with Halley's Comet and claimed that he would go out with it.

For the current location of Halley's Comet, and thus the "Rider on the Comet", see the following webpage. You may have to zoom out, as the comet is currently is roughly in the orbit of Saturn.

Url: http://astro.u-strasbg.fr/~koppen/orbitviewer/halley.html

Posted by: Brant | October 6, 2008 4:09 PM

I said Halley's Comet is out near the orbit of Saturn--my mistake--it's a trick of the perspective. Turning the solar system around, I find that Halley's Comet is much further out--nearer Pluto than Saturn.

Posted by: Brant | October 6, 2008 4:32 PM

Ah, Joyce!
Of course.
But do you mean:
Joyce Kilmer
Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Johnson
Brenda Joyce
William Joyce
All fine American authors.
Or perhaps you mean James Joyce, who might have won the Nobel for any one of his works (Dubliners, Portrait of a Young Man, Ulysses), but didn't. In 1946, five years after Joyce died, one of the Swedish judges, Sven Heden, was asked whether James Joyce had ever been considered for the award. Hedin replied, "Joyce? Joyce? Who's he?"

Posted by: Marie Arana | October 6, 2008 5:39 PM

In the grand scheme of things I read the comments Engdahl said and of course he is right that the Nobel is not a contest of nations but most assuredly he has made it a contest of continents. I say this because our most recent Nobel recipient was Toni Morrison in 1993 and a vast majority since than have been directly European or closely associated with Europe. If Engdahl is to bring any credibility to himself or Nobel's memory perhaps he should end his insolar and isolated view of European literature. There is a large world that extends beyond the fiords of Scandinavia and perhaps Engdahl should devote more time to learning about it and seeing it than judging what he doesn't know. Perhaps King Carl XVI Gustaf, whose hands the award passing through onto the recipient's, should smack Engdahl up-side his head for turning this award into a popularity contest and not the vision that Alfred Nobel had. Elfriede Jelinak, please. I agree, he can keep his award. One last thing to mention, my congratulations to all European writers worthy of winning this tarnished medal, for they now have only other Europeans, instead of the world, to compete against.

Posted by: Logan | October 6, 2008 6:48 PM

I love this blog.
Keep it up.

Posted by: Angelina | October 6, 2008 10:04 PM

There you go! Even the medicine you were sure of went to Europeans, and a controversy has been re-ignited if the American researcher Robert Gallo was not robbed of the Nobel.

On Engdahl's statement, you're pretty much sure any American author, either Oates or Roth is not being considered.

As a Nigerian, I secretly wish it would come to Africa again, and the most deserving writer from Africa who has been overlooked over the years would get it. I refer to the Man Booker International prize 2007 winner, Chinua Achebe, who is also popular in the US.

Posted by: Toba Obafemi | October 7, 2008 6:44 PM

Agree completely on Chinua Achebe. He should have won it long ago.

As for Gallo. It was theft today. Outright theft. Not only is the jury dismissing the controversy. It's saying it doesn't care about justice at all.

Posted by: dave | October 7, 2008 11:33 PM

Thanks for mentioning Pessoa. And you're right, Nobel is not a correct evaluation of genious authors!

I manage a site about Pessoa at:

Posted by: Nuno | October 8, 2008 6:13 AM

Prior to the 1960s no distinction was made between literary and entertainment fiction. It all was simply literature. Pulitzer Prizes were awarded to novels that would clearly be considered entertainment today, including Gone With the Wind, The Caine Mutiny, and Advise and Consent. But mid-century critics and academics came to believe that entertainment fiction was innately inferior to fiction that probed the human condition. Nowadays, entertainment fiction is automatically rejected by both the Pulitzer and Nobel committees, even though I regularly find literary novels to be superficial, slow, dull, and vapid. Some day the absurd distinction between superior literary fiction and inferior popular fiction will fall apart, and we will see prizes once again awarded to works that contain all the qualities of both forms; works that entertain just as notably as they probe meaning.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler | October 11, 2008 10:14 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company