Ignoring Twain, there’s plenty of weather here

BY RANDALL RIGSBEE, News + Record Staff
Posted 8/30/19

Of the long list of books Mark Twain wrote, his later novel “The American Claimant” (1892) doesn’t occupy the same lofty perch as his better-known works.

Although author Bobbie Ann Mason, in …

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Ignoring Twain, there’s plenty of weather here

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Of the long list of books Mark Twain wrote, his later novel “The American Claimant” (1892) doesn’t occupy the same lofty perch as his better-known works.

Although author Bobbie Ann Mason, in her introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of “The American Claimant” celebrates “the mad energy of this strange novel,” calling the volume “enormous fun,” the book is largely overlooked today.

It isn’t — like “Tom Sawyer” or “Huck Finn” — read in junior high schools.

When I toured Twain’s home in Connecticut a few months ago, of the many titles mentioned during the tour no breath was wasted on “The American Claimant.”

The reviews on Amazon are mixed. “Not Twain at his best,” one reader offers. “Humorous, but tedious reading,” declares another.

Whatever it’s literary merits, the now-127-year-old book remains notable in literary history for a couple of reasons.

First, it is the first novel, at least according to Twain himself, written with the aid of phonographic dictation.

Second, and more importantly, it was undertaken, in part, as a literary exercise, being (also according to Twain) the first book written without any mention of weather, which Twain said only served to interrupt the flow of a good story.

“Many a reader who wanted to read a tale through was not able to do it because of delays on account of the weather,” wrote Twain.

So he set out to avoid the literary pitfalls of rain, wind, snow and the hackneyed “dark, stormy night,” and of this aim, Twain was adamant, advising readers with certitude at the start that “no weather will be found in this book.”

Besides, Twain maintained, only the best writer could properly tackle the tricky topic.

“Weather,” Twain continued, “is a literary specialty, and no untrained hand can turn out a good article to it. The present author can do only a few trifling ordinary kinds of weather, and he cannot do those very good.”

Even though his tongue was planted firmly in his cheek while dictating his new novel into a recording device, Twain may have been on to something. Writers — and most especially newspaper columnists, I would think — probably ought to avoid the weather as a topic because weather is commonplace (it’s happening all around us right now, in fact) and, barring unusual events such as a hurricane or tornado, maybe doesn’t deserve special notice at all.

Then again, weather is important. And interesting. How else would we know how to dress in the morning if it weren’t for weather?

And, like the literature weather may or may not deserve a mention in, it’s often dramatic, even when it isn’t trying to be.

Take that series of afternoon and evening thunderstorms we enjoyed last week.

From the comfort of my front porch one early evening last week, I watched as a band of rain-laden clouds approached, looking ominous and dark, from the west. To the east was sunny, the sky still a tranquil Tar Heel blue. Within a couple of minutes, the conflicting forces merged, heavy rain pounding the earth with fat, heavy drops — slowly at first before building momentum and settling in.

After the storm, the temperature dropped dramatically. I’d stepped out on my porch, just a few minutes earlier, in full Summer and when I stood to go back inside, the rain having finished doing its thing, Fall — or something close to it, by the feel — had arrived.

I found it fascinating, though the weather-weary, like Twain, might’ve merely yawned.

No doubt by the time this column about weather sees print, we will have moved on to another kind of weather, so moody is the phenomenon. We are in hurricane season, after all, and that’s proven to be exciting in past years.

My advice: enjoy today’s weather; but don’t get too attached. It’s apt to change soon.


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