I blame it on Walt Disney and Will Vinton.
You see, I’m a Canadian. A citizen of the Dominion of Canada and subject of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second. Born and raised in the rolling ranchlands of Southern Alberta’s Rocky Mountain foothills. My roots are in stories of scarlet-clad Mounties and fur trading Voyageurs. The closest paddlewheelers were unromantic vessels hauling lumber and ferrying passengers across the mountain lakes of neighbouring British Columbia. Not only is the mighty Mississippi not in my blood, I’ve never even seen a river as big as that great artery of the United States.
Nevertheless, I love the work of Mark Twain. And for that, I blame Walt Disney and Will Vinton.
After a roundabout route of falling into, and out of, and back into a love for Disney’s films, I was finally able to visit Disneyland in Anaheim, California, for the first time in 2005, at the youthful age of 27. While there, I was captivated by the great paddlewheeler Mark Twain plying Disney’s man-made Rivers of America. One of my great joys became sipping Disney’s version of a mint julep from her deck, watching the Haunted Mansion, Splash Mountain, and fiberglass tipis drift by on the shore. The Mark Twain Riverboat and Tom Sawyer Island, the overgrown playground named for Twain’s irrepressible protagonist, lit a fire under me to actually read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Right around the same time, Will Vinton’s film The Adventures of Mark Twain also captured my attention. Vinton is most famous for creating the California Raisins, through his “Claymation” process. In The Adventures of Mark Twain, Vinton crafted a stunningly beautiful and profoundly moving feature film based on the works of the esteemed author. Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher go along with Twain on a paddlewheel airship destined for Halley’s Comet, visiting his different stories and meditating on life, love, human nature, and the hereafter.
Ever since, having read and reread Twain many times, I have been struck by his keen observations of human foibles and frailty. I’ve taken note of the creative, original ways he describes things. I’ve laughed along with him at foolishness and been provoked when his finger pointed at me. I’ve also felt disappointment for him that his satirical mind seemed to have banished genuine happiness. But most of all, I’ve enjoyed countless hours drifting along that fabled river that he has painted such wonderful word-portraits of.
Twain famously quipped that a classic is a book that “everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” Of course when he said that, he was also convinced of his own place in the literary canon: “My books are water; those of the great geniuses is wine. Everybody drinks water.” He might be appalled today to know that his books have descended to the status of classics. At Disneyland, the very island that prompted me to read Twain’s work has been refashioned into a “Pirate’s Lair.” Kids today know Jack Sparrow much better than they know Tom Sawyer.
Nor is it simply that Tom Sawyer has been relegated to dusty bookshelves. Even what Tom Sawyer represents has largely disappeared from the American psyche. We have passed the era when children were free to run, explore, hurt themselves, get dirty, and be the heroes of their own adventures in the wild, untamed fringes of their still semi-rural hometown. American life has become more urbanized, more circumscribed, more overstuffed with entertainments, more afraid.
There is another definition of a classic, however. It comes from journalist Italo Calvino: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”
Through their Clydesdale Classics series, Skyhorse Publishing is providing a chance for us to listen to what the great books still have to say. Nor are these simply rehashed copies of the widely available canon. Yes there is Beowulf, but there is also Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. And there is Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
In the first of the two books, Twain gives us an insider’s view of life in a small town on the shores of the Mississippi. Being a churchgoer myself, my favourite episode is not the famous whitewashing of the fence, but the struggle to maintain a spirit of reverence during worship, despite the entertaining distractions provided by an errant dog. Twain delivers this, and most of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, with a knowing wink and nod. This is satire at its best… A sometimes biting, sometimes gentle prompting to make sure that we don’t take ourselves too seriously.
In the second, a raft is unfettered from the small, fictional town of Anyburg U.S.A. to sail loose upon America’s wide open cultural currents. Through the eyes of two social outsiders – Huck Finn and the escaped slave Jim – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn explores not only the Mississippi’s shoreline but the American zeitgeist in a manner that is still shockingly relevant today. Huck and Jim are left to navigate the eternally turbulent waters where morality, race, politics, religion, economics, slavery, and the lingering fallout of the Civil War intersect. In American literature and the American mind, geography and psychology blend together. Pursuit of the frontier drove Americans westward and skyward, hitching up Conestoga wagons and revving up Harley-Davidsons, and in doing so shaped who Americans are. The fundamental form of American literature is the road trip… The Grapes of Wrath, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas… and the first truly American novel is a trip on one of America’s first natural roads. Twain’s Mississippi is a geographic artery reaching into America’s metaphorical heart. Where it flows is sometimes quite ugly, and needs airing out.
Given the importance of that mighty river and what it has meant for the American people, it isn’t surprising that Walt Disney would want to include a tribute to it amidst his exotic jungles and fairy tale castles. Nor that, with the efforts of America’s master showman behind it, Mark Twain’s works should prove compelling even to those outside of the United States.
SHARE THIS POST: