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Mark Twain’s Meal

April 2011
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“Huckleberry Finn” is Mark Twain’s masterpiece. It still holds a central role in America’s dialogue about freedom and race. The book still stirs controversy and makes people uncomfortable. Twain peels off America’s mask, and he holds up a mirror to reveal a hypocrite.  Reading Twain, we can begin to answer Allan Ginsberg’s question, “America, why are your libraries filled with tears?”

Less often read are Twain’s essays. But they whip and smart our conscience no less. They are cynical, biting. As slave owners whipped slaves, so Twain’s lines whip us into awareness. In particular, I’d like to draw your attention to Twain’s Essay, “Corn-Pone Opinions.” But let me warn you. Twain may whip your conscience from across a hundred years. His essay smarts us even today, for human stupidity knows neither bounds nor borders; and stupidity does not know nationalities. American or African; Chinese or Chilean; Canadian or Korean: Mark Twain gets us all.

Twain wrote “Corn-Pone Opinions” in 1901, at the end of his life. In this essay, he uses Corn-Pone as a metaphor. Corn pone is a kind of corn bread, and bread is a metaphor for money. But corn pone is cheap and common, like our opinions. We don’t think for ourselves.  Our opinions are cowardly; we too readily conform; we do not get our opinions from thinking. A man would sooner sell his mind than miss a meal.

It is rare that a man or a woman will take the risk of being an individual; it is rare that a man or a woman will take the risk of getting an original opinion. The cost is steep.

ee cummings summarizes the risk well.

my specialty is living said

a man(who could not earn his bread

because he would not sell his head)

squads right impatiently replied

two billion pubic lice inside

one pair of trousers(which had died)

–ee cummings

 
Corn-Pone Opinions: http://www.paulgraham.com/cornpone.html
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