A Year in Reading: Walter Kirn

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Reading Mark Twain is like walking in the mountains. You can only hike one trail at a time, so you must choose the vista you want to favor. Letters from the Earth, a short anthology of essays first published in 1962, is Twain as mid-century liberals chose to see him, a blazingly indignant social critic concerned with the rise of American imperialism or what he termed in the column’s hallmark essay, “To The Person Sitting in Darkness,” “the blessings-of-civilization” game of dominion through development. Together with pieces about lynching, the Belgian Congo, the art of lying, and other abominations, the book helped reposition the folksy humorist as a baleful proto-radical, aligning him with the spirit of the age. There is a Twain for every mood and moment, and this is a Twain whose time has come again, wintry, stern, and sublimely disappointed.

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