At the outset of his chapter on “The Economics of American Literary Realism” in The Routledge Companion to Literature & Economics (published today, by the way), Henry Wonham asks whether “the diverse set of writers generally aligned with the aesthetic disposition of realism…share an overriding interpretation of the economic conditions that inspired [Mark] Twain and [Charles Dudley] Warner to give [the Gilded Age] its notorious moniker?” The 2018 Quarry Farm Symposium on “American Literary History & Economics in the New Gilded Age” is dedicated in part to answering Wonham’s question, as well as another which it naturally inspires: Does the reappearance of the economic conditions of the Gilded Age, whether in the Era of Good Feelings, the Roaring Twenties, or our own time, correspond with a recycling of aesthetic phenomena?
The potential for an intrinsic link between cultural and economic cycles, what I have elsewhere called the “rhyme of crisis,” provides a rare occasion for agreement between Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. Marx treats mass culture as a projection of class consciousness created by prevailing material conditions, while Keynes argues that changes in macroeconomic conditions are catalyzed by the persuasive narratives saturating the public consciousness via mass media. Their disagreement – about the chain of causation between culture and economy – may not be resolvable, but I’m not sure it needs to be. Merely that such a link exists and manifests itself in the literary record provides a more than adequate foundation for numerous scholarly projects. Projects which have the added benefit of eroding arbitrary periodizations and encouraging conversations across specializations and even disciplines, as is happening this weekend.
Keynes defines economics as a “habit of mind,” a “way of thinking,” and a “branch of logic.” He was quick to remind his colleagues, in the face of their scientistic delusions, that the economy is an imaginary, and, like novelistic fiction, one which is made seductive by the hubris and scope of its claims to verisimilitude. Because no one can imagine the whole of it, every claim about the economy is deeply speculative and contingent. On this front, Keynes had the full support of both his infamous rival, Friedrich Hayek, and his rejected mentor, Alfred Marshall. All of them worried that their nascent discipline would be corrupted by vain and partisan men who were willfully blinded to the limitations of their economic imaginary by the temptation to whisper in the ears of “madmen in authority.” For this reason, Marshall, who, as founder of the first department, at Cambridge, did as much as anyone to institutionalize Economics, wrote, later in life, “I do not think it would be well that Economics should be studied by very many men, even at Cambridge.”
The next generation of economists proceeded, with Faustian arrogance, to present their speculative and contingent imaginary as natural science, insisting that economics was not merely a way of thinking about the complex world, but the only reasonable way of thinking. What Wendy Brown calls “neoliberal rationality” became, through calculated colonization and bureaucratic symbiosis in education, government, and business, a globally hegemonic habit of mind. We are all under pressure to be, as Brown puts it, “always, only, and everywhere…homo oeconomicus.” Neoliberal rationality, “saturat[es] the practices of ordinary institutions and discourses of everyday life…remak[ing] other fields of existence in…its own terms and metrics.” Paul Samuelson unselfconsciously summarizes his profession’s imperial impulse when he says, “I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws – or crafts its advanced treaties – if I can write its economics textbooks.”
Wendy Brown, like Foucault, places the emergence of neoliberal rationality in the late 20th century. Yet, if our culture, as well our economic conditions, mirror the Gilded Age, we could presumably find neoliberal rationality then as well. Consider this passage in a letter Sam Clemens wrote shortly after the death of his eldest daughter:
I did not know that Susy was part of us; I did not know that she could go away, & take our lives with her, yet leave our dull bodies behind. And I did not know what she was. To me she was but treasure in the bank; the amount known, the need to look at it daily, handle it, weight it, count it, realize it, not necessary; & now that I would do it, it is too late; they tell me it is not there, has vanished away in a night, the bank is broken, my fortune is gone, I am a pauper. How am I to comprehend this? Why am I robbed, & who is benefitted?
The image of the “broken” bank was an all too familiar one for Twain, who went bankrupt during the Panic of 1893, and spent the intervening years scrambling to repay his debts and claw his way back to affluence. When Susy fell ill, he was completing a worldwide lecture tour, and thus he found himself separated by oceans, unable to comfort her, unable to attend her funeral, unable to ever fully reconcile himself to her loss, which he blamed upon himself being, like his father and brother before him, constitutionally unfit for business.
Twain spent these years sacrificing his health, his solace, and his artistic ambitions to fulfill his duty as breadwinner. He undertook a crash course in economic rationality from Standard Oil executive Henry Rogers. While he admired Rogers, Twain bristled at the assumptions about human nature underlying the conventional wisdom of US capitalism and the ascendant school of neoclassical economics. As he alludes to the conflation of his parental grief with what, after Susy’s death, seemed petty pecuniary losses, his outrage at the callousness of economics creeps to the surface. He had become so engrossed in neoliberal rationality that he had allowed himself to think of his daughter as human capital, as an appreciating asset in his vault. With characteristic self-loathing, Twain burlesques the underlying assumptions of neoclassical economics in order to expose them as ludicrous and shameful. He concludes with a promise to his confidante that, from this point forward, he will “pay as [he] can, in love; and in this coin practicing no economy.”
The greatest character Twain created in the years surrounding his bankruptcy was David Wilson, better known as “Puddn’head.” Wilson is a polymath and an iconoclast, who enjoys nothing more than questioning conventional wisdom. And because he spends so much time surveying the borders of prescribed knowledge, Puddn’head retains a healthy regard for the “great dark” that lies beyond the horizon of his own intelligence.
On these terms at least, David Sloan Wilson is also a “Puddn’head.” He has done much to erode the conventional wisdom of economics in books like Does Altruism Exist? and essays at Evonomics.comwhich submit it to the more rigorous standards of evolutionary science. He has also, in The Literary Animal, argued with admirable Puddn’headedness that the relationship between literary studies and evolutionary theory may be “mutually reinforcing.” If we hope to mount a resistance to the false narratives of neoliberal rationality, we need our discipline to explore and expand this natural alliance.
On behalf of the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies, I am proud to welcome tonight’s keynote speaker, David Sloan Wilson and kickoff the 2018 Quarry Farm Symposium.
2018 marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of Mark Twain’s first visit to Elmira, the town where he would meet his wife, spend many of his summers over the remainder of his life, write several of his most acclaimed books, and finally be laid to rest. In the following essay, Dr. Seybold commemorates the occasion by offering his estimation of what Elmira meant to Mark Twain.
January 26, 1905
It was the 30th birthday of Mark Twain’s nephew, Jervis Langdon. His father, Charley Langdon, had met Samuel Clemens when they were both passengers on the world’s first pleasure cruise in 1867. Little did young Charley know that his new friend was fashioning their voyage into a series of humorous newspaper dispatches which would become the basis for one of the bestselling books of the 19th century, The Innocents Abroad.
By the time that book was published, Sam and Charley would both be engaged. Their marriages would take place within a few blocks of one another, officiated by the same famous minister, Thomas K. Beecher. A decade later, they would have seven children between them, who spent four months every summer frolicking together on the sloping lawns of Quarry Farm with a menagerie of cats, dogs, horses, cows, and goats belonging to their aunt, Susan Crane.
30-year-old Jervis Langdon could remember those carefree summers. Susy Clemens, named for that aunt, showed him how he could send coded messages to his cousins at the hilltop farm from the windows of his family’s mansion in the town below by turning a hand mirror towards the full moon. On many a summer’s eve, he and his cousins sat huddled around Uncle Sam on the farmhouse’s open-air porch as he told fabulous stories or read from manuscripts of his works-in-progress before the ink was even dry.
If 30-year-old Jervis was nostalgic on this January evening in 1905, he could hardly be blamed. It wasn’t just his own milestone birthday. He was expecting the imminent birth of his own first child, a son, who would arrive just two days later. Were this not cause enough for sentiment, he found himself dressed as a character from one of the stories which had been routinely read aloud to him, as well as his sisters and cousins. He was preparing to attend, along with many other prominent residents of Elmira, NY, a “Dickens reception.” Each guest would be costumed as a character from one of the novelist’s works.
Jervis had been cast in the part of Caleb Plummer from The Cricket On The Hearth. His sister, Ida Langdon, who had recently matriculated from Bryn Mawr and would later become a professor of English at Elmira College, chose the part of Caleb’s blind daughter, Bertha, while friends took auxiliary parts in the story, including Crystal Eastman, Ida’s best friend, as Tilly Slowboy, and Dorothy Mather as Mrs. Fielding. Within a few years all three recent graduates (Eastman from Vassar and Mather from Cornell) would be suffragettes and members of the American Association of University Women, an organization committed to increasing the representation of women in higher education.
Charles Dickens had a special significance for the Langdon siblings. Many years earlier, their father and Aunt Livy had gone to see Mr. Dickens read at sold-out Steinway Hall in New York City on New Years Eve. They were joined that night by Charley’s increasingly infamous new friend, whom they called Sam, but who signed his scathing review of the performance “Mark Twain.” This was Olivia Langdon’s chaperoned first date with the man who would become her husband. Twain was so smitten that in his review he couldn’t help mentioning, some might call it boasting, that he had attended Dickens’s reading with “a highly respectable” and “beautiful young lady.”
Thus began one of the most unexpectedly sweet seductions in American cultural history, as Samuel Clemens, initially ignored and then rebuffed by the devout and decorous Olivia Langdon, fell back upon what would prove his greatest talent, writing, over a hundred letters cascading into the Langdon home through the ensuing months, supplemented by occasional visits. The year was 1868.
When Sam visited the Langdons again for Thanksgiving, Livy finally yielded her conditional consent to his proposal. She sent her fiancé off on another leg of his “American Vandal” lecture tour. But while Mark Twain spent the next month joking, smoking, and drinking his way through the Midwest, Olivia faced the reality, alone, that this might be her last Christmas season in the only home she had ever known, surrounded by family she adored. She wrote to Sam, “To think of having them grow used to my being absent, so that at last they would cease to miss me, made me feel as if I wanted father to put his arms about me and keep me near him always.”
Sam contemplated this letter in a Central Michigan boarding house on Christmas Eve, with only the fading fire in an unfamiliar hearth and a series of holiday brandies to keep him warm. He reflected on his fiancé’s fears, her family, and his own, from whom he felt increasingly detached, and was inspired to make an extraordinary promise:
I just don’t wonder that it makes you sad to think of leaving such a home, Livy, and such household Gods—for there is no other home in all the world like it—no household gods so lovable as yours, anywhere. And I shall feel like a heartless highway robber when I take you away from there…
I’ll not read that passage again for an hour!—for it makes the tears come into my eyes every time, in spite of me. You shall visit them, Livy—and so often that they cannot well realize that you are absent. You shall never know the chill that comes upon me sometimes when I feel that long absence has made me a stranger in my own home…a dull, aching consciousness that long exile has lost to me that haven of rest, that pillow of weariness, that refuge from care, and trouble and pain, that type and symbol of heaven, Home—and then, away down in my heart of hearts I yearn for the days that are gone & the phantoms of the olden time!—for the faces that are vanished; for the forms I loved to see; for the voices that were music to my ear; for the restless feet that have gone out into the darkness, to return no more forever!
But you shall not know this great blank, this awful vacancy, this something missed, something lost, which is felt but cannot be described, this solemn, mysterious desolation. No, I with my experience, should dread to think of your old home growing strange to you.
I have tried several times, and am trying again now, to articulate the consequences of this promise, which I think cannot be overestimated. But for this promise, made by a famously itinerant and oft-inebriated author in the wee hours of Christmas morning 150 years ago, the Center for Mark Twain Studies would not exist, nor would anybody be obligated to preserve Quarry Farm for posterity. For it was Sam’s dedication to this promise, more important perhaps even than his wedding vows, which ensured the Clemens family’s annual pilgrimage to Elmira.
And it was in Elmira that not only was Olivia spared the “dull, aching consciousness of long exile” which her husband felt, but Sam found, looking out across the Chemung River Valley, a new “symbol of heaven.” The vanished faces, musical voices, and “phantoms of the olden times” came floating through the windows on all sides of the study Susan Crane built for him, inspiring him to produce a series of novels in what I call The Quarry Farm Style: full of whimsical children and nostalgia for an American past, but also politically radical, like the community in which they were written.
As Sam and Livy (as well as Charley and his new wife, Ida Clark) settled into domesticity and child-rearing in the 1870s, they would associate Dickens with that first date at Steinway Hall, that tear-stained letter from Lansing, and, as many do, with the holiday season. They read Dickens’s books aloud to their children, such that his characters intermingled with Twain’s, forming the premise for a range of allusions, inside jokes, and family folklore which passed through the generations. The novella which inspired Jervis and Ida Langdon’s costumes in 1905 was, as Dickens himself described it, a “fairy tale of home” dedicated to his own infant son.
The Quarry Farm Style
The Clemenses did not attend the Dickens reception in 1905, but those who did reflect both how Mark Twain brought out the best in Elmira, and why Elmira brought out the best in Mark Twain. The reception took place at the Elmira Industrial School. The 36-year-old school was one of several educational institutions, including Elmira College and Elmira Free Academy, which had been founded through the financial backing of another Jervis Langdon, grandfather to the Jervis who celebrated his birthday that night. Each of these groundbreaking educational institutions made possible by the Langdon fortune were sustained in the ensuing decades by other local financial benefactors, as well as by many Elmirans who volunteered as teachers, administrators, fundraisers, and advocates.
The mission of Elmira Industrial School was to provide a free trade school education to any young women willing to dedicate herself to establishing financial independence. The students came from “homes of poverty and vice” and were mentored by an entirely female faculty, including many of the affluent young women who were graduating from elite private colleges in the region, like Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Cornell, Smith, Oberlin, and Elmira. Several of ladies who attended the Dickens reception were faculty, volunteers, and/or alumna of the three local institutions all dedicated to counteracting the effects of social and economic oppression.
The elder Jervis and Olivia Lewis Langdon, the original owners of Quarry Farm, were the foundation stones upon which was built a remarkable tradition of generosity and community service which survived them and their famous son-in-law. In his eulogy for the first Jervis Langdon, Thomas K. Beecher made the outrageous claim that “Envy’s self was silenced at sight of his prosperity, so many were sharing in it.”
Beecher had learned repeatedly that the Langdons considered their millions only as valuable as the causes for which they could be put to work. When, in 1846, their church refused to condemn slavery, the started a new one, joined the Underground Railroad, and told the abolitionists who passed through their enormous mansion – including the likes of Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison – that “the family house and purse were at the service of fugitives from slavery.”
Eight years later, when they asked the most controversial memberof the most famous family of theologians in America to come lead their renegade church, he laid out terms which he though no congregation would accept, largely because of his exceptional emphasis on community service. The Langdons accepted his terms without negotiation. The progressive, inclusive congregation he imagined grew so large it could only meet in an opera house, drawing the ire of rival churches and the regional Ministerial Union.
Mark Twain responded to their condemnation of Beecher as one might expect, joking in a local newspaper that “a little group of congregationless clergymen, of whom I have never heard before, have crushed the famous Beecher and reduced his audiences from 1500 to 1475.” The Langdons came to Beecher’s defense much more quietly and effectively, buying up shares in the opera house so that no amount of social pressure could compel the proprietors to bar the doors, then beginning the process of building Beecher a church as big as an opera house, one that would look like nothing else in the nation, complete with a maze of apartments and a billiard room where one could occasionally find one of the nation’s most recognizable preachers drinking beer with the nation’s most recognizable infidel.
The still youthful Mark Twain who came to Elmira in 1868 had argued across a series of burlesque tales, stand-up routines, and travelogues that mankind in general, and Americans in particular, were natural hypocrites, charlatans, and misers, and that those who dared to believe otherwise were doomed to continual poverty and despair. Then he met the Langdons and this airtight thesis got shot all to hell.
Young Twain believed that all his countrymen had been converted to the “Revised Catechism” of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould: “Get money. Get it quickly. Get it in abundance. Get it in prodigious abundance. Get it dishonestly if you can, honestly if you must.” But, as Twain put it, “Mr. Langdon was a man whose character and nature were made up exclusively of excellencies,” who could easily have gone “to Wall Street to become a Jay Gould and slaughter the innocents,” but instead endowed schools for girls, bought farms for fugitive slaves, and emboldened both his children and the people in his employ to test their most far-fetched idealisms on his dime. This confused Mark Twain.
Out of his confusion emerged the Quarry Farm Style, with its children who are not innocent, its cynics who are not hopeless, its free-thinking slaves and scientific magicians and heroes who decide to go to hell. It is a style which never lets you lose sight of your romantic idols, though whenever you reach for them it suffocates you under piles upon piles of corpses. So many corpses.
Those “Up-State” towns…
The Dickens reception in 1905 was hosted by Clara Spaulding Stanchfield, dressed as Mrs. Micawber from David Copperfield. Clara was Livy Clemens’s lifelong friend and fellow Elmira College alumna, after whom she named her second daughter. Clara’s husband, John B. Stanchfield, came as Mr. Dombey. He could call himself “Mark Twain’s lawyer” and only be mildly stretching the truth. The world-famous author retained counsel on a wide variety of matters in numerous jurisdictions, but he had been regularly consulting Stanchfield, both officially and unofficially, for decades, and their friendship reached back even further. Before the Stanchfields married, John and Sam had frequented the same billiard parlors, both using aliases. It is, indeed, reasonable to suspect that Sam may have played some role in matchmaking his amiable drinking buddy with his wife’s best friend.
John rose rapidly in the ensuing years. He became a partner in the firm which is now Sayles & Evans, was a Democratic candidate for both Senator and Governor, and tried a series of prominent cases. He was also one of several Elmirans who aided the Clemenses during their time of greatest need, when Twain’s publishing house was plunged into bankruptcy following the Panic of 1893. With much of the nation descending into a credit crisis, the most affluent families in Elmira offered free consulting, low-interest loans, and other aid to their neighbors.
The young woman dressed as Ada Clare from Bleak House, another Elmira College graduate, suffragette, and member of the American Association of University Women, belonged to a family that purchased what they knew were likely worthless shares in the Paige Typesetter, thus helping increase the Clemens liquidity during a period of desperation: a charity made all the more charitable because it protected Sam and Livy’s pride by pretending it was not simply charity.
This generation of Elmira women – Ida Langdon, Dorothy Mather, Flora Shoemaker, and Ruth Pickering among them – would be remarkably successful in promoting women’s rights both within the city and region, and throughout the nation. While all were devoted activists, their ringleader was clearly Crystal Eastman, who by this time had already discovered her talent for political organizing by leading a protest against rules requiring women wear skirts and stockings while swimming. Within a decade Crystal would become one of the most prominent and effective advocates for women’s suffrage, and this was hardly her most revolutionary position. Looking back upon the community in which she was raised, she wrote, “In this environment I grew up confidently expecting to have a profession and earn my own living, and also confidently expecting to be married and have children.”
Crystal’s younger brother, Max Eastman, who would graduate from Williams College later in 1905, was not as cripplingly shy as he had been a few years earlier, but still struggled to converse with his sister’s outgoing friends, several for whom he would harbor lifelong crushes. It was hard to imagine that this skinny young man would, in ten years time, be one of the most controversial political voices in the country, founder of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and editor of censored antiwar publications.
Max and Crystal would live for much of the teens and twenties in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and Max would make an extended visit to the Soviet Union to study with Leon Trotsky, and yet, he would always characterize Elmira as the most radical community in which he had ever lived. Many years later, in an essay titled “Mark Twain’s Elmira,” he would chastise a famous literary critic, Van Wyck Brooks, who ignorantly described Elmira as one of “those ‘up-State’ towns…without the traditions of moral freedom and intellectual culture.” Eastman argued convincingly that the “social and political attitudes” which prevailed in Elmira “were far more radical than Mark Twain was when he arrived here.” Mark Twain and Elmira worked upon one another in “general rebellion” such that by the time Max came of age in the 1890s, he found himself “in the exact center of one of the most interesting clusters of people and ideas that American churchdom ever produced or found room to contain.”
Adolescent Max met Mark Twain during the installation of an organ at Park Church. Max and Crystal’s mother, Annis Ford Eastman, who disguised herself as Mrs. Blimber from Dombey & Son for the Dickens gala in 1905,was the first women ordained in the state of New York. Beecher called her the best preacher he’d ever heard and, befitting both Beecher’s rebellious nature and Elmira’s emerging feminist culture, he chose her as his successor at the vaunted Park Church. His friend Mark Twain must have shared his high estimation of her character and talents, directing that she should handle his funeral rites.
Like Beecher, Annis Eastman’s unconventional approach to the pastorate went far beyond the happenstance of her gender. Max fondly remembers his mother reading the risqué Calamus poems from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass aloud to her friend Julia Beecher and setting the hymn “Onward Christian Soldier” to the ragtime tune “There’ll Be A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight,” The esteemed place of the Eastmans seems evidence enough that Elmira was not, as that literary critic had guessed, a “symbol…of all that vast and intricate system of privilege and convention.”
Max Eastman wrote of Twain, “My admiration for the man was and still is as firm and emotional as though he were the saint of a faith to which I adhere.” This from a man whose parents were both pastors and who lived much of his youth in the apartments within the Park Church. The “gospel” written in Elmira, Max claims, “was one of self-reliant revolt against forms and conventions,” and it was authored not only by Mark Twain, but by the Langdons, Clemenses, Beechers, Stanchfields, Shoemakers, and Eastmans, by the students and faculty of the first degree-granting college for women and the secondary and trade schools those students helped to charter, by the thousands of parishioners who attended the largest and most progressive non-denominational church in 19th-century America, by the members of the city’s flourishing women’s rights organizations, and by the stalwart station-masters of the Underground Railroad, who not only sheltered fugitive slaves but persuaded former slaves, like Mary Ann Cord, the beloved cook at Quarry Farm, to settle here. It is no wonder, with such collaborators, Twain was able, in that octagonal study overlooking it all, to give birth to the Quarry Farm Style from which, according to Ernest Hemingway, all modern literature descends.
Max and Crystal Eastman were both at Sam’s funeral in 1910, as were the Stanchfields, his only surviving daughter, Clara, his nieces, Ida and Julia, and the brother-in-law, Charley, who first brought Sam Clemens into the circle of Elmira 43 years earlier. Mark Twain’s nephew, now 35 years of age, rode with the coffin from New York City, along the same rails which had taken his father to see Charles Dickens speak on New Years Eve in 1867, rails which had been laid when his grandfather was, at least according to Twain, the country’s only respectable railroad magnate.
Jervis Langdon Jr., born two days after the Dickens ball, would also, like his great-grandfather, become a successful railroad executive. He likewise inherited that radical generosity which mesmerized Sam Clemens and inspired him to pay yearly homage to his wife’s “household Gods.” On December 31st, 1982, 115 years to the day after Charles Dickens read to Charley and Olivia Langdon (and a dumbstruck and unappreciative Mark Twain), Jervis Jr. signed the agreement which bequeathed Quarry Farm to Elmira College and founded the Center for Mark Twain Studies. Perhaps, though he was just five years old at the time, Jervis Jr. remembered something of what Annis Eastman had written in her eulogy for Samuel Clemens:
We are not here at this time to speak of the great man whose going hence the whole world mourns, nor to claim for him that place in the halls of fame which time can give him. We are not here to try to estimate his worth to the world, the service he has rendered to civilization and the moral progress of mankind, nor yet to eulogize him for the integrity, justice and magnanimity of his character. There will be time enough for all this in the days to come and many a voice more competent than mine to set forth the lessons of his life.
Though I suspect none of us would dare to claim more competence than Annis Eastman, Jervis Jr. has bequeathed to us the task which she deferred. The mission of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, made possible by the gift of Quarry Farm, is to create that “time enough” to “set forth the lessons of Twain’s life.” And the scholars who reside here “estimate the worth to the world” not only of Mark Twain, but of the too often forgotten and misremembered Elmira which made Mark Twain possible.
There are many ways you can help sustain the mission of the Center for Mark Twain Studies. You can become a Friend of CMTS by making a donation here or learn more by emailing us at [email protected] As part of our celebration of sesquicentennial of Mark Twain’s first visit to Elmira we are also launching a Quarry Farm Legacy Preservation Campaign. If you or your organization would like to participate, please contact Director Joe Lemak (information provided in link).
“Waiting for Susy” is set in Rouen in September of 1894, at a moment when Twain and his family were living in France, trying to save money and preparing for the global lecture tour which would begin the next summer. During the same year, Monet finished his famous Rouen Cathedral series and was, similarly, preparing to relocate to Norway where he would paint a new series of studies in white. The play is set on the boardwalk across from the cathedral’s front, Monet is working at his easel while Twain, who is waiting for his wife and daughter to finish shopping, paces and talks to himself. Some of the play’s humor arises from Twain remaining willfully ignorant of the identity of the man with whom he shares the stage, an inequitable anonymity which Monet chooses to enjoy to the end.
Michelson, an Emeritus Professor of English at University of Illinois who was also presented with the Charlie Award for lifetime achievement in Humor Studies during the conference, emphasized in his post-performance remarks that there is no evidence that Twain and Monet ever actually met, but his speculative premise was inspired by the realization that they were in roughly the same place at roughly the same time. In 1894 each was in his late fifties. At analogous points in their careers they found themselves simultaneously looking back upon their unlikely successes and wondering whether those successes could be sustained. Much of the dialogue flows from their often diverging outlooks on aging, work, fame, and the artistic temperament. Some of this is based upon the men’s actual writings, some on Michelson’s creative interpretation of their lives and works.
Michelson’s script features three parts. In Chicago, Clemens/Twain was played by the appropriately grey and grizzled scholar, John Bird, Emeritus Professor of English at Winthrop University. Monet was played by Jim Caron, Professor of English at University of Hawaii at Manoa. And Susy Clemens, for whom the play is named, was played by M. M. Dawley, a recently-minted Ph.D. from Boston University. Considering all three actors performed without rehearsal, their delivery of the play’s many jokes and tricky phrases was impressive.
The greatest challenge of Michelson’s script, for both actors and audience, is its bilingualism. Monet’s character speaks primarily in French, but breaks into passable English once he and Twain warm to each other. Twain speaks almost exclusively English, though occasionally ventures to butcher a few French phrases. And Susy speaks fluently in both languages and thus acts as their translator or, in several humorous instances, elects not to.
As Michelson noted in his remarks, the events take place during the final prolonged period Twain would spend with his favorite daughter, who died tragically of meningitis less than two years later, while Twain was still wrapping up his world tour. In Michelson’s play, Susy is a vivacious, self-possessed young woman, who more than holds her own while matching wits with her cantankerous father and also wins over the Frenchman, who, at first, seems wholly content to keep to himself. Susy thus brings energy and optimism to the production, which might otherwise be nothing but the grousing of grumpy old men (not that that isn’t itself entertaining), but her part also acts as a melancholy reminder of the great tragedy on the horizon. Michelson breaths fresh life into that constant question in Twain Studies: What would Twain’s late phase have been like had he not lost one of his best and most trusted interlocutors? And also, what might Susy’s own legacy have been as she grew more independent of her famous father?
The dialogue of the play is rich, funny, and full of insight, pleasurable for an audience filled predominantly with professional Twain scholars, as was the case in Chicago, but totally approachable for anybody. One need not catch every allusion to be entertained. (I’m sure I didn’t.) And, aside from the considerable challenge of finding two actors who can speak fluent French, the production is ingeniously simple, making the play easily adaptable for many venues and theater companies.
In other words, it may be coming to a stage near you in the not too distant future.
Among the three days of panels and plenaries, many of which touched on the work of Twain and his contemporaries, was the presentation of the Charlie Award (named for Charlie Chaplin) from the AHSA in recognition of lifetime achievement in scholarship and service related to American Humor Studies. Over the thirty years that AHSA has been giving the award, there have been only twelve recipients, including, notably, Elmira College professor Michael Kiskis.
This year, the AHSA recognized the careers to two new Charlie Award recipients, Bruce Michelson and Linda Morris, both of whom, in addition to there considerable work on a wide variety of Humor Studies topics, have published noteworthy books on Mark Twain.
Dr. Morris is Professor Emerita at University of California, Davis. Last year she received the first ever Olivia Langdon Clemens Award from the Center for Mark Twain Studies, recognizing unique and groundbreaking contributions to Twain Studies. Her book, Gender Play in Mark Twain: Cross-Dressing & Transgression(University of Missouri Press, 2007), drew attention to Twain’s repeated return to tropes of gender non-conformity. Morris’s book is not only part of what was then an emerging and much-needed corpus of scholarship on Twain and gender, but also developed a lucid interpretive apparatus grounded in contemporary critical theory, demonstrating that Twain remained, as Larry Howe put it in his review, “relevant to new critical paradigms.”
Morris has also been instrumental in resuscitating the works of women writers and humorists of the 19th century, many of whom enjoyed considerable popularity and influence during their lives, but were not granted equivalent attention to their male counterparts by critics and scholars of the ensuing generations. Prominent among these is another Elmira resident, Frances Miriam Whitcher, who is the primary subject of Morris’s Women’s Humor in the Age of Gentility(Syracuse University Press, 1992).
Please join the Center for Mark Twain Studies in congratulating Dr. Michelson and Dr. Morris and thanking them for their ongoing contributions to Twain Studies scholarship.
“His outlook upon the world and its affairs was as wide as the horizon, and his speech was of a dignity and eloquence proper to it. He dealt in no commonplaces, for he had not commonplace thoughts. He was a kindly man, and most lovable. He was not a petty politician, but a great and magnanimous statesman. He did not serve his country alone, but China as well. He held the balances even. He wrought for justice and humanity. All his ways were clean; all his motives were high and fine.”
– Mark Twain (February 20, 1906)
Mark Twain was famously hard on politicians, and particularly legislators. Much of his lifelong contempt for the U.S. Congress can be traced to the months he spent in Washington in the winter of 1867-68, during which he both worked as a political correspondent and flirted with government employment. Nearing the end of that season, he told his brother, “I am most infernally tired of Washington and its ‘attractions’…This is the place to get a poor opinion of everybody in.” Twain did, however, make one exception. “There isn’t one man in Washington, in civil office,” he told Orion, “who has the brains of Anson Burlingame.” Burlingame was partly responsible for attracting Twain to Washington in the first place. Since meeting him in Honolulu in 1866, Twain had been seriously contemplating accepting Burlingame’s invitation to come to China, where he had been the U.S. Ambassador since President Lincoln appointed him in 1861. After meeting Burlingame several more times in the coming year, Twain came to admire him and showed increasing interest in the picture of diplomatic life the Ambassador painted.
But soon after Twain’s arrival in Washington, Burlingame resigned his post. Some even characterized it as a defection. Over the next two years the former Ambassador would work as an emissary on China’s behalf to negotiate its first set of diplomatic treaties with Western nations, including the United States. Twain marveled at this project, wrote in support of it, and, as late of February 1868, told his sister, “I rather expect to go with Anson Burlingame on the Chinese Embassy.” As he grew more aggravated with the culture of the capitol, Twain regarded the Republicans inability to find employment for Burlingame in a more prominent or proximate post, or even, in the long run, to employ him at all, as evidence of the futility of the federal government. He told his brother that China had “saved [Burlingame’s] great talents to the world.”
The prominent men who Twain came to admire over the course of his career resemble each other rather closely. Burlingame not only fits the mold, but may have been significantly responsible for casting it. He had a sharp wit, made even more potent by his generally calm and quiet demeanor. He managed to retain an antiestablishment ethos, even as he operated deftly within the establishment. He was generous and egalitarian, refusing to judge others by their station and willing to use his own station to benefit the less fortunate. And he had a strong, if idiosyncratic sense of justice, which he was willing to pursue regardless of personal risk.
Before he made Burlingame’s acquaintance, Twain was already somewhat in awe, refusing to let the Ambassador call upon him in his untidy Hawaiian hotel suite, which he deemed unsuitable for “such a man, which is acknowledged to have no superior in the diplomatic circles of the world.” That he held Burlingame in such high esteem is substantive evidence that, even as early as 1866, Twain’s perspectives on race and politics had turned quite progressive. Though he was not yet aware of the exceptional actions Burlingame was preparing to take on behalf of China and Chinese immigrants, Twain would have certainly known the Ambassador as one of the most outspoken and radical abolitionists of the 1850s, a founding member of the Republican Party whose extremism was criticized even by his allies. One Republican editor wrote that “Mr. Burlingame’s strain of remark” represented “the first steps in a path which leads to disunion and civil war. His editorial further warned that through radicals such as Burlingame, Republicans risked “show[ing] ourselves no better than slaveholders when we imitate their violence, their bad temper, and bad taste.”
Burlingame was, along with his fellow Bostonian, Charles Sumner, among the first abolitionists elected to Congress. During Burlingame’s first term Sumner was assaulted by South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks on the floor of the Senate, a shocking event which John Bigelow, among others, would later call “the first blood of the Civil War.” The infamous caning had been provoked by Sumner’s “Crime Against Kansas” speech. In the aftermath it was Burlingame who picked up Sumner’s argument on the floor of the House and even pushed the abolitionist cause further. Burlingame’s “Defense of Massachusetts,” like Burlingame himself, has fallen out of the canon of U.S. political history, but in 1856 and for many decades to follow, Burlingame’s speech was reprinted more often than Sumner’s. Well into the 20th century, it was frequently included in anthologies of American oratory alongside speeches by Lincoln, Washington, and Daniel Webster.
Burlingame’s “Defense” marked the first and among the only times he would address the congressional assembly, as he served only six years in the House before moving to the diplomatic ranks. He used the opportunity to repudiate President Franklin Pierce, as well as Illinois Senator, Stephen Douglas, architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, against which Sumner had spoken. Douglas had reportedly stood in the way of several senators who attempted to come to Sumner’s aid when Brooks attacked him. Burlingame also admonished delegates from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina. And, of course, at the end of the speech, he turned his attention to Brooks directly:
Sir, the act was brief, and my comments on it shall be brief also. I denounce it in the name of the Constitution which it violated. I denounce it in the name of Massachusetts, which was stricken down by the blow. I denounce it in the name of civilization, which it outraged. I denounce it in the name of humanity. I denounce it in the name of that fair play which bullies and prizefighters respect…Call you that chivalry? In what code of honor did you get your authority for that? I do not believe that member has a friend so dear who must not, in his heart of heart, condemn the act. Even the member himself, if he has left a spark of that chivalry and gallantry attributed to him, must loathe and score the act. God knows, I do not wish to speak unkindly or in a spirit of revenge; but I owe it to my manhood, and the noble State I in part represent, to express my deep abhorrence of the act.
Burlingame’s invocations of “chivalry,” “honor,” “manhood,” and “fair play,” spoken directly to Brooks, were quite calculated. The South Carolina congressman had enjoyed considerable celebrity with his confederates following the assault on Sumner. Southern papers heralded him as a courageous and principled defender of the culture of his region, a throwback to militant Southern icons like Andrew Jackson and John C. Calhoun. Cognizant that such publicity had the potential to raise he status in the Democratic party and perhaps make him a viable candidate for higher office, Brooks leaned into the Southern gentleman persona. Emulating the mythic Jackson, he made a habit of challenging his political antagonists to meet him on the “field of honor.” He was not alone in this affectation. Several Southern congressman took to play-acting aristocratic entitlement, willing to defend their “names” at any cost. The euphemism “fighting man” regularly appears in the newspapers of the era, as an acknowledgement of which individuals were ready to respond to slights against their character with invitations to physical violence.
Burlingame’s speech was quite transparently designed to elicit such a response. Brooks’s allies would draw particular attention to the accusation that he “stole into the Senate, that place which had hitherto been held sacred against violence, and smote [Sumner] as Cain smote his brother.” When it was uttered, a fellow Carolinian, Laurence Keitt, could not contain his outrage, and cried out, “That is false!” Burlingame paused and responded carefully, “I will not bandy epithets with that gentleman. I am responsible for my own language. Doubtless he is responsible for his. I shall stand by mine.” Newspaper editors, particularly from the South, recognized these words as an open invitation to duel. “Mr. Burlingame is a very cool and quiet man; and his manner on Saturday seemed to indicate that he had fully made up his mind to meet whatever responsibility his words should invite,” the New Orleans Picayune reported, “If challenged, there is no doubt that he will accept the responsibility, and go to the field at once.” James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald reported, “Mr. Burlingame, I understand, is a fighting man, and engaged the services of a second before leaving home.”
Brooks took the bait. He wrote to Burlingame, with the standard false politeness of the “fighting man,” “Sir: Will you do me the kindness to indicate some place outside of this District where it will be convenient to you to negotiate in reference to the difference between us?” He shared this “card” with the Washington Union, the newspaper of record for Southern Democrats in the capitol. Brooks fully expected to make a public spectacle of Burlingame’s refusal, anticipating, as had been the case with his previous challenges to Yankee congressman, that Burlingame would either ignore the challenge or back down, after which Brooks could call him a coward, further inflating his reputation with the Southern base and living up to the nickname he’d been given by the Northern paper: “Bully” Brooks.
But Burlingame not only responded, but responded rapidly, accepting the challenge and naming both place and weapons, as was his right as the challenged party. The Massachusetts congressman set off with his rifle forthwith for Clifton House, a hotel located on the banks of the Niagara river, just across border in Canada, where they would not only be out of Washington, as Brooks had requested, but utterly free from U.S. law, were one of them to be killed.
On the day that he received the message, Brooks was, in fact, arrested under Washington’s anti-dueling statutes. This was an unintended consequence of having circulated actively publicized his challenge. By the time he was released on bail, Brooks had had time to contemplate the full implication of the “field of honor” his opponent had chosen. Following Brooks’s lead, Burlingame had also leaked his terms to the press. Rumors now flowed back to Brooks that though Burlingame represented Massachusetts, he had actually been raised in Ohio and Michigan during a time when those states were considered part of the frontier. Sharpshooting had been among his daily occupations until he enrolled in Harvard Law School. Newspapers, reveling in the Congressional feud, reported that he was a “dead shot” from up to fifty yards. Burlingame’s second, Colonel Charles James, would later report that the radical abolitionist, while en route to Niagara, had wondered allowed whether it would be sufficient to merely shoot Brooks in the leg, as if such precision at the agreed upon distance was an afterthought.
To reach the crossing at what is now the Rainbow Bridge, and make the meeting at Clifton House, which stood on a spot now occupied by the Oakes Garden Theatre, Brooks, arguably the most notorious and despised man above the Mason-Dixon line, would have to pass through abolitionist strongholds in Pennsylvania and central New York. He would have to travel nearly four hundred miles through, as he termed it, “the enemy’s country” just to have a chance to be shot in the head by an expert marksman. Again using the Union as a vehicle for communicating with the public, Brooks explained, “No man knows better than Mr. Burlingame that I could not pass without running the gauntlets of mobs and assassins, prisons and penitentiaries, bailiffs and constables. He knew that I could never get to Canada, and that were I to do so and he were to fall, that I could never get back…I have no further demands upon him; but should he be screwed up to the point of making demands upon me, I will yet treat him as a gentleman, and meet him at any convenient and accessible point upon equal terms.”
Brooks, Burlingame, and their intermediaries would continue to debate the details of who said what, and under which circumstances they might agree to shoot each other, for months. Accounts of their feud, and the perpetually delayed duel, would be covered in papers across the country. The more time passed, the more comic it became. Obviously, neither of the congressman really wanted any part of the “field of honor.” Of course, for Burlingame, representing a party and district associated with pacifism and civil disobedience, the failure of the duel to materialize was not the least bit damaging. In fact, especially when it became clear that he had been carefully baiting Brooks from the beginning, the ordeal worked to his benefit. Later in the year and again in 1858, he was re-elected by wide margins.
For Brooks, on the other hand, negotiating semantics with a Boston lawyer in the Washington political rags was not a very good way to “play to his base.” The undisputed facts were that Burlingame had named the terms, as was his right according to the apparently well-known chivalric codes of the South and West, and Brooks had declined to meet them out of fear for his well-being. For a politician whose entire appeal had been based on manifesting an antiquated notion of aristocratic honor, it was an insurmountable blow. Brooks died of the croup the following January, by which point his political career had already been buried.
Recounting the events in 1906, Twain wrote, “Potter, (that is his name, I think) the Congressional bully…had bullied everybody, insulted everybody, challenged everybody, cowed everybody, and was cock of the walk in Washington. But when he challenged the new young Congressman from the West he found a prompt and ardent man at last. Burlingame chose Bowie-knives at short range, and Potter apologized and retired from his bullyship with the laughter of the nation ringing in his ears.”
Every part of Twain’s narrative, including the historical details it gets wrong, is calculated for effect. By self-consciously misremembering Brooks’s name, he emphasizes the damage that had been done to the South Carolinian’s legacy. By conflating “Bowie-knives at short range” with “rifles at fifty paces” – the perfection of this opposition hinting that the mistake is intentional – Twain reminded those familiar with the events how little the terms actually mattered. And by alleging that Brooks actually apologized, which was far from accurate, Twain nonetheless hit upon what had become the central and lasting impression of the incident: that he had been humiliated and emasculated by his inability to live up to his own ridiculous code. When Twain wrote this account, he had every reason to believe he was narrating what would remain a familiar piece of antebellum political lore.. For his generation, the Brooks-Burlingame feud was inextricable from the Sumner assault, as integral to explaining the build-up to the Civil War as the assault itself. In a Washington Post obituary for Colonel James in 1901, W. A. Croffut referred to Burlingame’s rifle as “the first gun of the civil war.”
Thirty-One years earlier, Twain had eulogized Burlingame in the pages of the Buffalo Express. Burlingame died at the age of fifty in St. Petersburg. He was in Russia to begin negotiations with Czar Alexander II, with the hope of performing for Russia the same service he had recently performed for China. “He had outgrown the narrow citizenship of a state, and become a citizen of the world,” Twain wrote, “and his charity was large enough and his great heart warm enough to feel for all its races and labor for them.” Twain recognized that Burlingame’s cosmopolitanism grew directly out of his antebellum activism. “His fervent abolitionism, manifested in a time when it was neither very credible nor very safe to hold such a creed” had been the initial public demonstration of Burlingame’s “noble kindliness that could not comprehend narrowness or meanness.”
It was Burlingame’s “chivalrous generosity,” Twain speculated, “that prompted him to hurl his famous Brooks-and-Sumner speech in the face of an astonished and insulted South at a time when all the North was smarting under the sneers and taunts and material ruffianisms of admired and applauded Southerners.” This notion, that “a very, very great man” could, in response to abusive behavior, not turn the other cheek, but express his willingness to meet calculated incivility with calculated incivility, thereby exposing not just the brutishness of the behavior but the cynical falsity which motivated it, was something Twain returned to often, both in his fiction and in his social commentary. Following Burlingame’s example, Twain seemed often to suggest that those who had proven themselves incapable of civility, deserved none.
Mark Twain is frequently treated as a precursor to the New Journalists who rose to prominence in midcentury America, writers like Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe, who died yesterday. Like many of them, Twain began his career as a conventional reporter (insofar as there was any such convention in the 1860s) and developed a habit of inserting himself into his stories, so much so that his carefully constructed persona – cynical, self-assured, and, at times, comically inept – became as integral to his accounts as the places, persons, and events he was assigned to cover.
Wolfe, who coined the term New Journalism and is generally treated as one of the genre’s foremost innovators, began wearing white three-piece suits when he joined the New York Herald Tribune in 1962, a practice he would continue for the rest of his life. He claimed it was not an intentional homage to Twain, that they simply shared a fondness for a particular brand of southern elegance, but Wolfe clearly recognized that he was inviting comparisons with Twain, and this did not bother him.
Wolfe was hardly alone amongst the New Journalists in making frequent and loaded references to Twain’s life and work. They all shared Twain’s tendency to blur the line between journalistic liberty and outright fabulism. But Wolfe, perhaps because he spent so many years living in Twain’s aesthetic shadow, was particularly prone to inventing anecdotes about his idol.
At a lecture sponsored by the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford in 2003, he repeatedly refers to Twain’s “holy trinity” of “God, money, and the spirit of money, which is known as stocks.” Wolfe was perhaps merely misremembering the deeply satirical lines from Twain’s “Revised Catechism” – “Money is God. Gold and greenbacks and stock – father, son, and the ghost of the same – three persons in one: these are the true and only God, might and supreme” – which he proclaims should be spoken in honor of the prophet, Boss Tweed, and a series of Gilded Age capitalist saints, including Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, and Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Wolfe can perhaps be forgiven for treating Twain’s celebration of “the holy spirit of golden money” (something else Twain never said) as sincere, given that it supports his larger theme of admiration for Twain’s ambitiousness and his commitment to what Wolfe calls “the Aristophanic oath”: “First, entertain.” To entertain, Wolfe defines as “to make a person pass the time pleasantly with no physical effort whatsoever.” He implores the audience to look up this definition in Webster’s Dictionary. (I have consulted over a dozen editions and found no such phrase.)
Wolfe goes on to quote Twain as having said, “There is nothing that assures your spiritual standing more securely than the sanctified odor of cash.” While one can certainly imagine circumstances in which Twain might have expressed such a sentiment, the admirable phrase – “the sanctified odor of cash” – not only appears nowhere in Twain’s sizable corpus, but, so far as I can tell, has never appeared anywhere in print. It is a small tragedy that by misattributing these words to Twain, Wolfe was prevented from publishing them himself.
England gawked. Europe gawked. The whole globe gawked, even India. It has been recorded that Twain once returned from India and said to a friend, eyes wide, mandibles agape, soul in a state of utterly sincere self-awe: “In India, they know only three things about America…Wall Street…the Statue of Liberty…and Mark Twain!”
Where this “has been recorded” eludes me. Richard Zacks recently dedicated nearly a hundred pages to Twain’s tour of India in Chasing The Last Laugh (2016). Numerous other scholars, notably Seema Sharma and Keshav Mutalik, have written at length on the subject without unearthing this charming and, in Zacks case, highly relevant anecdote. What Zacks says, to the contrary, is that “India didn’t discover Twain; Twain discovered India.” The author performed to several sold-out crowds of primarily British colonists and sold a small stock of books on the back of his tour, but was moderately disappointed to find that “the various Indian-language papers would largely ignore him” and “almost no one would recognize him in the streets.”
The largely invented account Wolfe forwarded of his idol is revealing. Wolfe is so seduced by Twain’s place as “the most famous American writer of all time,” he is induced to further exaggerate that fame. What Wolfe likes most about Twain is his sales. In his 2003 talk, Wolfe compliments Twain on Huckleberry Finn, not for its pathbreaking novelistic techniques or its progressive politics, but because the author recognizes, decades before marketing teams would, that sequels sell!
In essays like “Stalking The Billion-Footed Beast” (1989) and “The Three Stooges” (2000), Wolfe decried what he perceived as an abandonment of populist realism by his most critically-acclaimed contemporaries, including John Irving, Philip Roth, and John Updike. In the latter essay, he expressly mocked the poor sales of these literati.
Wolfe’s appropriation of the white suit – representative of Twain’s precocious talent for personal branding – reveals the nature of Wolfe’s appreciation for Twain. He is not envious of Twain’s incisive social commentary, his innovative wit, or his proto-metafictionist techniques, though Wolfe does emulate these traits, but rather, in awe that “Twain had actually lived, in the flesh, as that heroic figure every American writer…dreams of being: Big Spender from the East.”
The renowned excoriations of the opulence and ostentation in Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) apparently do not apply equally to Twain (or Wolfe). In every commentary he makes about Twain, he refers to the author’s gaudy Hartford home, “a Victorian palace whose many turrets were over the top, even for the Gilded Age.” Wolfe, who struggles to accurately recount the plot of Twain’s most-famous and influential novel, has perfect recall for numerous details about the woodworking, the furnishings, and the servants in the Clemens massive mansion. He gleefully imagines what it would be like to have “this heavenly vision of worldly success be the first thing he saw every day when he awoke.”
One is reminded of a line from The American Claimant (1892):
“I’m opposed to millionaires, but it would be dangerous to offer me the position…I would leave the funeral of my dearest enemy to go and assume its burdens and responsibilities.”
Last week Ron Powers visited Elmira College and the Center for Mark Twain Studies. The bestselling and award-winning author of MarK Twain: A Life (2005) led several discussions, including of his most recent book, Nobody Cares About Crazy People(2017), recently named a finalist for the PEN/E. O. Wilson Science Writing Award.
Powers also gave the first Trouble Begins lecture of the 2018 season. In “Travelin’ Man,” Powers argues that Twain “staked out” a “roadmap for proletarian writing” which would be followed by 20th-century American authors like James Agee and Philip Roth, as well as Powers himself.
Many scholars and biographers have undersold the extraordinary scope of Twain’s travels, a portion of which Powers describes in detail, as well as underestimated how Twain’s drive to “experience the terror and ecstasy of unknown territory” inflects his legacy.
There is perhaps no greater testament to Twain’s lasting reputation than the habitual misattribution of miscellaneous wit and wisdom to his name. The circulation of such apocryphal aphorisms was common enough in the 20th century. It has only increased with the popularization of digital media. The most common question addressed to the Center for Mark Twain Studies is some variety of “Did he really say that?” Whenever possible, we track down the original source, as well as attempt to trace how their words came to be imagined in Twain’s mouth.
"If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed. If you do read it, you're misinformed." — Denzel Washington https://t.co/lD4EimFjcr
In the era of #fakenews, it’s not surprising that this quote is rising the ranks of social media fodder. To Denzel’s credit, he did not offer an attribution, though many who reported on his statements did…to his point. This aphorism, adaptable to so many polemical circumstances, demonstrates, once again, how eager we are to appropriate Twain to our causes:
To paraphrase Twain, If you don’t watch MSNBC you are uninformed, if you do watch MSNBC you are misinformed!
As the always dependable Garson O”Toole has pointed out, there’s no evidence Twain ever said anything of the sort. The earliest attributions of the quote to his name do not appear until 1998 or later, and these are hardly from reliable sources. O’Toole finds versions of this sentiment in the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Orville Hubbard. He also notes that Evra Taft Benson, who would become President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, told a congregation at Brigham Young University in 1979,
“The less newspapers have to say of value and of truth, the more pages they seem to take to say it. Usually a few minutes is more than sufficient to read a paper. One must select wisely a source of news; otherwise it would be better to be uninformed than misinformed.”
Given the ongoing theme of mistrust in mass media within this sermon and Benson’s other writings, it’s likely he had outsized influence on the popularization of the logic to which was added a rhetorical flare befitting Twain.
It is also possible that Benson was borrowing, ironically, from a newspaper columnist. A few year earlier, the widely-syndicated Tom Anderson had written a spirited anti-intellectual rant against “eggheads,” speculating that it was “better to be uninformed than misinformed.”
For reasons that remain unclear, the attribution to Twain became common practice in 2007. Over the next couple years, the aphorism was repeatedly used as a crutch for lazy columnists. Thus emerges a meta-irony which Twain would undoubtedly have appreciated: newspaper writers writing in newspapers about the unreliability of newspaper writing and citing an unreliable source to testify to that unreliability.
Twain was, undeniably, quick to make a joke at the expense of fellow journalists. He pokes fun at the unreliability of the press more or less continuously throughout his career (see, for instance, “How I Edited an Agricultural Paper” ). But, from his exposes of San Francisco police in 1864 to the posthumously published The Mysterious Stranger, the printing press is always associated with an ability to strike fear in the hearts of the powerful. Though he was critical of both institutions, Twain would undoubtedly agree with Jefferson, who wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
My name is Mac Morrison, I am an undergraduate student at Tulane University. I’ve loved Mark Twain’s books since I was a very small child, and I’d like to gain a deeper understanding of the man and his work. In most academic fields there seem to be a short list of works by modern scholars that are considered canonical within the field, and I was just wondering if you might be able to recommend some titles that fit that description that might be a good introduction to Mark Twain studies for someone who doesn’t have a clue where to start. If such titles exist. Honestly I was pleasantly surprised to find that a center for Mark Twain studies exists at all. In any case, I hope this email finds you well, whoever you are.
Best regards from a huge Mark Twain fan,
Mac asks an excellent question and is kind enough to let me respond to it in an open forum, where it may be read by others who share his curiosity.
The “primer” which follows focuses on secondary sources – works by biographers, historians, and other scholars – rather than primary sources – those written by Twain and his contemporaries. For the latter, I would recommend the Mark Twain Project – which has produced dozens of excellent editions of Twain’s published and private writings, many available online – as well as the Oxford Mark Twain, a 29-volume collection of Twain’s published works with excellent paratextual materials.
I am also excluding reference works and periodicals, notably Alan Gribben’s Mark Twain’s Library, Kent Rasmussen’s Mark Twain A to Z, David Fear’s Mark Twain Day By Day, the Mark Twain Journal, and the Mark Twain Annual, all of which are invaluable resources for Twain scholars and are likely available at your university library. You may also want to check our our digital resources and resources for teachers pages.
I would invite other Twain scholars to comment upon the following list, or even submit their own. Canons are sticky wickets. There are hundreds of volumes of Twain scholarship. It’s hard to know where to begin. Part of the CMTS mission is to provide support for young Twaniacs like Mac. But, of course, any attempt to organize that enormous body of critical works reflects the peculiar preferences of the author.
So, with those caveats, I offer you my dozen “desert island” works of Twain scholarship:
Mark Twain: A Life (2005) by Ron Powers
There are many Twain biographies and as many controversies surrounding them, starting with the authorized Mark Twain: A Biography (1912) by Albert Bigelow Paine. Justin Kaplan’s Mr. Clemens & Mark Twain(1966) won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. Next month the corpus will get even bigger, with the publication of the first volume of Gary Scharnhorst’s The Life of Mark Twain. All have their strengths and weaknesses. But, if I had to choose just one, I would opt for Powers’s, which offers a great combination of accuracy and approachability.
The Mark Twain Circle of America’s award for scholarship is named for Budd, with good reason. Budd captures the range of Twain’s political and social commentary, rescuing from it an intricacy and a coherence which few other scholars have managed to express.
The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn (1998) by Jocelyn Chadwick
Twain’s positions on race are too often reduced to one book and even one word in said book, but the relationship between Jim and Huck deserves its central place in Twain Studies, which also cannot elude the controversy produced by this novel in the intervening centuries. Many have written on this subject, and written well. Chadwick offers a undiluted survey, as well as her own fresh perspective.
Fishkin has made several substantial contributions to Twain scholarship, including editing the Oxford edition mentioned above, but I would speculate that her unconventional mix of professional and personal narrative in Lighting Out provides as holistic a view of Twain Studies as can by found in a single work.
Twain’s capacity for reflecting and capitalizing on the peculiar circumstances of the Gilded Age is a theme in many of these works. Michelson captures Twain’s mastery of emerging mass media. Judith Y. Lee’s Twain’s Brand (2012) is also excellent in this respect.
Twain developed deep connections to numerous places in the U.S. and abroad. This collection explores the impact of many of those locales on Twain’s ethos. I am, naturally, partial to the essay on Elmira by my predecessor, Michael Kiskis.
Remember what I said about personal preferences? There are definitely more popular studies of Twain’s humor – for instance James M. Cox’s Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor(1966) – but Schmitz’s interweaving of Twain’s Mississippi writings with Gertrude Stein, Herman Melville, and Krazy Kat left an indelible impression on me.
Mark Twain and Human Nature (2007) by Tom Quirk
Quirk traces the development of Twain’s attitude towards mankind over the course of his entire career. The linear narrative which interweaves biographical detail and private writings with insightful readings of all the major works, as well as Quirk’s humble and humorous narrative voice, makes this another strong candidate to start your journey in Twain Studies.
1868 was a pretty important year for Sam Clemens. Over the course of it, he would turn the Quaker City cruise of the preceding year into a lucrative cross-country lecture tour and what would prove to be a bestselling book, The Innocents Abroad (1869). He made an extended stay in Washington, DC, gathering impressions which would form the basis for his first novel, The Gilded Age (1873), as well as several humorous stories and editorials. And he would make his first trip to Elmira and his first proposal to Olivia Langdon.
Though he may not yet have realized it, he had entered the productive prime of his career. The humorous accounts of his travels to Hawaii and the Holy Land had created a thriving demand for both his publications and performances. He evidently enjoyed the attention and rarely missed an opportunity to further raise his profile. Such was the case with the letter he published on New Years Eve, 1867.
Upon returning to the States, several unintentionally humorous feuds had broken out amongst the passengers of the Quaker City tour, who found themselves minor “reality stars” thanks in part to Twain’s descriptions of them in the Alta California. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle covered once such instance of “Trouble Among the Pilgrims,” when the captain of the Quaker City, C. C. Duncan, told an audience at the Plymouth Church that many of his passengers were habitually drunk, an account Stephen Griswold, a prominent banker and fellow Plymouth parishioner, vehemently denied. The Eagle, parodied “this momentous question” and speculated that “Mark Twain is the man to settle the point, let us hear from him.”
Twain accepted the invitation. His response to the controversy appeared in the December 31st edition of the Eagle. He took the opportunity to quibble with the semantics of Duncan’s accusation, demonstrating that “the best intentioned language is such an unreliable vehicle for thought,” and to report that both the captain and the banker had tasted Europe’s wines, even going so far as tempting Twain with them.
As the editor of the Eagle put it, “A discussion on the relative merits of French and Italian wines between two thorough-going temperance men; like Duncan and Griswold, would be very entertaining.” Twain joined the Eagle in mocking the self-seriousness of the Duncan-Griswold debate, expressing hope that more of his fellow passengers would “pour ink upon the troubled waters.”
The evening after the letter appeared, Clemens celebrated the New Year with the family of one of those fellow passengers, Charley Langdon. Charles Dickens was giving a series of readings at Steinway Hall in New York City. It was a highly coveted ticket. Twain would repeatedly remark on how wildly successful and innovative Dickens’s 1867-68 tour had been, attempting to emulate it in many respects, including hiring Dickens’s agent, George Dolby.
Twain described the performance in a dispatch to the Alta California a week later. He was impressed by the set. Dickens stood in front of “a huge red screen” with “a table to put his book on…a tumbler, a fancy decanter and a small bouquet.” A row of “reflecting lights attached to…a long board..threw down a glory upon the gentleman, after the fashion in use in the picture-galleries for bringing out the best effects of great paintings.” Twain, with the eye of an already well-established professional lecturer, admired everything about the staging: “Style! – There is style about Dickens, and style about all his surroundings.” But his expert opinion was also that Dickens was “a bad reader,” who “did not cut the syllables cleanly.” His “husky voice” and “monotonous” delivery didn’t do justice to “the beautiful pathos of his language.” And, the most mortal sin to Mark Twain, he did not know how to tell his own jokes: “His rich humor cannot fail to tickle an audience into ecstasies save when he reads it himself.”
But while the expert lecturer found faults with Dickens’s performance, the aspiring novelist was giddy with admiration for “that queer old head” with “the wonderful mechanisms within it, the complex but exquisitely adjusted machinery that could create men and women, and put the breath of life into them and alter all their ways and actions, elevate them, degrade them, murder them, marry them, conduct them through good and evil, through joy and sorrow, on their long march from cradle to grave, and never lose its godship over them, never make a mistake!” Twain, still nearly a decade from delivering Adventure of Tom Sawyer (1876) tried to “see the wheels and pulleys work” in the imagination of a fiction writer whose talent (and reputation) he clearly coveted.
He also coveted Dickens’s audience, who were equally awed by the author’s mere presence. Twain was increasingly sensitive to the advantages of celebrity and observed that the “bright, intelligent audience” was generous with their attention and applause despite “a degree of ability far below what his reading reputation led us to expect.”
In his review, Twain could not help but brag that he attended the exhibition with “a beautiful young lady…a highly respectable young white woman.” This was, of course, Olivia Langdon, who in a few years would become Livy Clemens. In 1907 he wrote, “It was forty years ago; from that day to this [she] has never been out of my mind nor heart.” With the exception of his own works, his favorite novels to read aloud to their daughters were always those of Charles Dickens.
Happy New Year from the Center for Mark Twain Studies!