Members of the Elmira College Community Perform A Revised Version of “A True Story”

Editor’s Note: In September 2019 members of the Elmira College community organized and performed a revised reading of Mark Twain’s “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It (1874). The following are thoughts and reactions from faculty and students. CMTS has included the script of the stage reading, a slide show, and Karen Johnson’s rehearsal video in the “Resources for Teachers and Students” section of MarkTwainStudies.org.

The Script of the Staged Reading of “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word As I Heard It”

Slide Show Accompanying the Performance

Karen Johnson’s Rehearsal Video

Facsimile of “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word As I Heard It” from Mark Twain. Sketches, New and Old. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Hannah Hammond, EC Assistant Professor of Theater (left); Karen Johnson, EC Vice President for Institutional Research, Planning, and Assessment/Title IX Coordinator (middle);
and EC student Sadie Kennett ’21 (right)

Jan Kather, Professor of Media Studies: Although we found Mark Twain’s 1874 “word for word” account of former slave and Quarry Farm cook, Mary Ann Cord, problematic because of the repeated inclusion of the N-word, colleagues Hannah Hammond and Karen Johnson, student Sadie Kennett ’21 and I decided to revise the story so that we could (with good conscience) host a staged reading of “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It” for several classes at Elmira College. We were not surprised to find that the students were unaware that Twain had written this story of a slave being miraculously rescued by her son, a story first told to Twain on the porch at Quarry Farm.  Many expressed appreciation that he gave voice to the illiterate Mary Ann Cord, who could not have written her story herself  (although we do know her descendants have their own, slightly different oral histories of this same incident).

The story of “Aunt Rachel,” as Twain renamed the character, was his first article published in the prestigious The Atlantic Monthly in 1874. Mark Twain scholar Shelly Fisher Fishkin notes that America would never be the same, nor would Twain, who later used this new and compelling emotional awareness of the brutality of slavery later (c. 1883) in the character of Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Aside from substituting the word “negro” for the N-word, we decided to make the reading an all woman production. Elmira College’s new Assistant Professor of Theatre Hannah Hammond suggested changing Mark Twain’s recollection to that of his daughter Susy as fondly remembering her father talk about the scene. Hannah explains this revision before the reading, a revision that allowed for theatre major Sadie Kennett ’21 to be part of the production. Luckily Elmira College’s VP for Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment/Title IX Coordinator, Karen Johnson was enthusiastic about reading Aunt Rachel’s story. It was important to us that this story be read by an African American woman, as well as having an African American be part of our guided question and answer discussion where we addressed the substitution of the N-word and the re-imagined all-female cast.

The production was well received, as evident in the following quotes from students who had learned that most often, white men read this story in the voice of Mark Twain:

Ryan Reid ’23A live performance of a work lets you visualize it so much better. You can put faces to characters and the performance tends to stick with you longer when you have that experience. Personally I enjoyed the performance over the Q/A. I feel like the performance of it just dove into the story so much better. You feel apart of it, like you were a character in the story. I honestly don’t have any quarrels against women acting in men’s roles or vice versa, as I think the women did a great job. Would it be a more true representation if Twain was a man? yes, but doing it this way has a nice creative twist to it. To me, the portrayal of Aunt Rachel by a woman of color keeps the story true like I’ve stated before. Personally it gives me a feeling that the actors are truly the characters they portray. Growing up all you know about Twain is that he was a brilliant writer and really not much else. You may have read a few stories of his as a child but this story from Twain really presents something not often seen by readers.

Elmira College students watch the performance of “A True Story”

Kharisma Blake ’23: If “A True Story” were read by a man, it would be read the way it was written and have the original meaning. The change to being read by Twain’s daughter gives the reading more of a window to show women and their voice and place in history that isn’t often shown. With that being said, it was very important that the character of Aunt Rachel was read by an African American woman. It gives authenticity to the character and makes you feel like you are Mark Twain sitting on the porch listening to her story.

Alexander Taylor ’23: My reaction to the live performance was being able to imagine listening to Aunt Rachel say these words directly to Mark Twain. There was a certain tone and vibe in her voice, and as she read it there was a sense of realism, almost as if it was truly Aunt Rachel sitting in that chair. The questions and answers were very informative because after hearing the reading, the information gave more life and meaning to what we just heard. If the reading was by a man, the realistic feeling might be gone, and hearing it through the voice of the women made it sound like it was really Aunt Rachel talking.

Gabby Smith ’23: This presentation was a retelling of Mark Twain’s “A True Story” based on the life of his cook, Mary Ann, who was a slave before being freed because of the Civil War. My reaction to the live performance was that I was able to visualize the story more when I was able to see it being acted out in front of me, compared to reading text. I think that the most informative part of the presentation was the reading itself because students were able to see the retelling of the story. I do not think that this presentation would have been effective if it was read by a man in the role of Twain as the storyteller. It was better with women performing all the roles. It was important to me that “Aunt Rachel” was performed by an African American because it led to more authenticity to the story rather than having a white woman (or man) reading the part.

Samantha Proseus ’23:  Personally, I really enjoyed the reading, and the live performance because it was more interesting and easier to understand what was going on. Also, I could see and feel the emotions of characters a lot more. In my opinion, if the presentation was read by a man in the role of Twain as a story teller, it would most likely not be as effective because hearing the story through an African American woman brought it to life, and seemed more authentic. Aside from the overall reading, I feel that the question and answer period was extra beneficial because I always get more out of discussion.  I enjoyed the way it was performed with the women, but I’m not exactly sure what it would be like if men were to perform it.  I feel like the performance came to life because “Aunt Rachel” was performed by an African American, and I feel like it definitely made the performance come to life. It also was really nice to see how passionate the lady who read it was, and how much it meant to her. I am extremely grateful to have been able to experience the reading and it meant a lot that the lady took time out of her day to learn how to speak as “Aunt Rachel” did in the past because I know how difficult it must’ve been. 

Elijah Jordan ’23:  The story told during our seminar is very comparable to our reading of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in one major way. In both stories the trepidation of slave mothers trying to reconnect with their children is shown. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass recounts that his mother would work a full day in the field, then proceed to walk an exhausting distance to see him for a few moments before heading back to the fields before sunrise. Mary Ann Cord was separated from all of her children as well as her husband, but through both her and her son’s initiative, they were able to come together after thirteen years.  

To me the most informative part of the reenactment was the story being told. Hearing it in such an authentic fashion really made the story resonate with me, and it gave me a whole new respect for Karen. I don’t believe that it would’ve been as effective if it were a man (who presumably is white as well) who read the story of an African American woman who survived slavery. There would be a major disconnect. To me it was extremely important that Aunt Rachel was played by an African American woman. Manybstories of minorities are being told/taught by cis, white men so there’s no real authenticity.  

Jordan Holt ’23: Both the presentation of the reading and the question and answer period were informative, however, I believe that the actual presentation presented more ideas for consideration. This is due to the fact that is presented an accurate depiction of the challenging and heartbreaking life of a slave woman. In addition, it was more informative because it could be related to other notions and topics discussed in class. As a result, people in the audience begin to think about other aspects of slave life. After listening to this presentation, individuals may be able to obtain a better understanding of what it was like to be a slave and the terrible things in which these people had to endure. 

The presentation would have been less effective if it was read by a man in the role of Twain as a storyteller. This is due to the fact that it is better with women performing all of the roles. This is because it allowed the presentation to have a deeper and more effective portrayal. Furthermore, it allowed the audience to connect with the slave woman and understand her story in a more effective manner. 

It is immensely important that Aunt Rachel was performed by an African American woman. This story is one that many people should hear, as it is both informative and necessary to convey this story and this part of history to people. 

Brianna Costley ’23When watching the performance of Mark Twain’s “A True Story” you can compare it to the “Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass” in many ways. Both of the stories show just how cruel slavery was and depict how children were forcibly taken from their mothers at an early age. When reading and watching the two you get similar feelings. Both make you see just how wrong it was but also when listening to a woman of color read it, it seems all the more personal. The question and answer part of the presentation was very informative because it helped bring some things up from the presentation that we might not have noticed or thought about. An example is the impact of the presentation being read by all women instead of a man. The reading would not have been as effective if it was read by a man because it is regarding slave children being taken away from their mother; a white man has no idea what this might have been like. Having women readers makes the presentation more genuine. I think it was important that the role of Aunt Rachel was played by an African American woman because there is more power behind an African American woman reading the story than a white reader who has never been oppressed. I think this performance will affect the way I see things like the Mark Twain Study because, before I might have thought of some of his other more famous pieces, but now I might think of this one first because of its powerful message.

Celebrity Authors For A Cause: The Anti-Vivisection Connection Between Mark Twain & Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

Twain’s fascination and sympathy for animals is abundantly clear in the countless depictions of animals in his writing. One of my favorite manifestations of Twain’s love of animals, however, isn’t a literary example, but an architectural one: the cat doors built into his Octagonal Study. The cat doors allow me to identify with the iconic author on a personal level as I conjure up a delightfully relatable image of him exactly as I am at the moment – writing with my beloved cats surrounding and draped upon me. That Twain loved animals is common knowledge. But what may surprise even Twain fans today is that he didn’t only love animals, he advocated for their rights. 

Twain’s sympathy for animals can be traced throughout his entire life, a fact he attributed to his mother’s influence, and his wife Livy and their daughters were all avid supporters of animal welfare causes. It took a more radical branch of the animal welfare movement, though, to draw Twain’s public statements of protest: the practice of vivisection, or scientific experiments on live animals. During Twain’s lifetime, vivisection became increasingly common, especially in universities, where “modernized” physiology laboratories touted their facilities for conducting animal experiments and theatrical lecture hall demonstrations on animals were the new norm. Twain became increasingly conscious of the use of animals in experiments, and he railed against the practice in his 1899 letter to the London Anti-Vivisection Society, which was published and circulated on both sides of the Atlantic as a pamphlet for the anti-vivisection cause. Characteristic of the author’s usual outrage over the exploitation of the vulnerable in society, Twain’s letter took a radical philosophical stance, refuting the notion that animal testing was justifiable as a means to advance medical science.

“I believe I am not interested to know whether Vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn’t. To know that the results are profitable to the race would not remove my hostility to it. The pains which it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity towards it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further.”

A few years later, apparently at the suggestion of his animal-loving daughter Jean, Twain wrote the short story that solidified his public support for the cause, “A Dog’s Tale.” As the last published work Twain wrote in Quarry Farm, “A Dog’s Tale,” published in December 1903 in Harper’s and the following year as a book, is a fitting culmination of the many productive summers he spent surrounded by the beloved cats, dogs, farm animals and wildlife of his Elmira, N.Y. retreat. The story is told from the perspective of a loveable mother dog, Aileen Mavourneen, who earns an honored status in her family by rescuing a baby from a nursery fire, only to have her own puppy killed by her unfeeling vivisector owner in an unnecessary experiment in his home laboratory. In “A Dog’s Tale,” Twain condemns vivisection as an act of betrayal. As the sympathetic family servant who buried Aileen’s puppy, laments, “Poor little doggie, you saved his child.”

After the publication of his letter to the Anti-Vivisection Society and “A Dog’s Tale,” Twain became a celebrity spokesperson for the cause, and he was not alone in that role. His contemporary Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, the author of over 50 volumes of fiction, poetry, and essays, also joined the fight against vivisection. From the 1890s until her death in 1911, Phelps devoted herself to the anti-vivisection cause. In addition to writing novels and short stories that protested vivisection, Phelps contributed several pamphlets and three speeches to the Massachusetts Legislature in support of a bill to regulate vivisection in that state, and she lobbied for legislative reform with lawmakers. Phelps was such a prominent advocate for animal rights that the New York Times featured her stance in a 1908 article about the vivisection controversy: “Ten thousand things learned, if this were possible, from vivisection, would not justify the intolerable and unpardonable torture to which animals have been subjected by this brutal practice.” Phelps, while in agreement with Twain on wanting to abolish vivisection completely, nevertheless supported legislation to regulate the practice, with the hopes of lessening the suffering of animals in laboratories. 

Despite the nuances of their activist stances, Twain and Phelps both used their fiction as a vehicle to generate sympathy for animals and support for the anti-vivisection campaign. As Phelps’s most significant contribution to the cause, her novel Trixy highlights the degrading effect of vivisection on humanity and especially on the medical profession. The vivisector characters of both “A Dog’s Tale” and Trixy are portrayed as elite class “gentlemen of science” who perform unnecessary experiments on animals for the sake of professional glory, and who are desensitized to the suffering of living beings. The dog characters of both stories are the kind of loyal, trusting, and loveable companion animals that were cherished in the Victorian pet keeping culture (and today), which makes the stories of their betrayal by humans especially heart breaking.

Although neglected by scholars and readers for many years, Twain’s contributions to the anti-vivisection campaign are finally getting the attention they deserve, in large part thanks to Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s volume, Mark Twain’s Book of Animals, published in 2010. Phelps’s writing for the cause, which has been out of print for over a century, warrants recovery, as well. Trixy speaks as much to readers today as it did in Phelps’s and Twain’s era, because it presents a progressive and capacious model of compassion that crosses boundaries of species and social status. In Trixy, Phelps anticipates posthumanist philosophers today who challenge species-based divisions and hierarchies.  

Animal rights activists today will appreciate Phelps’s strategic choice in highlighting not only the suffering animals, but also the bonds between animals and humans, and they’ll recognize the power of storytelling as a key strategy in transforming readers’ attitudes about the status of animals in society. In many ways, I see social media profiles of rescue dogs as a modern day version of the narrative strategies popularized by Twain and Phelps. In Twitter posts told from the point of view of rescue dogs, adopters share updates about their dogs’ happy lives, loving homes and relationships, and carefree adventures. With their focus on telling stories of dogs and their emotional experiences and interactions with people, activists who focus on nonhuman animals’ stories pick up where Phelps and Twain left off over a century ago. 

Trixy and “A Dog’s Tale” take us back to a time when the use of animals in laboratories had just become commonplace in the U.S., especially in universities. These stories offer us a glimpse into the authors’ prescient ideas about the enduring effects of that new norm, and they reflect the authors’ passionate devotion to the rights of nonhuman animals. At the same time, they also offer readers today a progressive vision of love and compassion across the species divide. 

“Who comes so near to meeting the conditions of a real friendship as your dog? His devotion surpasses the devotion of most women. His affection outvies the affection of any man. He gives everything; he asks nothing. He offers all; he receives little. He comforts your loneliness; he assuages your distress; he sacrifices his liberty to watch by you in sickness; when every one else who used to love you has neglected your grave, he will break his heart upon it. Who fails you in faith? Your dog is loyal. Who deserts you? Your dog never. Who gashes you with roughness, or bruises you with unkindness? Your dog offers you the tenderness that time and use cannot destroy. You have from him the expression of the uttermost, the unselfish love.”

from Trixy by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

A more expanded discussion of these remarks, especially the Twain and Phelps anti-vivisection connection, can be found in my Introduction to the new critical edition of Trixy being published by Northwestern University Press. The volume also includes Mark Twain’s story “A Dog’s Tale” in the appendix. To find out more and received a 25% discount, check out this flyer.


I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Center for Mark Twain Studies through a Quarry Farm Fellowship, which provided me with valuable research time and inspiration for this project. 

Emily E. VanDette is a Professor of English at SUNY Fredonia. She was a Quarry Farm Fellow in 2017.

You Could Get Bookings: A Review of Holbrook/Twain

Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, a documentary about the six-decade run of Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight!, will be released on Tuesday, November 19th. As of today, the film is available for pre-order from iTunes.

The majority of the film, directed by Scott Teems, was shot a few years ago. It centers on a performance Holbrook gave on his 90th birthday, in 2015, to a sold-out crowd in Hartford, Connecticut, where Twain was a long-time resident.

But while Holbrook/Twain does feature numerous, elegantly-framed excerpts from that performance and others, it’s primary focus is not the show, but the showman. Teems previously directed Holbrook in the 2009 independent film, That Evening Sun, which won eleven festival prizes, including two at SXSW. It is clear that what interests him is Holbrook’s mastery of his craft and the costs of pursuing that mastery. We understand Holbrook foremost as a actor, albeit one who has been indelibly shaped by the unique experience of playing one of America’s most iconic historical figures, continuously, for his entire adult life.

Holbrook began staging Twain’s “An Encounter with an Interviewer” as part of a variety show which he and his first wife toured straight out of college at Denison. The show was seen by James “Bim” Pond, then editor of Program magazine. Pond’s father was one of Twain’s booking agents and, having inherited the family business upon his father’s death in 1903, Bim would certainly have been familiar with the public clamor for all things Twain, even deep into the 20th century. When the Holbrooks settled in New York City, looking for more stable employment to support their family, it was Pond who suggested a solo show as Twain. When Holbrook flinched, the editor said, simply, “I think you could get bookings.” The Hartford show from Holbrook/Twain was the 2,301st staging of Mark Twain Tonight!

Holbrook’s commercial success was not without sacrifices, from getting assaulted in the South by those who saw his interpretation of Twain as implicitly sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement to estranging himself from wives and children. Teems approaches his subject without caution, drawing poignantly, for instance, from an unvarnished interview with Holbrook’s son. Nor is Holbrook himself guarded when talking about the costs of his choices. The result is an unexpectedly intimate portrait. We see Holbrook’s life mimicing Twain’s, as his personal losses are weighted with the continual expectation to make people laugh as they have never laughed before. But we also see Hal Holbrook without the white suit and wig, an artistic force entirely distinct from his most famous role, who has earned the highest esteem of his peers, both actors like Sean Penn and Emile Hirsch, and scholars like Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Barbara Snedecor.

It’s hard to imagine there will ever be anything remotely like Mark Twain Tonight!, a show that was born amidst the last vestiges of vaudeville and somehow remains relevant to students born after 9/11. It’s cheap to say this is a testament to Twain. Twain’s burlesque jokes are greeted to scornful silence when I read them in my classrooms. Nearly half-a-century after his death, Twain caught another break when Holbrook crossed paths with Bim Pond. One cannot overestimate how different each of their legacies might have been without the other.

View of trailer for Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey above and Pre-Order from iTunes before November 19th.

No Humor In Heaven: Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor, & The Mark Twain Prize

As with other recipients of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Dave Chappelle (who receives the prize this Sunday at the Kennedy Center) has a few basic things in common with the award’s namesake. The most obvious, of course, is his keen sense of humor. Like Twain, Chappelle has honed his natural talent into a phenomenal career in comedy. Aside from performing 1,600 sold-out concerts around the world since 2015 alone, the Kennedy Center notes that Chappelle is “the mastermind behind the 2003 sketch comedy hit, Chappelle’s Show— one of the highest rated programs on Comedy Central. The show earned three Emmy nominations and went on to become the best-selling TV show in DVD history.”

Also like Twain and other prize recipients, Chappelle’s success is not merely based on a knack for telling jokes; it’s rooted in a mastery of comic storytelling. Where many comedians string comedic bits loosely together during a stand-up routine (no easy task in itself), Chappelle follows Twain’s lead by crafting longer, multi-layered narratives. Through a deceptively simple, conversational style, steeped in common (often vulgar) language, such comic narratives provoke laughter while exploring sensitive truths.  

What sets Chappelle apart from most of his fellow prize awardees, however, is the flair for controversy that he shares with Mark Twain, as the clamor surrounding his recent Netflix special “Sticks and Stones” attests. Back in 2005, Chappelle also made headlines when he walked away from his TV show (even leaving the country for a while) at the peak of his fame and fortune because, as he would later explain, “it just didn’t feel right.”

Few other Mark Twain Prize winners have found themselves so often embroiled in the cultural firestorms that Twain himself continues to ignite. The Twain Prize’s first recipient, Richard Pryor, shares this distinction with Twain and Chappelle, along with a storytelling style that’s intertwined with his notoriety.

Pryor’s volatile comic genius is credited with creating, as Stefan Kanfer puts it, “a new kind of comedy (in the 1970s)—a hilarious, heartbreaking, and conflicted view of life seen from the underside.” It’s in the “hilarious, heartbreaking, and conflicted” heart of Pryor’s comedy where his narrative-style intersects most closely with that of Twain and Chappelle, especially when it comes to their comedic attempts to unravel the Gordian knot of race relations in America. 

The similarity goes much deeper than the purposed invocations of the N-word which pepper the work of all three humorists (Pryor famously swore off using it after a visit to Africa). As scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin pointed out in a talk she gave at the Kennedy Center before Pryor’s award ceremony in 1998, Pryor and Twain (and I would include Chappelle) “derived their narrative skills from African storytelling.”

Fishkin noted that, “As a 15-year-old, Twain spent a lot of time with ‘Jerry,’ a slave who ‘daily preached (satirical) sermons from the top of his master’s woodpile with me for the sole audience.’” Twain confesses that his “mother beat him for associating with Jerry, but ‘to me he was a wonder. I believed he was the greatest man in the United States.’” Fishkin suggested, according to the Los Angeles Times, “that Pryor’s storytelling, like Twain’s, grew out of the same tradition of satire and subtlety, using humor drawn from their life experiences, wielding stories like weapons to destroy preconceptions and stereotypes.”

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, despite all the racial controversy swirling around it today, is perhaps Twain’s greatest satirical weapon in this regard. In Mark Twain: Social Critic, Philip S. Foner states that aside from “the book’s endemic lying, the petty thefts, the denigration of respectability and religion, the bad language, and the bad grammar, it was clear…that the (offended) authorities regarded the exposure of the evils of slavery and the heroic portrayals of the Negro characters as hideously subversive.”

This point is illustrated in Mark Twain Tonight!, when Hal Holbrook performing as Twain tells the “hideously subversive” story of Huck’s friendship with Jim, a runaway slave (while also demonstrating how Twain’s popular career as a stage performer helped to pave the way for the modern stand-up scene):

In accepting the Twain Prize, Pryor acknowledged his comedic camaraderie with Twain: “I am proud that, like Mark Twain, I have been able to use humor to lessen people’s hatred.” Although, as Kanfer says, “was a savage, equal-opportunity satirist (targeting) white racism, his fellow African-Americans, and—finally and most severely—himself,” he used his razor-sharp humor to cut into stereotypes and expose our shared (albeit deeply flawed) humanity. In this clip from the 1977 pilot of Pryor’s short-lived TV series (which, like Chappelle, he sabotaged because the way Hollywood tried to confine him didn’t feel right), Pryor is joined by John Belushi and, perhaps most surprisingly, Maya Angelou in a poignant sketch about an alcoholic’s broken dreams.

Chappelle does not shy away from the uglier aspects of racism that Twain and Pryor tackle. Perhaps the most famous example is a bitingly funny Frontline parody about a blind white supremacist who also happens to be black, a skit that co-writer Neal Brennan called “abrasive in the best possible way.”

Chappelle’s comedy, however, tends to be more good-natured in debunking the absurdities of racial prejudice. In another skit ridiculing racial stereotypes and music, Chappelle conducts a satirical experiment that calls to mind Twain’s religion experiment in “Man’s Place in the Animal World” (also known as “The Lowest Animal”)—only where Twain’s caged religious believers tear each other apart over theological differences, Chappelle reaches a more optimistic conclusion:

As much as Chappelle and Pryor have used humor to bring us together, it’s sad to realize just how bitterly divisive race remains in this country well over a century after Huckleberry Finn was published. It even seems at times that Twain may have overstated the liberating power of comedy when he wrote, “Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.”

However, Twain also observed, “Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”

Fortunately, Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor, and other comedians honored with the Mark Twain Prize have embraced Twain’s calling as a humorist “to excite the laughter of God’s children” in this earthly realm, where laughter may not blast our sorrows to rags and atoms, but it certainly helps make everything human seem a lot less pathetic.

Mark Twain’s Modernism

In a less-than-famous book titled Green Hills of Africa (1935), Ernest Hemingway famously declared that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Though he disregards the novel’s controversial ending—Twain was “just cheating”—Hemingway claims that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is “the best book we’ve had … There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”[1]

Hemingway’s famous quip is often cited as Huckleberry Finn’s (1884) nomination for the title of “Great American Novel.”[2] While I’m not so sure of the value or meaning of that honorific, Hemingway’s assessment also captures something more historically and conceptually specific and more intellectually generative.

The use of the word “modern,” the groping for origins (“all modern American literature comes from one book”), and the claim to a site of rupture (“nothing before” / “nothing as good since”)—all this situates Twain’s most famous novel in the language of “modernism,” a capacious term that describes the broad moment or movement or revolution to which Hemingway certainly belonged.[3]

More important than the claim that Huckleberry Finn is a great novel, Hemingway’s appraisal raises the question of whether this icon of nineteenth-century US realism ought to be thought of as a modernist text and whether—and to what end—its author should be labeled a modernist.

Perhaps the novel’s best claim to being labeled a modernist text is the praise it garnered from one of transatlantic modernism’s most famous and influential writers and gatekeepers, T.S. Eliot. 

In 1950, Eliot wrote an introduction to an edition of the novel published by Cresset Press. One of the key points of appreciation Eliot has for Huckleberry Finn is its stylistic “innovation,” a term that remains central to any definition of modernism. For Eliot, Twain’s “new discovery” is his achievement of writing “natural speech in relation to particular characters” without even a single “sentence or phrase” compromising the illusion of each character’s voice.[4]

A careful reading of Eliot’s introduction reveals an even deeper connection between this icon of literary modernism and Huckleberry Finn: Eliot locates in the novel a number of the prescriptions for modernist poetry that he outlined in his most widely read essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919). 

For example, Eliot explains in “Tradition” that a mature poet has what he calls “the historical sense”: “This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional.”[5] In his introduction to Huckleberry Finn, this dialogue between the timeless and the temporal becomes translated as a relation between the mature “vision” of Huck and the boyish “imagination” of Tom. For Eliot, Twain is a composite of these two boys, an author split between his desire for the fleeting—fame, wealth, and security—and the “permanent.” According to Eliot, Huck is a timeless character, “one of the permanent symbolic figures of fiction,” belonging alongsideUlysses, Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, and Hamlet.[6]

What principally makes Huck a “permanent symbolic figure” and the novel a book of “permanent interest” is Huck’s impassive “vision.” Eliot describes this quality in “Tradition”:

[T]he bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him “personal.” Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.[7]

from “Tradition & The Individual Talent” by T. S. Eliot

In his introduction, Eliot ascribes to Huck this “escape from personality,” and he finds in Twain an example of unconscious genius. Of Huck, Eliot writes: “He sees the real world; and he does not judge it – he allows it to judge itself. … He is the impassive observer: he does not interfere, and, as I have said, he does not judge.”[8] Then, near his conclusion: “Perhaps all great works of art mean much more than the author could have been aware of meaning: certainly, Huckleberry Finn is the one book of Mark Twain’s which, as a whole, has this unconsciousness.”[9]

According to Eliot, both Huckleberry Finn and its author embody Eliot’s own prescriptions for mature modernist poetry. If Eliot comes short of labeling Twain a “modernist”—a label Eliot himself was wary of—he at least identifies Twain as a sort of contemporary, as a writer that helped Eliot shape his vision of what modernist writing ought to do, and as someone similarly consumed with the vexed relation between past and present and between conscious and unconscious “discovery” in the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. 

Beyond Eliot, Twain’s claim to modernism reaches further into the mid-twentieth-century US literary canon. Just as Eliot and Hemingway found elements of themselves in Twain, Ralph Ellison envisioned his work as the development of a particular “dialectic” he located in Huckleberry Finn. In “Twentieth Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity” (1953), Ellison identifies Huckleberry Finn as a novel whose form and content were fit to address the principal moral problem in the postbellum US. For Ellison, Twain renders Jim “not only a slave”—not merely reducible to his objectification under US chattel slavery—but a whole “human being” and a “symbol of humanity” itself.[10]

Ellison’s modernism drew from Twain’s dialectical negotiation between its “technical aspects,” or the novel’s formal innovation, and its “moral values,” which Ellison saw as an appreciation of individualism and social order common to Jim and Huck alike. For Ellison, writers such as Hemingway and Steinbeck, figures more typically identified as modernists, lacked Twain’s combination of moral vision and technical innovation, leaving them unsuited to grapple with what W.E.B. Du Bois called “the problem of the Twentieth Century,” i.e. “the problem of the color-line.”[11]

Along with their shared interest in formal innovation, Eliot’s traditionalism and Ellison’s moral sense capture what they thought to be the genuine modernism of Huckleberry Finn. But perhaps Twain’s strongest—or at least most radical—claim to the title comes from another one of his novels: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).

It this thing, this thing that dimly worries anyone who thinks about an historical anything which has induced every one, Mark Twain in A Yankee At King Arthur’s Court and then all that have been written since then has made them attempt to in one way and another way try to make a thing a thing that they recognize while they are writing …[12]

from Narration: Four Lectures by Gertrude Stein

These difficult words were written by the famously difficult Gertrude Stein. 

In the fourth and final installment of Narration (1935), Stein described this “thing” as the difficulty of writing history. Nineteenth and twentieth-century historians filled their time by writing about events that had already happened. For Stein, this gap between the event and the moment of writing presents a troubling time lag. She argues that for writing to really be alive—for writing to be considered writing at all—it cannot lag behind its subject. In Connecticut Yankee, Stein saw a model for her own creative project—that is, to write “history” without that time lag, and, even more broadly and ambitiously, to write without reference to anything preceding the act of writing. 

As it happens, what we today call non-representational or abstract art finds a surprising antecedent in Twain’s time-travel novel.

Stephen Pasqualina’s essay “Delirium So Real: Mark Twain’s Spectacular History” appears in J19 Volume 7, Number 1 (Spring 2019)

So, is Twain a modernist? Hemingway, Eliot, Ellison, and Stein lead me to believe not that Twain ought to be permanently rebranded, but that reading him as a contemporary of “modernism” brings to the surface often surprising and deep revelations about both Twain and the modernists who wrote in his wake. I’ve written elsewhere, for instance, on Twain’s engagements with technological “spectacle” and the “technological sublime,” especially in regards to his emotional and financial investments in the Paige Compositor, a failed work of modern technology.

For his formal innovations, his “escape from personality,” his deployment of novel writing techniques to register postbellum racial issues, his novel approach to history, and his wide-ranging engagements with modern technology, it is clear that not only did Twain anticipate a number of modernism’s principal concerns but he also gave modernist writers a template and foil to find the language they needed to define “modernism” for themselves.

Stephen Pasqualina is a postdoctoral fellow in the Core Humanities program at the University of Nevada, Reno. His research focuses on modernist literature and visual media, the history of technology, and historiography and historical theory. His current book project examines the technological mediation of historical memory in US modernism from 1880 to 1945. Recent publications can be found in J19 and Modernism/modernity.


[1]Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002), 23. Though not central to my focus here, it is worth contextualizing Hemingway’s remarks, in which he attaches a racist epithet to Jim’s name, producing a phrase that does not appear as written in Huckleberry Finn: “If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.” Ralph Ellison takes issue with these lines in the essay cited below.

[2]For example, see David L. Ulin, “Celebrating the genius of ‘Huckleberry Finn,’” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 14, 2010: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2010-nov-14-la-ca-mark-twain-20101114-story.html

[3]On the difficulties of defining “modernism,” see Sean Latham and Gayle Rogers, Modernism:  Evolution of an Idea (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015)

[4]T.S. Eliot, “Introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain),” The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, Vol. 7: A European Society, 1947 – 1953, edited by Iman Javadi and Ronald Schuchard (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), 503 – 504.

[5]Eliot, The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, Vol. 2: The Perfect Critic, 1919 – 1926, edited by Anthony Cuda and Ronald Schuchard (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 106.

[6]Eliot, “Introduction to Huckleberry Finn,” 502.

[7]Eliot, “Tradition,” 111.

[8]Eliot, “Introduction to Huckleberry Finn,” 502.

[9]Ibid., 508.

[10]Ralph Ellison, “Twentieth Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan (New York: The Modern Library, 1995), 88.

[11]Ellison, “Twentieth Century Fiction,” 91. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk(New York: Penguin, 1996), 1.

[12]Gertrude Stein, Narration: Four Lectures (University of Chicago Press, 2010), 61-62.

Finding The Lost Diary of Mark Twain’s Granddaughter, Nina Gabrilowitsch

EDITOR’S NOTE: At the Clemens Conference in Hannibal, Missouri in July 2019, Alan Rankin gave a talk entitled “Nina: The Lost Diary of Nina Gabrilowitsch.” What follows is a modified and expanded version of that talk, including illustrations. The 1924 diary and Nina’s life are the subjects of his current work in progress, also called Nina: The Lost Diary.

Nina Gabrilowitsch (center) with her parents, Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch & Ossip Gabrilowitsch

I’ve been studying the life of Nina Gabrilowitsch for more than 25 years, since June of 1992. I was not a Mark Twain scholar when I started. In fact, I don’t really consider myself one now. In 1992, my knowledge of Twain was probably equal to that of the average American: I knew something about his work, something about his personality, a little bit about his personal life, but nothing at all about his family. But…I knew Nina. Through her own words.

Mademoiselle and I (her real name is Fraülein Sophie Pruischütz) went to church from ten till 11 o’clock. I like the Catholic churches because the altars are so fancy and beautiful, and the Protestant churches are so plain. I kneeled till I about wore my knees out. It was very cold. I finished reading The Three Musketeers,and have started The Hound of the Baskervillesby A. Conan Doyle. It is very exciting. 

Mlle and I took the Cass Avenue bus for Palmer Park. We passed our new house. We reckoned that it takes 15 min to go home in the bus from my school. We walked through the forests and looked at the swans in the park. My feet got icy cold, and I was glad to get back into our warm parlor. Miss Shover telephoned again, to say that we are not to come to the new house till Thursday. That is the third time she has telephoned about the house.

Nina Gabrilowitsch’s Diary
January 1, 1924

How did I happen to read those words in 1992? My lifelong friend Rudy Bowling inherited a box of books after his grandmother passed away in the late 1980s. One of those books was a hand-written diary, kept in 1924 by a 13-year-old girl named Nina Gabrilowitsch. 

Rudy had no idea who that was. But he allowed his roommate, a history buff named Jerry Smith, to read the diary anyway. After seeing Jerry’s reaction, he decided to read it himself. A little while later they told me about it, and I borrowed the diary and read it also.

We all had the same reaction, quickly becoming fascinated with the life that the diary revealed. Nina’s writing drew us into her world: her happy life at home and school; her adventures traveling in Europe with her family over the summer; her troubles with math class; her first crush. It was a window into the life of a young woman from a different era.

I decided to see if I could find out who she was.

Remember, this was 1992, before the internet. The odds of finding some random girl who had lived in Detroit 70 years before seemed pretty remote. But, according to the diary, her father was at least locally famous, as the director of the symphony orchestra, and her mother was a singer. So it seemed possible I might find something.

Well, I found something. It was an entry from Webster’s Biographical Dictionary on her father, Ossip Gabrilowitsch:

Clara, Ossip, & Nina in 1927

We knew it was the same man, because Nina mentioned her father’s unusual first name in the February 22nd entry of the diary. If I had been a Mark Twain scholar, that line at the end, just before “Director,” probably would have jumped out at me. But it didn’t. Frankly, I was just amazed that I had found any reference to Nina at all. I photocopied the page, put the book back on the shelf, and went on about my day.

It was only later that night, just prior to calling Rudy, that I glanced at the entry again. And realized “S.L. Clemens” was probably that S.L. Clemens. This was our first inkling of who Nina really was.

But here’s what’s important to remember: By the time I saw that name, we had already been reading her diary for four months. It would be impossible for us to regard her as a footnote in the biography of a world-famous author. In the mystery which had begun unfolding for us from the moment we first passed around the diary, Nina was the protagonist and nobody, not even Mark Twain, was going to upstage her.

The Gabrilowitsch Home in Detroit

It is a beautiful morning; the sun is just streaming into my sitting room and making very cheerful and bright. The snow is very deep and glistens and sparkles in the sun…. In the afternoon we went to the concert. It was lovely, Mr. Abbas and Madame Ostrowska played the violincello and the harp together. We walked home. It was twilight, the houses were lighted up, the snow was bright and crisp and the full moon shone golden in the sky.

Nina Gabrilowitsch’s Diary
January 20, 1924

Once we figured out who she was, we only had more questions, starting with how the diary had ended up with Rudy’s grandfather, whose name was Al Matthews. Matthews had been a well-known attorney in Los Angeles in the 1950s and ’60s. His other celebrity clients included the Barrymore family of actors, and Barbara Graham, whose trial was the basis for the classic film I Want to Live!

Matthews was friends with Nina Gabrilowitsch, as well as her personal attorney. At the end of her life, he inherited her personal effects, including the diary.

The story was just beginning for me. I’ve spent the intervening 25 years working on a book about Nina. It became a sort of a part-time obsession. I collected all the information I could find related to Nina and the diary. For example, I identified all the classical musicians who visited the Detroit house in 1924. Most of these figures are obscure now, but were well-known to music aficionados a century ago.

At The Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, I found Nina’s surviving photo album from 1924, including many images of the people she mentions in the diary.

Once the Internet was established, online sources provided more images, such as this beautiful old postcard of the Veendam, the ocean liner Nina and her family take to Europe in June of 1924.

In the German national archives, I found photos of the zeppelin that Nina saw over Berlin in September – photos that were taken on the very day that she saw it!

And of course, in my research, I found out what happened to Nina after the diary.

Nina Gabrilowitsch’s Obituary in New York Times (January 18, 1966)
Nina Gabrilowitsch in 1924 at Her Detroit Home (Courtesy of Mark Twain House & Museum)

Learning about her death was shattering enough. We felt like Nina was someone we knew. But learning about her life was worse!

As an adult, Nina struggled with mental illness, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Her’s was life that somehow seemed destitute in the midst of great wealth – like the Beales of Grey Gardens. Many of the obituaries in 1966 mentioned her last words, said to a friend before she left the bar earlier that night:

“When I die, I want artificial flowers, jitterbug music, and a bottle of vodka at my grave.”

Some of the obituaries implied that this was a verbal suicide note, although we don’t know, and will never know, if the overdose was accidental or deliberate.

As my research intersected with the world of Twain scholarship, we learned that most Twain scholars only knew Nina as a tragic figure: perpetually unhappy and unable to fulfill her potential, whatever it was. That was not how we saw her. We still saw her as a self-assured, cosmopolitan, happy young woman. That’s the Nina of the 1924 diary. And somehow, both views of her are right.

I woke up at around six o’clock New York time, and looking out of the window beheld a picturesque sight. Right beside us flowed the broad Hudson, just as quiet as it could be, except when a swiftly passing motor boat left a path of ripples behind it on the pinkish-blue water. Beyond were endless forests, where here and there were dotted small houses, and behind that the green curved hills.

 

We had our breakfast on the train and arrived in New York station at 10.24. I love the racket that goes on at any station: Conductors whistling, porters running, men calling, taxi doors banging, the noise of the engine and a dozen other things.

 

Soon after, we arrived at Fourteen East Sixtieth Street. Mlle went to see somebody in the custom house about her papers. Father went out with a man to lunch. After having lunch at the Clarion Restaurant, Mother and I went to the National Museum. We saw many many interesting pictures; some by Van Dyck, Hals, Rubens, Velázquez, Rembrandt and others. I agree with Mother, I like the old pictures much better than the modern ones. Mlle and I took a bus ride along Riverside Drive and although it was dreadfully hot we enjoyed ourselves very well.

Nina Gabrilowitsch’s Diary
June 16, 1924

Other than her birth and her death, Nina had only one real moment of national fame. It was at a train station – the one in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1935. Nina was invited to dedicate the Mark Twain Zephyr, a locomotive named after her famous grandfather, in the town where he grew up. She broke a champagne bottle on the nose of the engine. Her voice was broadcast on CBS radio coast-to-coast, and she posed for photos with local kids dressed like Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Becky Thatcher. Afterward, there was a fancy dinner party, where she was treated like a princess. Among the other notable guests was Harry Truman, then a senator from Missouri. Many photos were taken that day, all of which can be examined at the Hannibal Public Library’s great web page about the event. But this one is my favorite:

This picture seems like the “happy” Nina, the Nina from the 1924 diary. A Nina who it increasingly felt like only we knew. This previously unexamined, early part of Nina’s life is one reason I call my book The Lost Diary. The other reason? It seems the diary really was lost.

There are other diaries – 20 years worth of them – at a university archive in Provo, Utah, where scholars have studied them from time to time. Nobody’s really sure why the 1924 diary didn’t wind up there as well. But I have a supposition, based on what we do know.

I think Nina kept the 1924 diary separate from the other diaries, at the end of her life, and maybe for a long time before. That’s why it wound up with the “personal effects” that went to Al Matthews. I have to wonder if 1924 represented a sort of “golden year” in Nina’s life. Maybe it’s not coincidence that the 1924 diary contains no signs of mental illness, no family strife, and takes place at an age (she turned 14 that year) when most people are starting to assert their individualism and independence from family and community.

Maybe the diary was a way for an older, sadder Nina to remember who she was, or, at least, who she had been.

Zeppelin LZ-126/ZR-3, Soon To Be Known As The USS Los Angeles, Flying Over Berlin, On September 26, 1924 (Courtesy of German Federal Archive)

At 6 min to 10, the wonderful zeppelin that is to fly to America appeared. Crowds of people filled the streets, and many were stationed on the roofs of buildings, supplied with moving-picture cameras. The silver-gray zeppelin glided gracefully along, so gracefully that it seemed a mere phantom of the air. Four times we saw it, and each time the spectators cheered and waved their handkerchiefs.

NinA Gabrilowitsch’s Diary
September 26, 1924
Ossip Gabrilowitsch (Courtesy of Detroit Symphony Orchestra)

In the afternoon Fraülein [Pruischütz] and I shopped, and at 7.15, left for Father’s second and last concert. At first I also sat in the Landeker box, but later, as more and more people came, I joined Fraülein and Uncle George, who sat below. Father’s playing was marvelous and so was his directing, but it must have been an awful strain, because his visage was as white as snow. After  the last piece he was called out six times; the populace were “begeistered.” Who do you suppose were there? Dr. E. Haass, Mrs. Haass, and Herr Helmut Gorine! Imagine! Fraülein and I walked home. I got to bed at 10.30.

Nina Gabrilowitsch’s Diary
September 26, 1924

After The Diary of a Young Girl was published in the 1950s, millions mourned its young author, Anne Frank – and rightfully so. But who mourned for Nina? I did. Because I met her, knew her, and cared about her before I ever saw the name: “S.L. Clemens.”

There were no tourists, thank God, on that Wednesday in June of 1999, when I visited the Woodlawn Cemetary in Elmira. In fact, the cemetery was all but deserted. I walked up onto the pavestones surrounding the two large standing monuments. There, in front of me, was the grave of Mark Twain.

And I hardly noticed it.

Beside him were his wife Livy, and the two daughters, Susy and Jean, who had preceded Twain in death. Beyond them, just outside the flagstones, were markers for Clara and Ossip. And off to the side of them…separate, alone…

…was Nina.

I started to cry.

Langdon-Clemens Gravesite (Screenshot Taken From Virtual Tour, Courtesy Center for Mark Twain Studies)

It occurred to me that I might be the only person since 1966 to mourn her, to look at that gravestone and weep. Considering how her life ended, maybe I was one of the only people ever to mourn for her.

That clever little girl, so full of life and joy. That sad, lonely woman, inheritor of an impossible legacy. Against the odds, she had connected with someone and changed lives, long after she was gone.

After a while, I went and got the items I had brought with me. Your last words, Nina. I took them to heart:

“When I die, I want artificial flowers, jitterbug music and a bottle of vodka at my grave.”

I cried as I placed the articles against the gravestone. She could have said it as a joke, not knowing the overdose awaited only hours later. It might not have meant anything to her. But it meant something to me. Was I the only person, ever, to honor her whimsical last wish?

Was she there? Was she watching? If she was, then they all were: Ossip and Clara, all the Langdons and Clemenses, and old Sam himself. What would they make of the skinny hippie at the end of the Millennium, who stands at the grave of the last Clemens and weeps?

I also wondered, briefly, about the next student, tourist, or caretaker who came to the Clemens plot. What would they think when they saw the swing CD, the plastic flowers, and the bottle of vodka sitting at her grave? I would never know. But I did know one thing for sure: I was so overcome with emotion at seeing Nina’s grave, I hardly even noticed Twain’s plot there next to me. It might have been the first time in history Nina overshadowed her famous grandfather…

Nina Gabrilowitsch in 1925 (Courtesy of Mark Twain House & Museum)

It would be worth mountains more to me to feel that people love me for being a wonderful person than for being the greatest artist…. However, it’s very amusing when you stop and think of it – if people asked what you were doing…and you weren’t doing anything, and…answered, “Oh, [I’m] just living the life of a truly great person,” I’m sure the people would laugh. I mean, you couldn’t say such a thing, and yet, why not? Isn’t it possible to be great without doing anything?

Nina Gabrilowitsch
Letter To Father (April 7, 1935)

Alan Rankin is a writer with an abiding interest in unexplored corners of history. His biographical column, “It’s A Faire Life,” appears in Renaissance Magazine.

Twain Scholars Celebrate The Career of Henry Sweets, Director of Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum

Earlier this summer, Henry Sweets, longtime director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, Missouri announced that he would stepping down at the end of the year, entering a partial retirement while still continuing to act as the museum’s curator and no doubt an invaluable resource for the new director. Shortly after this announcement, Cindy Lovell wrote a thoughtful summary of Henry’s career. As she put it, “Any semi-serious enthusiast of Mark Twain has likely crossed paths with the ever-accessible Henry Sweets.”

Many of those enthusiasts were also scholars. At the Clemens Conference in July, the Center for Mark Twain Studies joined with the Mark Twain Circle to present Henry with the Thomas A. Tenney Award for service to Mark Twain Studies. We also wanted to give individuals scholars a platform to offer their thoughts on Henry’s long and distinguished career. We hope you enjoy the following testimonials.


In the opening chapter of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway ponders the truth of an observation his father made to him as a child—that is, “A sense of the fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth.”  This line epitomizes my perception of Henry Sweets, who is, without question, one of the most fundamentally decent human beings I have ever met. He is unfailingly kind (in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard him raise his voice or speak a harsh word about anyone or anything), generous to a fault, and admirably steadfast in his commitment to advancing the legacy of Mark Twain.  His vision and leadership have been instrumental in shaping the Boyhood Home and Museum. As Twainians, we are most fortunate to have Henry in our midst.

Kerry Driscoll, Professor Emerita of English at University of St. Joseph, Author of Mark Twain Among The Indians (2018)


Henry Sweets is perhaps the most aptly named person ever. He is amazingly nice—but he is also very focused on his work. In his long tenure with the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, he has successfully overseen the preservation of important historic sites and the updating of the museum. Especially impressive is the way he has dealt with criticism of the museum and the way it represents the history of African Americans and slavery. Henry did not run from controversy; instead, he found ways to incorporate this troubling but important aspect of Mark Twain’s life and works. When I think of Mark Twain in Hannibal, I think of Henry Sweets. His devotion to Mark Twain and to his and Henry’s hometown have made him one of the most important people in the Twain legacy and in the legacy of the town. Enjoy your well-deserved retirement, Henry!

John Bird, Emeritus Professor of English at Winthrop University, Author of Mark Twain & Metaphor (2007)


Before Henry Sweets took the lead, the Mark Twain legacy in his home town was paltry and literally on the verge of collapse. The house needed expensive work to stop it from crumbling into the Hill Street mud; exhibits and memorabilia were packed into one cramped building next door; the street outside was a jumble of in-and-out sedans and milling visitors; and beyond that, a heavy dose of imagination prior knowledge were required to see Sam’s formative years on a visit to the Hannibal downtown. With Henry, all of that has changed – so dramatically and successfully that everyone in our trade, and thousands of other people, know it without a recap. In light of that, just a couple of sidelights: 

In the spring of 1993, rebelling against a century of big-scale work to turn it into a sequence of regulated lakes, the Mississippi River system rose up and flooded hundreds of square miles in the upper Midwest, washing away farms, landings, railroad tracks, city waterfronts, bluffs and bends, hill-top cemeteries, you name it. The damage was enormous. Assisted by National Guard troops and volunteers from all over the region, the people of Hannibal plunged into building ramparts of sandbags and moving everything they could to higher and safer ground. This went on for weeks. Already more than dozen years into his Directorship, Henry had overseen the complete restoration of the boyhood house only a few months before the River topped the levees, and now he was at the center of saving not only the Clemens historical fabric but also the heart of the town he grew up in.

Along with everything else he looked after, Henry had to deal with the national and international media, calling in or sending reporters and film crews to ask inane questions and get in the way.  Two hundred miles off, in the dry flats of central Illinois, I was getting calls like that, but only a paltry fraction of what Henry had to deal with in the heart of the action. Often they wanted to know what we thought Mark Twain would have thought of all this – and true to form, Henry responded with his famously unshakable tact, substance, and good humor. If any crisis has rattled him – finances, local politics, scholastic fussiness, or outbreaks of crackpot fandom (Mark Twain being, as far as I know, the only classic American author who’s liable to that) -I’ve never seen or heard of it.  

And we mustn’t forget the special duty of coping with those crackpots. One instance: few years back, another genius who fancied himself a medium of sorts for the Great Man began roving around Hannibal in the standard getup (mustache, bushy wig, white linen suit, cigar stump), ventilating whatever nonsense came into his head (sometimes flat-out offensive) and fostering the impression that these were Words of the Master. This had to be stopped, and after tactful efforts to set this charlatan straight, Henry and the Museum secured a court order to keep him away from the properties. And true to form, one of the news outlets tried to stir up outrage about this move: “Mark Twain Banned in His Own Home Town!” – something contorted like that.  Anyway, you can think of a dozen Twain scholars who would have dived for the phones, condemning the story, flaming the idiots behind it, and making things worse. But also true to form: reason, patience, and honest geniality were what Henry offered instead. In better times and in crazy ones, he has done so much to strengthen and clarify the Mark Twain presence in the heartland, and in such an indefatigably positive spirit.  No one could have done it better.

Bruce Michelson, Professor Emeritus of English at University of Illinois, Author of Mark Twain On The Loose (1995) & Printer’s Devil (2006)


Alliteratively speaking, I’ve always thought of Henry Sweets as a wonderfully wise, warm, and welcoming ambassador for Mark Twain and that ever-expanding realm of scholarship that has grown up around the earlier son of Hannibal, Missouri. It would be quite impossible to count the number of people Henry has touched and guided and encouraged – scholars and schoolchildren, teachers and tourists, academics and even some actors who enjoy crawling into a white suit and trying their best approximation of Samuel Clemens.

But, of late, I realized that I’ve shortchanged Henry. That happens with people who go about their business in such a calm and understated way, showing up each day and making a difference. He merits a higher title than ambassador. Can anyone doubt or dispute that here is a true prince of the realm (and a prince of a fellow, as everyone sharing their thoughts on Henry has pointed out)? I don’t want to be the fifty-third Twain devotee to point out how splendidly he lives up to his last name, but doggone it, Henry, it has become a cliché for a mighty good reason, and you have only yourself to blame.

Henry’s accomplishments have been enumerated and properly celebrated (anyone who has not read Cindy Lovell’s marvelous tribute should stop right here, find it, then circle back . . . I’ll wait). OK, now, I suspect that Henry also is the type to be bit embarrassed by all the praise and attention, but, once again, he has only himself to blame.

Henry won’t remember this, but we talked long before we met. That was just a little more than twenty-six years ago. The shape of the river was uncertain during that summer of 1993. I spent a good deal of that July in a Hollywood hotel, on business for the newspaper. Periodically, my thoughts drifted about 1,800 miles east to Hannibal, Missouri, and daily reports about the rising Mississippi waters. The copy of USA Today delivered to the hotel room door contained a story wondering if the sandbagging and floodgates would be enough. Levees had been failing along the river, and the devastation was beyond alarming. Finally, I could take it no longer. I found the number for the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and called it. Henry answered. “We’re fine,” he said, ever the steady presence in the pilot house. “We’re dry.” And then he took the time to explain just how close a call it had been for his hometown.

There was a State of Mark Twain Studies Conference that summer in Elmira, and, although I had joined the Mark Twain Circle, I didn’t go. I felt as if I hadn’t earned a place at such a gathering. Four years later, Tom Tenney convinced me of two things: how foolish this thinking was and how welcome I would be. One of the people who most engagingly drove home that point in 1997 was Henry Sweets. How fortunate Hannibal, Mark Twain, and Mark Twain Studies are to have such an ambassador. I realized that from the start, yet I failed to recognize royalty . . . and the genuine article, too, not the Duke-and-the-King variety. Mark Twain told an audience in 1907, “Praise is well, compliment is well, but affection – that is the last and final and most precious reward that any man can win, whether by character or achievement.” It is an exercise in understatement to point out that Henry has won our affection by character and achievement.

Mark Dawidziak, TV Critic at Cleveland Plain Dealer, Editor of Mark Twain for Cat Lovers (2016) & Mark My Words (1996)


Henry has had a steady hand on the wheel up in Hannibal for many years now, and I admire his tenacity and wisdom. It’s not always been an easy job, nor pleasant. For one thing, academics usually forget all about fundraising and budgets unless they are in the administration. I know that paying the bills and salaries has always been a top priority for the Boyhood Home & Museum, and that Henry has done a splendid job with that. As such, he has been an effective ambassador for the Mark Twain community at large. 

Despite all these priorities and responsibilities, however, the most striking thing about Henry has been how welcoming he always is to members of the Twain scholarly family. More than once I have brought out-of-town visitors up to Hannibal to see the sites. During those visits, Henry has always made special time to talk and show people around, and often enjoy a meal together. I’m sure he had many other things to attend to, but he made it a priority to honor scholars in the field, and make them feel special in their visit. So for me, it’s been the personal touch that has meant a lot. Henry genuinely cares about other people, and it shows.

Hal Bush, Professor of English at St. Louis University, Author of Mark Twain & The Spiritual Crisis of His Age (2007)


I’ve heard several Twain folks say that we behave differently than other single-author groups do. Our group tends to be open-minded and receptive, willing to accept new thinking even when it is difficult and threatens well-established views. Our group does not belittle or castigate. We disagree with each other. We think critically about boldly unconventional assertions, but when faced with these our folks do not make ad hominem attacks. We’re tough, but we’re not mean. This inspires fresh ideas and new methods, and it encourages a refreshing diversity of participants. Usually responses are not to reject, but to ask pointed questions that will make new ideas clearer and stronger.

Much of this “culture” comes from Mark Twain – the respect the group has for the author himself who was admirable, but not perfect. The group thinks critically and behaves civilly, even under pressure. 

And this serves as a testimony to Henry Sweets, who embodies this sense of decency and respect. The friendship and esteem our group has for Henry reflects the cohesiveness and intellectual camaraderie of the Twain folks. It does our group well to honor one who has contributed much to this identity. We don’t merely take his hard work and dedication for granted, ho hum, but we praise it and acknowledge our gratitude for it. We are the better for Henry’s commitment and high personal conduct. He is us at our best.

Terry Oggel, Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, Author of numerous articles on Twain, Albert Bigelow Paine, & American Literature


Henry Sweets: an epitome of learned and gracious decency.  Enjoy retirement.

Tom Quirk, Professor Emeritus at University of Missouri, Author of Mark Twain & Human Nature (1997)

Twain-inspired Video by Jan Kather finalist for Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship Contest

Click here to see the “Mark Twain Jar: Who Wrote Shakespeare?” Project and Vote!

Jan Kather talks about her video being selected as a finalist in the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship’s 2019 Video Contest

Image from “Mark Twain’s Jar: Who Wrote Shakespeare?”

Mark Twain is among a long list of skeptics who pondered the age old question, “Who wrote Shakespeare?” In his book Is Shakespeare Dead? he humorously makes the case for the improbability of a young man from Stratford having the ability to write the plays and poems considered to be the greatest literature ever written in the English language. 

It was with this knowledge that I decided to enter the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship‘s 2019 video contest, repurposing some footage that was previously recorded for a 2017 collaborative video project with fellow artists Daniel Reidy, Wendy Taylor and Aaron Kather. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my two minute video “Mark Twain Jar: Who Wrote Shakespeare?” made the cut, and is now in an online competition along with seven other finalists. 

With their permission, I re-conceptualized and edited our original, collaborative “Mark Twain’s Ghost” videos to address the “Who Wrote Shakespeare” video contest question. I drew my material from three videos that were roughly edited from outtakes by Aaron, Wendy and myself. This original source material emerged from our multiple points of view, with extemporaneous dialogue and staging by Dan as ghost acquirer, interrogator and releaser. I re-interpreted Aaron’s title pun “MT Jar” (empty jar) to suggest the possible “jar,” or shock and annoyance one feels when reading Twain’s merciless lampooning of bardolatry. 

Mark Twain’s Ghost in the jar, before being released

I also wanted to use the MT pun itself, as homage to Shakepeare’s unrivaled ability at wordplay. By having Twain’s ghost speak abridged quotes from Chapter XI of Is Shakespeare Dead?, I intended to create an ambiguous denouement:

Am I trying to convince anybody that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare’s Works?  Ah, now, what do you take me for?  Would I be so soft as that…? It would grieve me to know that any one could think so injuriously of me….I haven’t any idea that Shakespeare will have to vacate his pedestal this side of the year 2209.  Disbelief in him cannot come swiftly, disbelief … is a very slow process.

If I have been successful, a skeptic will think the video supports their ideas. Simultaneously, a believer will think I agree with them. The ineffable answer has “melted into air, into thin air” as Twain’s ghost is released at his gravesite. 

Mark Twain’s Ghost escapes

For the most part, Twain’s Is Shakespeare Dead? reads like a skeptic’s bible until reaching Chapter XI. I like to think at this point in his exposéTwain was expressing some misgivings about his disbelief that a young boy from the English countryside could have such an elegant way with words, fearfully imagining that in the future, people would similarly doubt that he alone, a young man born in Hannibal, could ever be considered America’s greatest writer. 

An interesting twist to this story was on the day I received notice about my video making it to the finals, I discovered the 2019 Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship Conference would take place at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, on October 17-20. Twain’s Is Shakespeare Dead? will be performed by Keir Cutler, with “tours of the inimitable Mark Twain House.” Focusing on Twain’s words in my video seems particularly fitting for this year’s conference setting.

The Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship Video Contest Winners will be selected by the number of votes received by online voting. If you are so inclined, watch all eight videos and weigh in at this link between August 20 – October 10. Maybe Mark Twain Jar: Who Wrote Shakespeare will be your favorite?

Click here to see the “Mark Twain Jar: Who Wrote Shakespeare?” Project and Vote!

Put The Reader Through Hell: In Memory of Toni Morrison, Twain Scholar

Toni Morrison died today. It addition to being one of the most renowned writers of the past century, Morrison was an incisive critic and passionate reader of Mark Twain’s works. The Twain Studies community of teachers and scholars has lost one of our more notable friends.

In 1993, Morrison told The Paris Review that “Mark Twain talked about racial ideology in the most powerful, eloquent, and instructive way I have ever read.” In her 1996 introduction to the Oxford edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Morrison narrates her decades-long, evolving relationship with Twain and his critics. During what was arguably the peak of her literary celebrity, from the publication of Beloved (1987) to her receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, Morrison repeatedly and forcefully came to the defense of Twain, who was, during this same period, being subjected to what she called the “purist and yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children.”

Giving the Tanner Lectures at University of Michigan in 1988, she placed Twain, along with Shakespeare, Herman Melville, and Henry James, on a list of canonical authors who “I, at least, do not intend to live without.” She said, “”There must be some way to enhance canon readings without enshrining them.” Thus began her exploration of Africanism in American Literature which climaxed with the Massey Lectures at Princeton University, where she was a faculty member. These lectures were published as Playing In The Dark: Whiteness & The Literary Imagination (1991). Morrison argued that many of the familiar themes and writers of the American literary canon were inspired by “the imaginative encounter with Africanism.” Some writers, like Edgar Allen Poe, were driven by the terror of increasingly desperate clinging to the precarious ideology of white supremacy. Others, like Twain and Melville, narrated the unraveling of that ideology unsentimentally, even eagerly.

“Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny.”

Toni Morrison, Playing In The Dark (1991)

Among the centerpieces of Playing In The Dark is what remains one of the most-cited readings of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is a masterpiece of deconstruction, though Morrison would never call it that, as she shows how the novel anticipates and amplifies all its ensuing controversies. She seeks to “release it from the clutch of sentimental nostrums about lighting out for the territory” and revive “its contestatory, combative critique of antebellum America.” “The hell it puts the reader through” is exactly the point, according to Morrison. The novel produces and reproduces “palpable alarm.” It discomforts. It triggers. It interrogates our preconceptions about childhood, morality, community, and, of course, race. It is resiliently controversial, and therein lies the evidence of its merit.

Morrison’s reading ends with the phrase, “it simulates and describes the parasitical nature of white freedom.” Simulates. What does it mean for a novel to “simulate”? It is something more than mere representation. The subjects of a simulation are not creations, but participants. Not characters, but readers. When we read Twain’s novel as Morrison wishes, we are compelled not only to recognize that Huck and Tom do not understand their freedom independent of Jim’s enslavement, but that we don’t. The novel places its readers in a position of knowing complicity, which explains, in part, why so many of them hate the ending. It asks us: Your freedom, to the extent you have it, comes at whose expense?

“For a hundred years, the argument that this novel is has been identified, reidentified, examined, waged and advanced. What it cannot be is dismissed.”

Toni Morrison, Introduction to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1996)

The Park Church to Host Play about the Underground Railroad

The Park Church (208 W. Church Street, Elmira, NY) will be the venue for “Yours, for the Oppressed” on Saturday, August 17 at 2pm. Admission is free; donations are appreciated.

“Yours, for the Oppressed” is a historically based play detailing an episode in the lives of an educated, middle class black family living in Albany and the Albany Vigilance Committee. Set in the 1850s, the play explores different perspectives on the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad within the community and among the family members.

The play is a project of the Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate New York, the Siena College Creative Arts Department, and the Underground Railroad History Project. It is touring various historic sites in New York State this summer. The tour is produced by John Ruquet. The Elmira performance is presented by The Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery and The Park Church.

“Yours, for the Oppressed” is written by Siena College students Hunter Frederick, Heather Frederick, Olivia Waldron and Philip Kilian under the supervision of Dr. Krysta Dennis. The director is Jean-Remy Monnay, founder and artistic director of the Black Theatre Troupe. Members of the Troupe comprise the cast.

Past advertisement for “Yours, for the Oppressed.” This play will be performed on Saturday, August 17 at 2pm at The Park Church.

Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate New York was originally founded as Soul Rebel Performance Troupe in 2009 by veteran actor Jean-Remy Monnay as a not-for-profit organization to foster understanding, appreciation and participation of the performing arts among communities of color. Headquartered in New York State’s Capital Region, Black Theatre Troupe promotes performance and theatrical pieces by, and about, artists of color.

The Siena College Creative Arts Department strives to develop within students an aesthetic appreciation of the world in which they live, enabling students to understand the arts as they reflect the cultural spirit of various epochs in human experience, and encourage the unlocking of students’ creative potential and skill.

The Park Church was incorporated in 1846. The original bylaws state: “That the using , holding, or trading in men as slaves is a sin in the sight of God…inconsistent with Christian profession.” Members of the church were active in both the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. Its first and most notable Minister was The Rev. Thomas K. Beecher, step-brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. The current building was designed to be “the first institutional church in America,” and housed a library, a gymnasium, health clinic, kitchen and parlors that were open to all of Elmira, not just church members.

The Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery was founded in 2006 to preserve and conserve the historic cemetery (1856) and educate the larger community about Woodlawn’s rich heritage. Many notable abolitionists and participants in the Underground Railroad are buried there, including John W. Jones, a one-time slave, who shepherded hundreds of escaped slaves to safety: Jervis Langdon, a founder of The Park Church, who aided Jones and helped Frederick Douglas escape from slavery: and Mary Ann Cord, whose experiences as a slave were recorded by Mark Twain. Woodlawn is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is a member of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.