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.

Host of Hannibal: A Tribute To Henry Sweets

[Editor’s Note: Henry Sweets, longtime director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, announced earlier this month that he would be stepping down at the end of 2019.] 

Any semi-serious enthusiast of Mark Twain has likely crossed path with the ever-accessible Henry Sweets. His steadfast presence at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum has provided a hospitable welcome for any and all seeking information about Samuel Clemens. Henry did not come to Mark Twain in the traditional way, but then, who has?

Henry Sweets (right) with Jacques Cousteau

His initial academic endeavors offered no hint of his subsequent 42-year career at the boyhood home. Henry grew up in Hannibal and graduated from Hannibal High School before earning a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Illinois in 1971 and a master’s degree in education in 1973. Henry taught high school science for two years in New Jersey and another two years in Illinois before taking an M.A. in American History and Museum Studies from the University of Delaware in 1978, leading to his appointment at the boyhood home in January 1978. 

In the course of the next 42 years, Henry personally welcomed station wagons full of families, at least three generations of schoolteachers, hopeful “descendants” of Sam Clemens, innumerable Twain scholars, hundreds of journalists, and a respectable number of celebrities and politicians. In addition to hosting President Jimmy Carter, First Lady Rosalyn Carter, and their daughter Amy, Henry welcomed the Prince of Monaco, a few U.S. Senators, and the occasional Governor of Missouri. Hal Holbrook, Jacques Cousteau, and Brad Paisley are just a handful of names Henry can drop as having welcomed to Hannibal. Perhaps one of his most memorable visitors was Jorge Luis Borges, the blind Argentine writer. Borges’s wish was to touch the Mississippi River in Hannibal. Henry assisted and would later recount the grateful writer shed tears in that moment.

 

Henry Sweets helps 83-year-old Jorge Luis Borges touch Mark Twain’s Mississippi River

In the four decades Henry has served the boyhood home, the museum expanded to include eight properties, updated its historical message for accuracy, and focused on scholarly outreach, most notably the weeklong teacher workshops offered each summer and the quadrennial Clemens Conference that welcomes scholars from around the globe. In 1982, Henry began compiling The Fence Painter, the museum publication he has edited since. He has traveled considerably to lecture on Twain and contributed two chapters to Mark Twain and Youth: Studies in His Life and Writings, edited by Kevin Mac Donell and Kent Rasmussen. The museum has done its part to be a good neighbor, offering free admission to Hannibal residents and hosting free summer outdoor concerts for more than a decade. The museum also took the Tom & Becky ambassador program under its wing.

Life at the museum is not all glamour. Henry has warded off contrary would-be Twain impersonators and dealt with his share of confused tourists asking such questions as, “Where is Mark Twain buried today?” (The answer, of course, is Elmira.) He is just as likely to be found installing an exhibit as carrying a plunger into a restroom. But if you know Henry, that should come as no surprise. He is never heard saying, “That’s not my job.” He rolls up his sleeves and does what needs to be done.

Everyone has their own story of meeting Henry for the first time, which usually includes descriptors like “knowledgeable,” “friendly,” and “helpful.” I first met Henry in 1996 when I was planning a Mark Twain summer program for 4th and 5th grade students. I called the museum, and Henry himself answered the phone. I explained I was coming to Hannibal in a few weeks and asked if we could meet. When I told him what day I was arriving, he responded, “Well, my wife’s having a yard sale that day, but I’ll give you my home phone number. Give me a call when you get in, and I’ll come meet you.” That gracious and generous response had a far-reaching impact on my own life. Henry drove me all over Hannibal that day showing me places I would have certainly missed. Having since had the privilege of knowing him and working alongside him, I can honestly say that he treated me with the same respect and kindness that he shows to actual celebrities. Henry is simply a nice guy.

Serving as director and curator of a museum consumes time and energy, yet Henry managed to hold a seat on the Hannibal School Board from 1992 to 2010 and play in the same softball league for 30+ years. For years, his hobby has been stamp collecting. A member of the American Philatelic Society, Henry is no stranger at stamp collecting conferences and has been an invited speaker at the annual United Postmasters of America meeting.

Balancing scholarship, historic preservation, and tourism (which pays the bills) is a daunting task. It can only be done as a labor of love. Leading staff, managing board members, fundraising, responding to millions of inquiries, and indulging the most esoteric of inquiries, Henry has done it all. It should come as no surprise that Henry’s favorite Mark Twain quote is, “Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”

Henry will continue to work part-time on curatorial projects at the museum after he retires as director, and for that we are grateful. But, he has “reached the grandpa stage of life,” as Twain put it, and with a two-year-old granddaughter and another grandchild on the way, Henry has earned a new pastime. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t encourage everyone reading this to make a generous donation to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Henry’s honor. It is the least we can do for all he has done for us.

Archives of Mark Twain Circular Now Online

The Mark Twain Circular is a newsletter published by the Mark Twain Circle which has been in continuous publication since 1987, offering anywhere from two to twelve issues a year. The new editor of the Circular, James W. Leonard (The Citadel), has digitized the back issues, creating a valuable resource for Twain scholars and aficionados, new and old. The Circular features updates on the activities and projects of the Mark Twain Circle, including a message from the President, as well as a wide variety of Twain-related ephemera, including summaries of recent publications, conference proceedings, and interviews with scholars. The most recent issue, for instance, happens to include interviews with four members of the staff of the Center for Mark Twain Studies (the motley crew pictured below).

Back issues of the long-running newsletter are now available in digital form.

Early issues provide insight into the scholarly community of the late 20th century, as well as some more candid and casual commentary from seminal figures, several of whom are no longer with us.

Check it out!

Mark Twain, Mad Magazine, & Old Crow Whiskey

Cover of October 1959 Issue of Mad Magazine

News outlets reported last week that the current longest-running humor magazine in the U.S. – Mad magazine- will soon stop publishing new material. First issued in 1952, the New York Times describes Mad as an “irreverent baby-boomer humor Bible.” Details of the magazine’s future at this date remain sketchy. Mark Twain scholars John Bird and Judith Yaross Lee have recently edited a forthcoming collection of essays Seeing “Mad”: Essays on “Mad” Magazine’s Humor and Legacy from Cover to Fold-In. Lee describes Mad as having “a literary quality of intellect along with great irreverence in the parodies – and that’s reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Virginia City writing.”

This also seems an appropriate time to revisit at least one appearance of Mark Twain and Elmira in Mad: the October 1959 issue. The story behind this appearance begins in 1936 with a small privately printed memoir titled Drinking with Twain: Recollections of Twain and His Cronies as Told to Me Laurel O’Connor, Raconteuse (1936). The work was copyrighted by Frank Edward Kelsey (b. 1865 – d. 1952). Kelsey, a native of Michigan, was a rugged individualist who resided in Elmira for about four years in the late 1890s, working as a furniture manufacturer. During his brief time in Elmira, he dabbled in politics, helped incorporate the town of Elmira Heights and became that town’s first mayor. He also spent time at Charles Klapproth’s saloon listening to locals tell stories about their favorite hometown celebrity, Mark Twain. Laurel O’Connor (pseudonym of Laurabell Reed Connor Stones (b. 1901 – d. 1999), a journalist and intimate of Kelsey’s, wrote down the stories as Kelsey told them to her – stories about Twain drinking Old Crow whiskey at Klapproth’s in Elmira. However, there is no evidence that Kelsey ever actually met or corresponded with Twain. Klapproth’s name is misspelled throughout the memoir as “Klaproth” along with other historical inaccuracies.

By the early 1950s, Twain’s fondness for Old Crow, as told by Kelsey, gained the attention of that company and they began capitalizing on their connection to Mark Twain in their magazine ads. A number of Old Crow ads appeared featuring Twain, including one with Rudyard Kipling reading to Twain at Quarry Farm. The Twain/Kipling ad featured a small tagline: “$250 Reward is paid for documented information relating prominent 19th-Century Americans and Old Crow.” 

Another ad featured Twain asking Klapproth’s bartender, “Lou, which barrel are we using now?” The line is lifted directly from Kelsey’s memoir – further evidence that Kelsey’s stories were the source of the Old Crow ad campaign. Another Old Crow ad featured Mark Twain and Bret Harte in Hartford. Yet another featured Twain grouped with “Famous Americans” Daniel Webster, Gen. John H. Morgan, Gov. Robert Letcher of Kentucky, Henry Clay and James Crow himself. All the whiskey drinkers in those ads were men.

Between 1900 and 1959, no women had appeared in whiskey ads. Then, in 1959 the tide turned. In early 1959 D’Arcy Advertising Company announced a change of policy – they would be bringing women back to whiskey ads in an upcoming ad for House of Lords scotch whiskey. It was a perfect opportunity for Mad to capitalize on the situation with seven panels of mock advertising under the heading “Women Will Appear More and More in Whiskey Ads!”  The Mark Twain Old Crow ad originally captioned “Mark Twain holds forth at Klaproth’s Tavern” was re-captioned “Carrie Nation starts her Bar-Wrecking Crusade” as she takes an ax to a bottle of Old Crow.

It is not been determined when Old Crow discontinued their Mark Twain advertising campaign. However, by 1980 the company revised “When Mark Twain held forth at Klapproth’s cafe …” with new artwork and a corrected spelling for Klapproth’s name. The new artwork more accurately reflects the fireplace and bas-relief from Klapproth’s saloon that now is housed at Elmira College.

Much of the decor of the Mark Twain Archive, including the fireplace and the wood paneling, was originally part of the Klapproth Tavern.

Barbara Schmidt is an independent scholar who focuses on Mark Twain, American Humor, and American History. She is the webmaster at TwainQuotes.com and the Book Review Editor for the Mark Twain Forum. In 2017, she was named a “Legacy Scholar” by the Mark Twain Journal.

In Memory of Noted Twain Scholar, Carl Dolmetsch, Listen to His 1988 Trouble Begins Lecture

Carl Richard Dolmetsch, Jr. passed away earlier this month. He was 94. Dolmetsch wrote an influential book in Mark Twain Studies, “Our Famous Guest”: Mark Twain in Vienna, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. His history of the modernist magazine, The Smart Set, was also highly acclaimed and he published both academic and popular articles on early American literature and classical music.

For more about Dr. Dolmetsch’s legacy, we refer you to obituaries written by the Provost of William & Mary, where he spent most of his academic career, by his fellow Williamsburg journalist, and by the Virginia Gazette.

Dr. Dometsch was a guest of Elmira College and the Center for Mark Twain Studies in October of 1988. As a Distinguished Academic Visitor, he led courses in English and American Studies, and was part of the Trouble Begins lecture series. That lecture, “Mark Twain and The Jews,” would become part of “Our Famous Guest”. It was preserved, recently digitized, and is now available for streaming and download from our online archives.

The Mugwump Bump: Mark Twain, Independent Politics, & The Election of 1884

Although it’s been almost a century since Mark Twain’s death, his staying power as an American icon endures. 

There are many reasons for his iconic status: his stories (especially those that keep getting banned), his aphorisms (some of which he actually said), and his knack for relentless self-promotion that pioneered today’s viral marketing. At the heart of his continued cultural relevance, however, is Twain’s uncanny ability to tap the deep and volatile fault lines that emerged in America after the Civil War and that have continued to fracture (some at an exponential rate) well into the present.

The San Andreas Fault of these national fissures, of course, is race relations in America. But there are plenty of other ruptures extending from Twain’s era into our own: social upheaval wrought by new technologies, tensions between capitalism and socialism, and political factionalism.

Recently, while reading Kay Moser’s article “Mark Twain—Mugwump” (Mark Twain Journal, 1982), I was struck by how his political views still speak to us today, especially with the Democratic debates beginning tonight and another presidential election looming on the horizon. In her article, Moser delves into how Twain’s involvement in the 1884 presidential election “led to a showdown between his personal, strongly held convictions and the political conformity that was demanded of him by his literary friends and the Nook Farm residents.”

Up until the 1884 election, Twain had staunchly supported (and actively campaigned for) Republican presidential candidates. A speech he gave in favor of James Garfield in 1880, in fact, was remembered in Hartford “as the greatest effort of his life,” according to Albert Bigelow Paine. Twain’s friend and fellow Garfield campaigner, William Dean Howells, read the speech twice and wrote “that he could not put it out of his mind.” However, four years later the presidential election would place Twain at political odds with Howells and with many friends in Hartford.

The rift was provoked by Twain’s disdain for the Republican nominee in 1884, James G. Blaine, who, despite a reputation for corruption, had “very devoted followers within the party who would not believe any of the charges brought against him,” as Moser puts it. In protest, Twain and other reform-minded Republicans left the party to form what became known as the Mugwumps. 

Derived from an anglicized version of the Algonquian word “mugquomp,” or “important person, kingpin,” the term was originally intended as an insult, implying that members of the group thought they were too good for the messy realities of party politics. Embracing the slight as a badge of their political independence, however, Twain and the Mugwumps put their support behind the Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland. Although he had his personal moral failings (such as fathering a baby out of wedlock with his mistress), the Mugwumps considered the Governor of New York and foe of Tammany Hall corruption a man of integrity (as a politician, at least).

It may be tempting to draw specific parallels between the elections of 1884 and 2020; there are certainly instances where history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme (as one of those aphorisms misattributed to Twain asserts). I’m more interested, however, in Twain’s thoughts on the importance of political independence rooted in personal conscience—wisdom that might benefit contentious factions across the spectrum today.   

As Moser notes, Twain resisted the stultifying influence of political and religious orthodoxy throughout his life. “Loyalty to petrified opinions,” he observed, “never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul in this world-and never will.” In the growing chasm today between people vehemently identifying with one party affiliation against another, Twain’s following insight seems particularly pertinent:

“No party holds the privilege of dictating to me how I shall vote. If loyalty to party is a form of patriotism, I am no patriot. If there is any valuable difference between a monarchist and an American, it lies in the theory that the American can decide for himself what is patriotic and what isn’t. I claim that difference. I am the only person in the sixty millions that is privileged to dictate my patriotism.”

from “The Writings of Mark Twain” by Albert Bigelow Paine

For Twain, one’s ever-evolving conscience, not adherence to rigid ideology, should determine how one votes and ultimately identifies as an American:

“I believe you said something about the country and the party. Certainly allegiance to these is well, but certainly a man’s first duty is to his own conscience and honor; the party and country come second to that, and never first.”

Moser concludes that Twain “insists that the true patriot is the Mugwump, the independent, the man who is not afraid of change when his conscience dictates it. And such men, Twain asserts, come from an illustrious ancestry:

‘…in the whole history of the race of men no single great and high and beneficent thing was ever done for the souls and bodies, the hearts and the brains, of the children of the world, but a Mugwump started it and Mugwumps carried it to victory. And their names are the stateliest in history: Washington, Garrison, Galileo, Luther, Christ.’”

That sentiment may be a bit over-the-top by today’s standards, but perhaps today’s standards could benefit from a little Mugwump bump.

New American Studies Prize Named for Mark Twain Scholar, Shelley Fisher Fishkin

The American Studies Association is inaugurating a new prize for International Scholarship in Transnational American Studies. The Shelley Fisher Fishkin Prize is named in honor of the contributions Fishkin has made to developing the field of Transnational American Studies.

Fishkin Receives John S. Tuckey Prize in 2017

Fishkin is among the most well-known and highly-regarded scholars in Mark Twain Studies. She edited the 29-volume Oxford Mark Twain and has published two influential books, Was Huck Black? (1993) and Lighting Out For The Territory (1996), as well as numerous articles. In 2017, she received the John S. Tuckey Award for achievements in Twain scholarship from the Center for Mark Twain Studies.

Fishkin has also devoted considerable time and energy to building international networks for Twain criticism, including Global Huck, a digital archive of translations of Adventure of Huckleberry Finn currently in development. Fishkin was a founding editor of The Journal of Transnational American Studies, launched in 2009. She has been instrumental in mentoring emerging Twain scholars and publicizing groundbreaking Twain scholarship.

Tsuyoshi Ishihara, author of Mark Twain in Japan (2005), writes, “Thanks are due first to Prof. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, the great Twain scholar and Americanist, for her encouragement, suggestions, care, and patience. Her encyclopedic knowledge and sparkling insights were vital in developing this project.”

Selina Lai-Henderson, author of Mark Twain in China (2015), calls Fishkin an “intellectual giant…whose vision, breadth of knowledge, and dedication have made many of my dreams become possible.”

The Shelley Fisher Fishkin Prize for International Scholarship in Transnational American Studies will be awarded annually to a scholar based at institutions outside the United States who have published excellent original research in the past three years. More information and submission guidelines are available from the American Studies Association.

Congratulations to Dr. Fishkin from the Center for Mark Twain Studies.