The Legacy of Lawrence I. Berkove (Courtesy of Mark Twain Journal)


EDITOR’S NOTE: We were saddened to learn this past weekend of the passing of Lawrence I. Berkove, a former Quarry Farm Fellow, Trouble Begins lecturer, and frequent guest of Elmira College and Friend of CMTS. With permission from the Mark Twain Journal, we are pleased to reprint this essay, written for the occasion of Prof. Berkove being named a Legacy Scholar in 2014 by his former student, colleague, and longtime collaborator, Joe Csicsila. They co-lectured as part of the 2010 Trouble Begins series, which you can hear here. In our Trouble Begins archives, you will also find Berkove’s lectures from 1993 and 1999.

My earliest memory of Larry Berkove as a student of his in the late 1980s is something he said to me once during a conversation in his office between classes. I had asked him how he selected the writers he had worked on over the course of his career, or something to that effect. He told me that he usually just watched which way everybody else was going and then would turn and go off in the other direction. I was probably looking for something a little more concrete that day, but I realized later that it was in fact a perfect depiction of his scholarly sensibility. Anyone who knows Larry and his work can appreciate, I think, just how spot-on that image of him quietly wandering off all by himself actually is. He is not, of course, a person who would self-describe as a nonconformist or a rebel, because for him it has nothing at all to do with the idea of simply being different. Rather, Larry has always held to the belief that critical trends have a tendency to leave some very good writers behind. Obscurity or neglect has never worried Larry when he happened upon something he thought was skillfully written. He has consistently trusted in his ability to distinguish good writing from bad, and that has fueled his pursuit of authors for whom many would never have risked the safety of the crowd.

He was born Lawrence Ivan Berkove in Rochester, NewYork, in January 1930. His father, Harry, had dreamed of becoming a doctor but the Depression put an end to those ambitions, at least temporarily. Larry’s mother, Sally, would later run across an ad for a podiatry school in Chicago and urged her husband to apply. The couple then moved their family to the south side of Chicago in 1936 where Larry’s father worked at a downtown department store during the day and attended classes at night. Sally also helped support the family as a bookkeeper until Harry graduated and would begin his long and successful career as a podiatrist.

As a young student in the Chicago Public School System, Larry developed an interest in agronomy, which quickly grew into a passion for ecology.  After graduating from high school in 1947, Larry enrolled at Montana State University to study forestry. But he quickly discovered that conservation was not exactly the field he had imagined, so after his first year he returned to the Midwest and enrolled at the University of Illinois at Navy Pier, at the time a two-year college. When Larry matriculated south to the main campus at Champagne to complete his undergraduate studies he had yet to settle on another field of study. Still unsure standing in line the first day of registration, fate intervened and Larry declared himself an English major. That moment had been the first time that he had ever seriously considered pursuing a degree in English.

He enjoyed the curriculum at Illinois and did well, but studying English in the late 1940s at an American university meant studying British writers almost exclusively. (Illinois at the time did offer one class on an American author: Henry James.) Looking to continue his studies at the graduate level, Larry applied to the University of Minnesota, because it was the most affordable school in the Big 10, and was accepted. Unbeknownst to him, however, he was entering one of the country’s finest programs in American literature. In 1951, the faculty at Minnesota featured such academic luminaries as Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, Theodore Hornberger, and Alan Tate. Larry would have his first exposure to Mark Twain studying under Marx, an experience of profound consequence that would ultimately shape the mainlines of his thinking about Twain as an artist. His time at Minnesota also laid the foundations for a lifetime of studying American writers.

In 1953, Larry enlisted in the U.S. Army and spent 16 months serving the country during the Korean War.  Back from overseas and still on active duty, Larry began applying to Ph.D. programs. After his discharge he entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1956. He studied under eighteenth-century British scholars Arthur Scouten and Maurice Johnson and Americanist Charles Boewe. Theodore Hornberger joined the faculty at Pennsylvania in 1960, and it was under him that Larry would write a dissertation on Ambrose Bierce. Early on in that process, Hornberger advised Larry to try combing through nineteenth-century newspaper archives to see if Bierce’s collected stories differed from their original versions. That suggestion would prove transformational. What Larry subsequently discovered was a rich source of material, some of it long-forgotten, not only by Bierce but numerous other authors that he would work on for much of the rest of his career. After graduating from Pennsylvania in 1962, he lectured briefly at schools in Chicago and Colorado. In 1964, he took an assistant professor position at the University of Michigan-Dearborn where he would teach for the next forty years.

As Larry embarked on his career as a scholar in the mid 1960s, he would briefly put aside his research on Bierce, so it would seem, to deal first with ideas about Mark Twain that he had been formulating since his time at Minnesota more than a decade before. Studying under Leo Marx had been an enormously fruitful experience, but Larry had gradually come to question his former mentor’s conclusions about Twain and Huckleberry Finn. But this, of course, was more than simply one student challenging a former professor’s teaching. Marx’s reading of Huckleberry Finn had become arguably the prevailing orthodoxy in Twain studies in the 1950s and 60s, largely the result of his widely influential essay, “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn” published in 1953. In that piece, Marx argued that Twain’s masterpiece ultimately disappoints as an affirmation of freedom and thus endures as a fatally flawed novel. Focusing on the last ten chapters of the book, the so-called “evasion” episode, Marx asserts that Twain, having lost his nerve, failed in his apparent purpose to carry through to completion the bold and mature conception of freedom he had steadily promoted earlier in the book.

Larry had worked on parts of his interpretation for some time, but not until after a conversation with a colleague at Michigan who taught American history did all the pieces finally fall into place. Their discussion about the “free man of color” or “f.m.c.” in nineteenth-century American culture struck Larry immediately as the key to making sense of the end of Twain’s novel. In 1967 Larry delivered a paper, his first as an academic, titled “The Poor Players of Huckleberry Finn and the following spring he published an expanded version of the presentation in The Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters. Importantly, Larry’s argument was the first to read the novel’s evasion episode as pointed social criticism.  Moreover, Larry asserted that far from setting out to promote a conception of freedom in Huckleberry Finn, Twain actually presents freedom as an impossibility. None of the book’s characters in the final analysis are truly free, whether considered from a social, legal, or even cosmic perspective, Larry asserts, especially Jim who is, literally speaking, an f.m.c. as the novel comes to a close: a legal status far different from “free.” Twain demonstrates throughout Huckleberry Finn that human beings are allowed to yearn for freedom, to struggle for it, and even believe that they have achieved it, but it is an illusion. As such, Larry points out, the last ten chapters of the novel do not burlesque its themes, as Marx and others argued, but instead they perfect them. Although numerous scholars have since arrived at similar conclusions independently, Larry was the first to get there. Vic Doyno called “The Poor Players of Huckleberry Finn” groundbreaking in his landmark book Writing Huck Finn (1991).

Larry’s insights regarding the ending of Huckleberry Finn initiated nearly a half-century ago what is today considered to be a fairly established way to read Twain’s masterpiece. Larry spent much of the 1960s and 1970s pursuing lines of inquiry with Bierce he had opened while writing his dissertation. When Larry first began to work on Bierce under Hornberger at the University of Pennsylvania, Bierce studies, with a few notable exceptions, had languished for much of the twentieth century as a field marked by impressionistic, amateurish scholarship. Critics generally interpreted Bierce’s work as gratuitously bitter or misanthropic or even worse, as simply imitative of earlier writers such as Edgar Allan Poe. As a result, the portrait of Bierce that had emerged by the early 1960s was merely that of an eccentric personality and a literary dabbler who had written a few memorable stories.  Larry’s work on Bierce set out to correct the scholarly record by showing him to be an author of considerable depth and power.  Like Jonathan Swift, Bierce was a master satirist and ironist, Larry contended, who was eminently sensitive to human pain and suffering. Bierce loathed cruelty, incompetence, and injustice and consistently expressed compassion for innocent victims throughout his impressive body of work.

In 1981, Larry edited a collection of Bierce’s newspaper columns, Skepticism and Dissent: Selected Journalism, 1898-1901, the first major presentation of new Bierce material since 1912, that re-established Bierce’s reputation as a highly distinguished and profoundly perceptive turn-of-the-century social critic. What these columns reveal, as Bierce takes on such subjects as the Spanish-American War, the Filipino Insurrection, the Boxer Rebellion, the Boer War, American expansionism, and freedom of speech, is, as Larry puts it, a master of language and logic and a man of supreme integrity who felt the truth was always worth fighting for no matter the personal cost.  In 2002, Larry developed the material he had first presented in his dissertation into a comprehensive analysis of Bierce’s fiction titled A Prescription for Adversity: The Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce. In the end, Larry views Bierce’s journalism and fiction as ultimately informed by a single unified vision of morality taut between tragedy and Stoicism. Bierce believed that humanity was fatally pitted against overwhelming forces (Nature, other human beings, one’s own self) and that despite the seeming futility of it all, humanity should nevertheless place itself completely in the service of truth and justice. In addition to these two volumes, Larry produced nearly a dozen other articles and books on Bierce during the course of his career and is today recognized as among the two or three most prominent Bierce scholars of the last fifty years.

As Larry poured over nineteenth-century periodicals like the San Francisco Examiner in search of material by Bierce, he had developed the habit of also reading other parts of those newspapers and magazines in an effort to broaden his understanding of the age. Occasionally during those years he noticed articles and stories by a Nevada writer named Dan De Quille. Believing them to be fairly well written, he started a file and began collecting anything by De Qullie he happened to run across. By the early 1980s, Larry had amassed enough quality writing by De Quille to convince himself that he was working with a bona fide literary talent. In 1984, he gave his first paper on De Quille at a meeting of the Western Literature Association titled “The Literary Journalism of Dan De Quille.” Over the next three decades, Larry would go on to write and edit more than thirty papers, articles, and books on Dan De Quille, including six volumes of the author’s fiction and prose, single-handedly resurrecting the critical reputation of not just a significant American literary artist but also arguably the best informed writer of the nineteenth-century Old Western social milieu.

Larry’s work on De Quille would lead to other meaningful research discoveries for him in the 1980s and 1990s. Larry, for example, would drive to Iowa to meet De Quille’s great-grandson in the mid 1980s to learn more about the life of the forgotten Nevada writer.  During that first visit, the great-grandson unexpectedly produced a trove of previously unknown letters written to De Quille by none other than Mark Twain.  De Quille and Twain had worked together in the early 1860s as newspaper writers for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. During those years in Nevada the two developed a close friendship, even rooming together for a short time. De Quille and Twain corresponded with each other occasionally in the years after Twain returned east. Twain would offer advice to De Quille the latter put together his 1876 history of the Comstock Lode, The Big Bonanza. But Larry discovered that literary inspiration actually moved in both directions between the two writers in the 1870s. Larry’s research established, for instance, that De Quille’s work fundamentally influenced not just portions of Twain’s Roughting It (1872) but also quite possibly the very conception itself and subsequent composition of “Old Times on the Mississippi,” as serialized in The Atlantic Monthly in 1875.

Curious about other Nevada influences on Twain, Larry widened his scope beyond De Quille in the late 1980s and began looking for other literary figures associated with the Comstock region. What he discovered was an entire school of writers, long forgotten, who together constituted one of the most vigorous and innovative literary movements in nineteenth-century American literary history. They were known as the Sagebrush School (1862-1909), a label given to them by nineteenth-century historian Ella Sterling Cummins Mighels, and in their own time they were regarded as some of the country’s finest writers. The movement included Twain and De Quille, of course, but also Rollin Daggett, Joseph Goodman, and Sam Davis as well as a dozen or so lesser-known authors. What these individuals shared and what would come to be regarded as the defining characteristics of the Sagebrush School itself were an intense ethical sensibility, a searing wit, and a deep affection for the literary hoax. Thesewere the most principled, moral men of the Old West, aggressively exposing corruption, particularly among the cultural elites, and regularly taking up for the common folk and oppressed.

The movement was also marked by revolutionary artistry.  Daggett and Goodman’s co-authored 1872 play The Psychoscope (which Larry recovered and edited for publication in 2006), to take one example, represents likely the earliest known example of American realistic drama with its raw language, portrayal of prostitutes, and frank depictions of Western brothels. As such, *The Psychoscope *was easily a generation ahead of its time. One scene from the play, in particular, presents four prostitutes entertaining a good-natured but hopelessly naive young man whom they get drunk, then drug, rob, and have dumped into the street. Over the last twenty-five years, Larry has presented numerous papers and published more than a dozen articles and notes in his effort to recover the work of the Sagebrush School of writers. In 2006, Larry published The Sagebrush Anthology: Literature from the Silver Age of the Old West. This collection is profound contribution to American literary history, to be sure, but it also represents the culmination of a life’s work and arguably
the crowning achievement of Larry’s career.

In addition to his early work on Huckleberry Finn, Larry has also made a number of significant contributions throughout his career to Mark Twain studies, particularly with regard to Roughing It (1872) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). In 1984, he published the first of his four essays on Connecticut Yankee, which taken together assert fundamentally that Connecticut Yankee is close if not equal to Huckleberry Finn in depth, power, and artistry.  Larry’s considerable research on Roughing It, a book which he views as possessing all the features of a unified novel and exhibiting far more complexity than is typically acknowledged by scholars, has, as one might expect, intersected continuously over the last twenty-five years with his work on the writers Sagebrush School. In 2010, Larry brought together the entirety of his fifty years of thinking about Twain and his body of work in a book-length study, titled Heretical Fictions: Religion in the Literature of Mark Twain.

Larry’s scholarship over the years has treated a wide spectrum of writers, among them Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Joel Chandler Harris, Henry James, Octave Thanet, Kate Chopin, Edward Bellamy, Frank Norris, Edith Wharton, E. A. Robinson, Willa Cather, and Loren Eiseley.  In the early 1990s, Larry added Jack London his long list of research interests. Inspired by a 1980s revival in London studies, Larry’s work has uncovered the degree to which London’s writing, especially the later fiction, reflected the influence of Darwin, Spencer, and Jung. In just a little more than twenty years, Larry has made an outstanding contribution to London studies, publishing a book and no fewer than nine journal articles and chapters in collected editions.

It seems a little mundane, perhaps, to close by saying that Larry Berkove has put together an enviable academic career.  But that’s what it’s been. Entirely enviable. In all kinds of ways. Most of us, of course, would be eager to claim a body of work that includes 19 books, 71 articles, 26 chapters, 47 notes, 21 reviews, and 139 conference presentations. And that is to say nothing of the Fulbright and National Endowment for the Humanities awards or all of the international guest lectureships or the numerous presidencies and vice-presidencies his peers have elected him to or the dozens of other honors, big and small, Larry has received over the last fifty years.  As a former student and then a colleague and friend, I can offer up another credential, one that doesn’t appear on Larry’s vita: the absolute joy with which he has gone about his work.  I’ve seen it up close now for nearly thirty years. Larry has a fondness for saying that they just don’t pay us enough as teachers to not enjoy what we do.  More than the publications or the honors, this is what I have always admired most about him, the delight that informs everything he does as a scholar.  Larry Berkove, as he will tell you himself, has had a lot of fun in his career, and it is his love of the profession, at least in my book, that will stand in the end as his most lasting legacy.

 

Joe Csicsila is a Professor of English at Eastern Michigan University and author of numerous works on American Literature and Mark Twain Studies. 

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