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.

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.

Of Walls & Wangdoodles

“You can call it a barrier, you can call it a wall, you can call it a wangdoodle for all I care.” – Sen. John Kennedy (Louisiana)

The above quote from the ongoing (some might say “never-ending”) discussion over what to call President Trump’s proposed border wall/fence/barrier reminds me of one of Mark Twain’s more obscure, early letters.

In a letter to William Clagett in March 1862, Twain wrote:

“Sunday.—I intended to finish this letter to-day, but I went to church—and busted! For a man who can listen for an hour to Mr. White, the whining, nasal, Whangdoodle preacher, and then sit down and write, without shedding melancholy from his pen as from a duck’s back, is more than mortal. Or less. I fear I shall not feel cheerful again until the beans I had for dinner begin to operate.”

View Complete Letter via Mark Twain Project

I certainly feel the same melancholia about the interminable border wall debate as Twain did about his “Whangdoodle preacher”—although there doesn’t appear to be an impending, cheerful release from our quandary, as he was anticipating from his. Even so, investigating the origin of such a strange word like “whangdoodle” may offer something of a pleasant diversion while we wait for the proverbial beans of our national government to begin to operate.  

According to the Merriam-Webster definition, a “Whangdoodle” is “an imaginary creature of undefined character.” The Online Etymology Dictionary adds that it is a “thing for which the correct name is not known.” There are other, less savory definitions for the word offered on “Urban Dictionary,” but I don’t want to besmirch the clean lines of the Twain Center’s new website with them.

There are literary references to Whangdoodles in beloved children’s books like Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; however, Twain’s use of it in his biting critique of The Rev. A.F. White is likely from a parody sermon that was popular out West, where Twain lived at the time. Mark Twain’s Letters, Vol. 1notes:

No doubt Clemens associated White’s pulpit style with that of the “Hard-shell Baptist” preacher whose sermon, “Where the Lion Roareth and the Wang-Doodle Mourneth,” was a staple of frontier humor. The “Whangdoodle,” a “mysterious animal, like the ‘gyascutis’ of circus fame, has never been beheld of man and its attributes and habits are entirely unknown.” 

(Maitland, 300)

In the satirical sermon, the “unlarnt” preacher offers a jumble of misspelled words and specious theology to his “brethering”:

…my tex which I shall choose for the occasion is in the leds of the Bible, somewhar between the Second Chronik-ills and the last chapter of Timothytitus; and when you find it, you’ll find it in these words: “And they shall gnaw a file, and flee unto the mountains of Hepsidam, where the lion roareth and the wang-doodle mourneth for his first born…

…Now, my brethering, “they shall flee unto the mountains of Hepsidam;” but thar’s more dams than Hepsidam. Thar’s Rotter-dam, Had-dam, Amster-dam, and “Don’t-care-a-dam”—the last of which, my brethering, is the worst of all…

In reading these words, it occurs to me that our diversionary quest for the legendary Whangdoodle’s origin has led us right back here to modern-day “Don’t-care-a-dam,” where presidential “tex” about “covfefe” and “hamberders” make Kennedy’s allusion to “wangdoodle” an all-the-more-fitting label for the elusive border wall.

Happy Halloween!: Twain’s Favorite Ghost Story and Twain Speaks From The Netherworld

It’s Halloween, the day when, according to legend, the veil between this world and the spirit realm is at its most delicate. A fitting time to remember Mark Twain’s love for a good ghost story.

“Witches” from Chapter 34 of ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN

He was particularly fond of “The Golden Arm”, a folktale that spooked him during childhood visits to his Uncle John Quarles’ farm in the 1840s. He noted decades later in a letter to Joel Chandler Harris that the story was told by “old Uncle Dan’l, a slave of my uncle’s, aged 60, [who] used to tell us children yarns every night by the kitchen fire (no other light).” The story, which Twain referred to as a “negro ghost story,” actually has folkloric roots extending back to Europe long before the Grimm brothers first published it. However, by the time Uncle Dan’l mesmerized Twain with it by the kitchen fire, the story had become part of the oral tradition of Southern black culture.

The creepy story (or “creepypasta” in the parlance of our times) concerns a dead woman’s restless spirit returning from the grave to reclaim her golden arm from her grave-robbing husband. The suspense gradually builds with the ghost’s recurring mournful wail, “W-h-o–g-o-t–m-y–g-o-l-d-e-n arm?”, and after a carefully timed pause, climaxes with the storyteller suddenly lunging forward to shout, “You’ve got it!”

Twain recalled to Harris how much he and the other children on the farm loved to listen to Uncle Dan’l retell the story to them every night when “there was but a ghastly blaze or two flickering about the back-log”:

We would huddle close about the old man, and begin to shudder with the first familiar words; and under the spell of his impressive delivery we always fell a prey to that climax at the end when the rigid black shape in the twilight sprang at us with a shout.

This folktale had a lifelong impact on Twain. Not only did memories of Uncle Dan’l inspire his creation of the superstitious-yet-wise Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain also relished telling “The Golden Arm” himself from the lecture platform. “Of course I tell it in the negro dialect,” he wrote to Harris. “That is necessary.” And his telling always included all the “weird wailing, the rising and falling cadences of the wind, so easily mimicked with one’s mouth; and the impressive pauses and eloquent silences, and subdued utterances, toward the end of the yarn.”

It was probably these mimetic aspects of the story, along with its shock ending, that so mortified Twain’s daughter Susy when her father regaled her refined classmates at Bryn Mawr with a performance of the ghoulishly garish tale (even after she begged him not to tell it).

Twain’s interest in “The Golden Arm” is well known today, thanks in large part to Hal Holbrooks’ rendition of it in Mark Twain Tonight! and its inclusion in the repertoire of professional storytellers. (For an interesting reflection on problematic aspects of the story by a contemporary storyteller, click here.)

However, there is another strange (but true) ghost story that isn’t as widely known involving Twain, ouija boards, and, of all things, copyright law.

The convoluted saga begins in 1915 when an author named Emily Grant Hutching claimed that Twain, now five years dead, dictated a book to her from beyond the grave via a ouija board. David Thomson has compiled a lot of great information on this incident.

Emily Grant Hutching (Image from MarkTwainQuotes.com)

For a simple summary of Twain’s alleged foray into posthumous publishing, I turn to Mary Collins Barile’s Haunted Columbia, Missouri:

Now calling herself a psychic, Hutchings finally revealed…that the book was transmitted to herself, psychic Lola Viola Roddenmayer Hays and psychic researcher James Hervey Hyslop by none other than Mark Twain…Jap Herron (A Novel Written from the Ouija Board) tells the story of a young Missouri man who takes on adversity and becomes a newspaper editor. The book was rejected by publishing houses before Mitchell Kennerley, a New York publisher with a flair for the odd, released it. The reviews were not kind, including this from the New York Times on September 9, 1917: “If this is the best that Mark Twain can do by reaching across the barrier (death), the admirers that his works have won for him will all hope that he will hereafter respect that boundary.”

Not only did Twain’s supposed publishing debut from the spectral realm receive pallid reviews, his daughter Clara and publisher Harper & Brothers sued Hutching and Kennerley for violating the copyright they held on the pen name “Mark Twain”. The suit, as a tongue-in-cheek New York Times article reported in 1918, apparently had far-reaching implications beyond mere copyright infringement:

On the face of it the suit of Harper & Brothers vs. Mitchell Kennerley, publisher, involves a bald question of property right; but by indirection it involves also the questions whether spirit communication with the living is demonstrable, and whether there is a life hereafter. The riddle of the universe is about to be debated, not by theologians, but by lawyers.

Ultimately, the questions related to this cosmic riddle included (again, from the article):

Has the shade of Samuel Clemens any right to the use of a pseudonym he adopted in the flesh and permitted his publishers to copyright? What claims have The Departed on the relics of their earthly pilgrimage? These are obvious issues in the suit. And if it is established to the satisfaction of the Court that the spirit of Mark Twain did indeed communicate the novel, while the attorneys for the plaintiff are upheld in their contention that said spirit had no right to market any literary commodities except through the house of Harpers, owing to a contract made prior to his passing, by what mode of procedure can the disembodied by brought to book for such unbusinesslike, not to say immoral, conduct?

Regrettably, the suit did not resolve any existential conundrums, and Twain’s spirit gave no ghostly testimony from the netherworld. Instead, the anti-climactic outcome resulted in Hutchings and Kennerley agreeing to withdraw the book from publication and to destroy most copies of it.Yet, Jap Herron lives on. Hard copies of it may be difficult to dig up today, but there are versions of it still haunting the internet. Brave souls willing to venture into Twain’s otherworldly opus, which includes Hutching’s lengthy account of her supposed ouija board collaboration with him, can visit (if they dare).

Happy Halloween from everyone at the Center for Mark Twain Studies!

Scrub Angels & Practical Cats at Quarry Farm

About halfway through my recent two-week fellowship at Quarry Farm I felt a new affinity with something Mark Twain wrote while perched there “on top of the hill near heaven.”

“I have the feeling of being a sort of scrub angel,” Twain mused, “& am more moved to help shove the clouds around, & get the stars on deck promptly, & keep all things trim & ship-shape in the firmament than to bother myself with the humble insect-interests & occupations of the distant earth.”

Obviously, Quarry Farm was a special place for Mark Twain. For over twenty years, Twain and his family summered there at the home of his sister-in-law Susan and her husband Theodore Crane. His octagonal study, where he wrote many of his classics, was a short walk from the farmhouse to its celestial perch overlooking the city of Elmira and the Chemung River Valley.

The study can now be found down on Elmira College’s campus, the spot where it used to sit is mostly overgrown with trees these days.

It is still possible, however, to experience something like Twain’s scrub-angel epiphany at Quarry Farm. After a day there devoted to writing, sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch—taking in the scenic view of distant earth below and listening to the wind bloweth where it listeth through the trees—I felt a sincere “Amen” to Twain’s homily might be order.

What I heard instead was a cat’s thunderous meow.

That’s when I saw a black-and-white, bobtailed feline with emerald eyes sauntering across the porch toward me. With a sudden, acrobatically impressive back roll onto my foot, the cat lay supine looking up at me, letting me know I was to pay homage to him (or her…I didn’t ask what the cat’s pronouns were).

As I was petting my new furry friend (whom I dubbed Bob due to his or her tail, or lack thereof), it occurred to me that another bit of Quarry Farm’s Mark Twain lore (his love of cats) had manifested for me in purring fur ball at my feet.

Bob fit right in with Quarry Farm’s heavenly firmament. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Twain observed that “these graceful and harmless cats would easily become as sacred as any other royalties, and indeed more so…and must be worthy of a deeper love and reverence than the customary human king, and would certainly get it.”

Twain is known for his general love of animals, of course. But, as confirmed by several photos of him at Quarry Farm and elsewhere striking fond poses with a beloved cat, Twain had a special soft spot in his curmudgeonly heart for these enigmatic animals.

Susy Clemens wrote in her biography of her father that: “The difference between papa and mama is, that mama loves morals and papa loves cats.”

Not that there was a dichotomy for Twain between morality and cats. It’s just that cats embodied a code far more fitting for a place “on top of the hill near heaven.” In 1906, Twain noted how the qualities of a cat named Sour Mash exemplified this code:

I had a great admiration for Sour Mash, and a great affection for her, too. She was one of the institutions of Quarry Farm for a good many years. She had an abundance of that noble quality which all cats possess, and which neither man nor any other animal possesses in any considerable degree – independence. Also she was affectionate, she was loyal, she was plucky, she was enterprising, she was just to her friends and unjust to her enemies — and she was righteously entitled to the high compliment which so often fell from the lips of John T. Lewis — reluctantly, and as by compulsion, but all the more precious for that: “‘Other Christians is always worrying about other people’s opinions, but Sour Mash don’t give a damn.’”

Or perhaps she only gave a damn about things that ultimately matter.

That’s the attitude Bob (or whatever your deep and inscrutable singular name—ala T.S. Eliot—really is) and my stay at Quarry Farm instilled in me, if only for that time spent so close to heaven.

A Tragic Spring For Joe Twichell

Saturday, April 21, marked the 108th anniversary of Mark Twain’s passing.

For Twain, whose final decade was wracked by overwhelming bereavement, the promise of death’s release was something welcome. By the end of his life, Twain’s sentiments toward life and death were akin to Satan’s musings in Letters From the Earth (1909):

Life was not a valuable gift, but death was. Life was a fever-dream made up of joys embittered by sorrows, pleasure poisoned by pain; a dream that was a nightmare-confusion of spasmodic and fleeting delights, ecstasies, exultations, happinesses, interspersed with long-drawn miseries, griefs, perils, horrors, disappointments, defeats, humiliations, and despairs–the heaviest curse devisable by divine ingenuity; but death was sweet, death was gentle, death was kind; death healed the bruised spirit and the broken heart, and gave them rest and forgetfulness; death was man’s best friend; when man could endure life no longer, death came and set him free.

In memorializing him in the next day’s Hartford Courant, Twain’s close friend and pastor, Joseph Twichell, observed that the humorist who had brought so much laughter into the world “had lived to be a lonely, weary-hearted man, and the thought of his departure hence was not unwelcome to him.”

Unfortunately, the month of April 1910 would prove to be most unwelcome for Twichell as well. As he prepared to give a prayer at Twain’s funeral service in New York, Twichell received word that the health of his beloved wife Harmony had taken an unexpected turn for the worse. He managed to return to Hartford by train in time to speak with Harmony before she died shortly after midnight.

As a devout Christian pastor and a battlefield chaplain for the Union Army during the Civil War who had ministered to wounded and dying troops, Twichell was no stranger to death’s sharp sting. Still, according to Steve Courtney’s excellent biography, the eight years following the simultaneous loss of his friend and his wife were particularly difficult for Twichell (who would himself die in 1918).

According to Courtney, a grieving Twichell lamented to his son David, “I’ll just have to live from day to day. How many times have I told people that, and that in their sorrows God would give them comfort and strength for each day as it came.”

As trying as those remaining years were for Twichell as he sought daily comfort and strength in bearing his loss, I hope he found the same solace he had offered previously to Twain, who noted that Twichell had “something divine” in him that provided a consoling “touch that heals, not lacerates.”

Perhaps he found it in his wide, supportive circle of family and friends and in the Gospel he preached for decades from the pulpit of Asylum Hill Congregational Church. Perhaps Twichell, who shared Twain’s affinity for Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, found succor in these mystical ruminations.

At the very least, perhaps what he privately told Twain after Olivia Clemens’ death in 1904 also provided shelter from the storm for Twichell in the end:

“I, indeed, believe, that behind the riddle there is a Hidden and Awful Wisdom; that for me tempest-tost on these wide weltering seas there is an anchorage, that for the mortal spirit there is a practicable victory over the world with all its baffling mysteries.”

An Unlikely Patron of Civil Rights Jurisprudence

Although I generally like Chris Rock as a comedian, one of his jokes has always rubbed me the wrong way.

Rock told the joke back in 1999 as part of the Kennedy Center’s program honoring Richard Pryor as the first recipient of its first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. According to the Chicago Tribune’s account:

Chris Rock wondered what would have happened if Mark Twain had ever met Richard Pryor.

“(Pryor would) probably say, `I really enjoy your work,’” Rock surmised. “And what would Mark Twain say to Richard Pryor? He’d probably say, `N—–, pick up my bag.’”

It’s not surprising that the report goes on to note that the joke was met by “an underwhelming mix of nervous laughs and low-key applause.” It isn’t that Rock’s joke wasn’t funny and more than just a little biting (which, on one level, makes it a fitting tribute to Pryor). The problem with the joke is that based on what we know about Twain’s racial attitudes, Rock’s punchline is entirely false (a trait that Pryor’s truth-telling humor certainly lacks).

Twain is no doubt something of a mixed bag when it comes to race, as demonstrated by ongoing controversies surrounding his classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Shelley Fisher Fishkin points out in Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices that while Twain “recognized the intellectual or artistic aspirations” of a number of young African-American men and “provided financial aid to these individuals in all these endeavors,” he nonetheless “retained a lifelong affection for the minstrel shows he recalled from his Missouri childhood.”

There’s no evidence, however, that this fondness for the gross racial caricatures of minstrel shows in any way resulted in the ugly racist behavior Rock’s joke suggests. In fact, the example of Warner T. McGuinn, one of the men Twain financially assisted, indicates the opposite is true.

In the 1980s, Fishkin authenticated a letter that Twain sent to the dean of Yale’s Law School offering to help pay boarding for McGuinn, who was the school’s first black student. Interestingly, Twain wrote the letter in 1885, the same year that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published. In it, he confesses:

“I do not believe I would very cheerfully help a white student who would ask a benevolence of a stranger, but I do not feel so about the other color. We have ground the manhood out of them, & the shame is ours, not theirs; & we should pay for it.”

Fishkin told the New York Times that “Twain’s brutally succinct comment on racism in the letter is a rare non-ironic statement of the personal anguish Twain felt regarding the destructive legacy of slavery.”

Unfortunately, Twain would not live to see the far-reaching impact his generosity had on dismantling that baneful legacy. McGuinn graduated from Yale and went on to become a lawyer in Baltimore, where he helped found a branch of the NAACP, was elected to the city council, and won a major civil rights victory in federal court.

Perhaps most significantly, McGuinn acted as patron and mentor to a young African-American attorney named Thurgood Marshall, who would argue the case, Brown v. Board of Education, that overturned the doctrine of “separate but equal” in the United States and later became the first African-American Supreme Court justice.

As Juan Williams recounts in his biography of Marshall, McGuinn refused to hire Marshall into his own small firm in 1933, insisting that Marshall would learn faster by being his own boss. He told him,

“I have carefully watched your progress in law school. It is unbelievably good. And you want to let me have your beautiful, great brain, and I am not going to accept it. You’re going to practice by yourself and get your brains kicked out.”

McGuinn did supply Marshall with offices, secretarial staff, clients (particularly when they had especially difficult cases), and ample advice. Marshall recalled that “He was the only one who helped me,” offering his insights into the procedures, personalities, and peculiarities of the Baltimore court system, and making sure Marshall never went out of business, even though, as McGuinn had predicted, he lost much more often than he won. In 1936, McGuinn’s son, Robert, collaborated with Marshall in his first investigation into the condition of segregated schools.

One can reasonably speculate that without McGuinn’s assistance, Marshall may not have survived as an African-American attorney in Depression America, and that if McGuinn had not encountered Twain at a railroad station in Connecticut many years earlier, he might not have succeeded in becoming an attorney himself.

Based on the impact this serendipitous encounter would have on history, I think it’s safe to say that it didn’t begin with Twain gruffly snapping a racist epithet at the young law student and ordering him to carry his bags.

Mark Twain, The Mason: Anticipating The Premiere of MARK TWAIN’S JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM

A new documentary, Mark Twain’s Journey to Jerusalem: Dreamland, airs tonight on PBS. Narrated by Martin Sheen, the award-winning film features insights from Twain scholars around the world. According to the filmmakers, Mark Twain’s Journey to Jerusalem will retrace “Twain’s footsteps using actual details from his letters and journals. The film tells a little-known story of Mark Twain as a young reporter, embarking on a maiden voyage over the Atlantic and across the Holy Land. His final destination – the ancient city of Jerusalem. Twain’s experiences and insights from this trip later shaped him as a quintessential American writer.”

The film’s trailer also asserts that journeying to “the mythical places he knew from the Bible will test Twain’s faith.” It will be interesting to see if this aspect of the film mentions his involvement in Freemasonry at the time and the special gift from the Holy Land he gave to the lodge in St. Louis, Missouri, that he joined in 1861.

Perhaps it will shy away from the touchy subject. Shrouded in mystery for much of its history, Freemasonry is to this day the focus of outlandish conspiracy theories.

The Masonic Service Association of North America describes the secretive, religiously oriented fraternity as:

“Not a religion, nor is it a substitute for religion. It requires of its members a belief in God as part of the obligation of every responsible adult, but advocates no sectarian faith or practice. Masonic ceremonies include prayers, both traditional and extempore, to reaffirm each individual’s dependence on God and to seek divine guidance. Freemasonry is open to men of any faith, but religion may not be discussed at Masonic meetings.”

Further, the site says that Freemasonry defines “God” as the “Grand Architect of the Universe.” Twain uses this phrase in his account of his trip, The Innocents Abroad, published in 1869. Masons believe “that there is one God and that people employ many different ways to seek, and to express what they know of God.”

So, to say the least, Twain’s faith was unconventional before he embarked on his life-changing trip to Jerusalem.

Although he apparently was not very active as a Mason and ultimately demitted his membership in 1869, many Masonic websites today like to note Twain’s involvement in the fraternity in the 1860s. For instance,

“During those years when Mark Twain was ‘roughing it’ in the West, his fraternal activities were apparently at a minimum. There is evidence that he paid a visit to the Chinese Free Mason Hall in Carson City; his mining partner Calvin Higbie, has described how Twain revealed his Masonic membership by giving – although with comic exaggeration – the fraternal ‘grand hailing sign of distress.’ At this point, Twain did not take his role as a Mason seriously and was removed from the organization for the most part. However, upon returning to St. Louis, he petitioned for readmission and was reinstated on April 21, 1867.”

If this timeline is accurate, Twain’s Masonic membership would have been freshly renewed just a couple months before setting sail for the Holy Land. This backstory may shed light on this handcrafted gavel made from a cedar tree in Lebanon that he gave to his Missouri lodge a year later:

According to The Masonic Dictionary“The Cedars of Lebanon are frequently referred to in the legends of Freemasonry, especially in the advanced Degrees; not, however, on account of any symbolical signification, but rather because of the use made of them by Solomon and Zerubbabel in the construction of their respective Temples.”

Phoenixmasonry.org reports that Twain “sent his lodge a gavel with this note: ‘This mallet is a cedar, cut in the forest of Lebanon, whence Solomon obtained the timbers for the Temple.’ Clemens cut the handle himself from a cedar just outside the walls of Jerusalem. He had it made in Alexandria, Egypt…”

After bestowing this gift upon his lodge, Twain apparently had little more to do with Freemasonry (aside from occasional allusions to it in his writing). In fact, according to an article entitled “Alas: Poor Mark!” in the Masonic New Yorker, A Journal of Masonic Information (March 15, 1907), the “great Apostle of Prevarication” seems to have provoked the ire of his former brothers after dismissing Freemasonry as “foolishness.” The Masonic correspondent found it “pitiable” that “the brother who charmed us with his humor” would “slap in the face the institution before whose alter he had thrice knelt.”

To learn more about this period in Twain’s career and the Quaker City tour which became his first bestselling book, tune in to the premiere of Mark Twain’s Journey To Jerusalem on PBS World tonight at 8 PM EST. The documentary, directed by A. D. Oppenheim and Diana Zaslaw, will no doubt be widely available for streaming soon thereafter.

“That Friendless Child’s Noise Would Make You Glad”: Unremembered Slaves on Frederick Douglass Day

As a follow-up to a post I wrote earlier this year on Mark Twain’s friendship with Frederick Douglass (who is from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where I live), I wanted to share the following excerpt from Chris Polk’s article in the Sunday edition of my local paper, The Star Democrat:

It was a day for Talbot County’s native son.

Frederick Douglass, the legendary former slave, abolitionist author, statesman and more has a day named for him every year in his native Talbot County.

Saturday, Sept. 23, in Easton, there was a parade and welcome ceremony on the courthouse green, near the statue of Douglass that was erected six years ago.

The courthouse green happens to be near the place where Douglass had been jailed briefly in 1836 for talking to a young slave about escaping, the jail being on the north side of the courthouse.

From his jail cell, perhaps Douglass could have seen where the ceremony was held.

Because I was busy researching Twain’s early years in Hannibal for a book I’m writing, I wasn’t able to attend the ceremony this weekend. Coincidentally, however, part of my research included reading Twain’s account in his autobiography of another Eastern Shore native that serves as something of a counterpoint to Douglass’s legacy.

We had a little slave boy whom we had hired from someone, there in Hannibal. He was from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and had been brought away from his family and his friends halfway across the American continent and sold. He was a cheery spirit, innocent and gentle, and the noisiest creature that ever was, perhaps. All day long he was singing, whistling, yelling, whooping, laughing—it was maddening, devastating, unendurable. At last, one day, I lost all my temper and went raging to my mother, and said Sandy had been singing for the past hour without a single break, and I couldn’t stand it and wouldn’t she please shut him up. The tears came into her eyes and her lip trembled and she said something like this:

“Poor thing, when he sings, it shows that he is not remembering, and that comforts me; but when he is still, I am afraid he is thinking, and I cannot bear it. He will never see his mother again; if he can sing, I must not hinder it, but be thankful for it. If you were older, you would understand me; then that friendless child’s noise would make you glad.”

(from Autobiography of Mark Twain, vol. 1. Also quoted on the Huck Finn Freedom Center’s “Jim’s Journey” website).

Twain goes on to say that Sandy was the inspiration for one of the boys in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer whom Tom tries to con into painting the fence; however, he doesn’t recall the name he gave Sandy’s character in the book. According to Mark Twain and Youth: Studies in His Life and Writings (eds. Kevin Mac Donnell and R. Kent Rasmussen), Sandy “appears as Jim, ‘the small colored boy’” whom Tom ironically envies for his “freedom to fetch water while he must whitewash the fence.”

Although Twain recalls that during his childhood “all the negroes were friends of ours”, he also acknowledges that he and children like Sandy “were comrades, and yet not comrades; color and condition interposed a subtle line which both parties were conscious of, and which rendered complete fusion impossible.”

And that’s about all the background on Sandy’s story I’ve been able to find.

As I read the local newspaper’s inspiring account about Frederick Douglass, “the legendary former slave, abolitionist author, statesman and more,” who went from jail cell in Talbot County to revered American icon, I couldn’t help but wonder whatever happened to Sandy? Did he (along with William Faulkner’s Dilsey) “endure”?

Or did Sandy’s ““singing, whistling, yelling, whooping, laughing” grow still, as Twain’s mother dreaded, dissolving into memories of “his family and his friends halfway across the American continent”, memories that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man lamented “were all such a part of that other life that’s dead that I can’t remember them all. (Time was as I was, but neither that time nor that ‘I’ are anymore.)”

If anyone knows the rest of Sandy’s story, I’d love to hear it—and celebrate it or mourn it appropriately.

Remembering Reverend Conway, Mark Twain’s Second-Favorite Clergyman

While Mark Twain’s close bond with Congregationalist minister Joseph Twichell is well known among Twainians, the friendship he shared with another man of the cloth, the Rev. Moncure Conway, often receives little more than passing reference.

We read mostly of Conway’s role as Twain’s literary representative in England or of his glowing review of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Occasionally there’s a reference to the time he helped Twain arrange a surprise visit for Olivia Clemens to the grave of her beloved Shakespeare, or Conway’s letter to the New York Times defending Twain’s anti-imperialism and pointing out that “Mark Twain’s humor is apt to feather a serious arrow.”

Beyond these and a smattering of other examples, Twain scholarship (and history in general) has little to say about Conway, which is odd considering the wide-ranging influence thismost thoroughgoing white male radical produced by the antebellum South had on Twain’s era.

With a family background rooted in America’s past, Moncure Conway would spend much of his life lighting out for new territories.

As a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Conway was born into an elite, slave-owning family in Virginia. Despite his Southern aristocratic background, he became an outspoken radical abolitionist who not only personally advised Lincoln to make the Civil War about emancipation, but helped 31 of his father’s slaves escape to Ohio. An ardent egalitarian, he also advocated that suffrage be extended to freed slaves and women alike.

Reflecting a lifelong spiritual restlessness, Conway’s ministerial calling was mercurial and evolved throughout his life. Starting off as a circuit-riding Methodist preacher in Maryland, he went on to becoming a Unitarian minister after graduating from Harvard Divinity, where he was a protégé of Emerson, his “spiritual father.” When his abolitionism, coupled with his increasingly pointed critiques of Christianity, ran afoul of many old-line Unitarians, Conway left the Unitarian pulpit to emerge as a leading light in the free religion movement and the comparative study of religions (with an eye toward Eastern religions). In the years leading up to the Civil War, he also participated in the Underground Railroad and edited The Dial, the esteemed Transcendentalist journal that was “free in thought, doubt, utterance, knowledge, and love.”

While arguing the Northern cause in England during the Civil War, Conway was embroiled in controversy after secretly attempting to negotiate peace on his own with the Confederate envoy there (offering the South disunion if it agreed to free its slaves). No longer welcome in his native South and reprimanded by the North, Conway lived out much of his adult life as an expatriate in England, where he served as minister of South Place Chapel, one of the oldest freethought organizations in Britain (still active today as Conway Hall Ethical Society in London).

Conway met Twain in 1872, marking the beginning of a friendship that ended with Conway’s death in 1907. The two refugee Southerners shared much in common, including unorthodox religion, fondness for American revolutionary Thomas Paine (about whom Conway wrote a definitive biography) and humorist Artemus Ward, at whose funeral Conway officiated in 1867. Tragically, both Conway and Twain also suffered the loss of a young son (Emerson Conway in 1864 and Langdon Clemens in 1872).

For a good overview of Conway, I recommend watching The Empty Niche: The Long Lost Bust of Moncure Conway.

Produced by the Conway Hall Ethical Society, this hour-long film is not a biography, and it hardly mentions Twain. However, this video’s interesting story of Conway Hall’s quest to track down a bronze bust of Conway that vanished nearly a century ago sheds light on this radical minister, free-thinking intellectual, and spiritual pilgrim and how his legacy still endures even as memory of the man has faded.