Mark Twain’s Modernism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

from Narration: Four Lectures by Gertrude Stein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2]For example, see David L. Ulin, “Celebrating the genius of ‘Huckleberry Finn,’” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 14, 2010:

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

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

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

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

[7]Eliot, “Tradition,” 111.

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

[9]Ibid., 508.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nina Gabrilowitsch’s Diary
January 1, 1924

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clara, Ossip, & Nina in 1927

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

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

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

The Gabrilowitsch Home in Detroit

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

Nina Gabrilowitsch’s Diary
January 20, 1924

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Nina Gabrilowitsch’s Diary
June 16, 1924

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nina Gabrilowitsch’s Diary
September 26, 1924

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

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

And I hardly noticed it.

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

…was Nina.

I started to cry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nina Gabrilowitsch
Letter To Father (April 7, 1935)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Twain’s Ghost escapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toni Morrison, Playing In The Dark (1991)

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

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

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

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

The Park Church to Host Play about the Underground Railroad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.