Discussion of Twain and the Writer of “Doc Savage” Series Kicks of the 2023 Fall Trouble Begins Lecture Series

The 2023 Fall Trouble Begins Lecture Series presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies (CMTS) kicks off its first lecture at 7:00 p.m., Wednesday, October 4 at Quarry Farm (131 Crane Road, Elmira). The lectures are free and open to the public and recordings of the lectures will be posted to the CMTS website. 

Image of Lester Dent (left) and Samuel Clemens (right). Courtesy of Nathaniel Williams.

The first lecture, “Mark Twain and Kenneth Robeson: Missouri Writers of Two Generations,” will be presented by Nathaniel Williams.

In many ways, Mark Twain embodies the public’s perception of a successful writer. Beloved by many in his time, still read and discussed today, Twain had a lucrative and influential writing career, at least partially facilitated by the enviable support given to him by his wife and his sister-in-law’s family at Quarry Farm. Even under these ideal circumstances, he often struggled to finish stories and sketches.

Like Samuel Clemens, Lester Dent was a Missouri-born writer who spent his career working under a better known pseudonym. As “Kenneth Robeson,” he produced over 150 novels—about 10 books a year—in the Doc Savage series for Street and Smith publishing until 1949.  If Clemens represents the 19th-century ideal of the popular author, Dent represents the subsequent generation’s mass-production standard of authorship: formulaic fiction written by multiple authors under the same pseudonym featuring a character owned by the conglomerate rather than an individual creator. This presentation will cover Dent’s strategic composition methods and  Street and Smith’s publishing method. The Doc Savage stories were enormously influential on superhero comic books and adventure series—both in terms of content and in terms of their business model. Today’s age of franchise fictions, multimedia storytelling, and conglomerate-owned “properties” (particularly superhero narratives) resembles Twain’s world less and less and Dent’s world more and more.

Nathaniel Williams is the author of Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith, and Empire in Mark Twain’s America (University of Alabama Press, 2018) and Associate Editor for The Mark Twain Annual. His articles have appeared in American LiteratureUtopian StudiesThe Cambridge History of Science Fiction and elsewhere. He is a continuing lecturer for the University Writing Program at the University of California, Davis. He is currently writing a book on The Shadow and Doc Savage series’ role in defining franchise fiction in the twentieth century.

The 2023 Fall Trouble Begins Lecture Series:

  • October 4 – Nathaniel Williams, “Mark Twain and Kenneth Robeson: Missouri Writers of Two Generations”
  • October 18 – Robert E. Cray, “‘The Wickedest Man in New York?’: Mark Twain and the 1868 Water Street Sham Revival”
  • October 25 – Stephen Cushman – “Mark Twain and the Civil War Boom Memoir Boom”
  • November 30 Mark Twain’s Birthday – Barbara Snedecor, “Gravity: A Conversation – The Letters of Olivia Langdon Clemens”

In 1985, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies inaugurated The Trouble Begins Lecture Series. The title comes from a handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco. The lectures are now held in the Fall and Spring in the Barn at Quarry Farm or at Peterson Chapel in Cowles Hall on Elmira College’s campus. In the Summer the lectures are held at the Park Church. All lectures are free and open to the public.

The Trouble Begins and Park Church Lecture Series are made possible by the support of the Mark Twain Foundation and from generous gifts from individual donors.