M.M. Dawley Lectures on Mark Twain and the “American Adam”

The 2018 Mark Twain Lecture Series, hosted by the Chemung County Historical Society and the Center for Mark Twain Studies, begins on Thursday, August 9 at the Chemung Valley Museum (415 East Water St., Elmira).  The lecture begins at 7:00 p.m., and is free and open to the public.

“‘Well, ain’t you innocent!’: Mark Twain’s Attack on the American Adam” M.M. Dawley, Boston University

Illustration by Frank Carter Beard from AMERICAN PUBLISHER, July 1872

The trope of the innocent, who reveals cultural absurdities through his seemingly foolish observations, dates back to the earliest satires of Rome and Europe. This innocent brims with certainty that his ignorance is both apt and virtuous, and inspires audiences to laugh at his idiocy. I argue that during what was most commonly referred to as the Gilded Age, a clear thread of satire begins to emerge, one that shifts the innocent from the butt of the joke to the one who slyly delivers the punch line. Although the era was imbued with a faith in progress that led to its moniker “the Confident Years,” it was also a period rife with confidence men who utilized the national obsession with innocence to their advantage. With a wink and a nod to the latter, the satirists of the Gilded Age transformed the American innocent from one to be laughed at to one to be laughed with. There is no better example of the satiric approach to the trope of “the American Adam” than Mark Twain’s iconic character Huckleberry Finn—unless it is Twain’s own Adam. I would like to present a fresh reading of Twain’s approach to the American Adam based on the satire presented in some of the author’s last works of fiction, Letters from the Earth and The Diaries of Adam and Eve. The way in which Twain skewers the notion of innocence in his later writing allows for a new lens through which to examine Huck, as well as the writer’s own atheism. Twain toys with America’s naïve exceptional self-image through the persona of a sympathetic Satan, who ridicules Adam and Eve for their innocence and exposes much national self-delusion in the process. While in his earlier fiction, Twain satirized religion more subtly, by the early twentieth century his open mockery of Christianity took clear aim at the American mythos of exceptionalism, and the many ways in which the nation needed to reorder its priorities.

M.M. Dawley has a Ph.D. from the American & New England Studies program at Boston University, and teaches in the Humanities department at Lesley University. Her current book project for Penn State University Press’s series Humor in America focuses on the literary history of satire in the Gilded Age. Her article, “‘You’d Oughter Start a Scrap-Book: Gossip and Aspirational Culture in The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country,” appears in the Fall 2017 issue of the Edith Wharton Review. M.M. Dawley has also collaborated with Gene Andrew Jarrett on contributing to the African American Studies module of Oxford Bibliographies Online, published by Oxford University Press.

About Chemung County Historical Society

Founded in 1923, the Chemung County Historical Society is a non-profit educational institution dedicated to the collection, preservation, and presentation of the history of the Chemung Valley region. First chartered by New York State in 1947, today CCHS operates two cultural repositories, the Chemung Valley History Museum and the Booth Library. We are the largest general history museum in our region. Open year round, CCHS tells the history of Chemung County through interactive exhibits, educational programming and lectures for visitors of all ages. The Chemung County Historical Society is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums and receives funding from the New York State Council on the Arts.

About the Center for Mark Twain Studies
The Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies was founded in January 1983 with the gift of Quarry Farm to Elmira College by Jervis Langdon, the great-grand-nephew of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. The Center offers distinctive programs to foster and support Mark Twain scholarship and to strengthen the teaching of Mark Twain at all academic levels. The Center serves the Elmira College community and regional, national, and international students and scholars of Mark Twain.

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.”