domenica 19 dicembre 2010

Mark Twain’s Riverboat Ramblings


Samuel L. Clemens was a cheerful promoter of himself, and even after he’d retired from the lecture circuit, the old man liked to dress up as Mark Twain in a fresh white suit and take a Sunday morning stroll up Fifth Avenue just as churches were letting out and see the heads turn and hear his name murmured, the crowds of Presbyterians and Episcopalians standing awe-struck as the most beloved mustache in America passed by, tipping his silk hat to the ladies. Mr. Twain’s autobiography was meant to be a last stroll around the block, and to build up suspense and improve sales, Sam told everybody that he was writing one and that it contained material so explosive it would need to be embargoed for a hundred years. That century has passed now and here it is, Volume 1 of “The Complete Authentic Unexpurgated Edition, Nothing Has Been Omitted, Not Even Scandalous Passages Likely to Cause Grown Men to Gasp and Women to Collapse in Tears — No Children Under 7 Allowed to Read This Book Under Any Circumstance,” which made Sam front-page news when all three volumes of the “Autobiography of Mark Twain” were announced last spring. The book turns out to be a wonderful fraud on the order of the Duke and the Dauphin in their Shakespearean romp, and bravo to Samuel Clemens, still able to catch the public’s attention a century after he expired.

He speaks from the grave, he writes, so that he can speak freely — “as frank and free and unembarrassed as a love letter” — but there’s precious little frankness and freedom here and plenty of proof that Mark Twain, in the hands of academics, can be just as tedious as anybody else when he is under the burden of his own reputation. Here, sandwiched between a 58-page barrage of an introduction and 180 pages of footnotes, is a ragbag of scraps, some of interest, most of them not: travel notes, the dictated reminiscences of an old man in a dithery voice (“Shortly after my marriage, in 1870, I received a letter from a young man in St. Louis who was possibly a distant relative of mine — I don’t remember now about that” begins one story that goes nowhere), various false starts, anecdotes that must have been amusing at one time, a rough essay (with the author’s revisions carefully delineated) on Joan of Arc, a critique of the lecture performance of Petroleum V. Nasby, a recap of the clipper ship Hornet’s ill-fated voyage that ended in Hawaii in 1866, a piece about German compound words, an account of medicine on the frontier, well-worn passages from lectures, a fair amount of self-congratulation (“I expected the speech to go off well — and it did”), a detailed report on the testimony of Henry H. Rogers in a lawsuit in Boston, newspaper clippings, generous quotations from his daughter Susy’s writing about her father (“He always walks up and down the room while thinking and between each course at meals”), ruminations on his methodology of autobiographicizing (“I shall talk about the matter which for the moment interests me, and cast it aside and talk about something else the moment its interest for me is exhausted; . . . a complete and purposed jumble”), recollections of Reuel Gridley and other Hannibal classmates, and there is precious little that could be considered scandalous — maybe a rant against James W. Paige, the inventor of a typesetting machine that Sam lost $170,000 on: “If I had his nuts in a steel trap I would shut out all human succor and watch that trap till he died” — but you have to wade through 18 pages of mind-numbing inventory of the Countess Massiglia’s Villa di Quarto, which he leased in Florence (“I shall go into the details of this house, not because I imagine it differs much from any other old-time palace or new-time palace on the continent of Europe, but because ­every one of its crazy details interests me, and therefore may be expected to interest others of the human race, particularly women”), the only point of which is that the man can afford to rent a palace that is fancier than anything you’d find in Missouri. His wife is dying, and he compiles an inventory of furniture.

Here is a powerful argument for writers’ burning their papers — you’d like to be remembered for “The Innocents Abroad” and “Life on the Mississippi” and the first two-thirds of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and not for excruciating passages of hero worship of General Grant and his son Fred and accounts of your proximity to the general and your business dealings as the publisher of his memoirs, which only reminds the reader that the general wrote a classic autobiography, and you tried to and could not.

Think twice about donating your papers to an institution of higher learning, Famous Writer: someday they may be used against you.

Olivia Clemens’s nickname for her husband was Youth, and she knew him up close. Boyish high jinks are his strong suit, and energetic high spirits and sly irreverence. Here is Sam Clemens at 14 dancing naked in a room, unaware that girls are watching from behind a screen — well, he said he was unaware anyway, and why not take his word for it? — and the story of Jim Wolf climbing half-naked up the roof to silence the cats, and Sam tricking his mother into putting her hand in his jacket pocket, where he had stuffed a dead bat. Even in his maturity, he could take an appreciative boy’s view of his neighbor, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”:

“Harriet Beecher Stowe . . . was a near neighbor of ours in Hartford, with no fences between. . . . Her mind had decayed, and she was a pathetic figure. She wandered about all the day long in the care of a muscular Irish woman. Among the colonists of our neighborhood the doors always stood open in pleasant weather. Mrs. Stowe entered them at her own free will, and as she was always softly slippered and generally full of animal spirits, she was able to deal in surprises, and she liked to do it. She would slip up behind a person who was deep in dreams and musings and fetch a war whoop that would jump that person out of his clothes.”

Mark Twain sprang to life at a young age. His voice is clear when Samuel Clemens was 17 and got to New York and wrote to his mother on Aug. 24, 1853: “My Dear Mother: you will doubtless be a little surprised, and somewhat angry when you receive this, and find me so far from home; but you must bear a little with me, for you know I was always the best boy you had, and perhaps you remember the people used to say to their children — ‘Now don’t do like Orion and Henry Clemens but take Sam for your guide!’ ” He took lodging on Duane Street near Broadway and got a job setting type in a large printing shop near the East River. He stuck around the city for a couple of months and wrote home about the fruit market, the Wild Men of Borneo displayed in P. T. Barnum’s museum on Broadway, the Crystal Palace on 42nd Street, and, knowing the letters would appear in his brother Orion’s Hannibal Journal, the boy struck up a style that we recognize as Twain (“I have taken a liking to the abominable place, and every time I get ready to leave, I put it off a day or so, from some unaccountable cause. It is just as hard on my conscience to leave New York as it was easy to leave Hannibal. I think I shall get off Tuesday, though”), a style that makes him seem fresh and friendly a century later. This is the Mark Twain people love to quote (“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.” “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way”), and whenever he hits his stride in the “Autobiography,” you feel happy for him — e.g., writing about Virginia City, Nev., in 1863:

“I secured a place in a nearby quartz mill to screen sand with a long-handled shovel. I hate a long-handled shovel. I never could learn to swing it properly. As often as any other way the sand didn’t reach the screen at all, but went over my head and down my back, inside of my clothes. It was the most detestable work I have ever engaged in, but it paid ten dollars a week and board — and the board was worthwhile, because it consisted not only of bacon, beans, coffee, bread and molasses, but we had stewed dried apples every day in the week just the same as if it were Sunday. But this palatial life, this gross and luxurious life, had to come to an end, and there were two sufficient reasons for it. On my side, I could not endure the heavy labor; and on the Company’s side, they did not feel justified in paying me to shovel sand down my back; so I was discharged just at the moment that I was going to resign.”

The reader hikes across the hard, dusty ground of a famous man’s reminiscences and is delighted to come across the occasional water hole. The famous man is in Berlin, hobnobbing with aristocracy at dinner at the ambassador’s, and meets a count: “This nobleman was of long and illustrious descent. Of course I wanted to let out the fact that I had some ancestors, too; but I did not want to pull them out of their graves by the ears, and I never could seem to get a chance to work them in in a way that would look sufficiently casual.” And this leads to a story about a Clemens ancestor running for office in Virginia whose opponent sent six young men with drums to stand in front of Mr. Clemens’s platform and drum during his speech. Mr. Clemens stood up and took out a revolver and spoke, softly: “I do not wish to hurt anybody, and shall try not to; but I have got just a bullet apiece for those six drums, and if you should want to play on them, don’t stand behind them.”

Twain takes a good swing at John D. Rockefeller, that monster of greed and ambition who liked to give little talks to his Baptist church about the beauty of holi­ness and following in the footsteps of the Master who alone can satisfy our hearts (“Satan, twaddling sentimental sillinesses to a Sunday school, could be no burlesque upon John D. Rockefeller. . . . He can’t be burlesqued — he is himself a burlesque”), and he preaches well against imperialism, but then you must hear about Robert Louis Stevenson (“His splendid eyes . . . burned with a smoldering rich fire under the penthouse of his brows, and they made him beautiful”) and the meeting with Helen Keller, who laughed at Sam’s jokes, the meeting with Lewis Carroll (“He was the stillest and shyest full-grown man I have ever met except ‘Uncle Remus’ ”), and then you start turning the pages two and three at a time.

Sam intended to give us an unblushing autobiography on the order of Casanova’s or Rousseau’s “Confessions” or Samuel Pepys’s diary, which Sam heartily admired, with its matter-of-fact inventories of parties attended and meals enjoyed and the skirts of chambermaids raised, but he knew that frankness comes with a price — “None of us likes to be hated, none of us likes to be shunned,” he said. “The man has yet to be born who could write the truth about himself” — and when he describes his brother Orion as having “an intense lust for approval,” he is surely describing himself: “He was so eager to be approved, so girlishly anxious to be approved by anybody and every­body, without discrimination, that he was commonly ready to forsake his . . . convictions at a moment’s notice. . . . He never acquired a conviction that could survive a disapproving remark from a cat.” The younger brother sees the older with a clear satirical eye, and what he sees is himself. Orion was foolish about money and so was Sam, a spendthrift to the end. Their father, Judge Clemens, before Sam was born, bought 75,000 acres of land in Tennessee. It contained coal, copper, iron, timber, oil, and produced wild grapes — “There’s millions in it!” said a cousin, James Lampton — and “it influenced our life,” Sam writes, it “cheered us up, and said ‘Do not be afraid — trust in me — wait.’ It kept us hoping and hoping, during 40 years, and forsook us at last. It put our energies to sleep and made visionaries of us — dreamers, and indolent. We were always going to be rich next year.” When their father died, “we began to manage it ourselves, . . . managed it all away except 10,000 acres,” which Orion traded for a house and a lot worth $250. The only one to turn a profit was Mark Twain, who turned Mr. Lampton (“the happy light in his eye, the abounding hope in his heart, the persuasive tongue, the miracle-­breeding imagination”) into Colonel Sel­lers in “The Gilded Age.”

It is the sad fate of an icon to be mummified alive, pickled by his own reputation, and midway through this dreary meander of a memoir, Sam throws up his hands in despair. “What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words! His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself. . . . His acts and his words are merely the visible thin crust of his world . . . and they are so trifling a part of his bulk! a mere skin enveloping it. The mass of him is hidden — it and its volcanic fires that toss and boil, and never rest, night nor day. These are his life, and they are not written, and cannot be written. . . . Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man — the biography of the man himself cannot be written.” There is very little real feeling here and no volcanic fires until you come upon the account of the death of his daughter Susy, 24, in Hartford, of meningitis, on Aug. 18, 1896. It is agony to read. Susy took ill and was taken to the house in Hartford, the home of her childhood, where she once wrote: “We are a very happy family. We consist of Papa, Mamma, Jean, Clara and me.” Her mother and Clara set sail from England to be with her. Her sister Jean and an aunt and uncle and some servants and the minister Joseph Twichell were at the bedside. Meningitis set in on the 15th. She ate her last supper that evening. The next morning, a high fever and delirium. She mistook a gown hanging in the closet for her mother and clutched it, kissed it and wept. She went blind. She stroked the face of Katy Leary, the housemaid, and said her last word, “Mamma.”

The father writes, “How gracious it was that in that forlorn hour of wreck and ruin, with the night of death closing around her, she should have been granted that beautiful illusion . . . and the latest emotion she should know in life the joy and peace of that dear imagined presence.” Susy was unconscious for two days and died on a Tuesday at 7 p.m. — “she that had been our wonder and our worship.” Sam was in England when he got a cablegram on Aug. 18 that said, “Susy was peacefully released today.” (“It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunderstroke like that and live. . . . The intellect is stunned by the shock and but gropingly gathers the meaning of the words. . . . It will be years” before he truly knows “the magnitude of his disaster.”)

Of all the cruel deaths in the book — the death of Sam’s father just when prosperity seemed to be in his grasp; the death of his younger brother, Henry, when boilers burst on a steamboat in 1858 (Henry, who had taken a job on the boat at Sam’s urging); the death of the infant son Langdon Clemens, for which Sam felt responsible — the death of the beloved daughter far beyond her father’s love and care is a disaster from which there is no recovery. Boyishness cannot prevail, nor irreverence. The story can’t be written. The man buttons up his clothes and resigns himself to the inexpressible.

Garrison Keillor is the host of “A Prairie Home Companion” and editor of the forthcoming “Good Poems, American Places.”

mercoledì 15 dicembre 2010

Mark Twain's "hundred-year book"

Volume One of the long-awaited autobiography has "multiple beginnings" and "a missing ending"
Susan Gillman
Twain 2010 shows no signs of coming to an end. November 15 saw the release, simultaneously in print and online, for “the first time ever”, of Volume One of the three-volume “complete, authoritative, and uncensored” Autobiography of Mark Twain. That description comes from the University of California Press’s publicity department, but Twain, always his own best publicist, set the terms himself. In his preface “An Early Attempt” (the first of four prefaces he wrote), he tells the reader that his autobiography will not be written according to “the old, old, old inflexible plan” that “starts at the cradle” and “drives straight for the grave”. His autobiography will not be written at all but rather spoken, dictated to a stenographer. “Finally, in Florence, in 1904”, according to his second preface, “The Latest Attempt”, “I hit upon the right way to do an Autobiography”: “start it at no particular time of your life . . . talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime”. The second preface was followed by “The Final (and Right) Plan”, and finally “Preface As from the Grave”, in which he explains that the book will not appear until after his death so he can “speak thence freely” with “his whole frank mind”.

Almost immediately, Twain published excerpts from the autobiography in the North American Review, and before too long, his “editors, heirs and assigns”, who had been enjoined to leave out of the first edition anything that might be offensive to the living, were following suit. So, although there have been various autobiographies of Mark Twain, assembled by various editors (up to, most recently, this year’s reissue of Michael J. Kiskis’s tellingly titled Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography of 1990, itself a reprint of extracts serialized in the North American Review), only the University of California Press Autobiography of Mark Twain is stamped with the editorial assurance that whatever is in it represents as nearly as possible what the author “intended” to be published after his death. The question of authorial intention is always tricky, and in this case Mark Twain composed things he said were “for the autobiography” over a period of more than thirty years before hitting on “The Final (and Right) Plan”.

The story of Twain’s great mass of autobiographical manuscripts and typescripts, the clues as to what he wanted put in and left out that are hidden within an estimated 10-foot file of documents, is told by Harriet Elinor Smith in the introduction to this volume. It is a compelling tale, made more so by the editors’ decision to include all the many “false starts” and “scraps” of things composed “for the autobiography” (some of which encompass his most lyrical writing on his boyhood). The result is itself a massive 700-page book; the entire sequence of pref-atory material, all in Twain’s handwriting, in the Mark Twain Papers, is reproduced in facsimile, and there is a set of remarkable photographs of key figures and events in the autobiography. Even more appropriately, for an author who loved technology of all kinds and who enthusiastically embraced any mode of publication (whether “by printing, as at present”, his publisher Colonel Harvey wrote, “or by use of phonographic cylinders, or by electrical method”), the electronic version of this edition will go further than the print version in approximating and imagining the form in which Mark Twain “wanted it done”. It is the purpose of a critical edition not simply to offer the best text, by choosing among variant readings, but also to feature the other readings so that alternative ways of constructing the text are made available. But the list of variants is huge – too big to print. The internet met this challenge: Mark Twain Project Online (MTPO) is where all of the textual apparatus – revisions, choices among variants, etc – is accessible. The aim to produce a digital critical edition that offers “unfettered intuitive access” to everything Mark Twain wrote sounds just like him and his fantasy of completeness.

As might be expected from Twain, who was his own best trend-setter, the question of firsts and lasts, beginnings and endings, of quantifying what’s new and what’s not, was first taken up by him. In the “Preface As from the Grave”, he promises: “To be precise – nineteen-twentieths of the book will not see print until after my death”. Oddly reminiscent of the minute fractions he uses in Pudd’nhead Wilson to mock the fictitious purity of racial identity (the protagonist is “one-sixteenth black” and her child “thirty-one parts white; both are slaves and “by a fiction of law and custom a negro”), his computation sets the stage for all the statistics we have been given in the event of the Autobiography’s publication. To take one example: in July 2010, Granta magazine proclaimed a “scoop” in publishing, “for the first time”, a hundred years after the author’s death, after the end of the hundred-year ban on publishing the memoirs, and in advance of the November release of the Autobiography, an extract that (supposedly) brought to light a formerly suppressed account of Twain’s childhood. This was a wonderfully evocative extract from Twain’s memories of his Uncle John Quarles’s farm. While few readers will be aware that this piece had been first published over a hundred years ago in the North American Review (as part of the one twentieth of the autobiography that was seen into print), for many, it represents Twain’s memories of childhood familiar from Huckleberry Finn. In the melancholy opening of the last third of the novel, just after Huck has decided to “go to hell”, rather than turn Jim in as a runaway slave, he arrives at the Phelps farm, one of those little “one-horse cotton plantations” in Arkansas, where Jim is imprisoned by Uncle Silas and Aunt Sally Phelps (characters probably based on Twain’s own uncle and aunt), and Tom Sawyer takes over the direction of the novel. The long dictated section which comes near the beginning of the Autobiography extends and deepens the sense of loneliness that oppresses Huck, the sense of dead spirits whispering and talking. But in contrast to the novel, the version in the autobiographical dictations also complicates the gloomy substratum of Huck’s personality with the adult author’s nostalgic longing for the foodstuff and dense texture of that “heavenly place for a boy”.

"All the negroes were friends of ours, and with those of our own age we were in effect comrades. I say in effect, using the phrase as a modification. We 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 . . . . In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it."

It would be wrong to ask of these two versions of memories: how do you know which is the right one? Instead of quantifying and trumpeting the new, as editors and publishers must, readers might be encouraged to recognize that they can read something for the first time only once, so that they need to operate differently. We need to recognize the value and pleasure of rereading, in which Mark Twain himself indulged so often. What will ultimately be three volumes of autobiographical dictations reflect a lifetime’s habit of recycling, producing a pastiche that combines the dictations done in the last four years of his life, together with his own earlier writings, parts and whole pieces, as well as inserted newspaper clippings and other documents. Rather than resembling a nineteenth-century blog, the Autobiography fits even better with our culture of remixing, as Twain’s own “methodless method” of wandering at will over the present and the past allows for selfcitation, not only going back over earlier events but also rereading the writings that recorded and represented the events.

The Autobiography is an experiment in talking rather than writing a life and as such it prefers rereading, repetition and recombination to newness. One memorable entry from the preliminary material (entitled “My Autobiography [Random Extracts from It]”) begins as a history of Twain’s paternal and maternal relatives and ancestors, moves into an anecdote about an incident in Berlin in 1891, and ends with the lyrical description of the author’s idyllic summers on his uncle’s farm near Florida, Missouri. Mark Twain was searching for a way to organize the whole without linear chronology but not without time, rather with an alternative sense of temporality. The search for a non-chronological but nonetheless time-conscious structure is what stamps Mark Twain’s “one-hundred year book” as “time-sensitive”.

Mark Twain’s “talking book” resists the chronological fixity of autobiography, whether a life in letters or any other conventional mode of writing a life. Concerned about the estate he would leave to his two surviving daughters, he thought of extending the lives of his books through new copyright schemes, and wrote about expanding the bulk or “fat” of his book by “dumping in” bits of “little old books” of his. He also kept returning to posthumous publication as a way of allowing himself full frankness (and rancour). So the question of endings – completing, conclusion and closure – is complicated. All texts must come to an end, but other than in the formal sense, they can remain overtly or covertly open-ended, uncompleted, unresolved. You can close the book without closure. In just this way, Twain fixed the beginning (the Quarles Farm section) and end (“Closing Words of My Autobiography”, on the death of his youngest daughter Jean) of his hundred-year book, but left the middle to be expanded or contracted as need be: he gives us the bookends but between them the middle matter is fluid.

The Autobiography of Mark Twain may have a beginning (multiple beginnings, if we count all the false starts) and an ending, but it exhibits another kind of problem ending, one that has continued to plague Twain studies. Ernest Hemingway diagnosed it most famously in Green Hills of Africa (1934): “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘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”. But Twain’s sense of a missing ending to his own Southern boyhood, where both slavery and race are concerned, reflects more than authorial cheating. The missing sense of an ending is especially acute in Twain’s novels of slavery, written during the early years of Jim Crow’s strange career but set in the pre-emancipation South, as though the problem of slavery persisted into the age of freedom – or what W. E. B. Du Bois called “the second slavery”. Historians have shown that the date when race-slavery began is as difficult to fix as the moment of its ending. Despite all the years of US Civil Rights legislation, followed by the brief era of affirmative action, most would agree that we have not yet entered a post-race world – and many would argue that the lightning rod of the Fourteenth Amendment, once again in the limelight as it was after the Civil War, indicates that redress for slavery and segregation is still an unfinished revolution. Mark Twain’s struggles for and against endings are our own.

Harriet Elinor Smith, et al, editors
Volume One 760pp. University of California Press. $34.95;
distributed in the UK by Wiley. £24.95.
978 0 520 26719 0

Susan Gillman teaches World Literature and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is the co-editor, with Russ Castronovo, of States of Emergency: The object of American studies, 2009. She is researching her next book, Our Mediterranean: American adaptations, 1890–1975.

lunedì 13 dicembre 2010

One of the most venerable and respected magazines in the business is on its way to its first profit in years, thanks to a new focus on the web.

The Atlantic, the 153-year-old magazine that once published Mark Twain, hadn’t made money in at least a decade. So its managers decided to radically reinvent themselves by focusing more effort on the web.

That strategy has apparently worked. The New York Times reports the Atlantic is on its way to turning a $1.8 million profit this year. That may not seem like huge money. But then again, the magazine had been losing money for a decade. So any profit is pretty good.

“We imagined ourselves as a venture-capital-backed start-up in Silicon Valley whose mission was to attack and disrupt The Atlantic,” Justin B. Smith, president of the Atlantic Media Company, told the Times. “In essence, we brainstormed the question, ‘What would we do if the goal was to aggressively cannibalize ourselves?’ ”

It’s a lesson other media companies may want to take to heart as they face ever-more disruptive competition from the web. Maybe the leaders of the Gray Lady herself should be reading their own paper (or web site), since The New York Times Company was demoted from the S&P 500 last week and is now listed as a mid-cap stock.

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