Monday, November 1, 2010

Fred Stenson's Canadian epic, The Trade

The Trade by Fred Stenson (Douglas & McIntyre, $15.95)

In his introduction to Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices, Robert Penn Warren wrote, "Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth with live, and in our living, constantly remake.

Canadian novelist and historian Fred Stenson has been remaking history for much of his career, never more so than during the previous decade, when his trilogy about the early history of Western Canada was published. The Trade was published in 2000, followed by Lightning (2003) and The Great Karoo (2008). The Trade begins in the 1820s and chronicles the rise of the Hudson's Bay Company and the settling of Canadian West. The Great Karoo follows the exploits of the Canadian Mounted Rifles as they fight alongside the English in the Boer War at the close of the 19th century.

The Book Serf asked Stenson the following questions:

BS: In his review of The Great Karoo, Ken McGoogan opens with two provocative answers to the question, Why the popularity and artistic success of the Canadian historical novel? He wonders if it's because Canada never had a successful revolution, never completely cut its ties with the British Empire; and he wonders if it's because history is suppressed in Canadian schools and universities.

Were/are you as dissatisfied with the 'official' history of Canada as others seem to
have been. (I love Sheilagh Fielding's alternative history of Newfoundland in Wayne Johnston's Colony of Unrequited Dreams.)

This is becoming a ridiculously long question, but I'm put in mind of your newspaper letter writer in The Trade who opines that "That's how history gets started. Some fella putting a line under a name ..."

Is that your view, as well?

FS: Ken McGoogan’s Globe & Mail review of The Trade was a fine review, and I liked the questions he raised and the ideas he pondered. For example, his
proposition that Canadians are driven to write historical novels because we had no revolution is provocative. It suggests that a revolution is a kind of built-in commanding narrative that everyone can learn proudly, whereas a merely political evolution commands less respect and excitement.

While I accept that might describe what’s behind some Canadian historical novels, I, as a Westerner, have my own reasons to take a run at official history. A usual complaint from Westerners is that Canadian history has emanated from central Canada and has been forced on the rest of us. As someone to whom history matters, that is an unsatisfying status quo. I suspect there are several of us who write historical fiction because we are unsatisfied, on some level, with that view. It may or may not have to do with the presence or absence of a revolution; it may be, more simply, about accuracy. It may only be that we don’t like the characterization of our place and people in the tale that goes on being told.

I suspect that other historical novelists in Canada respond to similar dissatisfactions. Even the Maritime Provinces, with a post-contact history so much older than central Canada’s, may feel pushed to accept the Upper Canada-Lower Canada version of the national historical script. I don’t know if this has goaded the likes of Wayne Johnston and Michael Crummy to write their own fictional histories of Newfoundland, but it would not surprise me if it did.

As for Western Canada, our experience is often considered to be no older than the West’s purchase by Canada from the Hudson Bay Company in 1869. That’s the best case scenario; some would argue our history begins in 1905, when Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces. Perhaps that’s why I was lured to the HBC story as the foundation of Western Canadian development (its charter was given by England in 1670) and am lured as well by Metis history which began in the West in the 1700s, or by First Nations history which goes back ten thousand years or more. Balking at “newness” would be a good reason to put fictional flesh on a different, older story.

Once I found my way into the fur trade era, I discovered it had its own centrisms and rigid hierarchy: its own lying history in which English governors proclaimed themselves the chosen people. I picked William Gladstone as an over-seer of the fur trade time because he was a creature who grew up with, and out of, the West. Obviously the First Nations and Metis people were here before him, and had more claim, but Gladstone, represented something new. He came West as an HBC boat-building apprentice from Montreal in 1848, then chose to stay and make his life in Western Canada. He never considered home to be anywhere else but the West and died here just as Jimmy Jock Bird did.

In my novel, The Trade, Gladstone gives vent to home-grown theories of history in the form of notes to the editor of the local newspaper that is publishing his memoir. Based on his having seen both the original occurrences and what the first round of historians made of them (and being a literate labourer, then carpenter), he has an almost unique perspective.

Trying to see through his experience, I came up with the idea that history had been wrong from the beginning because it chose to bow to and portray the powerful as opposed to the majority. I wanted his feelings about history to provide a platform of reasoning underneath the choice of Ted Harriott and Jimmy Jock Bird as protagonists. Through Gladstone, I hoped to attract the reader’s acceptance of Harriott as protagonist, because he was the one Gladstone admired most out of all the men he worked for; because Harriott was the only kind man Gladstone had ever served. For the record, William Gladstone did publish his memoir in the Rocky Mountain Echo (published in Pincher Creek, Alberta, at the turn of the 20th century) when he was near the end of his long life. The correspondence with the editor which I present is fictional.

BS: And yet, you're not a prosyltizer, are you?

FS: It sounds like a socialist agenda, I suppose, and it makes the act of writing sound much more ideologically driven than it was. In fact, I might have chosen my protagonists for no better reason than that they reminded me of myself. I am the son of southern Alberta farmers. I feel more naturally akin to the clerks and translators and apprentices of the fur trade world than I do to the governors and chiefs.

Beyond that, a curiosity pushed me to see what history becomes if a different cast of characters is moved to the centre and the likes of George Simpson are sent to the sidelines. This choice of who is central to a narrative is a profound adjustment of history. It has traditionally meant a focus on the most visible movers and shakers, the ones who swung the most lead — or money. So why not challenge that? Almost by definition it cannot be everyone’s truth, everyone’s history.

BS: And how did you find history as taught in Canadian schools?

FS: I was asked to comment on whether history has been suppressed in Canadian schools, and if this was another motivation for me as a novelist dealing with my country’s history. Though I believe a lot of academic historians have been stirred by exactly the right kinds of motives, and have done much to challenge encrusted visions of history, I would say that education in Canada has been, overall, a promoter of false and dangerous history: reductive, saccharine, relentlessly positive; founded on the Protestant work ethic; supportive of international law’s odd notion that aboriginal people needed and therefore must accept European civilization as superior to their own. Of all those tendencies, I think it is the reduction and whitewash that offended me most, and the fact that, after lying like sidewalks to the young, social studies teachers inevitably blame their students for not being “interested in our history.” I believe that children are excellent at smelling out a lie; their instinct for this may be biological it’s so strong and accurate. If they sense that they are being told lies, then who but the fools among them would have any interest in learning them? And of course there is the oft-told truth that unvarnished tell-all history is more fun to learn than the white-washed version that serves up goodness rather than truth.

BS: George Simpson was at the head of the Hudson's Bay Company, and yet he's peripheral to your story. What was your take on him?

FS: George Simpson is for me the poster boy of bad history. Up until a certain point in our historical narrative, most everyone including the universities wanted to present leaders as heroes. They seemed to do it instinctively. So did the popular historians. Also, values have changed, and at an earlier time, our society admired, more or less without question, the kind of iron leader who made the freight canoes and York Boat brigades run on time; who could set records for traveling across Western Canada by canoe. That Simpson was petty, vengeful, jealous, cruel, probably racist etc. was deliberately overlooked. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything.

Even in the present some popular historians still take a nudge, nudge, wink, wink approach to Simpson’s myriad Metis mistresses. The almost certain fact that some of those young women did not wish to be his bed mate, had boyfriends of their own with whom they were in love, is basically the story line of The Trade. Rather than depict the Governor (Simpson) as a powerful captain of industry, I depicted him as a villain, and a nasty one. Interestingly, even several of his distant descendants who I have met along the road, feel he had it coming.

BS: How did you come to write a historical novel so full of warts?

FS: I do not see the point of tidying history up before it is unveiled, as if it were a house to whom you had invited guests. It is merely the story of all of us. Just like white people have largely stopped the once common practice of removing coloured persons from their family tree, writers and teachers of Canadian history should get past the practice of removing the inconvenient details from history.

Something very simple stands at the root of The Trade and that is my reading of William Gladstone’s diary. As far as I know, that diary is the only working man’s (non-officer’s) account of the fur trade in what became the province of Alberta. Gladstone’s story was so different in fact and values from anything else written about the trade that I instantly regarded it as the basis of a possible novel. If the highest regarded men (Simpson, John Rowand) were Gladstone’s most hated enemies, if the most peripheral individuals (Ted Harriott) were his heroes, then a very different story was suggested. I wanted to write that story.

BS: Why revisit the Canadian West of the 19th century? What sort of fodder did that century and that locale provide you as a novelist?

FS: The 19th century west is where my own life history was founded, though I wasn’t born in southern Alberta until 1951. For one example, I went to school with Blackfoot-speaking Pikuni; played basketball against a Kanai residential school. The Pikuni and Kanai historically resided in southern Alberta because it was a great and envied buffalo country; because the most famous of the buffalo jumps, Head-Smashed-Inn and Old Woman, had been there for thousands of years; because Treaty #7 in 1877, placed their reserves in Southwestern Alberta. I knew them because my own ancestors had chosen to homestead in the tranche of country between the Peigan and Blood Reserves. So it is not out of the way to say that my life history, the form of that life, was constructed in the 19th century — or in fact long before.

Just because it’s fun to create these examples, I’ll create another. I was born into Southern Alberta ranch country, close to the Rocky Mountains, close to the Montana border. It was Alberta’s oldest ranch country, preceding even the 1881 legislation that created giant lease ranches later in the 19th century. Ranching really began with the first Mounted Policeman (1874), some of whom took their discharge as soon as possible and went to Montana for cows to turn loose on the foothills, where buffalo no longer roamed.

That meant that some of the earliest cowboys and ranchers in Western Canada founded families in the locales of my childhood. My father worked on one of those old ranches as a lad of 15, and learned a lot of the colourful western lingo that influenced my own language profoundly from those men and their descendents. Some will say Southern Albertans talk like we do because of 1950s American oil and gas people, but that’s generally untrue. It is really the 19th century that speaks through us.

A post script to the above relates to my novel, The Trade. As a youth, I can remember James Riviere coming to our house in the early spring to buy hay, because he ranched in the mountains where winter hung on for a long time after grass was growing farther east. James was in his seventies and amazed me by his ability to “throw the diamond” on a pickup truck towering with hay bales. You needed to be lithe for this and strong and he still was. James was a Metis man whose family lived along the Rocky Mountain east slope. His father was a famous Frenchman who trained dog teams for silent movies. His mother had been the daughter of William Gladstone and his Cree Metis wife: the same William Gladstone who came West in 1848 as a Hudson’s Bay Company apprentice builder of York boats, and stayed on to retire in Gladstone Valley a half hour drive northwest of the country my parents ran cattle in; the same William Gladstone who is a character in The Trade.

In one of your questions you refer to William Faulkner’s comment that “the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” I guess that is my answer in brief. The past is always around me here in southern Alberta, so I write about it.

There is also the fact, already mentioned, that Canada has an official history that moves from East to West. I think that has led to inaccuracy and biases that dog the west to this day. It is also the source of an inferiority complex in the West that hides under a mask of arrogance. I am telling not “the” but “a” counter-story: a geographical counter-story and a class counter-story: one that begins geographically and culturally in the west and spreads out from there. I do believe that such shifts of perspective are important to social change.

BS: Porfirio Diaz once said, famously, Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States! Could the same be said of Canada?

FS: A wonderfully loaded question. There is a belief, in some quarters, that the Southern part of Alberta, including Calgary, is the most American place in Canada. Tom Flanagan, once Prime Minister Stephen Harpers’s key advisor and a professor at the University of Calgary, said this recently in an article about Alberta for the Globe & Mail. The article was largely “historical” and I really should have challenged it; I guess I will challenge it now. The truth about Southern Alberta is, rather, that, like most parts of the country, it is has its share of American influence and always has. Whether it is more true of southern Alberta than, say, Toronto, is arguable. I have spent quite a lot of time in Toronto in the last few years, and I enjoy the city, but I have never been anywhere in Canada that is more dominated by the politics and thought in the United States. They are more glued to American newspapers and news stations than anyone I have ever known in southern Alberta.

Getting back to history, particularly the fur trade, which is the longest European root in Western Canadian history, one finds that the English-owned and chartered Hudson’s Bay Company was in the driver’s seat most of the time from 1670 to the 1830s, which is a long time. When it was challenged, it was challenged from Montreal (and less so by a few Northeastern U.S. concerns that finally melded with the Montreal ones). What I’m getting at is that, in all that time, American influence in the far west was almost nil.

When the Montreal fur traders merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1821, there came a period of total domination that probed well below the 49th parallel. In other words, the history was French Canadian, Orkney, English, Scottish, Irish, First Nations and Metis but hardly American at all. The last three decades of the English Company’s dominance down to the Missouri were thanks to the Lewis and Clarke Expedition’s having killed a Blackfoot on the Marias River. The Blackfoot speakers regarded themselves in a state of war with the Americans from 1806 until about 1830, when the American Fur Company bent over backwards to win forgiveness and built some AFC forts on the upper Missouri. At this time, American influence crossed the 49th but there were still no American fur forts there.

The whisky trade, 1869-73, caused a sudden change. American whisky entrepreneurs came across the 49th into future-Southern Alberta and built Ft. Whoop-Up and other whisky forts. The forts were supplied by a couple of big trading companies in Ft. Benton (head of navigation on the Missouri at the time). The whisky men are invariably described as American, as lawless Civil War vets, etc. but there were a number of Canadians (French and English) in the mix.

The same is true of the Cypress Hills Massacre of Assiniboine Indians by whisky traders and wolfers in 1873. It was this event (or rather its publicity) that forced the Canadian Prime Minister to do something about a truly horrible lawless vicious situation, in which Indians were frequently shot and poisoned as if they were dogs, and in which they committed much violence toward themselves. The Canadian Mounted police were born out of this situation, and from then forward the border between future-Alberta and Montana had meaning.

There is a whitewashed version of this story in which the American whisky men run away from the Mounties, back to the U.S. In fact, most went nowhere. They simply gave up whisky trading and went to work for the Mounties or supplying the Mounties. These Americans, and the ones who came afterwards to punch cows in the ranch era, are the true source of American-ness in Southern Alberta. A bit later Mormon people would come from Utah to squat, buy lease ranches, and homestead, and these too have lent American tones to our culture. But at the same time, the local towns in Southern Alberta (Pincher Creek, Ft. Macleod, Calgary) were little Canadas in the late 19th century, with Ontario and Quebec storekeepers, English landlords, and small minorities from elsewhere in Canada. American and British influence dominated the countryside while Canadian influence dominated the towns. Neither was stronger than the other.

I’m not sure why it is that Southern Alberta is criticized for its American-ness when basically anywhere along the 49th parallel (where most Canadian live) can hardly escape U.S. influence. My theory, such as I have one, is that cowboy hats and boots, and western drawls, are more visibly derived from U.S. culture than is the New York-borrowed urban lingo of English Montrealers or Torontonians. Either that or it’s just plain prejudice that needs no justification or cause!

I’m not sure if I answered your question or merely sprang off it with a diatribe. Is American influence a problem for Canadian writers? A different kind of problem depending on where you live.

BS: In my PW review of The Trade, I wrote that your prose is "terse and full of motion." Even when you're describing the scenery, as it were, the prose moves! When you put pen to paper (or, less romantically, fingertips to keys) are you thinking of creating pace, of creating rhythm? What do you hope each sentence will achieve? Avoid?

FS: I was quite happy to see your review point to my style, as I’ve put a lot of thought into it over the years. When I was young, I was seduced by Irish literature. I dislike the term “lilt” which has a childish inference to it, but what I liked and longed for in my own style was the pace and rhythm that moved me along so forcefully and pleasingly. In our own literature, Alistair McLeod is probably the most rhythmic and seductive storyteller, where the music of language is as much of a narrative force as the story. Another is Lisa Moore. It is not coincidence, I suspect, that they come from Cape Breton and Newfoundland, places with a profound depth of Gaelic language history.

There has been a tendency among writers who strive to make fiction about the North American West to be minimalists. I have always had an instinct to go against this, to stick up for the colour and rhythm in Western language, and the fact that there is nothing barren and arid about the beauty of the barren and arid landscape.

The U.S. writer Cormac McCarthy has been a great liberator as was the earlier El Paso novelist/painter Tom Lee for writers who write of the West, because they created a template for writing almost floridly of Western experience. Instead of getting hung up on the idea that Western “men” were “men of few words,” they went ahead and created a language that was more about Westerners’ aesthetic worlds than what they said or didn’t say around the fire at night. Also, Cormac McCarthy has caught the depth of the interior life of Western people the way David Adams Richards found that depth in the New Brunswick characters of his fine novels.

“To move” is a goal in my fiction. I try to have every sentence propel into the next; and at the same time to be obedient to the verbal world of the characters. I don’t want sentences to stand straight by themselves; I want everything to lean. I want the fiction to always be emerging out of the moment’s tone and mood, so it’s charged with that moment not just flatly describing it.

BS: Similarly, I've always felt that if one starts out trying to write simply he may end up writing beautifully; but if one starts out trying to write beautifully, disaster often follows.

FS: This is true, but I would go back again to writers like Cormac McCarthy and Canada’s Mark Anthony Jarman and Lisa Moore who do write beautifully, and I believe strive to. I think the beautiful writing that is disastrous is that which ought to have been thrown away. That’s different than saying it should never have been attempted. I find there is far too much careful, competent writing going on. That kind almost always strives to be simple — and often fails there, but less visibly.

BS: I love the way you take a historical figure like Sir George Simpson and turn him into a peripheral figure while elevating Ted Harriott and One Pound One to the stars of the show. I haven't read The Great Karoo yet, but I understand you do something similar there. Why have you shunned The Great Men of History and concentrated your energies elsewhere?

FS: I think I’ve yarned on quite long about this already, so I’ll pass on this good question. Maybe I could say this much: that the “great men of history” have often not been morally great. If, as some say, novels are always moral novels, then perhaps the search for what is good, and for a meaning of goodness, is more difficult to find when writing about the “great men.”

I think “greatness” in the sense I think you mean has too often conferred a kind of moral license—one can do what lesser men cannot. In that sense the great George Simpson could not be a character in The Trade, unless as an antagonist; someone who stands in the way of the good human asperations of others, or who invites others to betray one another and be destroyed by it.

BS: Historical novelists are often accused of reading too much and then regurgitating everything they've learned from their books. How do you walk that line between creating setting and atmosphere while avoiding laundry lists of facts and information that can topple a historical novel?

FS: First of all, I don’t try to eliminate extraneous detail in early drafts. I write them fat if they want to be that way. In later drafts, it becomes clearer and clearer what doesn’t deserve to stay, what facts or circuits of fact do not help yield the story. But of course without a certain amount of detail, the world is not there. The second rule is that not all details are equal — to say the least. One or two well chosen details/facts can have more impact than 50 lesser ones. Novelists often show their greatness in their instinct for the telling detail.

BS: Faulkner once said, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." What do you think? Does that quote have anything to do with the way Canadians view themselves today? Can one be informed by the past? Are you trying to answer the question, How did we get here?

FS: All the stuff I wrote in an earlier answer about how my own life generated out of a 19th century past — a past during which my own ancestors were not even present in North America — was about this. There is a continuity from then until now that I live every day, and from which I write.

BS: The Trade is, by the nature of the story you're recreating, a man-centric affair. Do you ever wish that women could play a more prominent role in your fiction? Not trying to be provocative here, just wondering!

FS: I can’t know if every woman who has read The Trade found it to her liking, but those who have told me their feelings have liked it. I know this is not the answer to your question, but it sets up my answer — which is that I feel The Trade is a book about women and about a profoundly female problem, which is women’s traditional lack of political and economic power. Very recently there was an article in the Montreal Gazette about the pay disparity between women and men in academic jobs, especially at the higher ranks, and I would submit that that situation, which has survived five decades of feminism, has its roots in earlier times like our own fur trade.

We live in the hangover of a time when male lives were simply assumed to be more important than female ones, when the birth of a son was celebrated and that of a daughter shrugged at. At the heart of the The Trade is the tragedy of the life of Margaret Pruden, which becomes Ted Harriott’s tragedy because of his genuine love for her. The novel is about whether, in the fur trade, a simple truthful love was possible for ordinary people. Was it possible or would it always be trumped by the trade in humans, the oppression of women and of indentured men?

Now to your actual question: do I wish women could play a more prominent role in my fiction? I could say that it’s true that I do wish this; but that would be a little disingenuous, because, in fact, I could sit down tomorrow and write a historical fiction about Western Canada that was entirely about women. I have yet to do that, perhaps because I am a man; and perhaps as well because I’ve wanted to inhabit lives through which the economic story of the fur trade (then open range ranching, then imperial war) could be told. If history did not allow women the scope to do what I wanted to portray (be fur traders, cowboys and soldiers), I could not have written those novels through their experience. I recognize that this is rather like the argument that used to be made for never writing historical fiction that wasn’t about people of rank.

What I have tried to do is represent the balance between genders that I felt was the truth in each situation. Margaret Pruden’s difficult life as a woman beautiful enough to catch the eye of the Governor when she doesn’t want him is, I hope, as poignant and moving as anything else in the novel — as painful as her partner Ted Harriott’s dilemma, even though more pages are devoted to Harriott. I think this is often evident to women who read the novel. But it is less evident to women who pick up the novel in a store. What I truly wish then is that more women would read my novels and tell me if they feel moved by them.

BS: I love your framing narrator in The Trade. At one point he says, "that makes history the only kind of water that gets cleaner the farther downstream you go." Can you relate that to your trilogy?

FS: I am rather proud of this sentence, for I believe it is importantly true. The privileging of print is one of the ways that we have often got it wrong about history. I was a great fan of James Welch’s fiction and have only recently read his non-fiction Killing Custer. One of the things to be learned from that book is that the century-long misunderstanding of Custer’s annihilation at the Little Big Horn came from not paying attention to the accounts of First Nations’ witnesses.

How often that must have been true, that someone viewed as non-credible would be saying, “I was there and I saw her raped;” or “I was there and I heard him tell his servant to kill the next Indian who came in the door.” Instead we have looked the group of witnesses over, and have listened only to the “credible ones”: meaning the white ones, the literate ones, the ones in positions of power.

Gladstone’s point about water getting cleaner as it goes downstream is meant to extend right to this day where we are still guilty of using the nice certainty of a written piece of evidence, especially if it contains a nice educated turn of phrase, rather than wading through the awkwardness of eyewitness ramblings. In Canada, we have had a ghastly serial murder saga on the West coast, which went unsolved for years while more and more prostitutes were killed because the prostitutes who were providing evidence of the killer’s identity (and who were still on the stroll; still drug-addicted) were not regarded as credible. And so it goes.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bloodshed at Little Bighorn

Bloodshed at Little Bighorn: Sitting Bull, Custer and the Destinies of Nations by Tim Lehman (Johns Hopkins University Press, $19.95

On July 10, 1876, the New York Daily Tribune published a poem by Walt Whitman entitled, "A Death-Sonnet for Custer."

The poem began, "Far from Montana's canyons, / Lands of the wild ravine, the dusky Sioux, the lone-some stretch of silence, / Haply, to-day, a mournful wail -- haply, a trumpet note for heroes."

Whitman called the encounter an "Indian ambuscade," never mind that Custer was attacking the Sioux and Cheyenne encampment (its women and children included) in the early morning, just as the Indians began to stir. He was more accurate in describing the results of the battle a "slaughter," for that, indeed, it was.

Whitman concluded his poem by praising Custer, the architect of the slaughter, painting a romantic picture of the doomed general, "bright sword in thy hand."

In all, 211 members of the "Fighting Seventh" cavalry division lost their lives in what later became known as Custer's Last Stand. From the native point of view, the last stand took place over the next several years as the U.S. government carried out a ruthless campaign to subjugate both the Sioux and the Cheyenne.

Historian Tom Lehman of Rocky Mountain College retells the story of that fateful battle in his new book, Bloodshed at Little Bighorn. The second volume in Johns Hopkins' Eyewitness to History series is told primarily through the voices of the participants and onlookers on both sides of the cultural divide.

The Book Serf asked professor Lehman the following questions:

BS: I'm fascinated by how such a relatively small scale action (211 soldiers and Crow scouts dead) could become such a large part of our national mythology/psyche.

TL: For one thing, the details of the battle are shrouded in mystery. The question of "what really happened?" has had remarkable staying power. For white Americans the idea of the "last stand" represented the Indian wars as primarily defensive, as if the Sioux and Cheyenne were the aggressors that day. Of course, for the Sioux and Cheyenne there was no great mystery. The better side, the ones defending their homeland, simply carried the battle. For them, the real "last stand" was the army's systematic campaign of subjugation that came in the aftermath of the famous battle.

But the story also has staying power because it has a rich cast of charismatic characters on all sides, Custer and Sitting Bull most notably, but even the supporting players are layered in complexity. Lastly, the battle tapped into a sense of nostalgia for the "vanishing frontier." The "last" stand, in this sense, symbolizes not only the end a brand of heroism deeply ingrained on the American imagination, but also the end of a place associated with the idea of undiluted freedoms.

BS: Was the eventual defeat of the Sioux and Cheyenne inevitable? Can you discuss your use of the word "Destinies" in the title of your book?

TL: I wanted the word "Destinies" in the title to remind readers of the phrase "manifest destiny," a source of much mischief in western history. The term needed to be plural, I thought, to suggest how the Indian wars had very different outcomes for different groups of people. But part of the mischief of "manifest destiny" is that it relieves us of the moral and creative responsibility of imagining different outcomes.

Eventual defeat may have been inevitable, but there was a difference between honest and dishonest treaty-making, between provoked and unprovoked aggression, just to take two examples. I wanted to suggest that defeats -- and for that matter victories -- are not inevitable, but to a great degree depend on choices made by individuals, organizations, and governments. To the extent that history informs the present, some of those choices still have meaning. The ongoing struggle over control of the Black Hills would be one example.

BS: Americans love a good mystery (JFK's assassination, Area 51, etc.) but, really, why did so many people persist in asking the question, How did a band of savages defeat the Fighting Seventh?

TL: For a nation of people who expect success, we have a strange fascination with failure. During the 19th century the two most famous failures, the Alamo and Little Bighorn, generated a compelling mythology of heroism in defeat. Part of the mythology was to build up the image of Sitting Bull, who had to be portrayed as a worthy opponent. One rumor even had it that he was trained in Napoleonic tactics at West Point. So conspiracy theories abound about Pearl Harbor, 9/11, or any other famous defeat. At bottom I think this reflects an assumption of superiority--success for Americans is natural, failure requires an explanation.

BS: You quote Libbie Custer as saying her hope was to ensure that "tradition and history will be so mingled that no one will be able to separate them." Does the historian set as his (or her) goal the disentangling of tradition and history?

TL: One rich vein of historical writing about the Little Bighorn and the Indian wars has tried to sort out the history, to set the record straight about what really happened. Another approach has been to examine the sources and mythmaking functions of the tradition. I've tried to do a little of both. For instance, some of the mystery about the battle has been dispelled by recent archaeology that pretty much discredits the traditional views of a "last stand." In this instance, we know more now about the battle than people did one hundred years ago. I set out to write a battle account that describes what actually happened, as best as we can know from recent research, not what Libbie wanted us to think happened. But the chapter I had the most fun writing was the final chapter, the one which deals with the creation and uses of the last stand mythology -- both in Indian country and in the dominant culture.

BS: Can you expand on your contention that Cody's "theatrical version was realistic, just as the original event was theatrical"?

TL: Cody's Wild West show played a major role in the mythological version of the last stand. He moved back and forth from his scout duties on the western frontier to his stage responsibilities in eastern cities, and both roles reinforced each other. He had more respect in each place because of his role in the other. After the Little Bighorn, he was involved in a minor skirmish in which he killed a Cheyenne warrior and claimed "the first scalp for Custer." Going into combat that day, he actually dressed in his stage costume, which was of course modeled after his frontier scout attire. This allowed him to return to the stage wearing the actual clothes he had worn in battle. He had staged a real fight so that he could recreate that reality on the stage.

Another example: After the Civil War, when Custer moved west and took his part as a fighter in the Indian wars, he began dressing in the buckskins of a frontier scout. In his writing and his photographs he took on the persona of a frontiersman, very different from his Civil War soldering days. Then after Custer's death, Cody grew his hair long so that he could look more like the image of Custer, so much so that Libbie commented on how much Cody looked like her deceased husband. Looking similar to Custer helped to sell tickets, but ironically Cody was imitating Custer who had been imitating Cody.

The larger points is that the West began representing itself to the East not after the fact, but as part and parcel of the lived experience. Westerners invented the myth of the West even as they were living the history.

BS: When it comes to interpreting the events at Little Big Horn and during the Great Sioux Wars, tempers understandably run high on both sides. Your book avoids sensationalism and sentimentality. Did you feel at this juncture the facts could finally speak for themselves without you having to polemicize?

TL: The passing of time may make some truths easier to tell. In this case, there have been pro-Custer and anti-Custer stories told for quite some time. Who can forget the megalomaniac, crazed Custer of the movie "Little Big Man?"

In my case, I had the faces, voices, and questions of my students in mind. I teach at a small college in Montana not far from the Little Bighorn battlefield, and I have taught students who are the descendants of battle veterans on all sides -- Cheyenne, Lakota, Crow, white. I wanted to find not some bland middle ground that offended no one, but rather an approach that could command the respect of all sides and become the basis for vigorous, informed discussion and debate.

BS: What was the best quote you had to leave on the cutting room floor? Also, what's your favorite quote in the book and why?

TL: Many of my near favorite quotations come from Sitting Bull, who deserved his reputation for eloquence. But probably my favorite is this from the last chapter: when Cody's Wild West show was touring England, during off hours the Lakota participants often went out to see the sights. Once an English soldier approached Rocky Bear, a veteran Wild West show performer, and attempted conversation in his best pidgin English, "How! Heavy wet." Rocky Bear responded in his best English accent, "Yes, it's rawther nawsty, me boy."

I like the humor, the completely unexpected response, and the ironic turnabout of stereotypes. Philip Deloria has a book with a delightful title, "Indians in Unexpected Places." I tried to be aware of that throughout the book. Many of the Indians in my classroom have a rich and often wonderfully ironic sense of humor. I wanted to let that come out in the book.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Simon Tolkien steps out of grandpa's shadow ...

Simon Tolkien is willing to suspend his disbelief when he reads his grandfather J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasies The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But don't expect Tolkien to be resurrecting Middle Earth anytime soon.

"I would never consider writing fantasy as I couldn’t make it credible," Tolkien recently told the Book Serf. "I don’t think there is any point in writing fiction if the writer is unable to get his readers to suspend their disbelief."

For nearly 15 years Tolkien practiced as a barrister in England, all the while secretly contemplating a career in writing. But there was always the mammoth shadow of his grandfather to consider.

In 2000 Tolkien began to write and after an initial failure (the book was never published) he succeeded in having published his first novel, the courtroom drama Final Witness.

His most recently novel, The Inheritance, was published by Minotaur Books in April. The novel begins with a brutal crime committed by two British officers against a French family in Normandy at the end of World War II and follows the crown's case against Stephen Cade, who is accused of murdering his father.

The Book Serf asked Tolkien the following questions:

BS: John Mortimer once quipped, “No brilliance is required in law, just common sense and relatively clean fingernails.” Discuss.

ST: As a barrister I always felt that the vital part of presenting a defense case was to find a way to persuade the jury that common sense was or at least might be on the defense side. Brilliant pyrotechnics were of little use if their purpose was to try and make the jury believe that the earth is flat.

BS: “The law,” in the abstract, is a gorgeous thing. Less so when it's administered in The Inheritance by the likes of Judge Murdoch and prosecutor Gerald Thompson.

ST: In my experience partisan judges can have a major influence on the outcome of trials in the U.K. Some judges can be quite intimidating which can have an adverse effect on barristers’ presentation of their cases, particularly if they are inexperienced. Alternatively judges can push juries toward one side or the other when they sum up cases as Judge Murdoch does for the prosecution in The Inheritance.

It is very difficult to have a judge removed and so some of them seem to think they can say what they like. Of course prosecutors can also be unfair, but, speaking personally, I found this less of a problem when I was practicing. Perhaps this is because barristers in the UK regularly appear on behalf of both the prosecution and the defense and so there’s no time for them to become entirely prosecution-minded.

Once barristers become judges, however, they must withdraw from the combat, and I think that then some of them become frustrated by their essentially passive role and start to intervene in a mistaken belief that juries need directing toward the truth.
BS: You place a premium on telling a good story. Though you may have a “message” for readers, you never explicitly tell us what it is. Why is important to avoid pedagogy in fiction?

ST: I have no message. Like my grandfather, I feel strongly that a fiction writer’s task is to try to make his readers believe in his story, and that this is an end in itself, not a means to an end. Years ago I read The Plague by Albert Camus and afterward someone told me that I’d missed the point - the plague represented the state of the world. I felt like an idiot. Using fiction to convey a message seems to me like a cheat. I think D.H. Lawrence was a great writer – I loved Sons and Lovers, but I can’t stand many of his other books because his characters are there simply to convey a message and develop his philosophy. The allegorical intent behind the Narnia stories was, as I understand it, my grandfather’s primary objection to his best friend’s fantasy fiction.
BS: Detective William Trave has misgivings about the case against Stephen Cade from the very start. What are you suggesting in Trave's behavior about “gut feelings,” “instincts” and the like?

ST: You’re right that I have tried to set up a tension in the book between Trave’s reliance on instinct and the weight of the evidence against the accused man in the courtroom. It is an extension of the old conflict between the heart and the head. In my new book, The King of Diamonds, this tension is taken even further with Trave risking everything to follow his instinct, and his colleagues having every reason to doubt that right is on his side.

BS: How much of your fiction comes out of the endless stories you must have accumulated as a barrister and how much out of your imagination?
ST: My stories are all rooted in my imagination, not personal experience. I would feel hamstrung as a writer if I was using a novel to retell a real life story. It would be like reheated food! Where my background in the law has helped me is in making the courtroom drama in my novels more believable and thus more satisfying to the reader.
BS: Our killers these days are over-the-top, monsters like Hannibal Lecter and reformed monsters like Dexter Morgan. You take a different approach to crime/mystery. Can you discuss the violence (or more aptly the lack of violence) in The Inheritance?
ST: I think I do villains well. Certainly part of the secret is not to show too much – it’s a cliché that what we can’t see if often more frightening than what we can, but that doesn’t make it any less true. In The Inheritance Silas has a physical terror of Sergeant Ritter because Ritter once squeezed his wrist, but he squeezed it in such a way that Silas knew exactly what the Sergeant was capable of if Silas crossed him again. I think that another essential ingredient in villain creation is to provide the evildoer with some redeeming quality in order to make him credible to the reader. Thus in The Inheritance Ritter is a born killer and yet he has an unswerving loyalty to his employer, Professor Cade.

BS: The Inheritance has been described as “historiographical.” Does that description please you? In a related question, you could have written a contemporary mystery. Why set The Inheritance in 1944-1959?
ST: I have always been fascinated by history. It was almost an obsession when I was young and I am half ashamed to say that I hero worshipped Napoleon Bonaparte until I was well into my teens.
I believe that the past is truly another country. It’s so mysterious because we can get so close to it but can never enter inside. I love the idea of fusing history and fiction, and so in The Inheritance I consciously set out to create a strong historical dimension to my story. Many of the characters are in different ways prisoners of past events over which they had no control and the detective has to go back into the past to solve Professor Cade’s murder.
I also think the late 1950s setting of The Inheritance is suited to the old-fashioned quality of my writing, and I like the way the period looks Janus-like in two directions – forward to the new world of the 1960s and back toward the cataclysm of the Second World War. Another advantage of the historical setting is that scientific crime detection techniques in the fifties were far less advanced than they are now. DNA profiling is good for law and order, but for my fiction I prefer a world where the human element is critical to solving crime.

BS: Were you worried that the mention of a “codex” in your novel would attract all the Dan Brown/Da Vinci Code fans? Because your book in so many ways couldn't be less like The Da Vinci Code, don't you think?
ST: The Inheritance is less sensational than The Da Vinci Code, but both books deal with historical mysteries, and I am pleased if I can appeal to all readers who like this type of novel.
BS: Whodunnit seems a less interesting question to you than, Why did they dunnit? Even after readers may have guessed who killed Cade, we're still riveted following Sasha back to France. Is that by design?
ST: No, I wanted to keep the reader guessing about the identity of who killed Colonel Cade right up until when the truth is revealed in Chapter 25. Readers will judge whether I succeeded or whether I provided too many clues to the killer’s identity.
BS: You are interested in the relationship between a father and his son (or sons) and between a father and his daughter. Why did you find those relationships such good fodder for fiction?
ST: Family rivalries and jealousies interest me as material for my fiction partly because they are so potent and partly because they are good for creating a tight cast of characters all with different motivations for committing a crime.
BS: Will you continue to write legal thrillers/mysteries?
ST: My next book, The King of Diamonds, is a mystery thriller coming out in April 2011. It further develops the characters of Inspector Trave and Detective Clayton who first appeared in The Inheritance.
In the new book Trave is convinced that a diamond trader, Titus Osman, has committed two murders, but Clayton is concerned that Trave’s judgment has been warped by the fact that Trave’s wife has deserted him for Osman.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Spending time with a favorite book ...

Winter has finally given way to spring in these parts (central Ohio) and the damp of a sultry summer is already in the air. Which leads me down the paths of memory to a youth misspent in the company of books.

I have been perusing the Penguin Books Great Ideas series for the last several weeks including Robert Burton's Some Anatomies of Melancholy (that would have been back when the days were short and dark and mood likewise) and William Morris' Useful Work vs. Useless Toil (I'd settle for either in the growing days of my unemployment). But it was Marcel Proust's Days of Reading that struck my fancy this week as the first buds of the pink dogwoods burst from limb.

"There are no days of my childhood which I lived so fully perhaps as those I thought I had left behind without living them, those I spent with a favourite book," Proust writes at the beginning of his famous essay.

"Everything which, it seemed, filled them for others, but which I pushed aside as a vulgar impediment to a heavenly pleasure: the game for which a friend came to fetch me at the most interesting passage, the troublesome bee or shaft of sunlight which forced me to look up from the page or to change my position, the provisions for tea which I had been made to bring and which I had left beside me on the seat, untouched, while, above my head, the sun was declining in strength in the blue sky, the dinner for which I had had to return home and during which my one thought was to go upstairs straight away afterwards, and finish the rest of the chapter: reading should have prevented me from seeing all this as anything except importunity, but, on the contrary, so sweet is the memory it engraved in me (and so much more precious in my present estimation than what I then read so lovingly) that if still, today, I chance to leaf through these books from the past, it is simply as the only calendars I have preserved of those bygone days, and in the hope of finding reflected in their pages the houses and the ponds which no longer exist."

My houses may (or may not) exist on the West Side of Youngstown and the North. But the books of my youth are as imposing in my memory now as they were then. In fact, I've begun to read some of those books again. They include:The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien; Watership Down, Shardik and The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams; Siddhartha by Herman Hesse; The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling.

So, a toast to the first days of spring, the old books that will become new again, and friends as yet unmet.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Mark Twain Anthology ...

In 1889, a young English writer and reporter named Rudyard Kipling traveled nearly 8,000 miles from Allahabad, India to interview Mark Twain in Elmira, N.Y.

After Kipling concluded his interview with Twain, he was gleeful, writing immediately from New York to The Pioneer, the newspaper for which he worked back in Allahabad,

"You are a contemptible lot, over yonder. Some of you are Commissioners, and some Lieutenant-Governors, and some have the V.C., and a few are privileged to walk about the Mall arm in arm with the Viceroy; but I have seen Mark Twain this golden morning, have shaken his hand, and smoked a cigar -- no, two cigars -- with him, and talked with him for more than two hours! Understand clearly that I do not despise you; indeed, I don't. I am only very sorry for you, from the Viceroy downward. To soothe your envy and to prove that I still regard you as my equals, I will tell you all about it."

A rhapsody followed.

Kipling's piece is included in The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works, published recently by the Library of America. The anthology includes dozens of authors (and a handful of illustrators) from 1869 to 2008 including William Dean Howells, G.K. Chesterton, H.L. Mencken, Grant Wood, T.S. Eliot, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison and others. It includes 16 writers from Europe, Asia and Latin America, many previously untranslated.

The Book Serf asked editor Shelley Fisher Fishkin (Twain scholar, English professor and Director of American Studies at Stanford University) the following questions:

BS: In your introduction, you talk about the enduring nature of Twain's appeal. He is loved across the globe and down the years. Why do you think that is? (A short question that begs a giant answer?)

SFF: (You’re right: a short question that demands a giant answer!)
Twain has somehow managed to establish a relationship with his readers -- an intimacy, really -- like that of no other author that I know. And what is totally remarkable to me is that this intimate sense of connection that helps make his work so engaging and popular manages to make it through translations into over 70 languages. His humor is key, of course -- and again, it is amazing that it survives translation -- but he was always so much more than a humorist. “Humor must not professedly teach, and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever,” Twain wrote. “… I have always preached ... I was not writing the sermon for the sake of the humor. I should have written the sermon just the same …” Twain’s humor both teaches and preaches -- but it dresses those lessons and sermons in such delicious wit that we don’t necessarily realize we’ve been preached at or taught a thing.
When he received an honorary degree from Yale in 1888, Twain reminded the world that the humorist’s trade “is a useful trade, a worthy calling; that with all its lightness and frivolity it has one serious purpose, one aim, one specialty, and it is constant to it -- the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence; and that whoso is by instinct engaged in this sort of warfare is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges and all kindred swindles, and the natural friend of human rights and human liberties.”

Twain’s humor endures because it is true to its “one serious purpose” -- “the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence.” It may make us wince. But we still come back for more.

I also think that Twain’s enduring appeal is related to the fact that every generation (in a vast range of cultures, geographies, economies, etc) can find in his work material that “speaks to their condition,” as the Quakers say. He is amazingly contemporary, even in the 21st century. His quirky, ambitious, strikingly original fiction and nonfiction engaged some of the perennially thorny, messy, challenges we are still grappling with today -- such as the challenge of making sense of a nation founded on freedom by men who held slaves -- the great contradiction on which the idea of America was constructed -- or the puzzle of our continuing faith in technology in the face of our awareness of its destructive powers; or the problem of imperialism and the difficulties involved in getting rid of it.

Dick Gregory said that Twain “was so far ahead of his time that he shouldn't even be talked about on the same day as other people.” I think that’s exactly right!

And of course, his brilliant aphorisms have taken on a life of their own because they’re so apt and so funny and so true. Who but Twain could get away with, “It was not that Adam ate the apple for the apple’s sake, but because it was forbidden. It would have been better for us -- oh infinitely better for us -- if the serpent had been forbidden.” Or “... patriotism is usually the refuge of the scoundrel. He is the man who talks the loudest.” Or “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.”

In all of these quotes, Twain conveys a truth that polite society customarily denies: that we all wish it were easier to be good, or that patriotism often covers base deeds, or that exposure to virtue can be more irritating than inspiring since it underlines our own shortcomings. Summarized in this manner, these comments fall flat with a dull moralistic thud. They don’t sound that way when Twain says them.

“To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement,” Twain wrote. “To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself.” Or, as he put elsewhere, “A powerful agent is the right word: it lights the reader’s way and makes it plain.”

Readers tend to trust Twain to be someone who can be brutally honest but never malevolent. Twain’s avuncular stance helps take the sting out of barbs that would wound more sharply from less friendly lips. As a result he can say things that from anyone else might lead to blows. He is simply allowed to be more irreverent than most people because there is a deep sense (to paraphrase his friend Bill Nye) that he’s not as bad as he sounds.

BS: Do you agree with Kenneth Lynn that after World War II critics often misread Huck as "renouncing his membership in a society that condoned slavery"?

SFF: Yes. Huck never actually renounces his membership in a society that condones slavery. Rather, he makes the existential decision to act in a way that he knows that society condemns. (He is willing to pay the price: he thinks he will go to Hell for what he has done). Huck never actually challenges the norms that he violates. That would require his judging his society as immoral and wrong, and he never reaches that point. But the reader does, and that is part of what makes the book so profoundly compelling.

During the Cold War, critics tended to hold up Huck’s decision in Chapter 31 not to return Jim to his owner as a triumph of individual autonomy, an example of one human being rejecting the false morality of his society, an act which made the book gratifyingly “subversive.” This appealed to an avowedly democratic nation waging a Cold War against an enemy ready to subsume the individual under the collective. It also appealed to a nation that beginning to try to move beyond its Jim Crow past.

As Kenneth Lynn observed, in the decades after World War II, as critics and readers gradually reached the conclusion that “the ancient pattern of discrimination against Negroes was morally indefensible,” they often misread Huck’s actions. The book was, in fact, one that could be enlisted in the project of envisioning the U.S. as a nation that was finally grappling with its racist past. But Twain requires the reader to pass judgment on the failings of Huck’s society: Huck judges only his own actions.

BS: Twain could be very critical of the U.S. Why don't we know much about that side of his writing? (I'm thinking here of the Treaty With China piece that you discuss in your introduction. But surely there were others?)

SFF: Much of Twain’s most controversial work was bowdlerized or suppressed by his daughter (Clara) and by his publisher or his first biographer out of fear that it would damage Twain’s image (and, presumably, the financial interests enhanced by that image).

This explanation helps explain why material like Letters from the Earth was not published until four decades after Twain’s death. But I’ve only relatively recently begun to probe the impact that the Cold War had on the selection of Twain texts with which Americans were familiar for much of the 20th century.
As Maxwell Geismar put it in Scanlan’s Monthly in 1970, “During the Cold War era of our culture, mainly in the 1950’s although extending back into the ‘40s and forward far into the ‘60s, Mark Twain was both revived and castrated. The entire arena of Twain’s radical social criticism of the United States — its racism, imperialism, and finance capitalism — has been repressed or conveniently avoided by the so-called Twain scholars precisely because it is so bold, so brilliant, so satirical. And so prophetic.”

But while most Americans in the 20th century had been encountering a “castrated,” tame Twain, to borrow Geismar’s word, readers in China and the Soviet Union were encountering a Twain unafraid to launch salvos at the hypocrisy and failings of the country that he loved. Twain’s achievement as a writer and his role as a social and cultural critic may have been significantly distorted in the U.S. by imperatives of the Cold War. In part because Chinese and Soviet writers and critics lauded the Twain who was a searing critic of his country, American writers and critics largely dismissed that Twain as a figment of the Communist propaganda machine and valorized America’s Twain as a writer to be celebrated primarily as a humorist rather than as a satirist and social critic.

The propaganda functions to which Twain’s writing was put are obvious -- but Americans threw out the baby with the bathwater when they downplayed the validity of Twain’s criticisms of his country -- which were also criticisms of their country -- and, unfortunately, in some ways, of America today, as well. Americans’ focus on Twain as a humorist has helped make some of his most intriguing works of social and political criticism suffer neglect.

BS: Or, if you'd rather, What is the biggest, most persistent myth about Mark Twain, either as Writer or Man?

SFF: Probably the idea that a writer who was once a delightfully entertaining humorist became a bitter, pessimistic misanthrope in his old age because of the death of so many people he loved -- his wife and two daughters. This myth is flawed on several fronts. 1) The germs of the ideas most often associated with his later years can be found in his earliest writings as well. Twain was raising searching questions about humankind from early on in his career. During his later years these questions may have become more salient, but they were present all along. 2) Twain’s pessimism and bleak outlook during his later years may have been colored in part by the death of people close to him, but it was probably more a reflection of his disillusionment in the course his country was taking -- particularly seeing his country become an imperial power in the mold of the European nations whose colonialism and imperialism Twain abhorred. 3) The last decade or so of Twain’s life was far from an unrelievedly bleak period. He produced some hilarious pieces during that time. One such piece is the wild, cross-dressing farce he wrote in 1898 in Vienna, the play “Is He Dead?” which had its debut on Broadway in 2007. A zany blend of shtiks that would not be out of place in a Marx Brothers film or Tootsie or Some Like It Hot, the play makes it clear that Twain was still able to have tremendous fun during those so-called “dark” years. David Ives adapted it for today’s stage. There have been over 70 productions of it since it closed on Broadway, and it has been delighting audiences across the country and outside the US as well (its first international production -- which is up now -- is in Romania).

BS: Why do you find the response of Black writers to Twain significant? How would you characterize that response?
SFF: Twain is perennially under attack for the alleged racism readers find in Huckleberry Finn. Did Twain manage to transcend the racial discourse of his time in everything he wrote? Of course not. (Pudd’nhead Wilson, for example, is a highly flawed book on this front). But was he light-years ahead of most of his peers when it came to understanding the dynamics of racism and coming up with ways of getting his reader to ask profound questions about the status quo? Absolutely.

Because of the longstanding belief in American culture that Black writers are particularly entitled to evaluate the racial politics of a canonical white writer, the ways in which Black writers have responded to Twain are important to reference in these debates. Those views are often buried in recondite places, hard to find when one needs to find them. I wanted to bring these responses together in The Mark Twain Anthology, so that teachers and other readers could have easy access to the most compelling of these perspectives.

And they are not monolithic. There is a range of views that they express, whether it is Toni Morrison discussing her complex responses to Huckleberry Finn, or Ralph Ellison noting that minstrelsy shaped the presentation of Jim in the novel, but that it is from behind the minstrel mask that Jim’s humanity emerges. The Mark Twain Anthology collects in one place a series of key responses by Black writers to the issue of Twain’s treatment of race and racism that have not appeared together before -- commentaries dating from 1937 to 2000 from Sterling Brown, Ralph Ellison, David Bradley, Toni Morrison, Ralph Wiley, and Dick Gregory, along with briefer remarks by Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, and Richard Pryor.

Brown is the first to recognize the magnitude of Twain’s achievement in portraying Jim when it is judged against the backdrop of how Twain’s white contemporaries portrayed African Americans. I find David Bradley to be perhaps the most eloquent and persuasive commentator on Twain and race. Nobody has ever said anything more concise and correct, in my view, about the ending of Huckleberry Finn: In a 1995 speech he observed, “A lot of snotty academics have spent a lot of time and wasted a lot of journal ink criticizing the ending of Huckleberry Finn. But I notice none of them has been able to suggest, much less write, a better ending. Two actually tried — and failed. They all failed for the same reason that Twain wrote the ending as he did. America has never been able to write a better ending. America has never been able to write any ending at all.”

BS: What is the best thing anyone has ever said about Twain and why do you appreciate it?

SFF: Richard Wright: “Twain hid his conflict in satire and wept in private over the brutalities and the injustices of his civilization.” In this one sentence, Wright compresses the complexity of Twain’s response as a writer to what he witnessed around him and to the forces he saw operating in history. Wright recognizes the pain that lurked just under the surface. Tragedy is the ultimate source of comedy for Twain. The contradictions between people’s views of their behavior and how they actually behaved, the disconnects between their ideals and their realities, the high tolerance people have for bad faith and myopia when called upon to judge themselves or their societies -- Wright got it.

BS: How often did you find yourself "arguing" with what one of the writers averred about Twain? (I wanted to interrupt Teddy Roosevelt and tell him he was full of it!)

SFF: George Orwell thought that Twain settled for being his society’s “licensed jester,” a
man who “never attacks established beliefs in a way that is likely to get him into trouble.” I disagree. Orwell seems to have been unaware of the writings Twain published that did get him into trouble — such as “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” and other anti-imperialist essays. This is not surprising: During Orwell’s lifetime, Harpers, Twain’s publisher, did what it could (along with Twain’s biographer Albert Bigelow Paine and daughter Clara) to downplay the subversive side of Twain. I should add, however, that Orwell’s statement is very occasionally applicable to Twain: Twain decided not to publish a book about lynchings because (as he put it in a letter to his publisher) he wouldn’t have a friend left in the South if he did. But the occasions when Twain did get into trouble condemning his country’s foreign policy, or the behavior European nations in Asia and Africa.
And for the record, I share your views on Teddy Roosevelt. And Twain had as low an opinion of Teddy Roosevelt as Roosevelt had of Twain. In the posthumously-published Mark Twain in Eruption, Twain wrote that “Mr. Roosevelt is the Tom Sawyer of the political world of the twentieth century; always showing off; always hunting for a chance to show off; in his frenzied imagination the Great Republic is a vast Barnum circus with him for a clown and the whole world for audience; he would go to Halifax for half a chance to show off and he would go to hell for a whole one.”

BS: Why is Mark Twain considered the quintessentially American writer and Huckleberry Finn the quintessentially American novel? Was William Dean Howells' accurate in his appraisal of Twain?

SFF: Jorge Luis Borges observed that in Huckleberry Finn “for the first time an American writer used the language of America without affectation.” The novel that Ernest Hemingway called the wellspring of “all modern American literature” was America’s literary Declaration of Independence, a book no Englishman could have written -- a book that expanded the democratic possibilities of what a modern novel could do and what it could be. Time and time again, Twain defied readers’ expectations of what literature was and did. As Howells once put it, “He saunters out into the trim world of letters, and lounges across its neatly kept paths, and walks about on the grass at will, in spite of all the signs that have been put up from the beginning of literature, warning people of dangers and penalties for the slightest trespass.”

From the breezy slang and deadpan humor that peppered his earliest comic sketches to the unmistakably American characters who populated his fiction, Twain’s writings introduced readers around the world to American personalities speaking in distinctively American cadences. But in Huckleberry Finn, those American voices helped usher in a new kind of novel that helped make possible so much of the literature that followed it in the 20th century. It was in Huckleberry Finn that Twain allowed the African American voices that had been so important to him all his life to play a central role in his creative process. The most memorable stories Twain heard during his childhood were those he heard in the slave quarters from specific slaves whom he recalled years later in autobiographical recollections, in “How to Tell a Story,” and elsewhere. The engaging mock-sermons of a “satirical slave” named Jerry that Twain listened to daily in his youth were his introduction to satire as a tool of social criticism, as he tells us in “Corn-Pone Opinions.” As an adult, Twain was exposed to such gifted storytellers as Mary Ann Cord (who told the story that is at the center of “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It”) and the young black servant he profiled in “Sociable Jimmy” (“the most artless, sociable, exhaustless talker” Twain had ever met, to whom Twain listened “as one who receives a revelation,” and who played a role in the genesis of Huckleberry Finn).

Twain became a writer at a time when characters who spoke in dialect were generally objects of ridicule and sources of comic relief. But speakers like those mentioned here taught Twain the complex, subtle, and serious uses to which dialect and vernacular speech could be put, and American literature would never be the same.

I believe that few would deny today the important role that African-American voices and speakers like these played in making Twain the writer he became. As Ralph Ellison told me in our interview, reading Twain, and seeing the ways in which he transformed vernacular speech into art helped many black -- and white -- authors in the century that followed find their “own voices” as writers. In Huckleberry Finn, Twain made a semi-literate street urchin narrator (and the central consciousness) of his book. Never before had so much authority and power been ceded to a vernacular speaker. It is this which helps make the book the wellspring of so much of the literature that followed -- in the 20th and 21st centuries. Huckleberry Finn also had remarkable universal appeal: Nobel Laureate Kenzaburō Ōe cites Huck Finn as the book that spoke to his condition so powerfully in war-torn Japan that it inspired him to write his first novel.

BS: What was the single most surprising/pleasing thing you learned during the course of assembling the anthology?

SFF: I’d probably have to say that I was surprised to find that the first book devoted to Mark Twain published anywhere was a book published in Paris in French. It’s not clear that Twain himself was ever aware of this book, titled simply Mark Twain, that was published in Paris in 1884 by a young Frenchman named Henry Gauthier-Villars. (Today Gauthier-Villars is best known as the rather infamous first husband of the woman he met five years after he published this book, a woman who later became known as the French writer, Colette.).

Something else (that I should have known, perhaps, but hadn’t) was the wonderful intensity of Twain’s friendship with Helen Keller, the remarkable rapport the two of them had, and the impact Twain had on her life: it was Twain who introduced her to Henry Huddleston Rogers and his wife with the express goal of getting them to pay for her education. They ended up paying her way through Radcliffe, and she became the first deaf and blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree. (It was also Twain who dubbed her teacher, Annie Sullivan, “the miracle worker.”)

BS: I have to ask, since you bring it up in your introduction, what piece hurt you the most to leave out and why?

SFF: I was really sad to lose Willie Morris’s essay on Life on the Mississippi, an essay by Judith Martin (Miss Manners) on The Prince and the Pauper, and Anne Bernays’ essay dealing with “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed.” But all of these pieces introduce volumes of The Oxford Mark Twain (that I edited in 1996), and the fact that the set has just come out in paperback means that readers will still have ready access to these excellent writer-to-writer encounters with Twain. I also regret that an eloquent essay from Jim Zwick’s book, Confronting Imperialism, dealing with Twain’s involvement with the Anti-Imperialist league ended up being cut. Jim Zwick passed away at a very young age a few years ago, just after that book came out, and at least in part as a result of his untimely death his work has not gotten the attention that it deserves.