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.

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