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David H Fears <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 2 Apr 2007 19:46:09 EDT
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My Research on Humor at the Mount Olympus  of Twain Studies
Or, Why They Put Bob Hirst in a Corner  Office by Himself.
Just before my recent trek to the Mark  Twain Project, that mysterious
hole of all things Twainia," I became  possessed with the image of the staff
there--do they own a sense of humor?--more  important, does the head
Robert Hirst own one? And if so, what is the  substance and grit of it? How
it displayed? Do these august editors guffaw  while reading Sam as I often
do? Do they share little "in" jokes about Clemens  with a nudge and a wink?
it "footnote" humor or the broad blaring headline  variety? Does Clemens
there in spirit? real flesh and blood with flaws,  the real Sam, or is he
simply that scholarly acronym SLC?  Beyond any documentation might attach
to my humongous work-in-progress, I had to know the answers about the
gatekeepers. Is there humor at the MTP? I confess I feared the worst.
After all, my scant experience with genuine,  certifiable archive scholars
had taught me to be serious and stone-faced, to  speak in low reverent tones
to make my requests few. Deathly cold and  studious. I should fully devote
energies to unearthing new trivia for  researchers who were to shadow my
trail, and not to pander to "the masses" in my  finished work. Aim at, dig
and submit my soul to those primary sources,  and all that. Bowing toward
Hannibal, Elmira, and Hartford several times a day  (From the Pacific slope,
the same direction.)
So  when I struck out for Berkeley I was what you might call a MTP virgin,
more  bedeviled by nagging doubts than a mail-order bride with postage due.
no  longer. I've been immersed, as old-time Presbyterians were river-dunked;
none of  this sissy sprinkling, no sir. I'm cannot yet claim to speak for
entire MTP  staff, but I have studied the leading specimens and the
handwriting (please!  Pencil only!) is on the pad, so to speak. What follows
is the
product of my trek  and polling, somewhat surreptitiously  administered.
After shelling out $42 cab fare from the Oakland  airport (tear it down and
start again, please!) I trudged up Hearst Street, a  mile from my courtyard
motor inn, reflecting on Patty Hearst and that other  Hearst the street must
been named after. Finally I came to the building  housing the MTP. If you've
visited Fort Knox, or perhaps the Royal jewels in  London, the system at the
Mark Twain Project (which, if you're confused, takes  place within the MT
Papers, somehow connected to the Bancroft Library, and at  some degree akin
but not
joined at the hip to the University of California at  Berkeley--to
distinguish it from other Universities of California from Pismo  Beach to
the Redwood
forests, etc--and further ruled from a distance by the MT  estate, which
be faceless and nameless forever more as a party of the  worst part, etc.)
seem hauntingly familiar. One does not walk right into  the MTP; this isn't
Walmart, you know. A sign next to a wall phone in the  marbled lobby directs
you to call the command post for entrance to the elevator.  MTP is on the
floor, high enough to escape the damages of floods that Al  Gore has ordered
for years hence. The phone connects you with the ever-vigilant  Neda Salem,
young woman with the patience of Job and the burdensome task of  buzzing in
visitors to the elevator and then buzzing a second time through the  MTP
door-this is required for all researchers, whether antiquarians or virgins,
such as
myself. There's no helipad on the roof for those who've published.
Once inside you discover after several hours,  that potty breaks across the
hall require another buzzing back in. Neda  tabulates all these buzzes,
although I steeled my bladder considerably and kept  the tally down for two
and a
half straight days. Such duties could easily make a  person humorless, but
Ms. Salem. She is unhurried, even causal, and will  smile at you if you
you're up to earning one. She wears jeans to work, as  do a few other staff
members, so they aren't over-starched by any means. I was  relieved by this
that I wasn't under-dressed. I think Sam would approve of  the Western tone
the place, though I doubt he'd be able to do much quality  writing there.
no doubt chafe at the demure Ms. Salem's thumb on the door  buzzer. But a
must surrender some control now and then, if he's to divine  the more
research questions, and make sense of the minutiae, if he  aspires to true
scholarship. Enough such denial and one might qualify for an  English
professorship. There might even be dreams of publishing a controversial
contrarian book
about Twain, you know, like claiming he was really Jewish, or a  quatroon or
something. But let's be serious. If one is to be serious about  humor, that
is, keeping in mind that the true source of humor is sorrow, as  Clemens
even if it's the sorrow of an impatient bladder. Buzz!
I asked Neda if her name was short for  anything else, like Josephine or
Hortense or Epaminondas Adrastus, but she  assured me it was as her mother
intended. I didn't reveal my theory-that her  mother was dopey during
delivery and
mumbled, "I needa ..." or something along  those lines, and the nurse, even
dopier from all those deliveries, took the word  as a name for the baby, and
it on the form. But that's just a theory. One  I didn't share with her.
I should exhalt Ms. Salem. Indeed yes.  She has a diverse set of tasks,
require constant vigilance. The powers  that be sentenced her with this
but necessary work, so perhaps it is they  who lack a funny bone. It was her
painful duty to remind I was not allowed to  use pen, or ink in any form,
could I chew gum whilst I was there, but it did  not seem painful to her in
the execution of it; she slyly enjoyed reading off  the stone tablets.
The next day I did not chew the gum, but  let it burn a place in my cheek
several hours, covering rare chomps with a  feigned yawn. Perhaps they are
concerned that researchers, being strange  animals, might use chewing gum in
place of bookmarks. Whatever, but I was  somewhat dumbstruck when I observed
Hirst jawing gum quite joyfully and  decisively and on more than one
but being polite I refrained from  pointing out this inequity, knowing after
three score years that justice is  often uneven, and concluded it must be so
for scholars and editors as well.  Perhaps Bob's sin may have contributed to
his exile to a dingy corner  office--that is, it would be dingy if the
folders, books, etc. strewn  about would permit-so much paper in one small
simply soaks up dingy  aspects, you see. But I'm getting ahead of  myself.
Neda had me sign a form in blood (type  O+) which advised no food,
cameras, scanners, or bombs inside the  reading room. Luckily the form
ask my age, weight or my mother's maiden  name, which I always struggle with
because I don't believe my mother ever was a  maiden. I wanted to ask if
was considered food, but I held my tongue. I  needed to discover whether ba
by-faced Neda had a sense of humor, the question in  point being the real
for my visit-and if she and others there did not  have a sense of humor, to
warn everyone on the MT ListServ. It's a noble cause,  so stop sniggering.
secondarily did I want to nail down some letters and  dates after 1880.
Neda's eye twinkled at this point, or  maybe she was tearing up at my being
there. So as a suggestion, I offered to  spit my gum on the tip of my ink pe
thus solving both felonies with a single  remedy. It was an impulsive offer,
as no sane person could reason out such a  line, but I handed it out with a
sober mein Artemus Ward would be proud of. I  was relieved when my offer
laughter of a genuinely melodic sort, within  a nanosecond of utterance, and
so I had my first answer for an MTP staff  member-Ms. Salem definitely has a
sense of humor. Humor 1, Unhumor 0. I couldn't  have been happier had I
found an
unknown ALS of Sam Clemens in my mother's old  trunk, addressed to her
name, confirming that yes, she was at one time a  maiden.
I  met the staff, at least a few of them. I even met Lin Salamo, who I
thought was  doing research in that big archive in the sky, so I'm glad to
she (I  figured her name for a man, which should show you the extreme level
my  chuckleheadedness) is still kicking, and I told her so. She put to rest
 gossip that she made mud pies for Albert Bigelow Paine when he was a boy.
It's  simply not the case. He was a grown man and they were huckleberry
But  seriously, Lin's very quick, petite, only a bit wizened on the edges,
somewhat pleasantly intense. She instantly proved herself when telling me
a  word was on one of Twichell's illegible diary pages. It's always good to
have a  few of that sort of editor around. So I apologized for thinking she
were a he,  and also for imagining that "he" were dead. I offered that the
was merely  an exaggeration.
While encouraged at my good start, there  was still the big fish, otherwise
known as the Senior Editor, Old Man Hirst. I  feebly asked to meet the
feeling like Oliver asking for more gruel, or  cold pooridge or whatever
fed the kid. I'm not into Dickens these days so  forgive me if I got it
I'd often wondered if Bob Hirst really  existed, but I didn't let on
suspicion to that quarter. The thought flew by that  even if he were a
character, made up by sinister directors of the  Bancroft Library, I'd go
Neda seemed startled a tad, as if no one  ever asked such a thing, and for
instant, I feared all my advantage had  slipped away like a worm down a
vulture's throat. Then she led the way, past a  wall of books that had seen
days, into the recesses of the place. Robert  Hirst's workspace is shuttled
away in the back corner office, beyond normal  traffic--not an office you
by, being in such a corner, because if you're  there, there's no where else
head. Neda gingerly stepped in, a Sherpa guide  leading a city slicker to an
icy  precipice.
My first look at Robert made me want to  holler "Ho! HO! HO!" And I wondered
how many times he'd played the Claus man at  Christmastide. Bob's hair
white prematurely at age six, he later  confessed. I didn't mind. In fact I
thought to myself that his locks were rather  dashing, rumpled as they were
Clemens fashion--that is post-1900 Clemens  fashion. As a matter of
all the staff members I saw had gray or white  hair. I made a note to go a
easier with deep research, so as to maintain the  mostly brown mop I'm proud
of at my advanced age.
As I thrashed about for a seat, Bob slyly  pointed to a thin hump in the
piles of paper where the barest sliver of a lonely  chair peeked out,
above and aside by paper seemingly suspended in air.  How can I describe the
efficient spiritual maze of his office? Questions raced  through my
skull--how much
of this paper was stuff by Clemens? Had the fire  marshall ever been there?
How many trees had suffered the axe for this mountain  range of pulp? What
if a
stack fell over on me? Did my health insurance policy  cover such mishap?
There's an old saying that a messy desk  is the sign of a genius. If this is
true then Bob Hirst is geometrically a  quadrilateral Einstein to the eighth
power. But I don't want to leave any such  impression that the man is
disorganized--heavens no. He knows where stuff is. He  showed me the empty
cabinets behind mountains of papers, receptacles  against one wall waiting
for the
transfer of said paper mountains, one or two of  which might easily be named
Everest or K2. Such is Bob's foresight, his planning  skills, that I have no
doubt he knows where each page, file, book, and slip will  fit into the
innards of
those files. He's simply working out the plan and when  the NEH gives the
green light (and forks over the pork)--presto, voila! The work  will be
Reassuringly, he was able to dip into the morass in judicious  places and
out the exact reference he needed as our little chat proceeded.  And having
worked day by day through 1883, I was able to keep up with him in a  sort of
trivial pursuit. We had a good talk, and one which contained not a  few bits
humor on both sides. I felt assured enough that I donated one of my  short
story books to his pile of papers. It may never been seen again.
Yes, Robert is helpful, an open and  genial host--if he owned a pub, I've no
doubt the first drink would be on the  house, and maybe the last as well,
a few in between. Though, it was only  upon returning home that I realized
that I'd never seen the man's desk peeking  through anywhere, or even if he
one, or if there's carpet on the floor, or  even if there is a floor. I
have been resting on petrified strata of old  files. But beyond madcap lies
genius, and I have hope that with a careful and  concerted effort to scatter
papers, I'll reach Hirst's level in a decade. I  see more books arrived
while I
was away. It's all very sobering, and if one  lacks a distinct muscular
humor, this research business can erode the soul's  sunlight.
On the plane home I wondered what  treasures are buried in Hirst's cave of
paper. I'd asked some other staff what  do they do when Bob's away? How do
find things? I was assured on a sober  aside that "there are people who
Probably those shadowy figures of the MT  Estate, but by the very tone of
confession I did not ask more. Someday there  may be a project to dig out
Project. I hope so.
So, if you're worried, rest  assured-Robert Hirst has a sense of humor. And
so does Neda Salem. And Lin  Salamo. I was there. I know it to be so. Bob
and I
even spoke of the need for  and the value of a sense of humor, and how
strange it seems for anyone to study  MT without developing Atlas-like
muscles on
their funny bones. Ashamed, I  whispered the foul rumors, slurs that some
full-time MT researchers are bereft  of humor, and due to this it has been
said in
some circles that along with  chewing gum and ink, laughter was not allowed
the MTP. "It's a d----d lie,"  he said "An infernal lie. The sort that hanks
your shoes all together before  they start off around the globe." Well, that
isn't his exact quote, but then, I  write fiction, you know. I had to test
man, didn't I? What's the use of  traveling all the way to Berkeley, dodging
all the street people pushing carts  like a jam on Interstate 5, staying
of them long enough to find the  proper address on Hearst Street, then
pleading into the lobby phone like a  grandmother visiting San Quentin, if
one can't
determine the burning over-riding  question behind the mission? *MTP--Do
have a sense of humor?*
But enough of that. I believe Bob Hirst's  reputation has been saved and I
want to pass the word. There's even a picture in  the latest Bancroft
of Bob pretty amazingly cleaned up. He looks fine,  distinguished, erudite
even--and yes, his expression displays a definite whimsy.  This is
photographic evidence, for the doubting Thomases among you,  and I'll not
entertain the idea that hijinx were applied to that picture. Yes,  Bob has a
sense of
humor. He really has. Don't be afraid to go to the MTP,  tackle him in his
office on any Twain matter and tell him a good joke or two.  He'll laugh. I
guarantee it. He simply can't help himself. In some ways, he's  even easier
Neda or the redoubtable Lin. Trust me. Didn't he turn around  that picture
Twain aiming the pistol in the recent (2004) book *Mark Twain's  Helpful
for Good Living*? Now that's funny! I note too that Lin Salamo's  name is
on this book, as it seems to be on most every publication there,  though she
denies editing for Paine, as I've said.
Oh,  there were a few other staff members lurking about, slinking in and out
of  storage rooms, oblivious to virgins such as I. But I understood that I'd
meet  them later, after they'd measured me and confirmed that yes, indeed,
David H.  Fears also has a sense of humor, even if he possesses little other
(Not quite in time for April Fools  Day)