TWAIN-L Archives

Mark Twain Forum


Options: Use Forum View

Use Monospaced Font
Show Text Part by Default
Show All Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
Reply To:
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 26 Jun 1996 09:27:20 -0400
text/plain (474 lines)
(Don't shoot me.  I'm just forwarding the message.  Larry)

Lionel Rolfe wrote:
> From [log in to unmask]  Thu Jun 20 22:50:47 1996
> Date: Thu, 20 Jun 1996 19:51:30 -0800
> From: Lionel Rolfe <[log in to unmask]>
> Subject: for your consideration and comment...
> X-Url:
> 213/413-8400
> For Twain Scholars:
> June 20, 1996
> Contact: Lionel Rolfe, (213) 413-8400, Fax (213) 483-3524 or e-mail,
> [log in to unmask]
> California Classic's author Nigey Lennon (we just published her BEING
> FRANK: My Time with Frank Zappa) charges the Mark Twain Papers at UC
> Berkeley with some serious and even scandalous charges in this article
> published in  today's The Metro (San Jose).  Nigey is the author of THE
> SAGEBRUSH BOHEMIAN: Mark Twain in California (Marlowe and  Co.
> ).This article is available for your comment, or can be reprinted for an
> appropriate reprint fee.
> Mark Twain: The American Autodidact versus the Academic Axes; or,
> Roughing It
> at the Mark Twain Papers
> By Nigey Lennon
>       When it appeared in 1872, Mark Twain's Roughing It shocked East
> readers with its crude but engaging firsthand description of life on the
> American frontier. And now, 124 years after its publication, it is still
> creating
> similar alarms in the genteel world of academia, as my own experience
> indicates.
>       The saga began in 1981, when I received a contract from Chronicle
Books of
> San Francisco to write a book about Mark Twain in California. I was then,
> I am now, what Oakland author Ishmael Reed has referred to as a
> "freelance pallbearer," an independent writer with an interest in Western
> American history and literature, among other things.
>       I have been more or less earning a living by scribbling since I was
16, after
> being expelled from high school in Manhattan Beach, California for
> smoking on campus. As was the case with Mark Twain, the world of
> literature was my university, and I discovered Twain's writing, via "The
> Innocents Abroad," when I was living in London in 1973.
>       Twain arrived in the Nevada Territory with his brother Orion
> who had just been appointed secretary to Territorial Governor James Nye,
> in 1861. In the intervening decade, Twain would call the Western frontier
> his home, from the mining camps of Aurora, Angels Camp and Virginia
> City to the Barbary Coast of San Francisco.
>       During this decade, he would struggle up the ladder of occupations,
> from hardscrabble miner to mining speculator, from newspaper reporter to
> contributor to literary journals to travel correspondent, from public
> to the role of "Moralist of the Main" (this tongue-in-cheek designation
> having been bestowed on Twain by his fellow bohemian scribblers at San
> Francisco's Golden Era literary newspaper-a half-serious jab at Twain's
> struggle to combine humor and morality in his comical essays).
>       When he arrived in the West, Twain was a 26-year-old drifter whose
> lucrative profession of steamboat pilot had evaporated due to the blockade
> of the Mississippi River by Union forces at the start of the Civil War.
> he left the West for good, nine years later, he was a writer with a
> burgeoning
> national reputation and a writing style that would change little in the
> ensuing years.
>       The West had taken a greenling from Missouri and in 10 years of hard
> usage had reforged him in its image, giving him a vigorous
> vernacular-ideologically as well as linguistically-and a world of new
> that he would explore for the rest of his life.
>       Clearly, Mark Twain would never have become the man or the writer he
> became if he had been born into a moneyed family and sent to an Eastern
> university. And in fact Twain acknowledged his populist stance in the
> preface to Roughing It (his third book, after The Celebrated Jumping Frog
> Calaveras County and Other Sketches and The Innocents Abroad,
> respectively): "This book is merely a personal narrative, not a
> history or a philosophical dissertation."
>       In researching my book, I drew heavily on Roughing It and on the
> of Twain's Autobiography that touched on his Western years. But when I
> turned to secondary sources, I noticed something which at first I didn't
> understand: the fact that no one seemed to have seen fit to describe
> Western decade as formative.
>       Several authors had written books on the subject, and there were
> numerous articles, monographs, theses and papers on various details of
> that period of Twain's life, but nowhere was there any suggestion that
> Twain's Western sojourn had been anything but a relatively unimportant
> prelude to his "real" life in the East. In Roughing It, however, Twain
> himself had credited the West with giving him both his lifelong
> occupations: writer and public lecturer. He had even adopted his famous
> moniker in Virginia City, Nev. So why was there such a universal blind
> spot in recognizing the West as the birthplace of Mark Twain, literally
> figuratively?
>       Initially I attributed this oversight to regional bias, since a
large percentage
> of the authors writing about Twain were East Coast-based. As a
> California writer, I had learned early on the futility of proposing any
> with a West Coast theme, however slight or general, to an Eastern
> publisher;
> such topics were usually rejected by the mainline New York publishing
> houses as being too "regional," even though the same publishers had no
> doubts about the universality of, say, detailed histories of New York's
> Lower East Side.
>       But I soon realized that this theory did not explain the reticence
of Western
> researchers to claim Twain as one of "us." Writers such as Ivan Benson, a
> UCLA professor who had written a small book on Twain in the West in the
> 1930s, and Effie Mona Mack, a Nevada writer whose Mark Twain in
> Nevada was published by Scribner's in 1946, seemed to have no overview
> of the significance of Twain's Western years. Later Western writers were
> better.
>       Only Franklin Walker, author of San Francisco's Literary Frontier, a
> landmark survey of California literary history, seemed able to discern the
> parallels between Twain's development as a writer with his life in
> California and Nevada, but even Walker stopped short of making a
> conclusive statement that Twain was a Western writer.
>       I developed a clearer understanding of the politics of the situation
when I
> attempted to gain access to the large collection of Twain manuscripts,
> letters and documents at UC-Berkeley's Bancroft Library. I assumed that a
> person with a book contract on the subject in question merely had to call
> the
> Mark Twain Papers project office and politely request an appointment to
> inspect the archive. I was summarily enlightened.
>       My initial call was taken by an underling who claimed my request
> be forwarded to the appropriate authority. When there was no response
> after two weeks, I called again. This time I evidently reached a slightly
> higher level clerk, who inquired into my academic background. I told the
> truth and said that I had no university encumbrances. The clerk, with an
> audible smile in his voice, quickly informed me that I probably wouldn't
> allowed access to the collection unless I could provide a "legitimate"
> of reference from someone who did have academic connections. It was
> obvious that he thought he'd never hear from me again.
>       I had no trouble getting a good friend who was head of the special
> collections department at the Cal State Long Beach library to write me a
> recommendation. Having a more seasoned view of the situation than I
> had, he sent his letter, not to the Mark Twain Papers, but to a
> special-collections
> librarian in UC-Berkeley's Californiana department who evidently had
> seniority over the toilers at the Mark Twain Papers project. The
> in reception was dramatic. Within two days, I received a letter from a
> named Robert Pack Browning at the MTP, granting me official leave to
> conduct research at the collection.
>       I spent a week in Berkeley, working from 8:30am to 5pm in a rather
> cramped little back room at the Mark Twain Papers offices. There were
> other, more spacious, places in that section of the library where I could
> worked
> just as well, but I suppose I was viewed with some condescension by the
> staff, who probably weren't used to 26-year-old freelance pallbearers
> examining the holy relics with their battered cowboy boots propped up on
> the
> table.
>       Still, I behaved myself, and addressed everyone politely, and didn't
> complain when the clerks confiscated my fountain pen because it had a
> sharp nib, or even when they insisted on inspecting my pockets for the
> family silverware every time I left the premises.
>       Following an additional two weeks of research at the Mark Twain
> just before the book was published, Mark Twain in California appeared in
> 1982 and went out of print a couple of years later, for the usual reasons.
> took my original research and amplified it into an expanded book, The
> Sagebrush Bohemian, which was published by Paragon House in 1991 and
> is still in print today.
>       All this pleasant reminiscing is to lead up to the fact that I
> received a copy of the Mark Twain Papers' latest publication, an annotated
> edition of Roughing It. The MTP previously published an academic
> hardcover edition in 1993, but the present paperback is intended for a
> general audience.
>       I picked it up and began leafing through the front matter. Something
> Harriet Elinor Smith's foreword seemed strangely familiar: "It was in the
> West that Clemens found and eventually accepted his vocation as a
> humorist."
>       Well, that was mincing words slightly, but the idea was the same.
>       Then I turned to the back and started going over the annotations. A
> surprising amount of the background detail pertaining to Twain's years in
> San Francisco could only have come from my books. I was especially struck
> by the details of Twain's "Wide West Mine" story as recounted in the
> annotations. I had spent the two weeks just prior to the publication of my
> the original book, in 1981, going over every document I could find
> pertaining to the facts surrounding Twain's supposed claim, with his
> Calvin Higbie, on an outcropping of the Wide West mine in Aurora.
>       After a fortnight's work, it seemed evident that the story, as
recounted by
> Twain in Roughing It, was greatly distorted. There was no record
> that Twain, or Higbie either, for that matter, had ever filed a claim on
> spur or extension of the Wide West. I wrote up my findings and left them
> with the Mark Twain Papers, in case someone might be able to use them
> someday.
>       Well, someone was able to use them all right, only in the
> years, they'd evidently forgotten where they came from. All my research
> was intact in the annotations to Roughing It, but my name or publications
> were nowhere to be found in the bibliography.
>       When I asked some "recovering academic" friends of mine why they
> thought this omission had occurred, the consensus (consensus is extremely
> important in academia) was something like this ("And this is definitely
> the record!"): because I was a "civilian," I was considered fair game. Had
> been doing graduate or post-graduate work at the Mark Twain Papers, I
> would have received slightly more credit for my contributions; but since I
> am merely a published writer and not an academic, I was viewed as a
> barbarian by the
> gatekeepers, hence their lack of courtesy in identifying my work.
>       I suppose I shouldn't complain when Twain himself has received even
> shabbier treatment at the hands of his academic keepers. Mark Twain has
> never been understood by the academic world, primarily because he was an
> autodidact. He was also outspoken against much of the genteel literary
> tradition with which many academics identify. This quality certainly had
> roots in his origins as a Western writer-origins which, for complex
> historical reasons, the academic world have often found distasteful.
>       In 1911, the philosopher George Santayana, speaking before the
> Philosophical Union of the University of California on "The Genteel
> Tradition in American Philosophy," made the following observation about
> the polarization of American intellectual life: "One half of the American
> mind, that not occupied intensely in practical affairs, has remained ...
> slightly becalmed," while meanwhile "the other half of the mind was
> leaping down a sort of Niagara Rapids."
>       He concluded, "The one is the sphere of the American man; the other,
> least predominantly, of the American woman. The one is all aggressive
> enterprise; the other is all genteel tradition." Santayana then posed the
> question: "Have there been ... any successful efforts to express something
> worth expressing behind its back? ... I might mention the humorists, of
> whom you here in California have had your share."
>       Santayana could very well have been summing up the East/West schism
> in the academic viewpoint, substituting only "Western" for the male
> component and "Eastern" for the female opposite. "Humorists" were
> Western, like Josh Billings and Artemus Ward-alkali dust-covered yarn
> spinners with coarse vocabularies and ephemeral popularity but certainly
> no lasting merit in the literary pantheon. Mark Twain, "the Bohemian
> from the sagebrush," as he was known in the 1860s, fit this image neatly
> the eyes of the terminally genteel. After all, he had acquired his craft
in the
> cubbyholes of frontier newspapers rather than in Ivy League universities
> New England literary salons.
>       At a time when "polite" literature required legs to be referred to
> "limbs," Twain's writing exhibited what Bret Harte described, with an
> exquisite shudder, as a "rather broad and Panurge-like" style of
> This style derived from the vigorous vernacular of mining camps, stage
> stations and the Barbary Coast-the language of the frontier.
>       It might seem absurd to state that Santayana's Victorian
> philosophical-literary schizophrenia is still prevalent today in
> circles, yet all one need do is consider the ongoing controversy
>       The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (recently published in a new,
> expanded edition) to determine that Twain, the 19th-century author,
> refuses to die-and neither does the hypocritical gentility handed down by
> the thin-lipped New England bluestockings Santayana was referring to.
>       In an article in the January 1996 Harper's magazine titled "Say It
Ain't So,
> Huck," author Jane Smiley revealed herself to be a card-carrying member of
> that club. Having just re-read Huck Finn, Smiley closes the book, stunned.
>       "Yes, stunned," she says. "Not, by any means, by the artistry of the
book but
> by the notion that this is the novel all American literature grows out of,
> that this is a great novel, that this is even a serious novel."
>       Smiley-known for her bestselling humorous novel about academic life,
> Moo-attributes the wide acceptance of Huck Finn to the cheerleading squad
> of
> what she calls "the Propaganda Era," 1948-1955: Lionel Trilling, Leslie
> Fiedler, T.S. Eliot, Joseph Wood Krutch et al. It was, she infers,
strictly a
> boys' club, which explains why somebody like Hemingway would make his
> comment that all American literature grows out of one book, or the first
> two-thirds of it anyway.
>       These guys, Smiley fumes, were evidently too busy shooting Niagara
> in a barrel to notice that Huck Finn is sloppily written, morally
> and far less noteworthy than Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.
> "There goes Uncle Tom's Cabin, there goes Edith Wharton, there goes
> domestic life as a subject, there go almost all the best-selling novelists
of the
> 19th century and their readers, who were mostly women," she says bitterly
> in castigating this male bastion of critics and their stranglehold on
> opinion. (She couldn't fit Santayana's cliche more neatly if she'd lifted
> directly.)
>       While the sincerity of Uncle Tom's Cabin certainly cannot be denied,
> is of course a reason why it (and other books like it that fail to stand
> transition from one era to another) is not read today, while Huck Finn is.
> Stowe's novel is a melodramatic tract. In it, there are no characters with
> the moral shading of Huck or Jim, only "good guys" (the slaves) and "bad
> guys" (their masters.)
>       In a sense, Uncle Tom's Cabin is ideologically much easier for
> politically correct readers to grasp, because it presents a (no pun
> black-and-white view of the moral issues facing Civil War-era society. By
> contrast, Huck Finn's ethical dilemmas provide no neat solutions to that
> era's complex sociopolitical conflicts. But the wooden, polemical style of
>       Uncle Tom's Cabin is so mired in Victorian convention that it may as
> be in another language; Huck Finn, on the other hand, because its narrator
> is an illiterate, slangy, white-trash no-account, ironically remains
> understandable today.
> >
>       Ideologically hidebound traditionalists have always had trouble with
> Twain, mistaking his idiomatic language for vulgarity and his depiction of
> things as they are as morally reprehensible. Smiley dismisses Twain as an
> unruly little boy, a complaint that peculiarly echoes the views of the
> good-old-boys club she despises.
>       She concludes her essay: "If 'great' literature has any purpose, it
is to
> help us face up to our responsibilities instead of enabling us to avoid
> once again by lighting out for the territory."
>       Evidently, Smiley was unfamiliar with Twain's great moral and
> essays, such as "To the Person Sitting in Darkness" and "King Leopold's
> Soliloquy"-or any of his writing after about 1895, for that matter. No
> ever spent more time grappling with the moral bankruptcy of his age than
> did Mark Twain in the last days of his life.
>       But then, it has always been easier for revisionist critics and
> to deal with Twain's universal and dangerous radicalism by dealing with
> him piecemeal as a humorist, as a writer of children's books, as a
> good-natured rustic describing long-gone days of steamboating on the
> Mississippi or as a white-haired crank in a white suit on a Connecticut
> verandah.
>       It probably comes as no surprise that Twain's worst enemies, in
> guises, have come from the halls of academia. More discerning minds than
> Smiley have attacked Twain with the brickbats of revisionist biographies,
> editorial butchery and politically motivated censorship. Two blatant
> examples come immediately to mind; that of Charles Neider's version of
> Twain's Autobiography, and Justin Kaplan's 1966 biography Mr. Clemens
> and Mark Twain.
>       Twain's original Autobiography, published in two volumes in 1924,
was a
> rambling mass of anecdotes, dictated rather than written out by the author
> in the final years of his life. In the course of imposing a pattern on the
> formless work, Neider, in 1959, reduced the two volumes to one, cutting
> the
> original by more than half.
>       It is interesting to contemplate the nature of the material cut. In
> original, Twain alternates straightforward biographical detail with what
> essence are speeches about the volatile political scene in 1906-7, when he
> was dictating his memoirs. These random observations include scathing
> commentaries on imperialism, expressions of sympathy for the Russian
> revolution of 1905, his horror at the emergence of large-scale
> like Standard Oil, his recognition of the necessity for labor unions (one
> the best chapters in his Life on the Mississippi was about the Pilots
> Benevolent Association), and numerous other subjects deemed unfit for
> popular consumption in the "I Like Ike" era.
>       The Neiderized Twain Autobiography, by contrast, could have been the
> memoir of almost any late 19th-century popular author. It's an orderly
> procession of reminiscences about "old times on the Mississippi," good old
> days in Hannibal, the decorous life of a New England man of letters in
> Hartford, family life, quaint amusements and eccentric pastimes-and not a
> shred of radical sentiment beyond the "liberty, equality, and Fourth of
> variety.
>       You can't make a dead man lie, maybe, but you can certainly make him
> misrepresent the truth, if you're slick enough.
>       Kaplan's literary offenses were worse. In Mr. Clemens and Mark
Twain, he
> turned a masterful writing style to the task of deconstructing Twain in a
> manner Smiley would have approved of-presenting him as an immature
> and self-centered gold-digger who sniffed out pay dirt in the literary
> of Connecticut, and who lay siege to his future wife Olivia Langdon in
> order to gain entry into that charmed circle.
>       In actuality, Twain harbored no illusions about the Eastern literary
> establishment or what it represented; he merely recognized the simple fact
> that, if he wished to establish any lasting reputation as an author, he
> needed to be where the publishers were. Is it possible it be that Kaplan,
> with his background as an East Coast academic, was projecting his own
> obsessions onto Twain?
>       One might smile at the thought that Kaplan was, however
> imputing the sophisticated guile of a professorial seeker after tenure to
> man who never completed the third grade. Kaplan (although his
> psychological dissection of his subject showed more elegant execution than
> had the crude Freudianism of his predecessors such as Van Wyck Brooks or
> Bernard DeVoto), however, was merely the most artful of a long line of
> academic axemen for whom Twain's autodidactism represented a most
> annoying intellectual carbuncle.
>       The significance of Kaplan's moral-critical approach to Twain and
> writing was that, in reducing him to a mess of neuroses, it provided three
> successive decades of biographers with a blueprint for their character
> assassinations.
>       The fact that the man who was one of the greatest writers who ever
> had never experienced any involvement in academic matters, nor any
> desire to do so, nor yet any respect for such institutions, presented
> upholders of the genteel tradition with an agonizing moral quandary. To
> give him his due would be to deny all they stood for (and in some notable
> cases, to endanger their tenure track); yet since everyone knew Twain was
> great writer even though they may not have read any of his work besides
> Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer, it would not reflect well on their intellectual
> perspicacity (or their standing in the academic hierarchy) if they were to
> dismiss him too precipitously.
>       But to this end, some of the greatest academic minds of our time
(not to
> mention the others) have devoted their sabbaticals to ripping apart Mark
> Twain. His barbarian Westernness has been sandpapered and polished until
> he has become a socially acceptable object, an eccentric old gent in a
> white suit on a Connecticut verandah.
>       His youthful virility has been replaced with the caricature of a
dotty (some
> insinuate an impotent) old pedophile. His political incisiveness has been
> reduced to the homespun "philosophizin' "of a former steamboat pilot.
> His insight into the human condition has been boiled and retorted and
> spewed back out as the milk-and-mush nostalgia of a ninth-rate children's
> writer.
>       Yet despite the onslaught of academic axes, the damned old buzzard
> to die-much, one senses, to the annoyance of his institutional keepers.
> #
> Nigey Lennon is the author of two books on Mark Twain, the most recent
> of
> which is The Sagebrush Bohemian: Mark Twain in California (Marlowe
> and Co.). Her current book is Being Frank: My Time With Frank Zappa
> (California
> Classics Books).