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Kathy O'Connell <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 8 Apr 1997 12:08:42 -0400
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    Hope this solves the transmission problem. Once again, any comments or
observations are welcome, and please if you are going to quote it in any
form, the copyright is held by the Hartford Advocate.
      Hard copies of the article are available by requesting a back issue,
March 27, 1997, for $3.50 each (to cover mailng costs) from: Hartford
Advocate, 100 Constitution Plaza, Hartford, Conn. 06103.

Kathy O'Connell
Staff writer

Will the Twain Ever Meet?

Scholars disagree over the life and times of Sam Clemens and still his work

By Kathy O'Connell

[DROPCAP]Samuel Langhorne Clemens and Mark Twain. The two are, it can be
argued, not the same. But this writer and his alter ego are the literary
equivalent of television.
 Like a TV set in a bar that is always on, Twain is always with us. Even
Twain scholars readily admit that Clemens' greatest book, Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn is second-rate measured against the best work of, say,
James. But James sparks no such passions or controversies; James has never
made an appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
 Twain alone among American writers best embodies every one of our national
contradictions, from our love-hate relationship with celebrity to our
determination to hang on to both our innocence and idealism. That helps
explain why, 162 years after his birth and 87 after his death, Samuel
and his alter ego are still as hot a publishing ticket as anything that
turn up on Oprah Winfrey's book club. Maybe hotter.
 For starters, there's the Oxford Mark Twain, a meticulously re-created and
massive 29-volume collection of his writings edited by Twain scholar Shelley
Fisher Fishkin. Then there's Fishkin's own book, Lighting Out for the
Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture, published last
month, also by Oxford University Press. Finally there's the problematic
Inventing Mark Twain: The Lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens by Andrew
Hoffman, the first major biography of the writer since Justin Kaplan's Mr.
Clemens and Mark Twain in 1966.
 Fishkin's new book probes the histories of the African-American communities
in Hannibal, Mo, Elmira, N.Y. and Hartford. She uses them to argue that the
evolution of Clemens' views on racism was as farsighted as it was radical,
given his background and the times. Hoffman, on the  other hand, chooses not
to view Clemens in context. Instead, he uses late 20th century standards to
reassess not just Clemens and Twain, but a third persona, S.L. Clemens, "a
humble and rather conservative inhabitant of America's social and cultural
 The divergent results are at once enlightening, sobering and prickly-not
unlike the recent day-long exchange of opinions at the March 8 Spring Twain
Symposium, sponsored by the Mark Twain House. The looseness of the title,
Mark Twain: A Legacy in Writing, was to effectively celebrate the
of the Oxford Twain, but the focus was the endless debate over  interpreting
Twain. Should we read him in the context of his times or of ours and are the
two eras really so different? The acuity of Clemens' vision hints that
they're not.
 As editor of the series, Fishkin managed a rare coup in getting popular
writers to produce introductions. Having Judith Martin-Miss Manners to
you-reassess The Prince and the Pauper as a lesson on etiquette may rankle
some scholars, but when you think about it, it makes sense. You can surround
Mark Twain with pedants, but Twain's utter lack of artistic pretension
through like Halley's Comet.
 "Twain often strikes us as more a creature of our times than his," Fishkin
told symposium participants. "He appreciated the importance and complexity
mass tourism and public relations, fields that would come into their own in
the 20th century, but which were fledgling enterprises in the 19th. He
explored the liberating potential of humor, and he probed the dynamics of
friendship, of parenting and of marriage. He narrowed the gap between
'popular' and 'high' culture, and he meditated on the enigma of personal and
national identity."
 A statement like that in Andrew Hoffman's hands, however, becomes a flaw
rather than an asset. Hoffman, primarily a novelist and currently a visiting
scholar at Brown University, suggests over and over in his
572-page biography that Clemens' creation of both Mark Twain and S.L.
was the work of a man driven by contradictions. He craved fame even as he
distrusted it, yearned for bourgeoisie respectability even as he mocked it
and perhaps most of all sought literary cachet even though his distinctive
style broke every single accepted rule for "great" literature.
 His greatest sin in Hoffman's eyes seems to be that Clemens invented
celebrity culture a good century before it became our pervasive, TV-driven
national obsession. He was, according to Hoffman, a tireless self-promoter
who sometimes entertained questionable practices to sell his books and who
very specifically cultivated several images that had little or no rooting in
Sam Clemens the man.
 The Twain the public saw had a cultivated rawness and an equally rough
charm-acerbic but accessibly folksy. He was nothing at all, Hoffman argues
without subtlety, like the brooding, driven and deeply insecure man who
created him. That view rubs more than a few Twainiacs, scholarly and
otherwise, the wrong way. So did the "bomb" Hoffman dropped at Elmira in
1993. Before a group of scholars assembled at Twain's summer home, Hoffman
announced his belief that while a young man in the West, Clemens might have
had a series of homosexual affairs. Some of that lingers in Inventing Mark
Twain, but it's treated so tentatively it comes close to being irrelevant.
 "Fantasy in Clemens and Twain is such an arresting force it can trap the
unwary and Andy may have been trapped by a beast," says David Sloane, a
scholar at the University of New Haven. He adds that it was once assumed in
literary studies that all of a writer's work proceeded directly from his or
her own life. "So therefore, Samuel Langhorne Clemens must be Mark Twain,"
Sloane adds. "But is Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry?"
 Writes Hoffman in his introduction: "We will never know the complete truth
about Mark Twain, because he changes shape as we study him. A fool, a
a philosopher, a humorist, an unschooled literary genius, a friend to
revolution, a confidant of presidents and industrialists, an insatiable and
sophisticated reader of history, a glad-hander, a sham, a self-destructive
narcissist. Each of these epithets describe Mark Twain; their contradictions
create a persona that is at once both larger and smaller than a real
 In Lighting Out for the Territory, Fishkin also explores Twain's persona.
She documents how Twain's iconographic countenance was used to sell
everything from "White & Fancy Goods" (for a store in New London, no less)
Bass Ale (Clemens preferred Scotch) even while he was alive. She also
recounts how certain Twain stories-most notably The Prince and the Pauper,
"The L1,000,000 Bank-Note" and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's
Court-have fared in assorted reincarnations.
   Fishkin, however, makes a convincing argument that Twain's persona was
anything but small, especially the way it still creeps in and takes over
debates about race and national identity. "His fictions brilliantly
illuminated the world in which he lived and the world we inherited, changing
it-and us-in the process."
 Mere celebrities don't do that. They engage us for a while and we grow
of them and move on to the Next Big Thing. So far, no one seems weary of
discussing who Sam Clemens really was and what Mark Twain was trying to say
to us. There is something contemporary about his work even now.
 But, as Sloane and others debated at the symposium, it is precisely the
extent of that fame that has allowed Twain's image and influence to be
plumbed with such varying results. Writer Susan Harris, whose The Courtship
of Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain has just been published by Cambridge
University Press, said at the symposium, "I'm always disturbed by those who
try to bring [Clemens] out of his time. He was a man of his times, but at
same time, he wanted to get outside them, and he did."
 Maybe Harris is more right than she realizes. The personas he created for
himself, as well as the real man at the center of them, allowed Samuel
Clemens his own version of the time travel he had Hank Morgan embark on in A
Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
 Except unlike Morgan, who moved backwards to Camelot, Mark Twain looks
ahead, giving us a clearer sense of who we are, where we come from and where
we're going. Ultimately, how we interpret his work and what we think about
his life probably says more about us than it does about either Clemens or