[ Books Index | Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

Never the Twain

twain toon
Tim Eagan

How the academics have whittled away at America's greatest writer--or Roughing It at the Mark Twain Papers

By Nigey Lennon

WHEN IT APPEARED in 1872, Mark Twain's Roughing It shocked East Coast 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, as 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, Calif., 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 Clemens, 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, going from hardscrabble miner to mining speculator, from newspaper reporter to contributor to literary journals to travel correspondent, from public speaker to the role of "Moralist of the Main" (a tongue-in-cheek designation 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. When 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 ideas that he would explore for the rest of his life.

Clearly, Mark Twain would never have become the man or the writer he did 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 of Calaveras County and Other Sketches and The Innocents Abroad, respectively): "This book is merely a personal narrative, not a pretentious history or a philosophical dissertation."

In researching my book, I drew heavily on Roughing It and on the sections 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 Twain's 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 and figuratively? twain toon
The Rise of the Westerner: An illustration from "Roughing It"

INITIALLY, I attributed this oversight to regional bias, since a large percentage of the authors writing about Twain were East Coast­based. As a California writer, I had quickly learned the futility of proposing any book 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 no 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 gained 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 UC­Berkeley'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 would 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 be allowed access to the collection unless I could provide a "legitimate" letter 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 California State Long Beach library to write me a recommendation. Having a more seasoned view of the situation than I, he sent his letter not to the Mark Twain Papers, but to a special-collections librarian in UC­Berkeley's Californiana department who evidently had seniority over the toilers at the Mark Twain Papers project. The difference in reception was dramatic. Within two days, I received a letter 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 have 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 Papers 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. I 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 recently received a copy of the Mark Twain Papers' latest publication, an annotated edition of Roughing It. The MTP had previously published an academic hard­cover edition in 1993, but the present paperback is intended for a more general audience.

I picked it up and began leafing through the front matter. Something about 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 friend 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 indicating that Twain, or Higbie either, for that matter, had ever filed a claim on any 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 intervening 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 off the record!"): because I was a "civilian," I was considered fair game. Had I been doing graduate or postgraduate 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 its roots in his origins as a Western writer--origins that, for complex historical reasons, the academic world has 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, at 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 dust­covered 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 in 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 or New England literary salons.

At a time when "polite" literature required legs to be referred to as "limbs," Twain's writing exhibited what Bret Harte described, with an exquisite shudder, as a "rather broad and Panurge-like" style of expression. 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 intellectual circles, yet all one need do is consider the ongoing controversy surrounding The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (recently published in a new "comprehensive" 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 reread 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," 1948­1955: Lionel Trilling, Leslie Fiedler, T.S. Eliot, Joseph Wood Krutch et al. It was, she implies, 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 Falls in a barrel to notice that Huck Finn is sloppily written, morally ambiguous 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 literary opinion. (She couldn't fit Santayana's cliché more neatly if she'd lifted it directly.)

While the sincerity of Uncle Tom's Cabin certainly cannot be denied, there is of course a reason why it (and other books like it that fail to stand the 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 present-day, politically correct readers to grasp, because it presents a (no pun intended) black-and-white view of the moral issues facing Civil War­era 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 well be in another language; Huck Finn, on the other hand, because its narrator is an illiterate, slangy, white-trash no-account, ironically remains clearly understandable today.

IDEOLOGICALLY hidebound traditionalists have always had trouble with Mark 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 them once again by lighting out for the territory."

Evidently, Smiley was unfamiliar with Twain's great moral and political 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 writer 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 commentators 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 veranda.

It probably comes as no surprise that Twain's worst enemies, in various 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: 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 his final years. 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 the original, Twain alternates straightforward biographical detail with what in essence are speeches about the volatile political scene in 1906­7, 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 conglomerates like Standard Oil, his recognition of the necessity for labor unions (one of 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 July" 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 circles of Connecticut, and who laid 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 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 unconsciously, imputing the sophisticated guile of a professorial seeker after tenure to a 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 his 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 lived had never experienced any involvement in academic matters--nor any desire to do so, nor yet any respect for such institutions--presented these 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 a 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 most socially acceptable object, an eccentric old gent in a white suit on a Connecticut veranda.

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 refuses 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).

Roughing It by Mark Twain; UC Press; 853 pp.; $16.95 paper.

[ Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the June 20-26, 1996 issue of Metro

This page was designed and created by the Boulevards team.
Copyright © 1996 Metro Publishing and Virtual Valley, Inc.