A toast to … 2020

Cafe Katja.

From all indications, it looks like Americans and the human race generally will be even more idiotic in 2020 than they were in 2019. Stupidity and hatred will fill Facebook and Twitter feeds at the speed of light (literally so, with all that fiber optical cable), never mind its encounters in the flesh, and to me laughter is a healthier response to all this than tears and the gnashing of teeth, second only to stupidity and hatred as the sentiments that flow through the internet.

So any list of resolutions put together in the twilight of this year may be at the same time a strategic defense plan for next year. Any personal resolutions of mine are none of your business, but here at my internet lemonade stand, I plan to be selling more writing about the great Mark Twain; perhaps his only real satiric descendant, R. Crumb; the great American music of the past and my continuing efforts to learn the guitar to play some of it for myself; and whatever barricades I can shore up against the flood of imbecility we’re in for in 2020. I do continue to bear in mind, by the way, that I contribute my own stream of imbecility to that flood; I’m not that different from anybody else. As Twain once wrote, “Ah, well, I am a great and sublime fool. But then I am God’s fool, and all His work must be contemplated with respect.” That goes double, perhaps triple, for me.

So here’s to you, my four regular readers, with my wishes for a tolerable 2020; that may be as good as we’ll get. Let’s work together on our jokes; I’ll be working on a few, as usual, over my semi-official New Year’s cheer this Friday at Cafe Katja. See you on the other side.

“Useful, with a pleasant degree of humor”

A gentle reminder that you still have a day or two to prepare for the new year with the purchase of your 2020 Old Farmer’s Almanac, North America’s oldest continuously published periodical, now in its 228th year. Since its founding by Robert B. Thomas in 1792, the almanac has proven indispensable, and you can still find in it a wealth of information about the weather, gardening, herbal remedies, snappy household tips, your pets, tides and the moon, and 1,001 other topics. Issued from the bucolic haven of Dublin, NH (which looks to me like a pretty attractive place to live right now), the Old Farmer’s Almanac still comes with a small hole drilled in the upper-left-hand corner, making it convenient for hanging in your kitchen or any other appropriate room of your house. It is as much a hymn to nature and simple living as Thoreau’s Walden — and a damn sight more useful. Other information in the 2020 edition, according to the publication itself, includes:

  • Noise: why it’s bad for our health and how people — since the beginning of time — have been fighting against it.
  • 20/20 for 2020: Eye-catching insights on this optical year, including an eye test to see if ancient people would consider you an elite warrior.
  • What the size and shape of toes says about their owners.
  • Donkeys, their extraordinary memories, and their link to the world’s most expensive cheese.
  • Why the best-trained dogs have the best-trained humans. Plus: Top 10 Halloween costumes for furry friends.
  • Unlocking the mysteries of weather extremes by looking to the Arctic.
  • Growing flavorful tomatoes in a fraction of the space. Plus: the best day to eat a tomato!

Pick up your copy today at your local general store. And if you have a moment, learn a little about the history of this fine publication below. (Those who wish to learn a little more about that history can enjoy George Lyman Kittredge’s The Old Farmer and His Almanac, published in 1904 by William Ware and Company of Boston and available online here.)

Santa Claus’ letter to Susy Clemens

The mantle of the Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT, decorated for the Christmas season.

It is my heart-warm and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us, the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the admired, the despised, the loved, the hated, the civilized, the savage (every man and brother of us all throughout the whole earth), may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss, except the inventor of the telephone.

Mark Twain’s Christmas prayer, first published in the Boston Globe on December 25, 1890, is also mine, but on the eve of my next visit to the Mark Twain House next week, I also wanted to pass along his “Letter from Santa Claus,” written for his three-year-old daughter Susy in 1875. The letter was likely written in the billiard room/study of the Hartford mansion on Christmas Eve of that year and demonstrates the warmth of Sam Clemens’ love for his family; it’s been kicking around the internet for a while, but there’s no time like the present to read it one more time.

I’ve just finished reading Life on the Mississippi; after a few years of enjoying Twain’s writing in a haphazard fashion at best, I’ll likely make a resolution on New Year’s Eve to read and write more about it in the coming year. For now, though, Santa Claus to Susy Clemens, 144 years ago.


Palace of St. Nicholas
In the Moon
Christmas Morning

MY DEAR SUSIE CLEMENS:

I have received and read all the letters which you and your little sister have written me by the hand of your mother and your nurses; I have also read those which you little people have written me with your own hands — for although you did not use any characters that are in grown peoples’ alphabet, you used the characters that all children in all lands on earth and in the twinkling stars use; and as all my subjects in the moon are children and use no character but that, you will easily understand that I can read your and your baby sister’s jagged and fantastic marks without any trouble at all. But I had trouble with those letters which you dictated through your mother and the nurses, for I am a foreigner and cannot read English writing well. You will find that I made no mistakes about the things which you and the baby ordered in your own letters — I went down your chimney at midnight when you were asleep and delivered them all myself — and kissed both of you, too, because you are good children, well trained, nice mannered, and about the most obedient little people I ever saw. But in the letter which you dictated there were some words which I could not make out for certain, and one or two small orders which I could not fill because we ran out of stock. Our last lot of kitchen furniture for dolls has just gone to a very poor little child in the North Star away up, in the cold country above the Big Dipper. Your mama can show you that star and you will say: “Little Snow Flake,” (for that is the child’s name) “I’m glad you got that furniture, for you need it more than I.” That is, you must write that, with your own hand, and Snow Flake will write you an answer. If you only spoke it she wouldn’t hear you. Make your letter light and thin, for the distance is great and the postage very heavy.

There was a word or two in your mama’s letter which I couldn’t be certain of. I took it to be “a trunk full of doll’s clothes.” Is that it? I will call at your kitchen door about nine o’clock this morning to inquire. But I must not see anybody and I must not speak to anybody but you. When the kitchen doorbell rings, George [Griffin, the Clemens’ beloved butler] must be blindfolded and sent to open the door. Then he must go back to the dining room or the china closet and take the cook with him. You must tell George he must walk on tiptoe and not speak — otherwise he will die someday. Then you must go up to the nursery and stand on a chair or the nurse’s bed and put your car to the speaking tube that leads down to the kitchen and when I whistle through it you must speak in the tube and say, “Welcome, Santa Claus!” Then I will ask whether it was a trunk you ordered or not. If you say it was, I shall ask you what color you want the trunk to be. Your mama will help you to name a nice color and then you must tell me every single thing in detail which you want the trunk to contain. Then when I say “Good-by and a merry Christmas to my little Susie Clemens,” you must say “Good-by, good old Santa Claus, I thank you very much and please tell that little Snow Flake I will look at her star tonight and she must look down here — I will be right in the west bay window; and every fine night I will look at her star and say, ‘I know somebody up there and like her, too.’” Then you must go down into the library and make George close all the doors that open into the main hall, and everybody must keep still for a little while. I will go to the moon and get those things and in a few minutes I will come down the chimney that belongs to the fireplace that is in the hall — if it is a trunk you want — because I couldn’t get such a thing as a trunk down the nursery chimney, you know.

People may talk if they want, until they hear my footsteps in the hall. Then you tell them to keep quiet a little while till I go back up the chimney. Maybe you will not hear my footsteps at all — so you may go now and then and peep through the dining-room doors, and by and by you will see that thing which you want, right under the piano in the drawing room — for I shall put it there. If I should leave any snow in the hall, you must tell George to sweep it into the fireplace, for I haven’t time to do such things. George must not use a broom, but a rag — else he will die someday. You must watch George and not let him run into danger. If my boot should leave a stain on the marble, George must not holystone it away. Leave it there always in memory of my visit; and whenever you look at it or show it to anybody you must let it remind you to be a good little girl. Whenever you are naughty and somebody points to that mark which your good old Santa Claus’s boot made on the marble, what will you say, little sweetheart?

Good-by for a few minutes, till I come down to the world and ring the kitchen doorbell.

Your loving SANTA CLAUS
Whom people sometimes call “The Man in the Moon”

At home with the Clemenses

The Clemens family at their home in Hartford, CT, in 1884. From left: Clara, Livy, Jean, Sam, and Susy; in front, Flash the dog. Photo: Horace L. Bundy.

Unlike the case of Shakespeare, we may think we know Samuel L. Clemens/Mark Twain all too well. Within a few years of Clemens’ death, Albert Bigelow Paine’s three-volume biography was published, and since then the life studies have continued non-stop. (The first two volumes of another three-volume biography, this time by Gary Scharnhorst, have appeared over the past few years, over a century after Paine’s offering.) This is apart from Clemens’ own voluminous, quasi-autobiographical fiction and non-fiction writings, including three volumes of his official autobiography, issued in a scholarly edition by the University of California Press over the past decade. To me, this indicates, if anything else, that the man still remains something of a mystery: none of these is wholly satisfactory, nor is any future biography likely to be any more so, given that none of these will adequately explain just how Clemens’ life experiences contributed to such a rich, revolutionary body of work.

So, in a way, we take what we can get. Fortunately, the University of California Press published A Family Sketch and Other Private Writings in 2014, a collection of manuscripts by not only Clemens himself but also his wife Livy and his favorite daughter Susy. Edited by Benjamin Griffin, these manuscripts and commonplace books offer a charming and instructive portrait of the Clemens family during their happiest years at their home in Hartford, CT, from 1874 to 1891 — also Twain’s most productive years, when he wrote most of what are considered his masterpieces between his Hartford residence and the family’s summer home at Brook Farm in Elmira, NY, from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

It’s true that by the time the Clemenses moved into the house in 1874, Twain was close to being a one-percenter — perhaps the most famous author that America had produced thanks to his first two books, The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It, as well as a popular attraction on the lecture trail. The Hartford house, an eccentric and High Gothic structure designed by Edward Tuckerman Potter, rapidly became a reflection of the family’s exquisite and Twain’s peculiar personal style. A Family Sketch provides an intimate look at the family’s days in Hartford; it includes Twain’s portrait of the family written in 1901-02, but also entries from a journal that Twain’s wife Livy kept at Brook Farm in 1885. Finally, his daughter Susy secretly began to compose a biography of her father in 1885, when she was 13 — a charming record of holidays and special events, suffused with the happiness of the family and especially her love for her father. In 1985, Charles Neider edited Susy’s biography for publication, interleaving Twain’s own reactions to the manuscript, but here we have it in full, preserving its orthographical characteristics, for the first time, and uninterrupted by Clemens.

The book then provides a portrait of the family from a variety of perspectives, and all perspectives, alas, are blinkered. But several pleasures of the family clearly emerge: its love of animals; its love of learning; its love of entertaining; its love of fun; and its love for each other. We’re privy to the day-to-day life of a successful 19th-century American family, of course, but the book also includes Twain’s 1874 “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It,” his transcription of a conversation he had with Mary Ann Cord, a former slave who served as a cook at the Elmira farm where the Clemenses spent the summers. This moving article, freshly edited here from the original manuscript, contextualizes the rest of the book in postbellum America.

Susy’s death at the Hartford house in 1896 at the age of 24, while the rest of the family was travelling in Europe, signalled the final end of this period of Clemens’ life, a period already undermined by Twain’s financial troubles that ended with his bankruptcy. Shortly after her death, Twain, still in Europe, wrote to a correspondent:

I wish we could be at home … but we cannot look upon that house yet. Eighteen years of our daughter’s life were spent in it; & by blessed fortune she was visiting in the town when she was taken ill, & so was privileged to die under the roof that had sheltered her youth, with none but familiar things before her fading eyes, & with the same servants to minister to her that had served her as a child. The house is hallowed, now, but we could not bear to see it yet.

Critics often date the decline of Twain’s talent from about 1893 and the publication of Pudd’nhead Wilson, his work turning bitter, misanthropic, and less and less imaginative; Susy’s death, it’s claimed, drove the final nail in the coffin of his writing. But it seems to me that it’s not as simple as that. The Hartford home provided Clemens with the comfort and security that ironically freed some of the darker manifestations of his experience and philosophy. In some ways, Life on the Mississippi (1876) as a bildungsroman is also a chronicle of disillusionment. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), for all its illusory nostalgia for an antebellum America, finally emerged as a pessimism-tinged satire not only of slavery and racism but also of the ignorance, pride, and sentimentality of the human race in general. A Connecticut Yankee (1889) begins as a playful anachronistic lark but closes with a violent man-made apocalypse. There were all comic, of course, but each of these silver linings had its cloud. It seems that the Hartford years, and the love of his family, permitted Twain the full exercise of his talent for both comedy and tragedy. And to my mind, though Twain’s talent may have flickered after 1893, it still had its moments and there were still masterpieces to be had, “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” (1900) and The Mysterious Stranger (published posthumously) especially.

The Clemens residence in Hartford always was thrillingly decked out for the Christmas holidays, as you’ll see below. If you’re looking for presents to warm yourself with before the fire, I suggest A Family Sketch and its unofficial companion volume “The Loveliest Home that Ever Was”: The Story of the Mark Twain House in Hartford by Steve Courtney, both available from the Mark Twain House — which I also suggest you visit at your earliest opportunity. I did, and I’ll be back again.

The mantel at the Mark Twain House, decorated for the holidays.

The genealogical butterfly effect

The Stepan Bandera Prospect in Ternopil, Ukraine. Photo: Mykola Vasylechko.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a few direct-mail scam artists showed up offering to research and produce your family’s very own heraldry for a nominal fee. “Did you know that the [Insert Family Name Here] has its own coat of arms? Think of it — an courageous eagle against a field of blue, a sword-carrying warrior against a field of red,” went some of the bulk-mail letters that accompanied these scams. “Suitable for framing, your coat of arms reflects your family’s proud history in empires around the world.” These occasionally showed up in my father’s mail, too. He’d read these letters and laugh. “You know what’s on the Hunka family coat of arms, George?” he’d say to me, tossing the mail into the trash. “A peasant hut against a field of poverty.”

He was probably not far off. My ancestors on both my mother’s and father’s side were uneducated peasants in Eastern and Central Europe back in 1900 — Ukraine, Slovakia, and Lithuania. Though family tradition had it that my paternal great-grandfather held some kind of position in a local Orthodox church in Ukraine, there is no real evidence to prove it (in any event, my paternal grandfather was a staunch atheist). And when they came to the United States in those unsettled years before the First World War, they found jobs suited to their family backgrounds. My paternal grandmother held a position as a charwoman in a local elementary school in Philadelphia; my paternal grandfather became a freelance electrician after being trained at the Valhalla Dam in New York; my maternal grandparents were coalminers, textile workers, and subsistence farmers in northeast Pennsylvania. While their children went on to earn college and university degrees in the 1950s and beyond, they themselves were the unskilled product of an agrarian land, and none of them was particularly cheerful — not surprising, coming from a region that was damp, cold, and gray every year from October through May. (I’m sure you can partially attribute the generally dour nature of Russian and Eastern European literature, even its humor, to the climate.)

Coat of arms or no, the casual amateur geneology research I’ve done over the past twenty years or so has turned up little in the way of my family’s history before 1900, indicative, perhaps, of their low status on the socioeconomic totem pole. The best I’ve been able to do is trace my grandfather back to the region from which he emigrated — the Ternopil oblast, about 125 km southeast of Lviv, which is listed as his original home on the register of the ship that brought him to Ellis Island in 1914. A little research, mainly through Roman Zakharii’s useful web site, revealed a tranche of Hunkas (or Gunkas) in a small town called Urman. He left behind a sister and brother when he embarked for the shores of New York; perhaps he left them there.

Urman is “a village of 622 people in Berezhany Raion (county) of Ternopil Oblast (province) of western Ukraine. It lies in the historic region of Halychyna (Eastern Galicia) and during 1772-1918 was part of Austrian empire, consequently of Poland in 1920-1939 and of Soviet Union in 1939-1991,” says Wikipedia. This being the internet era (and I having a little time on my hands), I did a quick Facebook search and turned up an English-speaking Hunka who still lived in Urman; we engaged in a brief correspondence that, alas, did not reveal anything except that if there were Hunkas or Gunkas in Urman at the turn of the century, there were still a few left. It may be likely that we share some blood, those Urman Hunkas and those on New York’s Lower East Side; it’s not a common name in either of those places. But farther than that I cannot go with any certainty.

All this, anyway, is mere genealogical bookkeeping. Apart from genetics, though, what interests me is what all this means for one’s temperament — personality traits and philosophical perspectives that we imbibe from our parents with our mother’s milk. We are imitative creatures, and we’re never more imitative than when we’re young; we observe our parents’ ways of speaking, their attitudes towards the world and each other, their moods and their likes and dislikes, and we incorporate them into ourselves unconsciously. Of course, we change — as we get older, we accept or reject the traits that we inherit as we see fit. It’s both a conscious and an unconscious project, and it affects us for both good and ill. And because our parents were imitative creatures too, they receive their temperaments from their parents, and back and back into the distant past.

Nor do these temperaments appear from nowhere. They’re formed by our (and their) reactions not only to family dynamics but also to history. Our attitudes towards money, violence, humility or pride, politics, power, culture, art — we absorb our parents’ responses to these too, perhaps not as intensely as we do those things closer and more intimate to us, but we absorb (and later in life accept or reject) them as well. It is, in a way, a generational butterfly effect; we unconsciously repeat or exhibit a trait that may have originated several generations ago, passed on to us through our grandparents and our parents in some small, protean way. But that trait is still there, whether we recognize it as an internalized characteristic or not.

Alas, short of asking Facebook strangers whether or not they share a penchant for alcohol, cynicism, or an appreciation of bad folk music, there’s only so much we can learn about how the geography and history of our ancestors has affected ourselves. Fortunately, though, there’s one other avenue open to our investigation, and that’s culture. A few days ago I wrote about my enthusiasm for Central and Eastern European culture, literature, and philosophy. These writers and philosophers were similarly affected by the same cultural, political, and historical milieux that affected my potato-digging ancestors — on a more grand intellectual and artistic scale, perhaps, but affected nonetheless. I share some characteristics of my temperament with those of these writers and philosophers, who sprang from the same soil as old Maxsym Hunka back there in Ternopil, who may have received (or lacked) the same early education, were rendered dour by those gray winter skies, or experienced the regional and political disasters as Max and his neighbors. And as far as those left behind — well, there’s the Holodomor for Ukraine, as there were other catastrophes in Central and Eastern Europe in the last century.

Is like necessarily drawn to like? I can’t say. But it is intriguing that, quite without knowing it, I married a woman whose ancestors came from the same region; my two best friends these days also have their family roots in western Ukraine and Lithuania. These days I’m brushing up on my Ukrainian history and my Gogol, both of which appeal to my temperament. And I’m sure that a part of my hostility towards the current President is tied to the despicable way he’s been treating the country I consider my homeland (not to mention the country in which I live now).

I don’t know if I’ll ever have the chance to knock on a few houses in Urman to see if there’s any physical resemblance between me and their occupants. But perhaps there’s a few, in more ways than one — even if we don’t, in the end, share any blood.