Batter up!

Mark Twain kept this scorecard at a baseball game in Hartford, CT, circa 1874.

The 2018 baseball season opens today. I’ll be rooting for my hometown Phils, but don’t hold that against me.

It’s likely that Mark Twain would be rooting for his own hometown Hartford Dark Blues, says the Major League Baseball website. At a dinner in 1889, Twain called the game “the outward and visible expression of the drive, and push, and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming 19th century.” Legend also has it that he may have umpired a semi-pro game at his summer home in Elmira, NY. He boasted about his deep knowledge of the pastime: “Oh, I knew all about it. I knew it was a ball the moment I saw it, and I said so.”

Play ball! And while you’re waiting for the rain delay to end, read more about Mark Twain and America’s greatest game — as well as an associated corpse — here.

American humor, American blues

Blind Tom Wiggins.

When it came to music, Mark Twain professed to enjoy only two kinds: the songs of American minstrelsy and the proto-ragtime compositions and performances by pianists like Blind John Boone and Blind Tom Wiggins, about whom Twain wrote a lengthy appreciation for the Alta California in 1869. Along with evincing a proto-ragtime performance style, Blind Tom was also apparently a proto-Charles Ives, according to Twain:

Tom will play two tunes and sing a third at the same time, and let the audience choose the keys he shall perform in. I heard him play “Fisher’s Hornpipe” with his right hand in two sharps (D), and “Yankee Doodle” with his left in three flats (E flat), and sing “Tramp, tramp, tramp, the Boys are Marching,” in the key of C — all at the same time. It was a dreadful and disorganizing mixture of meaningless sounds, but you could easily discover that there was “no deception,” as the magicians say, by taking up the tunes one at a time and following them a little while, and then you would perceive that in time, movement and melody, each was without fault.

Jeffery Renard Allen wrote about Blind Tom for Buzzfeed in 2014.

Twain’s response to Blind Tom reminds me that of all aesthetic forms, two are particularly grounded in the national characters from which they spring: humor and music. In America, these are particularly fraught fields. Lacking a tradition of formal professional study or patronage, American popular music — especially ragtime and blues, which were the products of black American slaves and their immediate descendants — has had to depend on commercial appeal. And though the southwestern humor that led to Mark Twain’s work has had the reputation of beginning in an oral culture, for-profit journals and newspapers had the job of disseminating it around the country in the 19th century.

Blind Tom was a slave, and though his quasi-classical music doesn’t appear to be influenced by the work songs or other musical forms shared by slave populations, both emerged in the Delta blues and ragtime guitar styles that began to arise in the early 20th century.

Pianist John Davis has written extensively about Twain’s relationship to music, and his CD Halley’s Comet: Around the Piano with Mark Twain and John Davis collects a variety of music and texts that thoroughly explore this relationship. (The New York Times lauded his Le Poisson Rouge presentation of this material in 2010.)

In my spare time I’m taking guitar lessons in hopes of playing around with a little ragtime guitar myself, to go along with my casual interest in Twain and southwestern humor; in what’s left of that spare time, I’m filling in the background with these two books that have some affinity with the above:

American Humor: A Study of the National Character by Constance Rourke. Originally published inĀ  1931. Reprinted, with an introduction by Greil Marcus, by New York Review Books (NYRB), New York, 2004. The NYRB edition was reviewed by Caleb Crain in the Boston Globe on March 28, 2004; by Philip Christman in Paste on August 1, 2004; and by Adam Kirsch in Slate on March 31, 2004.

Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta by Robert Palmer. Viking Penguin Inc., 1981. Reviewed by Peter Guralnick in the New York Times on August 7, 1981; by C. Michael Bailey in All About Jazz on March 8, 2004; and by Rick Saunders in Now This Sound is Brave on September 15, 2001.

The Innocents Abroad

I got around to finishing Mark Twain’s first book, The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress (1869), the other day. Although in structure it’s a rather helter-skelter parody of American travel literature of the period, there’s a deeper journey there too, suggested by Twain’s journey east, from modern America to the old Europe, then eastward again into the ancient Holy Land and Egypt: a journey backward in time as well as eastward in geography. The Twain persona is in its infancy in The Innocents Abroad, but no longer in embryo as it had been in his earlier journalism: the face a dead pan, self-mocking (as well as other-mocking), enjoying a good drink now and again (and again). The further along the voyage to the east and into the past becomes, the more profound it becomes, however; the light humor and caricature are displaced by subversive meditations on the relationship of human beings and history. Finally, Twain leaves the Holy Land with even more skepticism about religion and humanity than when he arrived; the more he comes face to face with history and belief, the less he has faith with either. (Note the subtitle of the book.) I’d have more to say about Innocents Abroad, had I the time to say it. But I’d recommend it. Most travel books are recommendable; I’m glad to have Twain’s portrait of the Holy Land to confirm me in my complete disinterest in going there myself.

Here’s a good online resource covering the writing, influence, and reception of The Innocents Abroad. It’s a part of the “Mark Twain in His Times” web site at the University of Virginia, “Written and Directed by Stephen Railton.”

2017 marks the 150th anniversary of the sailing of the Quaker City, the boat that took Twain and his compatriots from New York to Egypt and back again. A new documentary, Mark Twain’s Journey to Jerusalem: Dreamland, is being aired on various public television stations this month; narrated by Martin Sheen, the film explores the Quaker City voyage that led to The Innocents Abroad, and features rare film of Twain and Jerusalem itself. I’m unable to find airtimes in my local area, but maybe you’ll be able to. The trailer for the film is below.

An inauspicious debut

One of the virtues of the Oxford Mark Twain — maybe its greatest virtue — is that the series photographically reproduces the earliest published texts of books that Twain completed in his lifetime. The Mark Twain Project at the University of California is attempting to produce definitive scholarly versions of all of Twain’s surviving texts and letters, and they’re having a slow go of it, but the Oxford series in contrast presents Twain’s work as it was first presented to American readers from 1867 to 1910, Twain’s death. Reading through the 29 volumes of the Oxford series, one familiarizes oneself with Twain’s own self-presentations during his lifetime, and comes to them, in a way, as his first American readers did. The series also reproduces the original illustrations that accompanied the text, along with introductions from Twain enthusiasts and contextualizing essays from Twain scholars. The series was first published in hardcover in 1996, and a paperback edition appeared in 2010, but the latter is available only as a set; individual volumes are not available for purchase from the Oxford University Press. This is a little unfortunate; in the absence of a complete edition from the Mark Twain Project the Oxford series has become the unofficial standard edition, despite a few critical quibbles, and its $355.00 recommended retail price puts it beyond the budgets of most casual but engaged readers.

But individual books from the series are available if one hunts around enough; various vagrant volumes can be found on Amazon and in larger used book stores. I found the Oxford edition of Twain’s first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches (1867), at the Strand. The Jumping Frog was issued to cash in on the phenomenal success of the title short story, which first appeared in the New York Saturday Press on November 18, 1865, and was quickly reprinted in other newspapers around the country. Twain’s friend, publisher Charles Henry Webb, gathered the frog story and 26 other parodies and short essays by Twain dating from 1863 in a volume that enjoyed what Richard Bucci in his afterword describes as only a “modest performance in the marketplace.” Twain himself was dissatisfied with the book. Only 4,076 copies were printed, and in December 1870 Twain bought and destroyed the typesetting plates.

Reading it in 2017 — this year marks the 150th anniversary of its publication — I can see why. Like any book of comic essays, it’s not a good idea to read it straight through, and among the few bits of gold there’s quite a lot of dross. One joke about the commonality of the name “John Smith” (and it’s the first joke of the book, in the dedication) is more than enough, but coming across it six or seven times strains one’s patience to the snapping point. In 2017, jokes about insurance companies may not read as fresh as they did 150 years ago.

But the best of the sketches and stories still shine. The title story, of course, remains something of a milestone in American literature — the first literary work from the American West to succeed in the East, and subversive enough in both form and vernacular. “The Jumping Frog” is the relation of several anecdotes from a poker-faced man named Simon Wheeler rendered as a monologue which, with utter seriousness, trades in the palpably absurd, a pointless meander that nonetheless draws some wonder in its imagination and language. But several other sketches retain their attractiveness too. “Aurelia’s Unfortunate Young Man” describes a young man’s slow but sure physical disassembly through the eyes of an advice columnist (a precursor perhaps to Lemuel Pitkin of Nathanael West’s A Cool Million and the Black Knight of Monty Python and the Holy Grail); “Lucretia Smith’s Soldier” is a caustic parody of a sentimental Civil War romance, years before Gone with the Wind; “The Story of the Bad Little Boy who Didn’t Come to Grief,” as Roy Blount says in his introduction, “[is] not at all outdated at a time when The Book of Virtues sells in the millions.” Its final paragraph is one for the ages:

And he grew up, and married, and raised a large family, and brained them all with an ax one night, and got wealthy by all manner of cheating and rascality, and now he is the infernalest wickedest scoundrel in his native village, and is universally respected, and belongs to the Legislature.

But far be it from me to discuss Donald Trump any further here.

Most of the best pieces in the volume were originally published in the Californian, a San Francisco newspaper started in 1864 and edited by the Jumping Frog‘s publisher, Charles Henry Webb. The Californian was a serious effort to produce a genuinely literary magazine in San Francisco, and Webb himself was a member of the New York circle of self-styled “Bohemians” before travelling west. He had been a regular visitor to Pfaff’s, the New York beer cellar and meeting place for some of the most experimental and avant-garde writers of the day, including Walt Whitman. The experiment attempted to extend humor into more serious literary endeavors, and Webb encouraged Twain to extend himself from the rough, quick journalistic satires of his early work into something more lasting and ambitious. The “Jumping Frog” story was among the first results.

Reading early Twain today is not unlike watching Chaplin shorts from the Keystone and Essanay eras. The character of Twain, like the character of the Tramp, is there in broad outline — more violent and less subtle than later iterations of the same character, but in stories like the “Jumping Frog” and others in this first collection, the reader can recognize intimations of the later complexity of Twain’s comedy and satire. There are worse ways to spend an hour or two of reading (and the Oxford Mark Twain edition is still a bargain; first editions of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches, a very rare volume, fetch up to $31,000 at abebooks).

Ben Tarnoff’s The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature (Penguin, 2014) is an essential guide to understanding the cultural milieu in which Twain began to reach his aesthetic maturity, and I can highly recommend that as well.

Donald Trump and the vulgarity of Mr. Twain

The vulgar Mark Twain.

Those who think of Mark Twain as the quintessential twinkly-eyed American sage have another think coming. Last month, Ben Tarnoff delivered the keynote speech at the Eighth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies, sponsored by the Center for Mark Twain Studies and held in Elmira, NY; the title of his speech was “Vulgarity from Below Versus Vulgarity from Above: Twain in the Age of Trump.” Without mentioning the name of the 45th President of the United States, Tarnoff mused upon what Twain’s own reaction to our current situation may have been, and concludes that it would not have been kind.

Ben Tarnoff in Elmira.

In doing so, Tarnoff with a sly, subversive humor provides an excellent lesson in one of the most important periods of American humor and literary history — the Southwest of the mid-19th century; a good anthology of this Southwest humor is Walter Blair and Raven McDavid’s The Mirth of a Nation, now unfortunately out of print — and urges upon his listeners a new “vulgarity” and “barbarism” based on Twain’s own moral and satiric perspective, which Twain developed before he came east with the 1869 publication of The Innocents Abroad, the book that put him permanently on the map. Tarnoff’s 35-minute speech can be heard below, and it’s worth your sustained attention.

Ben Tarnoff is the author of The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature (Penguin, 2014). He also writes regularly (and extremely well) for The Guardian on technology and politics, and is founder of Logic, a new magazine about technology. Mr. Tarnoff, take it away: