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.

Thirty years ago

The Old Town Square in Prague, Czech Republic.

In 2021 (we plan ahead), Marilyn and I plan to bundle our family into a transatlantic airliner for a journey to the Czech Republic. Our daughters are old enough now to appreciate the architecture and a little history, but for me, it will be a return to a part of the world for which I’ve always had a deep and abiding affection. In part, this is because my own family originated there; my roots lie in Ukraine, Slovakia, and Lithuania. But more, for people of my generation, Central and Eastern Europe has a particular historical meaning not entirely irrelevant to my daughters’ own historical period here in the United States.

Thirty years ago, in 1989, at the age of 27, I along with everyone else in the world watched as the Iron Curtain crumbled and the Cold War evaporated in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and many points east. And it happened quickly, within the space of a year. It was perhaps the most deeply meaningful geopolitical event of my youth. It’s hard to explain to generations younger than my own exactly how momentous an event this was. Since my birth in 1962, I and the rest of my generation had been living under the threat of nuclear annihilation; the Soviet Union and its satellites were a region of frightening mystery. The world seemed divided between a capitalist West of liberalism and cosmopolitanism and a communist East of totalitarianism and penury. The Berlin Wall had by 1989 become a symbol of this division. It seemed permanent, bombs and guns from each side pointing menacingly at the other. Then, in November — almost thirty years ago today — the Wall fell, dismantled by citizens from both West and East Berlin, as the Communist Party looked on in paralyzed disbelief. (Timothy Garton Ash’s The Magic Lantern is an interesting first-person account of the period.)

I didn’t much believe it either, but forbidden things have their own charm, and I first visited the region in 1990: from Vienna to Prague, Budapest, and Belgrade. As cliche as it may seem, the excitement and optimism in the air of these cities was palpable; as an American I was greeted everywhere I went (well, maybe not Belgrade) with a sense of celebration. And Americans were everywhere too; in those pre-EU days, the dollar went far. The ideal of individual liberty was finding a new embodiment in these newly free individuals. The following year I returned to a small village in Moravia where I taught English in a local high school.

It couldn’t last. When I once again visited the region four or five years later, the bloom was off the rose as idealism clashed with the practical compromises necessary to maintain a functioning democratic government. Nonetheless, for that moment, it seemed that most of the ideals of Western liberalism were triumphant.

Triumphs, however, are usually temporary, as history teaches us all too well. The absorption of many of these countries into the European Union was accompanied by various difficulties, not the least of which were economic inequality and migration — difficulties that have led to a resurgence of nationalistic autocracy in many of them. So Václav Havel gave way to Václav Klaus. Upon returning to the United States, however, I maintained my enthusiasm for Central and Eastern European culture, literature, philosophy, and cuisine, and hope to share these with my daughters in two years.

Not all of Central Europe’s revolutions in the years following 1989 were quite so velvety or peaceful. I remembered my experience in Central Europe most recently with the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine in 2014 — further east than the Central European capitals I visited earlier, Maidan was bloodier and its conclusion more ambivalent than those of 1989. And Ukraine’s long experience with Soviet totalitarianism, kleptocratic and oligarchic corruption, and a more violent past, as well as the ambivalent and protean nature of Ukrainian identity, has placed it in a particularly sensitive and dangerous position on the borderland of west and east. And — as the past year has proven — has left it open to extortion and corruption by the west and east themselves. Of western Ukrainian heritage myself, I feel this most deeply.

Among the public intellectuals most scandalized by the Trump presidency are many of my generation, primarily historians, who had similar responses to and experiences in Eastern and Central Europe in the post-1989 era, many of them travelling in that region for the first time around the years that I did. Anne Applebaum (born 1964), Ed Luce (1968), Timothy Snyder (1969), and Marci Shore (1972) have all written far more eloquently than I have about their experience of and deeply personal responses to Central and Eastern Europe’s recent past, responses which led them to study the history of the region and propose lessons we might learn from 1989 and its aftermath. Following in the footsteps of journalist/essayists like Timothy Garton Ash of the generation before their own, they see Western liberalism and the rule of law as ideals that are hard won — ideals for which blood was shed in the not so distant past, and ideals under attack by the Trump administration and other autocratic and neo-totalitarian leaders, especially in Central and Eastern Europe.

The thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall takes place this Saturday, November 9. Ironically, Donald Trump is intent on building a new, similar wall of his own. New authoritarianisms and tyrannies will not much resemble those that fell in 1989; they are on the rise in different forms which seem more palatable to many voters in the United States and elsewhere. Here in the United States, the GOP and its supporters, in demonizing the Democratic Party, appear to be perfectly happy to consider a one-party system. In introducing my daughters to those Hapsburg-era capitals that made such an impression on me thirty years ago, I hope to imbue them with some of the dreams, some of the magic, some of the intelligence and compassion, and some of the strength that they’ll need to resist a future which is fast becoming darker.

My past comes back to haunt me

I must have started this blog about twenty years go. I began it in the quaint delusion that I might one day carve out some kind of career in the theatre, either as a playwright or as a critic, perhaps both; about ten years ago I dropped all this, however, for a number of reasons both good and bad. I was reminded of this early ambition when I recently received word that Megan Vaughan’s book Theatre Blogging: The Emergence of a Critical Culture is scheduled to be published by Methuen next February. Some time ago Megan interviewed me for the book, a pleasurable experience; a more amusing experience was to find recently that in the promotional material for the book Methuen wrote:

The work of prominent and influential early adopters such as Encore Theatre Magazine and Chris Goode in London; George Hunka and Laura Axelrod in New York; Jill Dolan at Princeton University and Alison Croggon in Melbourne is featured and considered alongside those who followed them.

That I had followers of any kind produced a bemused smile. I suppose I was sort of prominent at the time — the blog led to a stint as a freelance theatre reviewer for The New York Times and theatre essayist for The Guardian — but influential? This produced more a laugh than a smile.

As I said earlier, I haven’t been going to the theatre for a while. But when I did, I was most impressed by the work of Richard Foreman, and my blog featured quite a bit of writing about the avant-garde playwright and director. Like myself, Foreman’s been away from the theatre for more than a decade now, though he continues to work in film. (Some of his recent activity, along with his films, can be found here.) I’ve collected most, but far from all, of my writing about Richard’s work here, for the sake of the archive. Richard was truly prominent and influential, and his work continues to be the most powerful I was privileged to see and write about during those theatre years of mine. I haven’t had the opportunity to polish, organize, update, or revise any of this writing — 12,000 words of it, apparently — but as a reminder of my checkered past I thought it appropriate at least to keep it all in a safe place.

(I should mention two recent Foreman-related publications here as well. Plays for the Public, a collection of Richard’s last plays, will be published by TCG next month. And Neal Swettenham’s 2017 Richard Foreman: An American (Partly) in Paris discusses Foreman as a quasi-European artist.)