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.

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.)

On the bedside table: “The Stammering Century”

I’m about a hundred pages into Gilbert Seldes’ 1928 study The Stammering Century and find it quite a hoot. Seldes’ quacks, mountebanks, and frauds are still swarming over the continent, as American as mom and apple pie. Highly recommended. Richard Hofstadter (Anti-Intellectualism in American Life) called it “one of the most perceptive and entertaining studies of the American spirit in the nineteenth century.” Good enough for me.

More about the book below, courtesy of its publisher, New York Review Books.


Gilbert Seldes, the author of The Stammering Century, writes:

This book is not a record of the major events in Ameri­can history during the nineteenth century. It is concerned with minor movements, with the cults and manias of that period. Its personages are fanatics, and radicals, and mountebanks. Its intention is to connect these secondary movements and figures with the primary forces of the century, and to supply a background in American history for the Prohibitionists and the Pente­costalists; the diet-faddists and the dealers in mail-order Personality; the play censors and the Fundamen­talists; the free-lovers and eugenists; the cranks and possibly the saints. Sects, cults, manias, movements, fads, religious excitements, and the relation of each of these to the others and to the orderly progress of America are the subject.

The subject is of course as timely at the beginning of the twenty-first century as when the book first appeared in 1928. Seldes’s fascinated and often sympathetic accounts of dreamers, rogues, frauds, sectarians, madmen, and geniuses from Jonathan Edwards to the messianic murderer Matthias have established The Stammering Century not only as a lasting contribution to American history but as a classic in its own right.

Backward, forward, up and down

Nathanael West.

Yesterday I mentioned Nathanael West with regard to literature and comic books, and I only wanted to add that the relationship was first introduced by West himself in an essay called “Some Notes on Miss L.,” a few marginal considerations of his short novel Miss Lonelyhearts. In describing his search for a  proper form for the novel, West weighs the value of structuring it as a comic strip or comic book before rejecting the idea, but before he rejects it he offers a good technique for introducing oneself to the form of graphic novels or comic strips or books — how to read them, how to approach the page itself, as well as the challenges of and opportunities in creating them. Said West in 1933:

I cannot do a review of Miss Lonelyhearts, but here, at random, are some things I thought when writing it:

As subtitle: “A novel in the form of a comic strip.” The chapters to be squares in which many things happen through one action. The speeches contained in the conventional balloons. I abandoned this idea, but retained some of the comic strip technique: Each chapter, instead of going forward in time, also goes backward, forward, up and down in space like a picture …

Forget the epic, the master work. In America fortunes do not accumulate, the soil does not grow, families have no history. Leave slow growth to the book reviewers, you only have time to explode.

Humor that severed the jugular vein

In the spring of 1981, the first issue of Weirdo rolled off the Last Gasp presses. The brainchild of R. Crumb, its editor for the first nine of its 27 quarterly issues, Weirdo was an attempt to revive the graphic/comic humor style of Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD magazine and similar publications of the 1950s and 1960s. Until 1990 (and a special, final issue in 1993), Weirdo published and distributed the later work of the groundbreaking underground cartoonists of the previous few decades and the early work of the newly burgeoning alternative comics movement. It was a long and successful run for a humor magazine in that period; National Lampoon‘s heyday ended about the time its founding editors departed in 1975, after only five years; Spy magazine similarly foundered after the first five years of its debut. Weirdo managed to struggle on through almost a decade, and it was fondly remembered after it closed up shop. Now Jon B. Cooke has collected those fond memories and others in The Book of Weirdo, a history of the magazine, published by Last Gasp. It’s not a cautionary tale, exactly, but it does define the history of a certain kind of American comics, humor, and satire of the late 20th century, and it’s one of the very few books that does so. Maybe there’s a lesson in it, but I doubt that.

By the time the early 1980s rolled around, the first wave of underground comics had crashed into the beach and its influence was slowly receding from view. Crumb’s decision to launch Weirdo was practical: He wanted a regular outlet for his work, but the work of his colleagues and friends needed a regular outlet too. It may also have been political, a response to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the increasing moral and ethical miasma into which America was sinking with the increasing influence of advertising, mass media, and corporate money in the American experience. (Harvey Kurtzman had launched MAD in 1952, when the American experience was facing a similar onslaught of garbage.) It was also personal, Crumb’s nostalgic look back at the magazines and comics that had inspired him in his youth, leading him to his first successes in the 1960s and 1970s with the animal-comic parody Fritz the Cat and his satire of Culture-of-Narcissism faux-mysticism in Mr. Natural. So Crumb published, alongside comics by himself and others, exhibitions of peculiar Americana and photo-funnies or “fumetti” that were popular in adult magazines of the 1930s and 1940s. (National Lampoon, too, occasionally ran a similar feature.) As Cooke reports, these photo-funnies were a target of considerable hostility, and they were found more and more rarely in Weirdo‘s pages as new cartoonists sought Crumb out and Crumb accepted their work for publication.

As the years went by, however, the magazine evolved, perhaps one of the secrets of whatever success it achieved, and its subsequent editors put their own stamp on the magazine. Crumb’s successor, Peter Bagge, assimilated a crew of younger, punk-influenced cartoonists into the Weirdo stable; in 1986, Aline Kominsky-Crumb took the reins, and her seemingly-crude-and-artless-but-not-really style, as well as her own generosity, encouraged and attracted a generation of brilliant female artists like Dori Seda and Mary Fleener, and the percentage of work by female artists in the magazine increased exponentially. While Crumb was contractually obligated to produce covers and stories for Weirdo, both Bagge and Kominsky-Crumb were responsible for taking the magazine to places Crumb hadn’t imagined when he established it.

Weirdo‘s wasn’t the only game in town; at about the same time Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly were publishing the large format RAW, an attempt to claim comics as a high art. They undoubtedly succeeded, and Spiegelman’s Maus, originally published in RAW as a serial, deservedly won a Pulitzer Prize. Cooke describes the occasional tensions between the magazines, not least because a number of artists (including Crumb and Spiegelman) appeared in both. Weirdo and RAW weren’t serious competitors. Instead, they complemented each other. RAW aimed high, for the citadels of modernism; Crumb and Weirdo aimed much lower — in a variety of senses — and Crumb never lost sight of the comic in “comics.”

I collected Weirdo magazines as they were published in the 1980s and was always astonished by the extraordinary variety of individual art and styles of the comics, the exquisite craftsmanship and daring graphic innovation that expanded the idea of what constituted true comic art. But what is easily lost in contemplating the art of Weirdo is the brilliance of the verbal humor and the writing that appeared in Weirdo. The magazine’s artists seemed to me most indebted to the great black humor writers of the 1960s and 1970s. Influenced primarily by the likes of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Nathanael West, these writers parsed the difficulty of maintaining one’s sanity, individual integrity, and even security as one was buffeted by what seemed to be arbitrary, absurd, and malignant cultural and political powers, as well as their own very personal weaknesses, prejudices, and idiocy. The greatest of the black humorists of the 1960s, such as Terry Southern, Joseph Heller, Bruce Jay Friedman, and Paul Krassner, located their satiric vision in a revealing, subversive dissection of the individual under the pressure of the modern world; dismissing standard-issue American realism as inadequate to capture the anxiety of postwar America, these writers corralled both stylistic innovation and a brooding sense of the grotesque and the ridiculous in the service of their frequently nihilistic visions. Whether or not the Weirdo artists were knowingly influenced by these writers, they carried the black humorists’ spirit from the 1960s, when they flourished, to the 1990s, when they were all but forgotten. (It is no coincidence, perhaps, that Drew Friedman, a regular contributor to Weirdo, is the son of Bruce Jay Friedman; Drew also wrote the introduction and drew the cover for The Book of Weirdo.)

Jon Cooke’s history is excellent and often entertainingly informative when digging deep into the history of the magazine and the biographies of its editors and contributors (his interviews, as well as his extensive bibliographical work, will serve as indispensable sources for any future researchers), and it leaves one hungry for an anthology of Weirdo itself. My only quibble with the book is that too little of it is represented here. Crumb’s work for Weirdo — the best of his mid-career, as he became more autobiographical and, at the same time, extended his talent to new projects, including contemplations of Philip K. Dick, Sir James Boswell, and Psychopathia Sexualis — has already been collected in another volume. (Crumb has continued to develop and mature as an artist, his art becoming increasingly textured, subversively ironic, and interestingly hermetic in publications like Art & Beauty Magazine as well as the excellent and highly recommended Mineshaft.) Until that anthology appears, however, Jon Cooke’s The Book of Weirdo is a reminder that American humor and satire was a far more innovative and exciting art form than the endless news program and newspaper parodies that seem to make up that form today; as delightful as they occasionally are, they lack the sheer imagination and daring of the artists of Weirdo.