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.

Mark Twain in 2019

The Orchard House in Concord, MA.

Last year, the good people at W.W. Norton released Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. Among the contents are a few essays about why I — as a 57-year-old middle class white man living on the Lower East Side in the early 21st century  and certainly not the target demographic for Louisa May Alcott’s novel — should spend a few hours in the company of the March sisters. (Well, not specifically me, but you get the idea.) As it happens, I visited the Orchard House, Alcott’s home, on a recent visit to Concord, MA, and I doubt that anybody of the dozens of visitors there really need any reason to read Little Women; they’d already done so, and enthusiastically enough to seek out the rooms where Alcott wrote the book.

A few days before I’d taken a tour of Mark Twain’s home in Hartford, CT, enthusiasm for Twain’s writing having drawn me there as well. And it led me to muse about Huckleberry Finn and why that novel, along with the rest of Twain’s work, still matters. Of course, those like myself who visited the Twain house needed little rationale for either their visit or their enthusiasm for the book. We were the converted and had already heard the evangel. But it did pose the question: Where was everybody else? What did Twain have to offer those who hadn’t read a word of him since high school, if at all? For such people do exist.

Admittedly, I’ve had qualms myself, and recently. To read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 2019 — with its dead cats, its adventures on Mississippi River islands, the role-playing of its characters as pirates or Robin Hood, and its complete and total lack of iPhones, television sets, and electricity — is to wonder what it would have to offer even today’s boys, to whom the book was originally addressed in part. Set in the antebellum South, it was somewhat anachronistic even when it was first published in 1876. These days it reads like science fiction. What could that world offer today’s ten- and eleven-year-olds, who prefer to spend their time on YouTube and Fortnite? (Not to mention that any Department of Child Services worthy of the name would have run the adults of the entire town of St. Petersburg into jail for parental neglect with nary a thought.) The appeal of the book for adults is clearer. All of them were children once, and the book recalls a general nostalgia for the independence, the imagination, and the innocence associated with childhood, before they were assimilated into mature, adult society.

All great writers have the ability to find the universal in the particular, and I think this gives us a clue as to what Mark Twain can offer us today. For even during his own time, one of Twain’s central concerns was the ability of men and women to govern themselves and others, the central issue of democracy itself. Though Twain was an American writer, ultimately that concern cuts to the universal qualities of human nature.

What our treatment of other races says about those qualities can only lead to bitter conclusions. It’s a fool’s game to determine what Mark Twain might say about this or that in our own time, but I’ll play the fool and imagine that Twain would have lauded the New York Times‘ recent “1619 Project,” which posits slavery as America’s original sin. “It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are,” the Times says in an introductory paragraph, and the controversy that the project has generated, especially on the right, indicates that the issue remains sensitive. Backdating American identity from 1776 to 1619 is, I believe, just the kind of subversive irreverence that Twain would have welcomed.

A central question about next year’s election will be what America itself means — the duties and obligations of a citizen in an imperfect republic. Here, too, history has demonstrated that the distance between our ideals and our behavior, as well as those of our politicians, is so gapingly wide as to be open to ridicule, and ridicule was Twain’s stock in trade. So far as Donald Trump goes, you needn’t ask what Twain would say about the man; he’s already said it in depicting such characters as the Duke and the Dauphin. Indeed, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, is a witty, comic encyclopedia of human iniquity; anybody reading those three books will be ready for the upcoming election season; nothing will be surprising then. You can’t say that about Little Women. And as to whether technology can ameliorate some of these iniquities — well, Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court has already had the last word on that as well.

Do human beings have the ability to govern themselves to their best, most compassionate advantage? Do human beings have the ability to govern each other, for that matter? Optimists will say that it’s an open question, and the jury’s still out. But in 2019, Mark Twain’s closing argument, laid out in all his books, may be impossible to refute. There is comfort in misanthropy and pessimism after all; not the comfort of optimism, but the comfort of being right. “The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it, he knows too little,” said the man itself. And, as Mark Twain also proves, there can be undeniable, liberating joy in knowing it.

A toast to … two American artists

This week I considered my responses to a recent visit to the home of Mark Twain and looked forward to an October event celebrating Weirdo, the 1980s comics magazine founded by R. Crumb.

I raise my glass to these two gentlemen today, and in closing the week observe that the work of both of these artists has been reviled and censored in the past — Huckleberry Finn since the time of its publication in 1884/5, R. Crumb’s comics rather more recently. I don’t here want to equate the differing achievements of these two individuals, but offer up a few recent defenses of their work.

Toni Morrison, who left us only recently, examined Huckleberry Finn for the Oxford Mark Twain edition edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin in 1996. “In the early eighties I read Huckleberry Finn again, provoked, I believe, by demands to remove the novel from the libraries and required reading lists of public schools,” she wrote. “These efforts were based, it seemed to me, on a narrow notion of how to handle the offense Mark Twain’s use of the term ‘nigger’ would occasion for black students and the corrosive effect it would have on white ones. It struck me as a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children. Amputate the problem, band-aid the solution.”

Along with T.S. Eliot’s essay about the book, Morrison’s essay is one of the most sensitive readings of Huck Finn since the novel’s publication; you can read the entire essay here. It concludes:

The source of my unease reading this amazing, troubling book now seems clear: an imperfect coming to terms with three matters Twain addresses — Huck Finn’s estrangement, soleness and morbidity as an outcast child; the disproportionate sadness at the center of Jim’s and his relationship; and the secrecy in which Huck’s engagement with (rather than escape from) a racist society is necessarily conducted. It is also clear that the rewards of my effort to come to terms have been abundant. My alarm, aroused by Twain’s precise rendering of childhood’s fear of death and abandonment, remains — as it should. It has been extremely worthwhile slogging through Jim’s shame and humiliation to recognize the sadness, the tragic implications at the center of his relationship with Huck. My fury at the maze of deceit, the risk of personal harm that a white child is forced to negotiate in a race-inflected society, is dissipated by the exquisite uses to which Twain puts that maze, that risk.

Yet the larger question, the danger that sifts from the novel’s last page, is whether Huck, minus Jim, will be able to stay those three monsters as he enters the “territory.” Will that undefined space, so falsely imagined as “open,” be free of social chaos, personal morbidity, and further moral complications embedded in adulthood and citizenship? Will it be free not only of nightmare fathers but of dream fathers too? …

For a hundred years, the argument that this novel is has been identified, reidentified, examined, waged and advanced. What it cannot be is dismissed. It is classic literature, which is to say it heaves, manifests and lasts.

The jury of course is still out on the endurance of Crumb’s art, but a few months ago Brian Doherty described and discussed in Reason magazine the increasing controversy in the alternative comics community around Crumb. To nobody’s surprise, his work has given rise to accusations of racism (like Twain’s) and sexism (also like Twain’s, but rather less vociferously). Doherty writes:

One of the many reasons humans have art is to understand, play with, portray, question, and explore the human condition. Which, as Crumb firmly believes, includes a lot of awful, unacceptable thoughts and behavior. …

Many people understand that art is for expressing and exploring the human mind and soul — and the human mind and soul contain darkness, sexual mania, racism, hostility, and any number of awful truths. To force those things out of the conversation is to unreasonably limit the whole project, they say. Art is a treasured aspect of the healthy human condition, even if what the art says is unhealthy on various dimensions. Many others consider that tradeoff worth it in the name of protecting the status and feelings of previously excluded or oppressed groups.

Crumb’s attempt to open comics to a vast range of human expression was victorious: Whether they want to acknowledge it or not, those working in the field today are his descendants. Like all children and grandchildren, they can choose whether or not to understand their patriarch, whether to emulate him or tell him to fuck off. Their choices may not always be kind or wise, but such is human freedom.

Pilgrimage

The Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT.

My recent visit to the Mark Twain house and museum in Hartford, CT, possessed something of the quality of a pilgrimage. Over the past few years I’ve read several of Twain’s books, but certainly not all — the canon runs to seven thick volumes of about 1,000 pages each in the Library of America edition, perhaps the most reliable and available of contemporary editions, and even this omits thousands of letters as well as the gargantuan, unedited autobiography that the University of California Press issued in three bulky tomes over the past decade. So my own reading — The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, “Old Times on the Mississippi,” Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and No. 44: The Mysterious Stranger (and a few shorter pieces, biographies, and critical works) — has been far from comprehensive and complete, though happily this leaves me with more to anticipate. Wandering the rooms and halls of Twain’s mansion, where he spent many of his happiest and most productive years, was to be plunged into the late 19th-century world which produced some of this country’s most extraordinary literature. The museum, too, was an enlightening institution. Really, you should get up to Hartford sometime yourself and have a look. You won’t be disappointed.

This visit and the new release of a digitized version of the Huckleberry Finn manuscript by the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library sent me to Mark Twain & Huck Finn, Walter Blair’s excellent 1960 study of Twain’s masterpiece, in which the scholar of American humor put his finger on one of the main strands — and, for some of us, appeals — of Twain’s work as a whole. He begins by discussing Twain’s 1867 The Innocents Abroad, his first book, but spins this strand out to the rest of Twain’s work as well:

The full title, The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress, shows that “an innocent” — “a new pilgrim” — was the chief character. Since the author was debunking tourists, his hero’s “progress” took the form of disillusionment concerning Europe and the East. In the part of Roughing It which was a continuous narrative, another sort of innocent — a greenhorn — was disillusioned about the West of romance. “Old Times” follows a similar pattern: journeying on the river, the cub is disillusioned concerning its romance. Such educational journeyings would figure in The Prince and the Pauper and in Part II of Life on the Mississippi. … Tom Sawyer and The Prince and the Pauper similarly would show an irresponsible boy moving toward respectable maturity. In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain would again deal with the educational journey leading to disillusionment … (48-49)

Of course, this disillusionment has its saving grace in that it’s being offered by a humorist, more specifically a satirist. Like the great satirist Jonathan Swift before him and the great satirist H.L. Mencken after him, Twain roots his essentially misanthropic vision in the genre of comedy. Among the many rewards of this disillusionment, perhaps the greatest is laughter. Another, of course, is the courage to live in truth, not merely about the cosmos but about one’s self as well (for the true misanthrope confesses that he’s as guilty as the rest of his race of his faults), and in this there’s a certain pleasure to be had. To quote Florence King, another misanthrope and much missed, “If we take as one definition of a misanthrope, ‘Someone who does not suffer fools and likes to see fools suffer,’ we realize at once that we are dealing with an individual who has something to look forward to.”

There’s more, of course — Twain was a conscious literary artist, and experimented more with the structures and techniques of fiction than perhaps any other American writer of his time; his brilliant assimilation of the American vernacular into his prose may be the most obvious and important, though not his only achievement by far. But if I may be so bold as to build upon Blair’s catalog, I cite the concluding paragraphs of Twain’s final major work of fiction, The Mysterious Stranger, perhaps his final, damning statement of disillusionment. Written in 1902-1908 and first published posthumously in a corrupt edition in 1916, it was neglected for decades before it began to enjoy something of a renaissance, and critical attention has slowly been turning to it as a major Twain work. As novelist William Gaddis said of it, “We all came out of Mark Twain’s vest pocket. No one has ever beaten ‘The Mysterious Stranger.'”

“Will a day come when the race will detect the funniness of these juvenilities and laugh at them — and by laughing at them destroy them? For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon — laughter. Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution — these can lift at a colossal humbug, — push it a little — crowd it a little — weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand. …

“Strange! that you should not have suspected years ago—centuries, ages, eons, ago! — for you have existed, companionless, through all the eternities. Strange, indeed, that you should not have suspected that your universe and its contents were only dreams, visions, fiction! Strange, because they are so frankly and hysterically insane — like all dreams: a God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice and invented hell — mouths mercy and invented hell — mouths Golden Rules, and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship him! …

“You perceive, now, that these things are all impossible except in a dream. You perceive that they are pure and puerile insanities, the silly creations of an imagination that is not conscious of its freaks — in a word, that they are a dream, and you the maker of it. The dream-marks are all present; you should have recognized them earlier.

“It is true, that which I have revealed to you; there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream — a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought — a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!”

He vanished, and left me appalled; for I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true.

A pilgrimage to the house of the man who wrote this is more than due respect to a great writer. It’s inspiration itself.