Only 150 miles separate Hannibal, MO, where Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain (he never made it easy to write about him) spent his childhood, and Sedalia, MO, where Scott Joplin began to compose his early work; only 14 years separate the publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and the publication of Joplin’s groundbreaking “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899). There’s no evidence that Clemens and Joplin were familiar with each other’s work, even though Clemens would live on until 1910 and Joplin until 1917, but the coincidences are intriguing, perhaps least on the biographical level. Both were popular artists with higher aspirations, of course, but there’s more to them than that; the common conception of both Twain and Joplin is that they’re both lighter entertainers: Twain, the cracker-barrel philosopher blessed with an earthy, down-home comic skepticism; Joplin as the composer of rinky-plinky tunes best served up as accompaniments to silent comedies or honky-tonk drinking establishments. The truth, as the truth usually does in these matters, lies elsewhere.
I’ve just been finishing Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices, a significant landmark in Twain scholarship, and her argument that African-American culture in the Reconstruction era had a seminal influence on Twain’s novel in its structure, vocabulary, and voice and his other work besides — and, therefore, on the entire body of American literature after Huckleberry Finn — is hard to refute, given the textual, linguistic, and cultural evidence and analysis she presents. Before Twain, American literature owed most of its debt to Europe, whether it was Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Melville, or for that matter even Whitman, whose patois emerged from white culture in New England. Twain, however, mingled the vernacular of the American South and Southwest into his own literature. At the same time, Joplin drew upon his own experience in minstrelsy, popular song, and band music, along with his classical music training under the German Julian Weiss and at Sedalia’s George R. Smith College, in transforming European forms and harmonies into something uniquely American; and out of ragtime and the various forms of the blues, jazz emerged.
Over the past few years I’ve been reading more of Twain and, more recently, listening to Joplin again. The melancholy and bucolic nature of much of this work, such as Twain’s evocations of the Mississippi Valley countryside and Joplin’s more langourous rags, especially among his more meditative pieces, appeals to me, but it’s not quite the same as nostalgia, not least because I can’t have nostalgia for a time in which I did not live. Not to mention that the politics of race is bitterly considered in the creations of both men (in Twain, obviously, but also in Joplin’s surviving opera Treemonisha and his lost opera A Guest of Honor, which reportedly depicted the visit of Booker T. Washington to the White House in 1901).
My renewed attraction to this work may also be a reaction to the current political climate. As Fishkin points out in her study, and as Joplin biographer Edward Berlin pointed out in his Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History, Twain and Joplin were essentially multicultural and inclusive artists, drawing from a variety of cultural sources — an aesthetic miscegenation which simply could not be brooked. Ragtime, as a precursor to jazz, was the product of African American music and culture of the Reconstruction and Redemption eras intermingling with American popular and folk songs; and a great deal of the resistance to characterizing ragtime as a uniquely American “classical” music had a racist undertone. (Ragtime had its effect on American literature as well, and not just on E.L. Doctorow: one of the groundbreaking American novels about race, James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, is narrated by an ambitious ragtime pianist.)
I’ve read Huckleberry Finn twice in the past few years (along with The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger) and plan to read it again soon; it’s inexhaustible. Similarly, the more I listen to Joplin’s music, the more there is to find in it. It’s hard to characterize Twain as a marginalized figure in American culture, especially given his presence in it, but I find that it’s his work, not his presence, that tends to receive shorter shrift than it used to; after a period of general popularity, Joplin’s music seems to have once again fallen into some obscurity, and he remains by and large on the margins of the American classical music canon. Perhaps it’s the melancholy strains in this work that appeal to me most these days. But one can get used to the margins, and at my age, it’s not a bad place to be.
Below, Sara Fishko gives an overview of Joplin’s career, presents excerpts of some of Joplin’s more meditative pieces, and speaks to Joplin biographer Ed Berlin in a 2011 edition of the Fishko Files.