A toast to … trash

Cafe Katja.

At the blog this week, I recommended an upcoming concert of American spectral music, relaxed with a bit of ragtime, and welcomed the new issue of Mineshaft magazine.

Poking around on the internet yesterday, I came across this interview with comics artist Chris Ware, who mused upon the reputation of the form to which he has devoted his career:

As an art of reproduction, comics always returns to its status as trash, which I think is key to its being seen clearly and read critically; it has none of the innate prestige of writing or painting and so has to earn its stature on its own terms, every time.

An interesting consideration, and one which intersects with two of my other preoccupations, ragtime music and Mark Twain. One of the reasons for comics’ status as “trash” is the original audience to which it was addressed: the broadest general audience, the audience for what we generally call popular culture. Comics, certainly, as entertainments for children published in disposable newspapers and comic books, were never considered lasting contributions to the expression of the human spirit by critics, teachers, or the elite. In 1901, the American Federation of Musicians dismissed ragtime as “‘unmusical rot.’ Members were encouraged to ‘make every effort to suppress and [to] discourage the playing and the publishing of such musical trash.'” The musical journal The Etude went further a year earlier, thundering that “the counters of the music stores are loaded with this virulent poison which in the form of a malarious epidemic, is finding its way into the homes and brains of the youth to such an extent as to arouse one’s suspicions of their sanity.” And in 1885, the year Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published, the New York Herald reported the deliberations of the Library Committee of the Concord, MA, Public Library:

Another committeeman perused the volume with great care and discovered that it was “couched in the language of a rough, ignorant dialect” and that “all through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of inelegant expressions.” The third member voted the book “flippant” and “trash of the veriest sort.” They all united in the verdict that “it deals with a series of experiences that are certainly not elevating,” and voted that it could not be tolerated in the public library.

What made this American trash particularly trashy, in part, was its use of vernacular forms. All three — comics, Huckleberry Finn, and ragtime — were distinctly American creations, repudiating European expression and embracing American voices. But as Ware suggests, it also has to do with the mass reproduction of the work itself, lending it to easy disposal and dismissal; it is, by definition, ephemeral. The greatest artists in each of these forms — Joplin in music, from Mark Twain to Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor in language, and from George Herriman to Robert Crumb in visual art — shanghaied popular American slang culture to serve as a new vehicle for deeply personal individual expression, thereby becoming profoundly subversive of what for a better phrase we call “high art.” And its reputation as popular culture serves, as Ware also suggests, to keep these creators modest, if not necessarily honest.

So at Cafe Katja this afternoon, Gabe and I will raise our glasses to American trash. Long may it live.

Suggested reading: Tom Carson on Huckleberry Finn

Some critics believe that Mark Twain’s work took a turn towards misanthropy and pessimism with the 1889 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and the 1894 Pudd’nhead Wilson, but in a recent essay for The Baffler Tom Carson suggests that the darker edge of Twain’s satire had been there all along, specifically in the 1884/1885 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Writes Carson:

Huck moves us because of how tenaciously he’s working out the rudiments of becoming a grown-up, from his budding moral reckonings to his improving survival skills. With few exceptions, he’s learning that people are rotten. That’s bound to make navigating their — or even his — future rottenness the ultimate test of adulthood. …

… [Not] much about Huck’s formative life could reasonably be described as either lovable or beautiful. There was, to start with, the prolonged trauma of growing up in the care of vicious, drunken Pap Finn; then the killing of Buck Grangerford. (“I cried a little when I was covering up Buck’s face, for he was mighty good to me.”) Even coping with the King and the Duke’s rodomontades was an object lesson in the unreliable nature of even the most casual encounters with adults on the make. All in all, only the river and friendship with Jim qualify as genuine spurs to Huck’s youthful spirit, and the river isn’t always benign.

I’ve always been of the opinion that Tom Sawyer, Huck’s sunnier, more playful comrade, may have been among the very first and amoral con men in American literature — a quality evident not only in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but especially in the last third of Huckleberry Finn as well. It may have been this encounter with Tom’s true spirit that made Twain reluctant to run Tom and Huck through adulthood in other books, as he’d originally planned.

Carson goes on to examine the glorification of adolescence in American life through a properly jaundiced eye; you can read the entire essay here.

Getting it right

At the White House Correspondents Dinner last Saturday night, biographer Ron Chernow quoted Mark Twain — or, rather, misattributed a quote to him. “As we head into election season, I will leave you with one final gem from Twain: Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reasons,” Chernow said in farewell; the error also picked up by CNN’s story about the dinner here.

As Matt Seybold of the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College and Editor-in-Chief of MarkTwainStudies.org pointed out, this was just about par for the course; it’s so common for individuals to shoehorn into their writing an apocryphal saying of the great American author that the Center even has a section of its web site devoted to such misattributions. Twain himself was a newspaper reporter early in his career, and Chernow’s case was particularly troublesome, Seybold writes: “If America’s leading historical biographer can’t be bothered to properly source the quote he chooses to conclude what he knows will probably be the most-watched speech he will ever deliver, what hope is there of defeating the ‘relentless campaign against the very credibility of the news media’ which he rightly describes?”

These are parlous times for the free press. At first, the man in the White House called “Fake News” the “enemy of the people”; he has since broadened his attacks to demonize the press generally. All right, Chernow was giving a speech, not writing a news story, but Seybold’s concern is well-taken. Also well-taken is Seybold’s injunction that “the stuff [Twain] actually said is always preferable to the weak witticisms of others we attempt to spruce up by imagining them coming out of his mouth,” and offers up, as an example, this much more robust and detailed characterization of the press from a speech that Twain gave in 1888:

Remind the world that ours is a useful trade, a worthy calling: that with all its lightness and frivolity it has one serious purpose, one aim, one speciality, and it is constant to it – the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence; and that whoso is by instinct engaged in this sort of warfare is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges and all kindred swindles, and the natural friend of human rights and human liberties.

An especially cogent thought, given the sham, pretentious, false swindler currently living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Something in the Missouri water

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.