A toast to … Huckleberry Finn

For about the third or fourth time in as many years, I’m picking up Adventures of Huckleberry Finn again, finding that it appeals, as all great satires do, as a comment on conscience, conformity, and corruption: the integrity of and respect for the individual conscience, conformity to community values, and the corruption of the human spirit, especially as it expressed itself through the institution of slavery in the United States. And all this in the 300 pages or so of the Penguin Classics edition.

Ordinarily such a book wouldn’t stand up to re-reading as frequent as that, but it’s an extraordinarily rich novel and seems, with every year, to become richer. Certainly the Western liberal idea of the integrity of the individual is, in 2020, under attack around the world, even in the West; there’s increased social, political, and military pressure to walk in lockstep with puritanical and exclusionary ideas about the ideal community and ideal behavior; and, finally, systemic racism in America is perhaps for the first time under profound investigation. The problematic final third of Huckleberry Finn becomes less problematic if one reads it as Twain’s commentary on the Redeemer movement in the South, which started about ten years before the book’s publication in 1888 — a movement which, if nothing else, proved that racism and slavery did not end in 1865 with the close of the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy. (The book, set in the 1830s or so, exemplifies the “double vision” of most satiric literature: a criticism of the present through a story set in the past.) Though theoretically “free,” Jim becomes a pawn in Tom Sawyer’s cruel game, and he continues through the end of the book to be regarded as less than human by the Phelpses and their neighbors, even though he’s demonstrated great empathy and courage (more, perhaps, than anybody in the book with the possible exception of Huck Finn himself).

Not to mention that much of the book is extraordinarily funny and in terrible, horribly bad taste, especially when it’s at its subversive best.

Only eleven years after Twain put the final touches on Huck Finn, and only 160 miles to the southwest from Twain’s home town of Hannibal, MO, Scott Joplin published “Maple Leaf Rag” through John Stark’s music publishing company in Sedalia, and from then on ragtime and Twain flourished through 1910, the year of Twain’s death. Twain was perhaps the most celebrated and recognized figure in America through those years, and ragtime the nation’s most popular and celebrated music. The enthusiasm for ragtime faded about the time the First World War began, and indeed both Twain and ragtime were in cultural eclipse until after the Second World War, when Twain’s work began to be reluctantly admitted to the academic canon and a few ragtime aficionados tried to keep the form alive and recognized as a distinctly American music.

If we can’t actually live sanely, we can at least read sane books and listen to sane music until — and if — the current storm of insanity passes. Which is why I’ll be raising a glass to Huckleberry Finn at Cafe Katja this afternoon, safely distancing and all the rest of it. Prost!

Air of melancholy

It’s been nearly two months since I’ve posted here — I suppose that the spirit is willing, but the flesh weak, especially working all day from home with the kids in what is laughingly called “school” and the better half also at work all day in a 1,200-square-foot space on the Lower East Side. Instead, in what little spare time remains, I’ve been amusing myself as I’ve had to. In a sense, I suppose, we all need some kind of escape from the stresses and tensions of the period.

In New York, this isn’t easy at the best of times, but I’ve tried. I’ve gotten a lot of reading done on the weekends. Catch-22 remains perhaps more relevant than ever (there’s more than one way to “raise the number of combat missions”; a pandemic and enforced isolation are two); Mark Twain remains a comfort as well, with Pudd’nhead Wilson in the outbox and A Tramp Abroad on the bedside table (nothing like late Twain to confirm one’s cynicism about the culture and the race); Ed Berlin’s Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History and Rudi Blesh & Harriet Janis’s They All Played Ragtime fill out a little knowledge about a music that I’ve come to love even more, even though it’s over a century old, in 2020.

The friendly postman brought around two CDs from the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra the other day — both fine recordings. The PRO Finally Plays the Entertainer is a collection of band arrangements of tunes by the big three (Joplin, Lamb, and Scott — and the package design by Chris Ware is splendid), but the most surprising pleasure was From Barrelhouse to Broadway, a collection of songs by the great Joe Jordan, who is very new to me. (At the end of this post you’ll find “The Whippoorwill Dance” for your listening pleasure.) I find in the best ragtime a quiet, elegant air of melancholy that suits my constitution well.

For some reason this early American music has captured the affection of several comics artists. Apart from Ware mentioned above, Robert Armstrong and R. Crumb are also smitten by these tunes (I’ve also been listening to a bit of the East River String Band, with whom Crumb has often sit in). Germany’s Christoph Mueller is fond of the period, though I’m not sure if he’s an enthusiast for the music; Mr. Mueller recently contributed a cover called “Shelter in Place” to The New Yorker, his first. Mueller is a post-Crumb artist and this, in an odd way, is an appropriate accompaniment to Crumb’s own “Short History of America.” Although the immediate context is the coronavirus, of course, I think Mueller’s evocation of the isolation of the individual and the isolation of nature in large cities speaks to a much broader solitude and loneliness that transcends the immediate moment. At the moment, Mueller is completing the artwork for the 39th issue of Mineshaft, due later this year. (I hope I don’t have to remind you to subscribe to this, America’s most indispensable magazine.) Mueller spoke with the New Yorker‘s art editor Françoise Mouly about “Shelter in Place” here.

I should also mention that among my pandemic reading was Hillary Chute’s recent history of contemporary comics, Why Comics?, highly recommended.

Finally, my Google searches have been taking me recently to the environs of Dublin, New Hampshire, the home of the Old Farmer’s Almanac. When I glance out of my window now, I often see a facsimile of Mueller’s perspective; how much I’d rather see Dublin. There’s a photo below, and here’s “The Whippoorwill Dance,” as promised, performed by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra’s maestro Rick Benjamin. I hope to kick up the pace here soon and write a little more about all of this. Until then, save me a place in Dublin.

Town center of Dublin, New Hampshire.

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.

Santa Claus’ letter to Susy Clemens

The mantle of the Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT, decorated for the Christmas season.

It is my heart-warm and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us, the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the admired, the despised, the loved, the hated, the civilized, the savage (every man and brother of us all throughout the whole earth), may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss, except the inventor of the telephone.

Mark Twain’s Christmas prayer, first published in the Boston Globe on December 25, 1890, is also mine, but on the eve of my next visit to the Mark Twain House next week, I also wanted to pass along his “Letter from Santa Claus,” written for his three-year-old daughter Susy in 1875. The letter was likely written in the billiard room/study of the Hartford mansion on Christmas Eve of that year and demonstrates the warmth of Sam Clemens’ love for his family; it’s been kicking around the internet for a while, but there’s no time like the present to read it one more time.

I’ve just finished reading Life on the Mississippi; after a few years of enjoying Twain’s writing in a haphazard fashion at best, I’ll likely make a resolution on New Year’s Eve to read and write more about it in the coming year. For now, though, Santa Claus to Susy Clemens, 144 years ago.


Palace of St. Nicholas
In the Moon
Christmas Morning

MY DEAR SUSIE CLEMENS:

I have received and read all the letters which you and your little sister have written me by the hand of your mother and your nurses; I have also read those which you little people have written me with your own hands — for although you did not use any characters that are in grown peoples’ alphabet, you used the characters that all children in all lands on earth and in the twinkling stars use; and as all my subjects in the moon are children and use no character but that, you will easily understand that I can read your and your baby sister’s jagged and fantastic marks without any trouble at all. But I had trouble with those letters which you dictated through your mother and the nurses, for I am a foreigner and cannot read English writing well. You will find that I made no mistakes about the things which you and the baby ordered in your own letters — I went down your chimney at midnight when you were asleep and delivered them all myself — and kissed both of you, too, because you are good children, well trained, nice mannered, and about the most obedient little people I ever saw. But in the letter which you dictated there were some words which I could not make out for certain, and one or two small orders which I could not fill because we ran out of stock. Our last lot of kitchen furniture for dolls has just gone to a very poor little child in the North Star away up, in the cold country above the Big Dipper. Your mama can show you that star and you will say: “Little Snow Flake,” (for that is the child’s name) “I’m glad you got that furniture, for you need it more than I.” That is, you must write that, with your own hand, and Snow Flake will write you an answer. If you only spoke it she wouldn’t hear you. Make your letter light and thin, for the distance is great and the postage very heavy.

There was a word or two in your mama’s letter which I couldn’t be certain of. I took it to be “a trunk full of doll’s clothes.” Is that it? I will call at your kitchen door about nine o’clock this morning to inquire. But I must not see anybody and I must not speak to anybody but you. When the kitchen doorbell rings, George [Griffin, the Clemens’ beloved butler] must be blindfolded and sent to open the door. Then he must go back to the dining room or the china closet and take the cook with him. You must tell George he must walk on tiptoe and not speak — otherwise he will die someday. Then you must go up to the nursery and stand on a chair or the nurse’s bed and put your car to the speaking tube that leads down to the kitchen and when I whistle through it you must speak in the tube and say, “Welcome, Santa Claus!” Then I will ask whether it was a trunk you ordered or not. If you say it was, I shall ask you what color you want the trunk to be. Your mama will help you to name a nice color and then you must tell me every single thing in detail which you want the trunk to contain. Then when I say “Good-by and a merry Christmas to my little Susie Clemens,” you must say “Good-by, good old Santa Claus, I thank you very much and please tell that little Snow Flake I will look at her star tonight and she must look down here — I will be right in the west bay window; and every fine night I will look at her star and say, ‘I know somebody up there and like her, too.’” Then you must go down into the library and make George close all the doors that open into the main hall, and everybody must keep still for a little while. I will go to the moon and get those things and in a few minutes I will come down the chimney that belongs to the fireplace that is in the hall — if it is a trunk you want — because I couldn’t get such a thing as a trunk down the nursery chimney, you know.

People may talk if they want, until they hear my footsteps in the hall. Then you tell them to keep quiet a little while till I go back up the chimney. Maybe you will not hear my footsteps at all — so you may go now and then and peep through the dining-room doors, and by and by you will see that thing which you want, right under the piano in the drawing room — for I shall put it there. If I should leave any snow in the hall, you must tell George to sweep it into the fireplace, for I haven’t time to do such things. George must not use a broom, but a rag — else he will die someday. You must watch George and not let him run into danger. If my boot should leave a stain on the marble, George must not holystone it away. Leave it there always in memory of my visit; and whenever you look at it or show it to anybody you must let it remind you to be a good little girl. Whenever you are naughty and somebody points to that mark which your good old Santa Claus’s boot made on the marble, what will you say, little sweetheart?

Good-by for a few minutes, till I come down to the world and ring the kitchen doorbell.

Your loving SANTA CLAUS
Whom people sometimes call “The Man in the Moon”

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.