Wednesday, May 5, 2010

100 Years, 100 Ways of Thinking about Sam

Hello there, Mark Twain fans!

Julia Pistell here, Caitlin's office neighbor and comrade in Twain scholarship. I will be helping out with the blog from time to time to keep you up to speed on our thoughts and programs. I pledge to live up to her high standards.

Last weekend, the New Jersey paper the Star Ledger published a short essay I wrote about three Twain biographers. These three writers will be visiting us on Monday, May 10th to discuss their work. It's all part of the NEA's Big Read. The biographers don't always agree, so the panel has the makings of an enthralling literary debate. We hope you'll be there.

Below is an excerpt of my Star Ledger piece. Read it over, think up some questions for our panel, and come by on Monday!


In 1909, Thomas Edison, a resident of Menlo Park and West Orange, filmed Samuel Clemens at his home in Redding, Conn., thus creating the only moving picture of America's most popular writer. Edison's brief footage shows Twain as he still lives in our cultural imagination: dressed in white, smoking a cigar.

Now, at the centennial commemoration of the death of Samuel L. Clemens, the author’s life has transformed into the legacy of Mark Twain. How we recall Twain today is reflective of how he wanted to be remembered: as, in his purported words, not “an American, but the American.” Three new biographical works revise this image.

Michael Shelden’s ”Mark Twain, Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years” (Random House, 528 pp., $30) is “the story of how this consummate showman staged his parting scenes, what he did to perpetuate his fame and how he made it pay long after he was gone.” Shelden’s work addresses an essential fact about Twain: As a writer, he understood the power of symbolism. Twain is the one who pointed out the association of his birth and death with the passing of Halley’s comet; who permanently stuck Huck, Jim and a raft into the American imagination; and who appeared in a white suit one day, as Shelden says, “impossible to ignore.”
And yet there are conflicting ideas about who Twain was and who he is to us now.

Laura Skandera Trombley’s ”Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden History of His Final Years” (Knopf, 352 pp., $27.95) relies on the personal writings of Twain’s secretary, Isabel Lyon, to argue he had a darker side, kept out of both his autobiography and the biography he authorized Alfred Bigelow Paine to write while Twain was alive. Trombley seeks to unearth “the story that Mark Twain was determined no one would ever tell.”

Jerome Loving’s more traditional biography, “Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens” (University of California Press, 520 pp., $34.95), says Mark Twain “began as a humorist and ended as a pessimist.” Loving tells yet a third story, a “segmented or episodic life, much like his greatest fictions.” Loving argues that Twain’s final years are merely an epilogue to his life, and that “Mark Twain also died that early June day” in 1904 when his wife, Olivia, died, rendering both the white suit and his relations with Lyon insignificant. The final years that preoccupy Shelden’s and Trombley’s books are, Loving implies, less important than the years Twain spent altering American literature.

The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Conn., whose mission is to cast a wide net on the author’s interests, is untroubled by the complex and conflicting interpretations of Samuel Clemens. On May 10, these three authors will convene there to discuss their respective books and Twain’s legacy.

See you there!

-- Julia


Literary Dreamer said...

And it should be pointed out that the article was written by...Julia Pistell. :-)

Literary Dreamer said...

And the Star-Ledger Staff. Don't want to forget them. :-)

The Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT said...

Ah, sorry, Literary Dreamer! I didn't mean to be tricky about that-- just wanted to adapt what I'd already written to the blog. I just went back into the post and cleared it up. -- Julia

Literary Dreamer said...

I didn't think you were being tricky about it. I just wanted to give credit where credit was due. Sorry if my emoticon gave the wrong impression!