Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Greatest Person from Back Then Ever

One of our current exhibitions in our Museum Center is Legacy: an examination of how Mark Twain’s presence still lives with us today. After reading what authors and public figures (including Tom Wolfe, David Baldacci and Roy Blount Jr.) have to say about Twain’s relevance, many of our guests write their thoughts on Sam and his legacy in one of our guest books. Today we thought we’d pull out a few of our favorite comments.

Without further ado, here are my top ten favorite Legacy comments and the reasons why I love them:

1. “How to describe Mark Twain’s Legacy? America is his legacy. Some people know more about him than they know about US Presidents. More people know his stories than probably any other author.” -- Jon

The Mark Twain House & Museum draws visitors from all over the world for just this reason. Sometimes it seems like everyone can tell a Sam story, or feels that they personally know Tom and Huck. Fiction is powerful.

2. “Mark on Sam: You were so ahead of your time in the sympathetic portrayal of Jim.”

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the major reasons that we still study Sam in school, and Jim is one of the major reasons the novel is so fantastic. Thanks for reminding us, Anonymous!

3. “Mark Twain would have an ipad and an appearance on ‘Oprah.’ ”

Yes! Always the celebrity, and always curious about new technology.

4. “Becky Thatcher is the coolest character EVER created.”

I tend to agree. Becky is such a smart, hilarious, brave little girl. It’s no wonder Tom fell so hard for her.

5. “Dear Mark Twain you are an asome writer to me you’re a good ilistrater” – Frome your Best Brother: Edwin

Based on this commenter’s handwriting, I think he’s just learning to read and write. We’re pretty excited that Twain’s stories are compelling to even the newest of literary minds.

6. “You helped me enjoy my childhood in a little town in Iran.” -- Faridet, age 60

Tom Sawyer isn’t just a boy from the Mississippi River: he’s every kid, as we’ve learned over and over from our visitors.

7. “I heart Samuel Clemens. P.S. Sorry about your kids.” – Katelyn

I know, Katelyn. I know. For those of you who don’t feel the pain, watch Ken Burns’ documentary and cry along with Katelyn and me.

8. “I think it’s cool that he has a lot of humor.” - Kevin

Well hey, so do I! That’s one of the reasons I love working for this place!

9. “I think Mark Twain did a good job with his life. He has a great wife, kids, personality. So Mark Twain is actually a good man. He also traveled halfway around the world. Good job Mark Twain.” – Shella

Not all writers were as successful as Sam at nearly every single facet of life. Even though he suffered trials and tribulations throughout his life, Shella is right: good job, Mark.

10. “You are the greatest person from Back Then ever.”

Heck yes!

Honorable mention: “Alex Trebek is the Best!”

For $1000: What is Julia's favorite comment in the comment book?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Quagmire of Quotations

Mark Twain is justly known for his many quips, witticisms and pithy observations. Across his novels, short stories, letters, speeches, plays and newspaper stories, he left a vast amount of quotable statements on everything from “Abstinence” to “Zug.” Seemingly he had an opinion on everything – human nature, animals, war, religion, politics, literature, love, family, money, history, friends and enemies. There are volumes dedicated to his succinct and often humorous assessments on a plethora of subjects.

One challenge with Twain quotations is the frequent misstatement of what he said. An example is the infamous “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated!” quote. We have used this quote in print ads and on a t-shirt in our store. It is, in fact, not what he said – or at least not how he said it in the following note written in May 1897:

“James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness, this report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Shame on us for perpetuating this mistake!

The famous quote attributed to Twain “I am not an American. I am the American.” makes for great copy. Unfortunately, Twain himself (American or not) did not say this about himself – he was repeating a quote from his friend Frank Fuller. Similarly, the much-repeated “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics” is attributed to Twain who was, in fact, quoting Benjamin Disraeli. The very funny “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds” was actually said by the very funny Edgar Wilson Nye.

Recently I was asked by two visitors to our website to confirm the provenance of two quotes commonly attributed to Twain:

“Golf is a good walk spoiled.”

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

After doing some research and asking around, these two popular quotes that are routinely attributed to Twain could not be definitively confirmed as his words. I reached out to Barbara Schmidt, the webmaster and creator of the superlative www.twainquotes.com and asked her to share some of the most commonly repeated apocryphal Twain quotes. In her words (and, yes, I am attributing this quote with confidence): “Twain has been labeled a ‘quote magnet.’ Anything that sounds good is often misattributed to him.” The following is her list of some of the most frequently misattributed quotes.

"The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco."

“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”

“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

“Be careful of reading medical magazines; you might die of a misprint.”

“Don't argue with people who buy ink by the barrel.”

“Denial is not just a river in Egypt.” (or “Denial ain’t a river in Egypt”)

Barbara is not saying that Twain didn’t say these things per se. On her website, some of these alleged quotes are followed by the statement, “This quote has been attributed to Mark Twain, but until the attribution can be verified, the quote should not be regarded as authentic.” When in doubt, Barbara recommends the following: “One of the best ways to research misattributed quotes is to use Google book and Google news archive searches for exact phrases. You will often find the first usage of such a phrase long after Clemens's death and not in any of his known works.” When we are in doubt, we generally turn to Barbara’s website or Caroline Thomas Harnsberger’s excellent Everybody’s Mark Twain and Mark Twain at Your Fingertips. Of course, our store has several terrific Twain books that are filled with correctly attributed quotes.

Much like the “Telephone Game,” these supposed Twain quotes may have been passed along, reported, re-reported, misstated, attributed and misattributed. In the end, many of them are simply very funny and therefore sound very Twain. He probably would be amused, but just like all of us, he probably would not be thrilled to have people put words in his mouth!

Jacques Lamarre

Director of Communications

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Is The Mark Twain House really haunted?

Shortly after I arrived at The Mark Twain House & Museum a year ago, I received an inquiry from the Smoking Gun Research Agency (SGRA), a CT-based paranormal group. Having received seven reports of suspected ghostly activity from visitors who had attended tours of the house, they were requesting the opportunity to conduct an investigation of the Clemens Family home.

Being new to the historic house museum business, I was not aware that these requests are a fairly common occurrence. I asked around if we previously had allowed paranormal investigations in the house. The answer was “no.” I then asked if the house was thought to be haunted. The answers ranged wildly. Some of the staff have reported no experiences whatsoever. Several employees do not believe in ghosts and think it is all bunk. Surprisingly, however, there were a substantial number of historic interpreters (a.k.a. tour guides) and security staff who had experienced the unexplained. Twain’s daughter Susy did die tragically in the house and many believe she never left. Some think the Clemens Family’s butler George Griffin is still looking after the home.

We agreed to allow SGRA into the house for a one-night investigation in August 2009. Although the house did not come alive that night with the full array of paranormal activity that people report experiencing – knocks, bangs, full-body apparitions, spectral voices, articles of clothing being tugged, cigar smells – SGRA did feel the house was “energetically active.” This Saturday, June 12th at 2 p.m., they will offer “Haunting Twain,” a free public presentation of their investigation at ParaCon 2010. Their program is open to the public and will occur at the Howard Johnson Conference Center in Milford, CT (visit http://www.sgra.org/paracon2010/ for details).

In September 2009, we welcomed SyFy’s hit television show Ghost Hunters for a much more comprehensive investigation of the house. They sent three teams into the house at different times. They were armed with infrared cameras, video and audio recording devices, EMF detectors, and more. Their episode aired in December and revealed knocks, bangs, EMF spikes and shadow movement that could not be easily explained.

In March 2010, we were visited by SyFy’s Ghost Hunters Academy for a follow-up investigation. They conducted a two-night investigation involving several teams of cadets all vying for one coveted spot as a member of TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society). If you want to find out the results of their investigation, you will have to watch our episode, which airs Wednesday, June 16th at 9 p.m. The Twain Team will be gathering at Woody’s Fish Tank (915 Main Street in downtown Hartford) to see and hear the TAPS Team findings. Please join us that night starting at 7 p.m. for a fun event.

So, ultimately, is The Mark Twain House haunted? The skeptics are still skeptical. The believers are even more convinced that there is something floating around in the house. Me? I haven’t experienced anything, but I’m open to the possibility. We invite you to make up your own mind by taking our Graveyard Shift Ghost Tours which start up this summer on Friday, June 25th. These hour-long nighttime guided tours of the dimly lit Picturesque Gothic mansion are by reservation only, so call (860) 280-3130 to reserve your spot. You can review the evidence, hear spooky episodes from the Clemens Family history, discover Victorian traditions surrounding séances and death, and maybe, just maybe, you might hear something that goes bump in the night or see something that will make your hair stand on end.

- Jacques Lamarre, Director of Communications

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Drag Queen at The Mark Twain House? Really?

On Friday, June 18th at 8 p.m., The Mark Twain House & Museum welcomes international chanteuse and drag comedian Varla Jean Merman for a one-night-only fundraising event. Having been seen at Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House, London’s West End, TV’s Project Runway, Ugly Betty, and New York’s Public Theatre, Varla (a.k.a. Jeffery Roberson) is certainly one of the top drag performers in the world. But a drag queen at The Mark Twain House? Really? This may seem, well, a bit odd. Actually, very odd. But, with minimal effort one can find the connection.

In Twain’s masterpiece Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the titular character dresses as a girl to gain intelligence on recent events on the river. “I would slip over the river and find out what was going on. Jim liked that notion; but he said I must go in the dark and look sharp. Then he studied it over and said, couldn’t I put on some of them old things and dress up like a girl? That was a good notion, too. So we shortened up one of the calico gowns and I turned up my trowser-legs to my knees and got into it.” He steals off to the home of a woman whose husband is out searching for the escaped slave Jim. After bungling his nom de drag and committing various other feminine faux pas, the woman exposes Huck’s charade with invaluable drag advice on how to properly thread a needle and the ladylike way to throw something at a rat. The book contains other sequences of cross-dressing shenanigans involving the “King” dressing as Juliet and Jim dressed as Aunt Sally.

Twain’s recently unearthed and revised stage comedy, Is He Dead?, features a protagonist who cross-dresses to commit fraud in the art world. An artist, in order to escape crushing debt and a life of penury, decides to fake his death in order to become successful. “One of us must seem to die – must change his name and disappear – we’ll make his name sound throughout the world, and the riches will come. Francois Millet must die!” Knowing that an artist’s work is far more valuable if the creator is dead, Millet and his co-conspirators scheme to “kill” the artist. After convincing everyone that he has succumbed to a horrible fate, he returns dressed as his sister, the Widow Daisy Tillou, to collect the money that will undoubtedly start accumulating. When Millet makes his first appearance in drag, Twain’s stage directions paint a not-so-pretty picture: “The Widow, young, handsome, cheaply but prettily dressed with hat or without it, as you please, comes mincing out of the bedroom, smoking a corncob or briarwood pipe.” Millet complains, “You see I’m femininely ignorant. I could make fatal mistakes in talking…I’ll do the best I can…I can’t stand too much of an exhibition. Let me run in and fix my hair.”

Cross-dressing appears in other Twain texts including The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, and various short stories. Linda A. Morris’s book Gender Play in Mark Twain: Cross-dressing and Transgression more fully explores drag in Twain’s literature along with the Victorian and Minstrel Show traditions that influenced this aspect of his writing. And if you still don’t believe that Mark Twain might welcome a drag comedian at his home, you can check out the photo of Twain himself bedecked in a dress and a bonnet, performing in a family theatrical with daughter Susy. He has even smartly accessorized with a hot water bottle.

Varla Jean Merman is “The Lady Behind the Moustache” is Friday, June 18th at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased by calling (860) 280-3130.

- Jacques Lamarre, Director of Communications