A Mark Twain blog

This is the Samuel Clemens (also known as Mark Twain, the man in white) discussion blog of April Coleman, a young woman currently obtaining her Bachelor of Arts for English at the University of Montevallo.

I’ll work to cover various topics both discussed in class and ones I’ve gathered from my own connections and interests in Twain’s colorful history.

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Week 15

Since I went to the comic round table at the Forte Festival, I’m going to write about my experience. Prior to this, I honestly didn’t think there was a community of artists here. I appreciate Forte Fest helped me broaden my perspectives.

When I first arrived at the library, I was taken aback by the displays showcasing Alabama comic artists and their works. There were several comics I recognized but had not realized that hey! I know that kid! When I was walking passed one of the displays, I noticed a comic (the Adventure Time issue) with an art style that was familiar to me. When I got closer and read the blurb, I saw it was illustrated by Rina Abrego, a friend of mine! The amount of artistic talent coming out of the university is incredible.

After spending too much time looking through the displays, I went to the round table on the floor above. The room was completely full when I got there so I had to stand outside and listen, but I was still able to understand and enjoy the panel. An interesting question someone asked the panelists was how (if at all) they felt living in Alabama shaped their creative process and views on topics. One panelist, whose name I believe was Chris, answered that living in Alabama gave him the mental space to create comics he wanted to that he probably wouldn’t have gotten in an area with more mainstream attention on comics. If he was in a larger city, he mentioned, there would be a higher population of artists, which would probably have swayed the way he told his stories. Living in Alabama gives him the breadth to tell the kind of stories he wants to tell rather than feeling the pressure to focus on what’s most popular.

The Comics of Alabama round table at the Montevallo Forte festival was an interesting and enlightening experience. I consider myself fairly well read when it comes to comics and visual novels and I was still quite impressed by the amount of talent from this state. The food was also delicious, 10/10 lemonade.

Week 14

1601, Conversation as it was by the Social Fireside in the Time of the Tudors

Given the flatulent humor he uses to parody the Tudor’s royal court, its no surprise that in his admission of authorship of “1601, Conversation as it was by the Social Fireside in the Time of the Tudors” to Mr. Charles Orr includes, “I hasten to assure you that it is not printed in my published writings.” Balancing the lighthearted profanity with the

Clemens Promises Chatto 'Early Sheets' of Huck Finn

Twain’s letter to his editor concerning Huckleberry Finn, another controversial work opposing popular culture

deadpan narration of the Queen’s cup-bearer might have skirt a tad bit too close to the edge of abject foolishness for him to claim it at the time, but his decision to reprint it says something about his dedication to irreverence. While I’m under no illusion that this work was a serious critical examination of Elizabethan culture, the use of British historical figures seems especially purposeful, as if he wanted to make a joke, but still had a point to make.

 

 

In any case, during our in class reading of 1601, I found myself thinking about how Twain manages to commentate so boldly on popular figures (or the establishment itself). He published countless works over the years that questioned the moral position of the mainstream establishment including Huck Finn, which remains one of his most highly acclaimed works to this day (humorous side note: the Duchess of Bilgewater’s male counterpart makes an appearance in Huckleberry Finn in the Duke and King episodes). The extent to which he presented himself as the “lovable scamp” of American literature worked well in his favor in allowing him to criticize public opinion.

Many of his works takling controversial issues, including Huck Finn, are written from the point of view of a child character, or at least a childlike character. Could it be that because certain issues that reject or critique established culture must be expressed tactfully in order to avoid backlash, childhood innocence allows him a medium for expressing his thoughts? Twain’s use of a child to confront the legitimacy of Christianity in Little Bessie, for example, makes his criticism feel more the result of childlike curiosity than religious cynicism. Huck Finn, as well, opposes the dehumanization of African Americans through the use of Huck’s maturing personal morality. Could it be that his refusal to claim authorship of 1601 is related to his feeling of vulnerability? That without the familiar shield of childhood to defend himself, he did not want it associated with the name Mark Twain?

Or maybe it was just a silly inside joke to a good friend that he didn’t want taken too seriously.

Week 13

The Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts

The Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts are the last collection of works written by

no44

University of California Press

Mark Twain before his death in 1910. This story (No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, Print shop ver.), left unpublished by his death, was never completely finished, but remains the most complete of three other drafts written by Twain (St. Petersburg Fragment, The Chronicle of Young Satan, and Schoolhouse Hill). This collection, published posthumously, includes several different editions attempting to reconstruct Twain’s final work as faithfully as possible (Not in the case of Albert Bigelow Paine’s edition, however, which has “been shown to be a textual fraud”.) The version by the UC at Berkeley press remains as the complete collection of these works.

Number 44, the name by which Twain refers to the protagonist in his manuscripts, has inspired many extremely thorough and well-researched theories by literary scholars throughout the years. I, in my well-meaning enthusiasm, disregarded them all as I embarked on my own curious, poorly-researched inquiry to the significance of the Number 44.

The significance of the number 4 itself (at least in a religious sense) pertains to creation; the fourth day being the day the sun and stars came into existence. Four holds even greater significance as the number by which we (humanity) generally adhere in our lives: four frequently reoccurs in our seasons, cardinal points, phases of the day and night, etc., all of a cyclical nature. Even the four horsemen, said to arise on humanity’s judgement day, function as the conclusion of a cycle. Together these phases function in a harmonious balance of inter-reliance, a wholeness. Given this symbolism, it’s association with God makes sense.

The number 44 immediately brings to mind duplicity and duality. Replicating the twain1number 4 mirrors the symbol of creation, which is inverted into a symbol of destruction.  Those two figures of duality, the figure of creation and destruction, also reflect the simultaneous existence of Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain. In his last words to August, No. 44 insistence in life being a dream bring to mind the last few chapters of the Kaplan biography discussing Twain’s preoccupation with the difference between the waking world and the world within his dreams. If No. 44 truly is a part of a “a grotesque and foolish dream”, does this imply that Twain himself, as a creation of Clemens, is a one as well? Perhaps his obsession with altered reality created a distinction between his view of the world through is dreams and his view of the waking world that destabilized his security in being the dual figure of Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain and No. 44 is a reflection of that destabilization.

 

Week 10

Given the nature of the more recent works we’ve read (Huckleberry Finn, for example), I had almost forgotten that Mark Twain was known as a humorous first and foremost, and that his satire is in addition, rather than in spite, of that.

A Double-Barreled Detective Story was one of the stories Twain penned during the detective boom of the late Victorian period, a time when Britain couldn’t get enough of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. What began as a simple digression in Tramps Abroad actually became a piece in a collection of detective tales published in 1882, the result of several years of him dipping his toe in the genre. While it’s unsure if his interest began satirically or through genuine interest, the result of this interest intersected with the rising popularity of True Crime, in which many citizens followed the work of detectives such as the Pinkerton Detective Agency as if they were the characters in their fiction novels. Like many areas of popular culture during the Victorian period, Twain was quick to express his thoughts on such a cultural phenomenon with a humorous burlesque of such a situation as well as provide subtle social commentary on the dangers of the ideological implications surrounding the idolization of detective work and modern technology.

Much like the structure of A Double-Barreled Detective Story itself, Twain takes the conventional expectations of the detective genre and inverts them. Unlike the two part structure of Sherlock Holmes novels that typically involve a “mystery” and then a “revenge” plot that follows, Twain’s work begins with a revenge plot that leads to a mystery. The structure sets the foundation for the work that the text performs, which takes common conventions of the detective genre and flips in a way that reflects back on the society that endorses them. After the explosion that claims the life of the silver-miner Flint Buckner, the “Extraordinary Man” Sherlock Holmes investigates arbitrary “clues” in the crime scene using a ridiculous selection of scientific gadgets, including a “pocket-aneroid” (Twain 118). While The Stolen White Elephant also hinted at the idea, Detective Story directly addresses the effect of society’s preoccupation with conveniently placed clues, a reminder that detail-oriented focus on “facts” doesn’t make the conclusions gained from an inaccurate interpretation infallible. The excessive focus on clue collection and the absurd amount of portable “investigation tools” Holmes manages to include (while gaining nothing of relevance to the real perpetrator’s identity from doing so) jabs at the cultural reliance on science and logic as a basis for solving crimes that involve people’s lives. Science and all the logic in the world is not what led the true killer to being revealed, but simply a strong sense of smell, a trait honed by a man who was ruled by his emotions rather than the robotic logic so often praised in the personalities of fictive detectives.Twain, an investor in innovative technology himself, doesn’t seem to be completely denouncing the importance of technology as a whole. In another work, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, it is the innovative technology of fingerprinting that ultimately solves the case plaguing the novel. What Twain seems to be critiquing is the Victorian fascination with technology, and the idea that using that technology can, itself, solve problems through the expectations projected that it and the detective that utilize it could never be wrong.

 

Week 8

Although Mark Twain became known as a vocal opponent to slavery and valued the stories and culture of slaves in his time, framing him as a staunch liberal abolitionist wouldn’t do credit to the (sometimes contradictory) duality of his character. Early on in his life, Samuel Clemens began to question the way that society spoke about slavery. In his autobiography, he recalls a situation with his own mother, Jane Clemens, where he admits that, as a child, he “had no aversion to slavery” and “was not aware that there was anything wrong about it”. He recalls that the local papers said nothing against it, that the church taught him that God approved of it, and that they never saw a slave “misused”¹ in their town of Hannibal, Missouri. But one of his clearest, sharpest memories involved that of a slave boy named Sandy, who constantly sang and laughed. When Clemens asks his mother to “shut him up”, she tearfully replies that his singing is what comforts him in the reality of his enslavement, the reality that he will never see his mother again, and if he were older, he would be glad at “that friendless child’s noise”. Moments like these are what laid down the foundation for the dismantling of Clemen’s prior assumptions, and slowly allowed him to form his own personal moral code despite the social pressure of believing otherwise. Later in life, after meeting Aunt Hannah, Clemens recalls that “[the negroes and he] were comrades and yet not comrades”, and that “color and condition interposed a subtle line which both parties were conscious of and which rendered complete fusion impossible”. These moments of clarity and consciousness towards the situation in which he lived allowed him to be able to craft Huckleberry Finn, and realistically allow Huck to slowly understand Jim’s humanity enough to renounce his reliance on the status quo in order to validate his morality. While Clemen’s mother has her realization and simply pities the slaves while she maintains the dissonance between realization and action (the self-deception allowed in Bad Faith histories during this time period), Twain takes action in the form of this novel, and builds Huck up from simply following the status quo to actively deciding to rebel against it.

Why, then, does chapter 34 of this novel onward when Tom Sawyer arrives feel as though the reader has taken a step back from their epiphany, as Jim is yet again subject to be a plaything for childish amusement? Tom Sawyer’s arrival seems to disrupt the flow of character development in Huck’s life, and while it could be seen as a pull back from the seriousness of the novel to allow a more lighthearted ending, I feel it could also be using Sawyer as a symbol of the socially accepted opinion of slaves, one that Huck would have to face no matter his personal ideology. In chapter 38, where Tom is mentioning the critters that Jim has to train (as a part of his childish fantasy), the mention of snakes feels like a call back to Chapter 10, where Huck gets Jim bitten by the snake. Tom, who hasn’t been exposed to the situations that allowed Huck to realize Jim’s humanity. The snake here represents that childish, and almost vindictive, playfulness that, while Huck has graduated from that way of thinking, Tom has yet to realize dehumanizes Jim, who he fails to see as a human at all, and who’s pleas he ignores (“but what kine er time is Jim havin’?”)

While I do think it is a injustice to the genius of this work by not having Huck respond to Tom’s actions, I can see how Tom can symbolize the social ideas of the greater society.

  1. I’m sure he uses “misused” as to pertaining to any outright “violent” acts that the slaves were subject to, but given what was “normal” and accepted at the time, it’s possible that he simply didn’t see human rights violations for what they were during this time period and was under the illusion that everything was alright.

Week 7

Throughout his lifetime, Samuel Clemens constantly struggled with the cultural expectations regarding slavery and his intrinsic moral code. His experiences with slaves in his childhood instilled a foundation of cultural doubt in him. People like Uncle Dan’l and Aunt Racheal showed him the power a vernacular storyteller can have over their audience. The impact of these encounters comes into fruition in Huckleberry Finn, where the young Huck Finn goes through his own moral metamorphosis regarding how he views Jim, an escaped slave and his companion throughout the novel. But before that can be realized, Huck must be confronted with the absurdity of the culture in which he’s been raised through his interactions with Jim, whose “uncommon level head” subtly questions cultural ideas that surround slavery (Twain 120).
One such scene involves King Solomon, where Huck talks about his lifestyle. Jim comments that he doesn’t take stock in Solomon being “de wises’ man dat ever live’”, seeing as he has so many wives (Twain 121). Huck’s response is that he must be, because the widow told him so. Jim insists that he couldn’t be, and references the dispute between two mothers who argue over the same child, each claiming it as her own, where Solomon suggests cleaving the child in half and giving half to each mother. As the story goes, the real mother would object to cutting the child in half, and that’s how Solomon discovers who the child’s real mother is. But Jim sees it as wasteful, and criticizes Solomon’s decision (while Huck insists that he simply “clean missed the point” (Twain 122)). Huck’s position of social superiority leaves him incapable of looking at the situation from Jim’s understanding. We see this in the beginning, as well, where Huck comments on Jim being “most always right”. While Huck lifts him up with complimenting his “uncommon level head”, he also feels the need to push him down by ending the comment with, “for a nigger”, in securing his superiority (Twain 120). But Jim himself is well aware of what he’s saying, and that “de real pint is down furder—it’s down deeper”, and lies in the way that Solomon values children that are not his own (Twain 122). His “wisdom”, here, is only a reflection of his excess; the child offered up to be cleaved in two—whether he were to cleave the child or not—is not valued by him, and that lack of consideration is what Jim is criticizing. With the treatment of black families during slavery, cleaving families apart doesn’t affect the slaver the way it effects the family that loses their child. It is a matter of perception, something that Huck is unwilling to see, and instead decides his interpretation is correct. The irony of this situation is that while Jim is offering a unique argument that works to reflect his own experiences, Huck is simply repeating what he is told without any critical thought of his own and believing it as fact. The satire in this scene is subtle, critiquing the value of children and their families during slavery, undercut by the fact that Twain knows his audience is likely to read the passage with their own prejudices and dismiss Jim much like Huck has. Even though he’s unable to respond with an argument of his own, he is quick to save face by repeating his derogatory language towards Jim in a way to reclaim his feeling of superiority.

Week 5

Samuel Clemens was, in all respects, a complicated man. Known publically for his vibrant personality, his attention-grabbing “rolling gait (like a sailor)”, and repeated works of genius satire and humorist writings, he was seen during his time as a writer as the man with everything (Kaplan 228-9). But there is a strong hypocrisy in the way that Clemens (Twain) acts and portrays his persona that is betrayed by the way he narrates his work. Twain’s writings are often from the point of view of a narrator of wit and insight, who culturally analyses social context in a measured and logical way, a contradiction to the antics and spontaneous habits the writer himself shows throughout his lifetime. Underneath this celebrity persona lied a flawed man with a “celebrated temper” known by his family, a vindictive streak towards the people close to him, and fits of unpredictable and compulsive behavior that led him to the brink of bankruptcy several times (and, eventually, to bankruptcy in the spring of 1894). Twain’s hubris was no secret—he reveled in celebrity attention almost as much as he hated it, and would do so no matter what life he would have ended up leading (Twain wrote, in a letter to a student admirer who said he would trade his boyish childhood for Twain’s lavish wealth, “jolly” demeanor, and the “millions” the child thought he was worth, that even if he were to have the life of a boy again, he would want to be known as “the celebrated ‘Master Pilot of the Mississippi’”) (Kaplan 231). He spent wildly, well above his means (his many renovations and entertaining in Farmington Avenue home “cost about as much as he earned in royalties and investments”), valued opulence to the point of materialistic consumerism, and had proclivity towards outrageous tantrums—one of his more well-known displays of anger is when, screaming, he threw his shirts out of his bathroom window after finding there was a button missing (Kaplan 230, 235). A far-cry from the simple living, rustic-loving image his many stories portray. Tom Sawyer, for example, retains a sense of childlike wonder towards his small town environment throughout the novel, and even celebrates it as the boys (Tom, Huck, and Joe) take to the seas on their own pirate adventure. Unlike his characters and his personality in his travel writings, where the narrators give off an air of confidence and sureness about themselves, he would “wallow in attention one moment, and in the next becoming snappish and resentful and feeling sorry for himself” (Kaplan 230). The duality of Twain—the man we get through writings and dinners parties, versus the man we get through his outbursts and personal letters to his brother and close friends—seems to be not only influential, but essential to his work as a humorist. His ability to look at situations through more than one lens leads itself well to revealing the underlining irony of a moment, something that a more myopic observer would surely miss, and is why his writings are rich with satirical cultural subversion and a “punch line” that weaves itself throughout his tales in a way that both captivates and charms those who read them. Though the man was tortured by it much of his life, I believe his contradicting nature was the source of his most rich, complex, and dynamic works (such as Huckleberry Finn—a novel universally known and whose controversy remains to this day).

 

Works cited:

Kaplan, Justin. Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography. Paperback ed., New York, Simon & Schuster, 2006, pp. 228-37.

Week 4

In reading Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, the theme of childishness stood out to me countless times throughout the telling of Tom’s rambunctious adventures in his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. As I went through the novel, and later when discussing the many “scenes” in class, I was drawn to the scene in which Tom trades his treasures for yellow tickets, not only for a Bible, as was a customary reward of gathering ten of them, but for “the glory and the élat that came with it” (Twain 36). Here, Tom’s ‘showing off’ was compared to the way the adults were ‘showing off’, and how each person that was focused on had their own way of gaining attention from the people they wanted to impress. While Tom’s childish way of showing off—by “using every art that seemed likely to fascinate a girl and win her applause”—is to gain the eye of Amy of Lawrence, the adults are trying to gain the favor of the superintendent Mr. Walters, ‘showing off’ in less obvious ways: the librarian makes a show of running around with her books, the female teachers put on their best “good teacher” act, while the males made a show of their authority and attention to discipline, while the children ‘showed off’ in various, childish ways; the superintendent himself ‘show[s] off’ with his barking of orders to “everywhere that he could find a target”, and even the judge showed off as he “warmed himself in the sun of his own grandeur” (Twain 38-40). The way that Twain parallels their appeals both compare and undermine the way that adults vie for the attention of that “insect authority” (Twain 39). The play that the “actors” in this scene are keeping up with escapes the notice of the boy, whose eyes are focused on the attention of a girl he likes, rather than the authority figure whom everyone around him is so desperate to impress, ignoring the social cues that everyone else makes a show of conforming to. Tom, who ironically manages only to gain Amy’s hatred after she realizes what he’s done to gain the yellow tickets, embodies the nature of anti-establishment in this situation. The judge—who explains the “right” method of obtaining upward social mobility, by upholding the establishment and following the correct order of operations necessary to rightfully gain a position like his own—offers a foil to Tom, a boy who took a shortcut and skipped all the trouble of doing everything the way a boy is “supposed” to do, and still managed to stand before the man. There is also a hint of irony in the Superintendent’s speech on pages 42 to 43: He insists that he has done all the right things, but there is hardly any evidence to suggest that he had followed his own “blueprint to success himself”. More than that, it brings up the contradictory nature of what is “inherent”, or “common sense”, and how much of what is expected is “natural” behavior. Tom mischievous nature leads him to often undermine authority, if not entirely flip the concept on its head. I think this scene is one of the ones where you’re able to glimpse into the way that his childish way of doing things highlights the unnatural practices of the people around him, and how his unusual way of thinking manages to slip him under the radar of what we would expect him not to get away with.