It was seven years ago. June 13, 2006. After watching the Mark Twain Forum rage for a week about a neocon skeleton’s consideration as the next Mark Twain, I offered no additional comment as my first contribution to the listserv, but a link (no longer active) identifying direct passages of her work lifted from others. I’m not controversial, just contextual. Within an hour I received an email from my father, copying my text with a forward:
Be careful what you say the walls have ears.
Long before the NSA, but steeped in George Orwell, I was dumbfounded. Not by the sentiment but the speed of reaction. Where did—How was—Who? My dad does not participate in socialist academia. He appreciates baseball, Goldwater republicanism, and the mafia (don’t ask)—all of them stoically. And John Wayne in one particular movie. That’s it. So whence came my inoffensive copy with such haste?
The answer came from mom—my father’s publicist—who revealed my network of expansive relatives connected an interest in Mark Twain with that of a family friend. My dad’s twin brother knew a guy named Larry. Larry grew up working in my grandfather’s tool and die preaching progressive reform during the summer of love while my father supported the Vietnam War with the Young Republicans. Larry was part of the Forum, recognized the last name—a rarity outside of Brazil—and forwarded the message to my uncle with a “Hey, is he one of yours?” My uncle turned it around to my father, and suddenly I was worried about over-sharing.
Clearly that didn’t last. I cut out the middlemen and contacted Larry, and thus began a three-year direct correspondence about Mark Twain that finally put a face to liberal sentiment when we both attended the Sixth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies, held in Elmira, New York.
An hour outside Binghamton, Elmira might be more famous for its prisons than its association with Twain, but both took root in the Chemung River Valley in the 1860s. Mark Twain, a travel journalist of growing reputation, became captivated by the visage on a fellow passenger’s ivory miniature of his sister. Who knows why Charles Langdon kept a miniature of his sister, Olivia, while traveling on the Quaker City to Europe and the Holy Land, or how Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens found it, but the image was enough to turn Twain’s sights onto the young daughter of a New York coal magnate. His pursuit took a stretch of platonic familiarity before she relented to his advances, and the couple married in 1870. Sam Clemens was moving up.
Thereafter began a long series of summer vacations by the Clemens family to Elmira, New York to trade the heat of central Connecticut for a summer breeze that rolled up the face of a hill outside of Elmira to the porch of Quarry Farm. The house belonged to Twain’s sister-in-law, but the separate octagonal study she built for him specifically. Twain wrote many of his most famous pages alone, smoking, to be read every day to family gathered on that porch as the sun fell past the horizon.
The Sixth International Conference was my first, but would not be my last. For better or worse, academics amplify the characteristics of their subject, and that was—to date—the most intellectual fun I have ever had. Twain scholars like a good story, a drink, and an imaginative perspective on our American icon. We achieved the trifecta on the last night, gathered for a barbeque on Quarry Farm, smoking cigars in the dark where Twain’s study once stood, with Hal Holbrook recounting the time he met actual Clemenses as a young man pretending to be Mark Twain. And I got to know Larry, a man who knew my parents as kids, who played in a band with my uncle—still played in a band with my uncle, out in Chicago. My cool uncle, recently diagnosed with cancer.
“He’s doing fine,” Larry said when the topic came up. “He’s got a great spirit about it.” My dad and uncle were two of ten children (one died before birth). The pater of this familias gave me my first copy of Huckleberry Finn when I was nine, and nobody cared that Twain wrote nigger over 200 times. Growing up south of Hartford, that book led me to Twain’s house, and down the road I continue to travel.
I made three more trips to Elmira after that, lecturing on illustration and iconography, before the call went out for the Seventh International Conference. The big shindig takes place every four years. I would need an excuse to attend, so I submitted a paper, and it was accepted.
Hallelujah! A legitimate excuse to run away from wife and kids, dogs and doing chores. I felt like Huck, lighting out for the territory. The following transpired between August 1st and 3rd this past week, courtesy Elmira College and their Center for Mark Twain Studies. When the school was founded as a female college by town elders in the mid-nineteenth century, the Langdons were among them. Dr. Ida Langdon donated Twain’s octagonal study to the college in 1952, and gingerly it was removed to the campus in town. Thirty years later the aforementioned Quarry Farm was donated by Jervis Langdon Jr., to be used as a resource for Twain scholarship. Seasonally it hosts scholars for visiting fellowships. Larry had been selected the weeks leading up to this year’s conference. I looked forward to seeing him, and many of the others met four years before and occasionally since.
The conference began before my arrival, thanks to my wife’s ill-timed birthday. I blame my mother-in-law not going into earlier labor three decades ago. In a strange twist my last presentation and this presentation took on a chiastic structure, as my panel went last in 2009 while this year was among the first Day One. This reflection was accentuated by a certain conference member present for both occasions. His name rhymes with Val Volbrook. He was present to screen the rough cut of a documentary later that day about his life performing Mark Twain Tonight! for the generations who have watched him play Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens had the constitution to enjoy.
By the good fortune of nerd seating, I was second in line to shake Hal’s hand after the screening, and remind him of our forgettable past encounters: Four years earlier in Elmira, a quick handshake in Holyoke two years later. Veritably Appomattox. During the earlier Q&A he mentioned meeting Fredric March, before dropping the topic. March played Mark Twain in the eponymous, Adventures of Mark Twain, a Warner Brothers movie that gave Samuel Clemens a pencil-thin mustache, and way too much credit as a riverboat pilot. I asked Holbrook what he spoke about with Mr. March.
Fredric March was with his wife, Florence Eldridge, Holbrook said, and they met him back stage after a performance. March came up to the young actor and asked him, point blank:
“Have you ever felt Twain was just a pompous ass?”
Holbrook admitted he hadn’t felt that way.
“Well, you’ve done a much better job with the role than I ever could.”
Holbrook laughed. So did I. By the transitive property of equality I am still trying to figure out if March insulted him. Holbrook hung around much longer than he did four years earlier. Signed books. Answered every question. If no one noticed I would’ve scooped him up and kept him locked in my dorm room to record the narration for my fake production of Pudd’nhead Wilson, starring Sean Penn or Matt Damon in the titular role. Still waiting to hear back from their people.
Instead I went for late-night drinks with the production team that brought us Holbrook/Twain, a documentary in need of a subtitle. I thought it was great, even being rough. For you film types, pay attention to the use of chiaroscuro while focusing on the actor’s hands, and the shine of his wedding band. The theme builds to an emotional payoff. Maybe not catharsis, but definitely reckoning. The film crew drank champagne outside the campus center. I drank bourbon from home. Then we swapped. I woke up in time the next morning to grab sunglasses and head to the first panel.
That’s what we call a jump cut. One of the first concurrent panels Friday morning involved the still topically controversial New South edition of Huck Finn, with the editor Alan Gribben in one corner, and Jocelyn Chadwick in the other. If all of this is news to you, then please feel free to catch up right now:
Are you back? Good. Did we like them? Great, they’re great. I’m sorry they couldn’t embed on this page. Both of those men deserve the Mark Twain Prize. But for now let’s talk LESS about the word nigger and MORE about the unspoken omission of Huckleberry Finn from school curricula to avoid white guilt. Both Chadwick and Gribben argued as the prosecution and defense, choosing different strategies caused by the same reaction and demanding the same result. Gribben the pragmatist, Chadwick the indignant. But the real criminal in this case is the fear of unknown reprisal. Get the book back in the High School. We’ll deal with the awkwardness like science teachers deal with the word U-R-A-N-U-S—head first. And for the love of God, people, stop bandying the euphemistic the n-word with liberal social excuse. That’s like taking the fangs off a garter snake when you got a basement full of copperheads.
Almost lost in the midst of this kerfuffle was the concurrent panel discussing Samuel Clemens writing Mark Twain. I can’t tell you what that means, but Larry was among the American scholars to attend this entirely Japanese panel. A large contingent of professionals flew over 6500 miles to reach Elmira, New York from Japan—a distance and expense that I could not realize in this academic lifetime. And what they brought with them was a cultural perspective distinctly outside our shared subject. Consider Horst Kruse, from the University of Münster and 2009 recipient of the Henry Nash Smith Fellowship. His talk on Twain’s literary style in reflection of the Mississippi River blew my mind. Professor Kruse studies Twain and he studies F. Scott Fitzgerald, and speaks them fluently as subjects seemingly native to a man who witnessed actual censorship foreign to any American pop cultural discussion of literary emendation. The Nazis burned books in his homeland. And he spent Friday night talking about my work over drinks that led to discussing the economic incentive for adopting Big Brother one iPhone at a time. He had brought his grandson to the States and bought him some kind of tablet, but the youth was suspicious—thankfully not enough to prevent him from leaving his room to play classical music on an open piano to a gathering of impressed and appreciative audiophiles.
Music is a big part of this conference, unofficially. Conference attendees bring guitars, banjos, mandolins, and if they don’t have musical ability they sing in chorus. The selections range from bluegrass and folk up to the last Beatle’s album, and this particular aspect of group singalong afterhours has encouraged the appellation of this quadrennial as Twain Summer Camp. I disagree. Summer camps have lakes, and until Elmira College pulls together the resources to redirect the Chemung River for some kind of oxbow or moat, I don’t consider this conference summer camp. Twainstock maybe. In any event I did spend a relaxing Saturday afternoon on campus sunning myself like a turtle while catching up on words in books. That brief contact with ultraviolet radiation brought my complexion from corpse up to fish belly. It’s lovely to find the time to generate Vitamin D and melanoma like a supermodel.
That night after the plenary from the Mark Twain Project explained the next editions to roll out from Cal Berkeley Press, everyone got themselves up to Quarry Farm for whiffle ball, barbeque, cigars, and sunset over the valley. Tracy Wuster and I marched up the path to see the site of Twain’s study in the daylight. We met the conference keynote, Peter Kaminsky, as he too surveyed the grounds. I have not yet mentioned the keynote address, which took place the night before, and so take this digression to be the natural transition to do so. Peter Kaminsky was the managing editor of National Lampoon, and then created the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for Humor. I am not alone sometimes wondering how the Kennedy Center has decided upon their annual selection, and in his Keynote, Mr. Kaminsky was kind enough to explain the process. [Ed. note: See below for even more]
- They have to be able to accept it
- They have to want to accept it
There may be more to it than that, but once a list of nominees are drafted based on those qualifications, the Kennedy Center gets final pick. I was surprised at many of the names that did not or could not accept the award, given that Carl Reiner has spoken of it as an incredible moment in his life, and it was the only award George Carlin really wanted to win, and once given the chance to accept he died in peace. But there you go. Feel free to write Mel Brooks and tell him that Mark Twain fancied himself a playwright and man of the stage at one point in his career as well. Maybe he’ll then accept. This year’s recipient is Carol Burnett, whom Kaminsky argued led one of the best ensemble casts ever. Hard to disagree. His talk correctly wandered from his childhood to his writing career to the highlights of past award shows. Of the clips he shared I thought this one the best. I guess I was wrong not watching the shows commemorating the younger recipients.
We ended the night up at Quarry Farm in the dark at the site of the study, smoking cigars and recollecting stories. I mentioned earlier that for better or worse, academics amplify the characteristics of their subject, and while Twain is known as a humorist, he knew what that meant better than anyone else:
The secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.
Following the Equator
I’m not alone on this website wondering why the wellspring of comedy is tragedy, but I’m more amazed at the number of hardships since the last conference in 2009. We lost Lou Budd, whose humor was gentle and papers are now archived in Elmira. We lost Michael Kiskis, who raced cars and told jokes, and made everyone feel like they were in on them. And we lost my uncle, who lost his fight to cancer two weeks ago, four years after the conference where I first met his best friend Larry Howe. This conference felt a little smaller to me than the last conference four years ago. But this one I’ll carry a lot farther. I had wanted to end with a Twain quote that summarized the value of this academic congregation, and I found one:
We steeped our thirsty souls in the reviving wine of the past, the pathetic past, the beautiful past, the dear and lamented past; we uttered the names that had been silent upon our lips for fifty years, and it was as if they were made of music; with reverent hands we unburied our dead, the mates of our youth, and caressed them with our speech; we searched the dusty chambers of our memories and dragged forth incident after incident, episode after episode, folly after folly, and laughed such good laughs over them, with the tears running down….
Autobiography of Mark Twain (University of California Press, 2010)
But for the sake of commemoration, I shall quote my dad, who writes far less than the rest of us:
Your uncle david died last night after fighting a long battle with cancer…he put up a great effort and i shall miss him love dad
See you in four years, Elmira.