Category Archives: Mark Twain Circle of America

Happy Birthday, Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Not you, Mark Twain.

 

Tracy Wuster

November 30, 2015 will be celebrated as the 180th birthday of one Mark Twain—novelist, humorist, and all around American celebrity. I, for one, will not be celebrating.

You see, I recently finished up a book about Mark Twain, and I know, for a
fact, that Mark Twain was born on February 3, Wuster Mark Twain American Humorist1863. Or thereabouts. No one knows for certain, but that is as certain as we can be, so that is enough.  And not so much born, but created, or launched…inaugurated…catapulted…

That means that this February 3, 1863 will be Mark Twain’s 153rd birthday, which is not that fancy of a number, but it is getting up there for someone still so famous as to have people writing books about him—and more importantly, people reading books by him.

Sure, everyone knows that “Mark Twain” was really the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Even early in his career, almost everyone knew that, often using the names interchangeably, as most Americans still do. Not as many people know the names Samuel Clemens used an abandoned before creating Mark Twain: “Grumbler,” “Rambler,” “Saverton,” “W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab,” “Sergeant Fathom,” “Quintus Curtis Snodgrass,” “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass,” and “Josh.” Selecting “Mark Twain” was clearly a wise choice, although the name would have had a second, nautical meaning for many nineteenth century folk.

Samuel Clemens mixed up the use of his given name and his chosen name—making the whole distinction a mush of confusion that is either a bonanza of psychological material or, alternately, meaningless. For most people, I would guess the distinction is meaningless trivia, which is fine. I’m just happy people still know and read books by Mark Twain. But, I for one, will still grumble when people wish Mark Twain a “Happy Birthday” each November 30th, and I will still try to correct them by pointing out that the “Mark Twain” they refer to really was born—or created—on February 3rd, 1863.

But what does it matter?

Continue reading →

Advertisements

Happy 90th Birthday Hal Holbrook!

Tracy Wuster

Today marks the 90th birthday of Hal Holbrook–the man who has been Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens was Mark Twain.  In his honor, I am rerunning a post from several years ago.  For more on Holbrook’s career, see Mark Dawidziak’s columns on Holbrook adding new material here and by the numbers here.  And information on a documentary well worth seeing here.

I did not mention in the original post my experience seeing Holbrook perform as Mark Twain.  As a scholar who studied Mark Twain’s performance, I was skeptical about seeing Holbrook–not because he is anything less than respected but because his version of Mark Twain is a different version than the one I studied.  Holbrook’s Mark Twain is the older, wiser, white-suited-er version.  The 1860s and 1870s version who lectured on platforms and lyceums across the country and in England was a different figure.  So I wanted to get a mental image of that man in my grasp before seeing Holbrook.

I can’t remember the exact circumstances of the evening–my wife suffers through enough Mark Twain in editing and reading and living with me, so she was not there.  And the tickets were more money than we had to spend easily, being end-stage Ph.D. candidates.  I sat in the beautiful Paramount Theater in Austin, notepad in hand, ready to be skeptical, thinking, “I know Mark Twain as a performer.  Let’s see what you got, Holbrook.”

He awed me.  In the end, my notes were mostly empty.  I laughed.  I was moved.  A passage of Huck Finn I had taught and read a dozen times unfurled in a whole new light.  He did pretty well.

If you have the chance, go see Hal Holbrook perform as Mark Twain–he is performing tonight, on his 90th birthday.

***

Hal has performed the character of Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens.  Much has been written and said about the importance of Mark Twain Tonight! and Hal’s performance as Mark Twain (not to mention his other wonderful acting work).

I want to offer my own story of meeting Mr. Holbrook in Elmira at the 6th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies (which should be renamed, “Mark Twain Summer Camp,” in my humble opinion).  For a graduate student, Mark Twain Summer Camp already meant meeting top scholars in the field–rock stars, if you will (if you are a nerd, that is).  But Hal Holbrook is as big a star as you will find for Mark Twain fans, unless the man himself were to appear.

I was convinced that my panel would be empty, as it was scheduled opposite that panel at which Mark Dawidziak would be discussing “Mark Twain Tonight!” with Hal Holbrook in the audience.  I was thus shocked and delighted when Lou Budd walked into my panel just as I began to give my paper (causing me to lose my place for a moment).  For Twain scholars, you can’t get much more important than Lou Budd.

Hal Holbrook Speaking at Mark Twain Summer Camp

Photo Courtesy Patrick Ober

This video is the audio of Hal Holbrook’s brief remarks at the conference.  Recorded by Patrick Ober and combined with images from the beautiful campus of Elmira College.

I had witnessed first hand the star power of Hal Holbrook the night before.  After a full day of conferencing, I  meandered down toward the evening’s banquet a bit early.  In front of the building I found Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Hal Holbrook quietly talking.  Shelley introduced me to Hal and mentioned I lived in Austin.  As Hal began to say something, we were suddenly surrounded by a group of scholars who had been momentarily possessed by the spirit of teenagers at a concert when they spot the band backstage.  That is to say, I was elbowed out of the way by a gray-haired college professor who had been star struck.

Hal was now surrounded by a group of admirers jostling for his attention.  In my memory of the event, they are waving pictures for him to sign and taking photos with old-fashioned flash cameras.  My memory may not be exact.  As I stood there awkwardly outside of circle, a momentary gap opened and Hal said to me, as if our conversation had not interrupted:

“I was in Austin recently.”

I replied:  “I know.  I saw you perform.”

“When was that?”

I pondered a moment.  “Spring.”

“What is it now?”

“Summer.”

“Sounds about right.”

And then Hal was engulfed by the adoring crowd of academics-turned-teenager.

The following night, the conference ended with a party at Quarry Farm, the summer house of the Langdon and Clemens family.  I experienced another nerdy rockstar moment.  While talking with Tom Quirk–no slouch of a Twain scholar himself–Lou Budd walked up and mistook me for a waiter.  I will leave the story he told in explanation to his mistake out here, but it more than made up for any confusion.

After a wonderful dinner and a tour of the house, many people made the trek up the hill to the spot where Twain’s octagonal study sat.  There are moments in one’s life that you know you will tell stories about for years–maybe 5 or 10 or even 20–but there are few stories you know, at the time, that you will tell for the rest of your life.  For those of us who walked up the hill at Quarry Farm to the spot of Mark Twain’s study to smoke cigars, to sing songs, and to listen to Hal Holbrook tell stories, there is no doubt of the fact.

A heck of a time, then, to test out the video function of my new camera.  I wasn’t even sure it recorded in sound… but it did and in pretty good sound, too.  Since a number of people couldn’t hear Hal speak, or were on the porch playing music, I have posted the below clips of his story of meeting Clara (and Isabel Lyon).  I stopped recording as he described his heartbreaking meeting with Nina, which seems fitting in retrospect.  I hope you enjoy.
Click to see videos.
Joe Csicsilla lighting Hal Holbrook’s Cigar
Photo by Tracy Wuster
(c) Tracy Wuster, 2012, 2015

American Humor Studies Association/Mark Twain Circle of America Quadrennial Conference 2014

American Humor Studies Association

Mark Twain Circle of America

Quadrennial Conference 2014

December 4-7, 2014

Four Points Sheraton French Quarter

 

The American Humor Studies Association, in conjunction with the Mark Twain Circle of America, sends out this general call for papers on American humor and Mark Twain. The topics below are suggestions for topics that we think will be of interest; other topics are welcome, and we welcome especially submissions of sessions of three papers or roundtables. The topics are broad in the hope that scholars will be able to find one that fits their current research. Submissions should be sent to Jan McIntire-Strasburg via email (mcintire@slu.edu). Please send your submissions by May 15, 2014.

Those sending in submissions for the Mark Twain Circle of America can email their proposals to Ann Ryan at ryanam@lemoyne.edu.

Topics include but are not limited to:

Early American Humor and its European Roots

Nineteenth Century Humor—from Southwest to Northeast to Far West

20th Century Humor and the American Novel

Regional and/or transnational humor

New Media Approaches to Humor

Humor in film, television, comics, and other visual media

Humor and Theatre

Stand-Up Comedy

Online humor

Humor and Ethnicity

Humor and Gender

Humor and Class

Humor and Sexuality

Humor and War

Contemporary Approaches to Irony, Satire, Wit, and other topics

Teaching Humor

New Directions in American Humor Studies

Mark Twain

chaplin

 

lmphoto_house1

In the Archives: Mark Twain’s Infectious Jingle– “A Literary Nightmare” (1876)

Tracy Wuster

Mark Twain’s “Literary Nightmare” (1876), published in the Atlantic Monthly, represents an early example of a “viral” piece of popular culture.    The “Viral Text” project at Northeastern University is tracing 19th-century newspaper stories as they circulated, and “A Literary Nightmare” might be a unique example–being a story about a viral text–in this case, a poem–and its infectious effects, which in turn helped spread the original poem, Mark Twain’s story about it, and the very genre of poetry across the nation and, possibly, around the world.  The story even inspired a song.  And was being discussed as late as 1915.

The poem presented the key example of “horse-car poetry” that enjoyed a brief vogue as popular doggerel.  A discussion of the phenomenon of “horse-car poetry”  was printed in Record of the Year, A Reference Scrap Book: Being the Monthly Record of Important Events Worth Preserving, published by G. W. Carleton and Company in 1876.  The story, beginning on page 324, details how a New York rail line posted a placard on fares that became a poetic sensation, leading to Mark Twain’s use of the lines in his story.  The phenomenon of “horse-car poetry” then, according to the Record of the Year, spread to other cities and countries, causing an “epidemic” that aroused passions and even violence.  The Record of the Year contains one story of a woman literally possessed by the sketch, reading in part:

The danger of Mark Twain's viral text...

The danger of Mark Twain’s viral text…

The entire scene is worth reading at the link above.

Mark Twain’s  extended comic sketch details  the hypnotic, yet meaningless, power of humorous writing to infect one’s mind like a virus.  Entitled “A Literary Nightmare” (February 1876), Twain’s piece starts with a verse of poetry:

“Conductor, when you receive a fare,

Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare,

A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,

A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare,

Punch in the presence of the passenjare

CHORUS

Punch, brothers punch with care!

Punch in the presence of the passenjare!”

These lines, the narrator “Mark” writes, “took instant and entire possession of me.”  For days, the only thing in his mind are the lines of verse—they keep him from his work, wreck his sleep, and turn him into a raving lunatic singing “punch brothers punch…” After several days of torture, he sets out on a walk with his friend, a Rev. Mr. ——- (presumably his good friend Rev. Joe Twichell).  After hours of silence, the Reverend asks the narrator what the trouble is, and Mark tells him the story, teaching him the lines of the jingle.  Instantly, the narrator puts the verse out of his mind. The Reverend, on the other hand, has “got it” now.

You can read the sketch in its entirety below.

 

Continue reading →

Editor’s Chair: The State of the Union

Tracy Wuster, EditorState of the Union Obama

We here at “Humor in America” have seen some big changes to the state of the web page.  A number of our editors–Sharon McCoy, ABE, Matt Daube, and Phil Scepanski–have left or taken a hiatus.  To fill those giant shoes, former contributing editors Bonnie Applebeet and Steve Brykman have returned, and they will be joined by Jan McIntire-Strasburg, the executive director of the American Humor Studies Association, Robert Tally, of Texas State University, and Tara Friedman, of Widener University.  Welcome, and welcome back.

More humor studies news:

* Judith Yaross Lee, the editor of Studies in American Humor, has posted her editorial statement for the journal at the StAH homepage.  Check out:

Enter Laughing:

American Humor Studies in the Spirit of Our Times

* The essay is part of the most recent issue of the journal.  See the Table of Contents.  This is the first issue of which I am the Book Review Editor.  You can get the journal by joining the AHSA here.

*And see the call for a special issue of the journal: American Humor in the 1920s and 1930s: Cross-Media Perspectives

Studies in American Humor, the journal of the American Humor Studies Association, invites submission of scholarly papers on humor across media in the 1920s and 1930s for a special issue of the journal appearing in the fall of 2015, coedited by Rob King (Columbia University) and Judith Yaross Lee (Ohio University).  Specifically, we are interested in papers that explore the circulation of humor within and across media industries during this formative period in the consolidation of American mass culture.

More here.

*The AHSA has a good number of upcoming conferences.  We will have three panels at ALA. We are looking for papers for our MLA and SAMLA panels, as well as for the upcoming Quadrennial Conference in New Orleans (with the Mark Twain Circle).  See the AHSA announcements page.

* The New Orleans conference will be an amazing conference.  Be sure to be there.

American Humor Studies Association

Mark Twain Circle of America

Quadrennial Conference 2014

December 4-7, 2014

Four Points Sheraton French Quarter 

The American Humor Studies Association, in conjunction with the Mark Twain Circle of America, sends out this general call for papers on American humor and Mark Twain.  The topics below are suggestions for topics that we think will be of interest; other topics are welcome, and we welcome especially submissions of sessions of three papers or roundtables.  The topics are broad in the hope that scholars will be able to find one that fits their current research.  Submissions should be sent to Jan McIntire-Strasburg via email (mcintire@slu.edu).  Please send your submissions by May 15, 2014.

Those sending in submissions for the Mark Twain Circle of America can email their proposals to Ann Ryan at ryanam@lemoyne.edu.

* You might also be interested in the 27th Annual AATH Humor Conference in Vincennes, Indiana… April 3-6, 2014… at the Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy located on the campus of Vincennes University.

*Or you might be interested in the International Society for Humor Studies Conference.  The 2014 ISHS Conference will be held from July 7 to July 11, 2014 on the campus of the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.

Jim’s Dilemma

Your pa, he says to me that I need to come and help you understand why he had to go away, why he had to join the Missouri Colored Regiment.[i]  Says I was good at explaining and good at leaving my own self, and so I might as well be the one.  But you knows what your pa’s doing, don’t you?  You knows that he joined up so’s you all be free when he come back.  That’s cause you listen good, child.

Your pa, he never did understand, though, about why I went away.  Never did let me tell the whole story.  Always said I loved that white boy better’n him.  Never did understand.  But that’s my fault, I reckon.  Or maybe that’s just the way it goes.

Ole missus, that’s Miss Watson as was, she moved in with her sister, see?  And I hads to go with her; didn’t have no choice, though that meant I was 20 miles or more from your nanny and your pa and your aunt ‘Lizabeth what as died before you was born, 20 miles instead a just a few.  Used to come see them most every night, but after that—  Johnny—your pa—had to be the man of the house whiles I was gone—much as slavery lets you to be a man.  But love that white boy more’n him?   Huhn!  I tell yah—first words I says to that white boy, I says

 “Name’s not ‘nigger,’ boy.  Name’s Jim.  And I lay I’ll teach you to know it.”  Those was the first words I said to him.

Huh?  You’re right.  Told you, you’s a smart boy, and I admit it.  Them’s the first words I thought when that little white trash moved in and got dressed up in all the fancy clothes and done called me out my name though he just crawled right outten a hogshead his own self.  What I said aloud was “Yassuh, young massa?”  Man’s gotta know where the corn pone comes from.  It’s a tough world, it is, child, and don’t you forget it.

The boy weren’t so bad, though, as white folks go.  Fact is, I believe he had a good heart in there when it weren’t messed up and confused.  He told some of the story round about here, when that Tom Sawyer would let him talk.  And Huck, he told the truth so far as he could, I guess.  As he says, we all gots some stretchers in us.  But he was the only white man I ever know that even tried to keep his word to old Jim.  Only white man I ever know that thought a word was a something to keep, when talking to a black man.  Most of them’d sooner lie than look at you.  But you know, they don’t really like looking now, do they?

Huck, he weren’t so bad, though.  And he did try.  But with a dad like his’n and that Tom Sawyer always raisin’ Cain and messing with his head, calling him chucklehead when he got a fair point an’ such truck as that.  Huck never had no chance.  But he tried, and I got to give him credit for trying.  He was a good boy, take it all in all.

I done told you the story lots a times, about the time I runned.[ii]  Had to.  You know that.  The devil he got in me.  And old missus, she got scared.  Was gonna sell me down to Orleans, she was.  Never woulda seen your pa or ‘Lizabeth again.   I lit out mighty quick, made a good plan, too, but there’s people everywhere, on account of they thought Huck done been killed.   They was crawling all over both sides of the river.

I took my chance in the dark—you knows the story—how I hid in the driftwood, then latched onto the raft.  I needed to get far away, and I knowed it.  Heard all day from where I was hiding in that cooper’s shack about how Huck‘s killed on the Illinois side.  Knowed oncet they realized I was gone, they’d blame me for it.  Ridden by witches and with the devil’s own coin, they’d never believe it weren’t me, and they’d know I’d lay for Illinois.  Where else a man going to go?   It’d be like that black Joe in Boone County what killed that white trash with de axe, or that Teney in Callaway that they said killed that woman.[iii]  I’d never a seen the inside of a jail.

But I didn’t have no luck.  When the man come toward me with the lantern, there weren’t no use for it; I struck out for the island.   Had to lay low, ‘cause they was hunting Huck, and pretty soon, they was hunting me, too.  Couldn’t get much to eat.  Knew I needed to swim for the Illinois shore afore I was too weak from hunger, but they was hunting too hard.  And push come to shove, I kept thinking ‘bout your pa, and about poor little ‘Lizabeth, and somehow I couldn’t leave.  My head was just a busting and so was my heart.  Lit myself a fire to keep warm, made sure it didn’t smoke, but I kept seeing ‘Lizabeth’s eyes looking into mine.  Wrapped the blanket round my head to shut them out, but that didn’t make no matter.  Finally done fall asleep, though.

First thing I saw when I wakes up was that there dead white boy, big as life.  Thought he was a ghost at first, I did, come to haint old Jim, who only tried to help him when his pa come back.  Old Jim, who never told the missus bout all the times he sneaked out in the night to cat about.  Slaves never have no luck—you remember that, child—it’ll save you lots a disappointment in this life.  But no ghost ever blim-blammed like that, and so I knowed it was really him, his own self.  That child could talk the hind leg off a donkey, he could.  I kept quiet and let him run on, thinking mighty hard.

He had a gun, see.  And people thought he was dead.  Or was that just one a him and Tom Sawyer’s jokes again?  It weren’t the first time white folks thought they was dead, though this’d be the first time a body had cared that Huck was gone, first time in his whole life.  But there he was with a gun, a-chatterin and a-jammerin on.  Was he a-hunting me?  Hunting old Jim after he had his lark and made folks think he was dead?

Then he busts into my thoughts.  Tells me to make up the fire and get breakfast, just like he owned me.  That boy playing me, I thinks to myself, but I gots to know.  Maybe he’s just a-hunting.  So I axed him some questions, and found out he been there since the night he was killed.  So whatever he’s a-playing at, he ain’t a-hunting old Jim.  I tells him I’ll make a fire if he’ll hunt us up something for to cook on it.

I was expecting him to come back with some squirrel or some mud-turkles or such truck, or maybe a rabbit iffen I was lucky, and I hoped he had a knife with that gun, but I looked round for a sharp stone, just in case.  When he come back, he come back with all kinds of stuff, a catfish and sugar and bacon and coffee and dishes, if that don’t beat all.  I was set back something considerable, ‘cause I knew right away what it meant.  Continue reading →

One Tan, Many Memories: Elmira Mark Twain Conference 2013

Breaking a sweat

Breaking a sweat

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.

Continue reading →

Editor’s Chair: Mark Twain Summer Camp

Tracy Wuster

Mark Twain scholars from all over the world are packing their scholarly papers, writing their names in their underwear (in marker, please), and getting ready to head to “Mark Twain Summer Camp”–better known as the 7th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies.

Mark Twain elmira new york summer camp 7th international

Held every four years in Elmira, New York–the location of the summer home of Clemens’s in-laws, and where he wrote many of his best known works–the conference is undoubtedly the best conference in existence.  Ask anyone.

Four years ago, as a weak-kneed, but semi-well-funded graduate student–the conference was a paradise of Twain studies and conviviality.  The conference was where I first met Sharon McCoy, Jeffrey Melton, and ABE (who went by a different name, back then).  Now, as an unfunded Ph.D., the conference still portends to be a paradise, but a costly one.

Mark Twain statue elmira new york,

In addition to high-quality papers on Mark Twain and related subjects, the conference features themed dinners, fancy speakers, Twain scholars singing songs, and storytelling.  Hal Holbrook telling stories on the original sight of Mark Twain’s study was an event we will all remember for the remainder of our lives (you can read more about the last conference and listen to Holbrook speaking here).

Part One of Holbrook’s story

This year promises to be equally exciting, if the program is to be believed.  The conference theme celebrates the 150th anniversary of the use of “Mark Twain”–a fact that will be marked by an exhibition of material from his western years:

“He used it for the first time in the Territorial Enterprise in Nevada,” said Barbara Snedecor, director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies. “This exhibition kind of highlights those years in the West and that moment when he first chose that pen name.

“People are coming from very far away — China, Japan, Germany, Europe and all over the United States,” Snedecor said. “About 175 people will be there. It’s open to the public too. Some of the papers are of great interest.” (source)

I would hope that some of those papers of interest would be Sharon McCoy providing keen insights on “Tricks and Tools: Practical Jokes, the “Evasion,” and the Limits of Love.” Jeffrey Melton discoursing on “Mark Twain and the Legacy of the Pastoral Dream”, ABE holding forth on ““Dear Sir”: A Post-Structuralist Impression of Charles F. Browne’s Influence on Mark Twain,” or me stumbling through ” “Mark Twain”: The Humorist.”

Mark Twain statue elmira

Continue reading →

Editor’s Chair: Carol Burnett Wins Mark Twain Prize & Other News

Tracy Wuster

Congratulations to Carol Burnett for winning the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.  According to the Kennedy Center:

The Mark Twain Prize recognizes people who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain. As a social commentator, satirist and creator of characters, Samuel Clemens was a fearless observer of society, who startled many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly. He revealed the great truth of humor when he said “against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”

Upon being notified of the award, Burnett noted:

“I can’t believe I’m getting a humor prize from the Kennedy Center. It’s almost impossible to be funnier than the people in Washington.”

The ceremony will take place on October 20, with tickets starting at $1000.  In the meantime, enjoy one of Burnett’s best performances:

In other humor news:

*This week is the annual American Literature Association conference.  Please join the American Humor Studies Association for the following panels:

Session 5-G (Thursday 3:00)
Humor in American Periodicals (Great Republic 7th Floor)
 
Session 7-E (Friday 8:10)
Reading and Teaching Humorous Texts (St George D 3rd Floor)
 
Session 8-O (Friday 9:40)
Business Meeting (Parliament 7th Floor)
 
charlie_blank
 

And join the Mark Twain Circle of America for the following panels:

Session 15-C (Saturday 9:30)

Mark Twain: Iconic Texts Reconsidered (Essex North Center 3rd Floor)

Session 17-C (Saturday 12:30)

Mark Twain and History (Essex North Center 3rd Floor)

Session 18-M (Saturday 2:00)

Business Meeting: The Mark Twain Circle of America (North Star 7th Floor)

image001

*For panels on Kurt Vonnegut and others, see the schedule here.  Additionally, there has traditionally been a reception on Saturday.  I believe that 2-4 of the writers for this site will be there.

*A number of the authors of this page will also be at the 7th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies at the beginning of August.  The registration and program information can be found at the Center for Mark Twain Studies site.  Even if you are not a scholar, this conference is well worth the trip.  This year features a screening of a new documentary on Hal Holbrook, a keynote by Peter Kaminsky of the Mark Twain Prize, a closing picnic at Quarry Farm, and paper presentations by Sharon McCoy, Jeffrey Melton, ABE, and myself.

*Speaking of awards, did you know about the James Thurber Prize for American Humor, given annually for the best humorous writing of that year?

*And speaking of humor writing, if you are a student and in need of a term paper on American humor, look no further than this lovely writing, available for the bargain price of $15.90.

Third, a frosty streak of humor runs done American literary works from early times to present. In many cases, a dash of table salt humor saves a ripe penning from becoming in any case sentimental. American humor tends to be exaggerated rather than subtle. It reflects the peoples cleverness to laugh at themselves during the approximately voiceless times.

In these “approximately voiceless times,” how can you pass up such a bargain, and sure to get a D- or below!

*Ellie Kemper asks, “Can men be funny?

*Did you see, “Mel Brooks: Make a Noise“?

*Have you been watching YouTube Comedy Week?  Anyone want to write a review for us?

*Only 5 days until Arrested Development!

carol-burnett_LfOJapmemV

In the Archives: Artemus Ward’s Panorama (1869)

I hate word games. I suffer Scrabble, abhor Boggle, and you’ll never catch me cross words. I prefer etymology, and catch myself wondering about the subtleties of language the way you might answer, “I’ll take New York Times crossword for $200, __”. Consider an example: in English the first ordinal number might also serve as the numerical superlative. Given the ordinal role shows rank, or position, and the “-st” ending it shares with the hyperbolic “most” or “best,” I am comfortable maintaining that while “first” may be subject to the same controversies and debates the application of any superlative generates, it inspires the same level of awe upon discovery.

Artemus Ward

I felt this sense of awe when reading E. P. Hingston’s Prefatory Note, “Artemus Ward as Lecturer,” at the beginning of Ward’s posthumous publication Artemus Ward’s Panorama (1869). You may know the name Artemus Ward as the pseudonym of Charles Farrar Browne (April 26, 1834–March 6, 1867), the printed humorist and lecturer whose career influenced that of a young Samuel Clemens when he first wrote under the name Mark Twain. Thirty years after Ward’s death, when describing the American art of telling a story, Mark Twain would commend Ward as one of the best representatives at telling it humorously:

The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it…the rambling and disjointed humorous story finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it. Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretence that he does not know it is a nub…Artemus Ward used that trick a good deal; then when the belated audience presently caught the joke he would look up with innocent surprise, as if wondering what they had found to laugh at.

Later Twain summarized:

To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purpose-less way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause. Artemus Ward dealt in numbers three and four a good deal. He would begin to tell with great animation something which he seemed to think was wonderful; then lose confidence, and after an apparently absent-minded pause add an incongruous remark in a soliloquizing way; and that was the remark intended to explode the mine—and it did (How to Tell a Story, 1897).

Young Mark Twain followed Ward’s professional footsteps when the Sacramento Union sent him to report on the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in 1866, and he returned with enough anecdotes to fill lecture halls out West.

Mark Twain, “Lecture on the Sandwich Islands,” from Daily Alta California (by way of PBS)

Twain’s now famous use of language in the advertisement could be described in his own, later, language of dropping studied remarks with the printed effect of a pause by contrasting font size. Contemporary programs studying Mark Twain still rely upon advertising “The Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock”, but where would Twain be without Ward?

Continue reading →