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, 1863. 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?
A friend of mine–and one of my favorite pessimists–has said that she cures writer’s block by placing one simple sentence at the top of her page and going from there. So here goes:
Since the dawn of time, man has yearned to destroy the sun.
There. Maybe that will help…
Nope. I just don’t have anything intelligent to say about humor right now, nothing like Jeffrey Melton’s sharp piece on pedagogy of humor, or Matt Powell’s excellent work on Andy Kaufman’s music, Matthew Duabe’s insightful piece on performance and Princess Ivona, Sharon McCoy’s truly funny meditation on germs in public places, Caroline Zarlengo Sposto’s birthday wishes to that great American poet Muhammed Ali, Phil Scepanski’s insightful discussion of sick humor, or ABE’s solid writing on Marc Maron’s podcast. See, I have resorted to a clip show, the final resort of the lazy sitcom writer (although those are all excellent pieces worth reading, for sure).
But I have nothing. I wish I could turn my external circumstances–which are not really conducive to writing about humor–into humorous insight, as Sharon McCoy has so wonderfully done on our pages. But I can’t. I apologize.
Instead, I will point to the work I have been doing with the AHSA and Humor Studies Caucus of the ASA to plan panels for upcoming conferences in Boston (ALA) and D.C. (ASA). Also, check out the announcements page above or on the AHSA website for new CFPs for the AHSA at MLA 2014, humor studies and Mark Twain at the RMLA, and humor studies at SAMLA.
Also, I blame my book, the manuscript of which is due to the University of Missouri Press at the end of the month. Here is a brief sample, touching on Twain and humor:
In 1874, as Twain was writing the series “Old Times on the Mississippi” for the Atlantic, Howells attempted to ease Twain’s fears about the audience he was writing for, stating in a letter “Don’t write at any supposed Atlantic audience, but yarn it off as into my sympathetic ear.” Twain responded with a line that reflects a sense of relief at this new professional opportunity: “It isn’t the Atlantic audience that distresses me; for it is the only audience that I sit down before in perfect serenity (for the simple reason that it don’t require a ‘humorist’ to paint himself stripèd & stand on his head every fifteen minutes.)” The possibility of earning a living, or at least a reputation, as a new type of humorist—one who didn’t have to curry public favor with constant buffoonery—seems to have appealed to Twain.
 William D. Howells to SLC, 3 December 1874, (UCLC 32073).http://www.marktwainproject.org/x tf/view?docId=letters/UCLC32073.xml;styl e=letter;brand=mtp and SLC to William Dean Howells, 8 Dec 1874, Hartford, Conn. (UCCL 05257). <http://www.marktwainproject.org/xtf/view?docId=letters/UCCL05257.xml;style=letter;brand=mtp>