Posted by: zhiv | December 1, 2010

Not a Mark Twain Fan: Adam Gopnik on Twain and Literary Performance

Last weekend I combined a more-than-slightly random work trip to upstate New York with a glancing tour of slightly random, out-of-the-way (for me) colleges, hoping that the unpromising parts would add up to something like a justifiable trip. In the end we added a quick dash to Niagara Falls to seal the deal, giving all of it proper significance.

With the work part over, on my own, I spent a quiet, clear and beautiful Sunday morning poking around Cornell. It was amazing and interesting, Berkeleyesque in its piles of engineering and science buildings lined up in rows. Saw the office Nabokov worked in, glanced at the Nabokov lounge, noted that M.H. Abrams is still giving the occasional lecture, in his 90s. And I knew that the other schools on my list would be less impressive. I saw RIT, Syracuse, Hamilton, Colgate, Hobart & William Smith, and Ithaca, in case any one is keeping track. I was driving down a backwards loop in the afternoon to get up to Rochester, swinging past the obscure Alfred University. The route took me close to Elmira, New York, where my “Professor Pathfinder” map showed Elmira College (not in the Fiske Guide, which I didn’t have with me), so I figured I should go by.

When I got off the highway and drove through Elmira I discovered that I was in “Mark Twain Country,” which turns out to be “where Twain’s wife was from and where he hung out during the summer,” as far as I can tell. I’ve never been much of a fan of Twain. But I saw his summer “study” in the middle of the college green, and then drove up to his gravesite. And I saw a big building on the hill above town, which I thought must be a factory, active or not. It turned out to be a prison. All of these were notes that a New York resident would recognize, as a Californian like myself would know Pomona College, or Salinas as Steinbeck Country, and Lompoc as a prison site.

Twain resurfaced here on Thanksgiving Day when I read a New Yorker piece on him by Adam Gopnik. Much to my chagrin, and partly to Gopnick’s, it seems, the Twain industry is alive and well. I learned enough about Twain in the essay to be even less interested in him than when I started, but not to be to angry about it. Despite his obvious distaste about the fuss and Twain’s sustained mediocrity and general lack of accomplishment, Gopnick still gives Twain credit for Huck Finn as a seminal work, and in the process he commits the cardinal sin of generations of patriarchal scholars. The quarrel, one that I’ve mentioned before, is that prizing Huck Finn and Twain obscures Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. UTC should be “the great American novel,” and having it as a base opens up the important tradition of female writers. Gopnick mentions Toni Morrison as one of the diverse progeny of Twain’s use of the vernacular, but no other women writers appear in his nod at Twain’s influence and assumed importance. We jump, in classic fashion, from Twain to Hemingway to Salinger, and it seems as if we understand at once the key to the heart of American Literature. But as Jane Smiley put it, Say it ain’t so, Huck.

The parts of Twain explained by Gopnick that I didn’t know about include the fact that the new edition of his Autobiography, published with some fanfare, is relatively worthless, commonly known material. More interesting were notes on him as a performer and a Californian. I’ve written before, in a similar review of a review on Dickens, about 19th century authors and performance. It seems obvious that literary performance will develop into an interesting general topic, if it wasn’t one already. Gopnick notes that most 19th century writers eventually became “performers,” doing public readings of their work, most notably Dickens. But they were established writers first. He mentions Twain as the exception, a journalist who became a performer/lecturer who became a writer. One might be able to include Oscar Wilde in the same category. Malcolm Maclaren developed a musical, with a script written by David Henry Hwang, about Wilde’s lecture tour in America, a film that never got made. Wilde’s example gives me pause before I state too firmly that my aversion to Twain is based on the fact that he’s really just a hacky standup, Tim Allen as a cornerstone of American Literature. But who knew? He lectured in his white suit and got his laughs, and he complained about his wife and kids. I don’t want to give him credit for so much fine literature, but perhaps he does deserve credit for Bill Cosby, whom I was obsessed with at the same time I was forcefed Tom Sawyer and Twain’s “high concept” fictions, Connecticut Yankee and Prince and the Pauper. You know, before I was 10 years old, back when Mickey Mantle was an exemplary hero.

The California thing is perhaps more interesting. Gopnick notes that Twain didn’t merely go to California and become a newspaperman and story writer and performer/standup. He also adopted a new narrative persona based on the familiar and constant California climate and attitude, “that new note, that found voice, was, to use our word, mellow,” quoting Gopnick. Nice! Bitchin! And, dare I say, excellent and awesome! Twain tells stories in an easy-going way that I would have mistaken for Southern, but the gentle and careless tone does seem affected by the golden sunshine I see outside (only 65 degrees on Thanksgiving here? Not 70?) Maybe that note, with performance and high concept storytelling thrown in, makes Twain Hollywood Sam Clemens, a film business impresario born two generations too soon. With such low accomplishments, I start like him a little bit better.

I still like the idea of skipping Twain and reducing his importance. It occurs to me that he has benefited, in building his reputation, from the populism of Dickens. Twain must have modeled all sorts of parts of his career on Dickens, who was first being considered as an important literary figure right around the time that Twain wrote Huck Finn and headed towards the height of his celebrity. The connection is pretty obvious, but I haven’t really considered it before, and I can’t quite say why I love Dickens and I’m hostile towards Twain. I know I’ll forgive all sorts of foibles and weaknesses in Dickens that would make me nuts if they were from Twain. Have to think about that a little bit.

If I can pull Dickens away from Twain, I can track the non-Twain tradition in American Literature, as I understand it. I would put Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Stowe at the center somehow, valuing the social novel. Hawthorne and Melville join in to form a three-legged stool, and they are followed by James and Howells. That’s where you would add Twain, but, being a snob, I would want to argue that Jewett and Chopin and Wharton are all more interesting and worthy of deeper study, and I would favor London and Crane, heading towards Dreiser and Norris. That gets you to Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Cather, etc. I would say, not knowing anything at all of course, that Fitzgerald is in a direct line from Hawthorne to the early James (Blithedale-Bostonians-Great Gatsby), with a lot of Flaubert thrown in. And that French influence, with Paris and Gertrude Stein added to the mix, strikes me as more important to the painterly, modernist, mannered Heningway than the (obvious, yes) influence of Twain. It’s a lot easier to see Fitzgerald and Hemingway as a Hawthorne-Melville, James-Howells yin and yang, leaving Twain out of it. And I’d much rather include women like Jewett and Chopin, writing essential proto-modernist classics, or try at least to get them to the same level as a fellow one-book author like Twain. I know more already (2 or 3 books each) about Wharton and Cather and want to know more about them, before I would have any interest in reading a mellow, California showman/producer second-rate hack like Mark Twain. He’s probably just too much like my own sad self, only social and successful and famous, methinks.

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