Mystery Twain (01/26/97)

real thing

Twainomania! Twain-o-rama! Mark Twain Revival! Get on board or you’ll miss the Twain!

With a slight Porky Pig interpolation, that seems to be the noise Oxford’s new Twain set wants to make—in unacknowledged opposition to the quiet hum of the University of California Press’ ongoing Twain Project, which combines (ideally) definitive scholarly editions of both published and unpublished or uncollected work with briefly annotated versions for the general public. Oxford’s approach is far more glamorous, and certainly Oxford’s concept is immediately appealing.

What you get: Every book Twain published in his lifetime, from the 1867 The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches to Mark Twain’s Speeches in 1910, the year Twain died at 74, an unsatisfied legend; the books “as he knew them,” reprinted as facsimiles of the first American editions, with all original illustrations—even reproductions of original bindings (no dust jackets in Twain’s time; the art went right onto the boards); a sturdy, uniform hardcover format; a low price (no copyrights still in force, no royalties to pay); along with an extensive general foreword from series editor Shelley Fisher Fishkin (a professor of American studies at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the extremely well-argued 1993 study “Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African American Voices” and a self-named “Twainiac”), a 5,000- or 6,000-word introduction by a celebrity author (Kurt Vonnegut, George Plimpton, Cynthia Ozick, Arthur Miller, etc.) and a somewhat more extensive afterword by a professor; and, as a kind of handbook to the whole, Fishkin’s own notably nonacademic rumination, Lighting Out for the Territory. If by some chance you had awoken on Christmas morning to find the Oxford Twain under your tree, there would have been only one thing to do: Open a book, any book, and start reading. Sooner or later, someone would have found you.

Still, there’s a reason the famous writers’ introductions to the Oxford series tend to be as stiff and unconvincing as the reprints are so often charming and seductive—the same reason, I think, that Fishkin’s Lighting Out for the Territory, a book studded with blazing passages, is so scatterbrained. The reason is this: from E.L. Doctorow’s all-but-self-parodying enshrinement of Tom Sawyer (“Clemens invoked from his past the boy his genius would descry as the carrier of our national soul”) to Fishkin’s schoolmarmish insistence that Twain is good for you (“Twain,” she actually writes at one point, “is there for us”—Huck, Tom and Becky Thatcher meet Friends), the Oxford crew works to raise an ancestor who is not in any cultural sense dead.

There has never been a Mark Twain revival because Mark Twain has never gone away. A check of a good used-book store found 54 editions of Twain books, not counting Cliffs Notes. For that matter, Twain is not far away: There are undoubtedly people reading this newspaper who were alive when Twain was and probably some who remember the news of his death. Thanks to the likes of Hal Holbrook, staging his Twain impersonations down through the decades—and who can imagine a Henry James impersonator making a living?—Twain’s public image, as Twain himself crafted it, his pop star image, remains plain. Unlike Tom Sawyer at his own funeral, Mark Twain has never turned up missing. Culturally, he has never even had a funeral.

He remains controversial. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, denounced by some in recent years as a racist fantasy little better than Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman (the book on which D.W. Griffith based Birth of a Nation), is regularly the subject of calls for its removal from classrooms and libraries because, while it may be the carrier of our national soul, it is also the carrier of our national poison: the word “nigger.” It was only last year that novelist Jane Smiley kicked up the traces of the national canon with her argument that, in contradistinction to Ernest Hemingway’s claim that all of modern American literature grew out of Huckleberry Finn (at least until the last chapters, when Huck and the escaped slave Jim leave the river, Tom Sawyer shows up, effectively re-enslaves Jim and turns tragedy into farce), “it undoubtedly would have been better for American literature” if it had grown out of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery epic Uncle Tom’s Cabin—which, Roy Blount Jr. wrote in reply, is “like saying it would be better for people to come from heaven than from sex.” You won’t find a line like that in the apparatus of the Oxford Twain, not even in Blount’s own introduction to The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Nor will you find anything approaching the candor and vitality of Leslie Fiedler’s comments in Love and Death in the American Novel (published in 1960 and never out of print), not even in Fiedler’s afterword to “1601 and Is Shakespeare Dead?” “Huck seems the first existentialist hero,” Fiedler wrote nearly 40 years ago, “the improbable ancestor of Camus’ Stranger or the protagonists of Jean-Paul Sartre or the negative characters of the early Hemingway. But how contrived, literary and abstract the others seem beside Huck! He is the product of no metaphysics, but of a terrible breakthrough of the undermind of America itself… There are mythic qualities in Ahab and even Dimmesdale, but Huck is a myth: not invented but discovered by one close enough to the popular mind to let it, this once at least, speak through him. Twain sometimes merely pandered to that popular mind, played the buffoon for it, but he was unalienated from it, and when he let it possess him, instead of pretending to condescend to it, he and the American people dreamed Huck—dreamed, that is to say, the anti-American dream.”

In place of this—visionary plain speech, you might call it—the Oxford series offers self-promotion (in her introduction to “1601 and Is Shakespeare Dead?,” Erica Jong lists her own Fear of Flying as a classic of sexual liberation along with the likes of Lolita and Lady Chatterly’s Lover and describes herself as a “writer whose processes of composition often resemble Twain’s”), signs of hasty production and sloppy editing (typos on the order of “the Oregan Trail”) and Doctorow (“He wrote most of [The Adventures of Tom Sawyer] in the space of two summers, 1874 and 1875, devoting the year in between to the business schemes, lectures, writing projects and domestic and financial matters with which they filled his exuberant life,” which is not exactly English) or Toni Morrison in full lecture mode. Her introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has some fine and cutting moments (“The cyclical attempts to remove the novel from classrooms extend Jim’s captivity into each generation of readers”), but the piece is a dead fish, huffing and puffing against its own lifelessness until a tumble of embarrassingly self-conscious literary water metaphors—“unarticulated eddies that encourage diving into the novel’s undertow” being only a few of them—bear the essay away. While the academics, in their afterwords, are generally relaxed, the famous writers in their introductions are pressing, as if they’re intimidated by Twain, or bored with him or both—as if the funeral starts here.fishkinNothing similar can be said of Fishkin’s canny, passionate and profoundly irritating Lighting Out for the Territory. Fishkin is giddy and full of gosh/wow, shamelessly self-congratulatory, at times sounding less like a Twain scholar than like his press agent (“He has been called our Cervantes, our Homer… He knew that our feet often danced to tunes that had somehow remained beyond our hearing; with perfect pitch he played them back to us”), but her book boils with life, and it does so because, however good a Twain critic Fishkin may be, she is an absolutely devastating critic of racism.

She takes the reader on a brief trip to Hannibal, Mo., site of Twain’s boyhood and the model for the St. Petersburg of the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn books. It’s a revelatory journey—but to get there, the reader has to sit through what seem like the results of a very bad writing course. “Personalize!” you can almost hear the text-on-tape commanding. “Bring yourself—and, better yet, your mother!—into the story! And most important: MOTION EQUALS MEMORY. Repeat: MOTION…” Thus there is no progress in Fishkin’s narrative without some variant of “The summer sun shot through the window in blinding flashes as my plane approached the runway for a landing. I shielded my eyes. As the Fokker 100 touched the ground, I recalled the conversation I’d had eight months earlier…”

But nevermind. With Fishkin, a little patience, or a lot of patience, pays off. Hannibal is the expected Mark Twain theme park. You’re not surprised when Fishkin turns over Hannibal’s stone and racist insects come scurrying out, but incident builds on incident—slave ads from Twain displays that, as Fishkin presents them, are almost too revolting to read, present-day tales of vicious discrimination at a high school prom, a running set of references to the special souvenir bullwhips the Mark Twain shops sell, a series with a terrific payoff—until what could have come off as set-ups ring with real power.

Hannibal has an annual Tom and Becky contest; in fact, there’s a 40-year reunion, 1956-1996, as if it’s some Missouri version of the Mickey Mouse Club. Fishkin interviews Becky ’64, straight out of central casting, but the context of ancient horror and modern cruelty Fishkin has established is so strong that Becky ’64’s certainty that Hannibal never had any racial problems when she was growing up feels as evil as it does bland. “See,” the woman explains to Fishkin, “that’s the only part we promote. His boyhood years. We don’t [promote] the part where Huck and Jim are down the Mississippi. We promote only the little boy, when he played marbles, when he whitewashed the fence. That’s the only part we promote.” Fishkin goes to see Reflections of Mark Twain. “This delightful two-hour pageant,” reads the promotional material, “is presented by 25 local actors who unfold the story of Mark Twain and his famous characters… episodes from Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi come alive in a very special way.” “Who plays Jim?” Fishkin asks a girl working at the show. “There isn’t any Jim,” she says. It’s a chilling moment, but in fact there is, in present-day Hannibal’s version of Mark Twain’s America, less than simply no Jim. “The second act began with one of those wonderful conversations between Huck and Jim on the raft,” Fishkin goes on, the reader suddenly confused, then put right, “here transposed into idle chitchat between Huck and Aunt Polly as Aunt Polly shelled peas on the front steps.”

This is the foundation of Fishkin’s developing, disjointed attempt to place Twain’s peculiarly ambiguous legacy where it belongs: among those many inheritances in our national life that remain, like Twain, at once distant and immediate, seemingly made up of frozen clichés but altogether unstable, inheritances that remain unsettled, that may never be settled. When, finally, Fishkin argues for Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as the truest inheritor of Huckleberry Finn (and how comfortable would Hemingway have been with that?), there seems to be no irony in the idea—she has dissolved the boundaries a reader might bring to Twain’s stories, or to hers. That it would be a black novelist, not a white one, to continue Huck’s adventure doesn’t simply make sense; in Fishkin’s hands, with her implicit contention that what is dead in Twain is the ability of whites to grasp racism as completely as he grasped it, Ellison’s appearance as Twain’s real child takes on a whiplash inevitability. And novelist David Bradley’s comment to Fishkin on the unsatisfying ending to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn dissolves decades of literary carping into the kind of racism that is atmospheric, the air we breathe: “America,” Bradley says, “has never been able to write a better ending,” not to the book, though some have tried, and not to the story of black and white. “America has never been able to write any ending at all.”

There is, then, a somberness hiding in Fishkin’s often trivial book that has escaped the far more celebrated authors she brought together to tell us why we ought to be reading Mark Twain. There is a seriousness, a fury—and even, really, a love the celebratory essayists only pretend to. The Oxford reprints of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are lovely and irresistible as objects, as souvenirs of national experience, but the set as such is just a curio, and Fishkin, messy and preening and clumsy as she may be, is the real thing.


Los Angeles Times, January 26, 1997


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