Monday, September 26, 2005

Interview: Making the Case for Mark Twain

The Destiny of Ron Powers: Making the Case for Mark Twain

This article originally appeared in Publishers Weekly.

Ron Powers, coauthor of the bestseller Flags of Our Fathers, felt the influence of Mark Twain early on. "When I was a little boy in Hannibal," says Powers, "[Twain] was a mythic figure to me. His books and a bust of him were all over my friend Dulany Winkler's house, and I spent a lot of time there. Seeing that a guy from Hannibal made it in the world lodged in my consciousness. I have carried Hannibal and Twain round in my head all my life."

Powers has expressed his lifelong passion for the writer by penning a 700-page biography, Twain: A Life, which Free Press has just published. The book may help stake out a bigger spot in other readers' consciousness for an author who Powers believes is inadequately appreciated. The hefty volume draws together the disparate parts of Twain's personality, from his early days as a red-headed four-year-old sitting at the knee of his family's slave, Uncle Dan'l, through his early years in Nevada and San Francisco as a maverick newspaperman, to the glory days as the toast of the town in Boston, New York, Paris, Sydney and almost everywhere in between.

Before this book, Powers published three separate works touching on Twain and his hometown: White Town Drowsing: Journeys to Hannibal, an account of the failed attempt to "package" Hannibal on the occasion of Mark Twain's 150th birthday; Tom and Huck Don't Live Here Anymore: Childhood and Murder in the Heart of America, a true crime book that looks at the dissolution of smalltown values; and Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain,an examination of Twain's formative years. Powers, who now lives in Middlebury, Vt., says that the shared birthplace has given him an affinity for Twain. But the pair have more in common than a hometown. As demonstrated in Twain: A Life, Powers and Twain share a knack for word play and irreverence. "With any other writer," says Powers's editor, Bruce Nichols, "I wouldn't have let through so many puns. But here, it seemed appropriate." Nichols believes that Powers and Twain are "an extraordinary match of writer and subject," and the pairing is serendipitous. Without it, it is unlikely a publisher would have commissioned yet another biography of the writer, who due to the vagaries of academia and a spirited campaign against him by the NAACP, among others, has largely receded from the classroom.

Since Twain's death in 1910, there have been more than 40 biographical works written about Twain for a general audience, including several recently, such as Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biographyby Justin Kaplan, The Singular Mark Twainby Fred Kaplan and Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biographyby Geoffrey Ward.

Nichols, who paid a six-figure advance for the book, insists that despite the number of previous works on Twain, there was more to be said. "In every generation we need to rediscover our cultural giants. If the country was ever said to have a cultural 'founding father,' Twain would be it," he says. The Free Press is banking on the book's ability to appeal to the same readers who have made David McCullough into a bestselling author, opting to print 70,000 copies of the $35 hardcover.

As if to confirm Twain's timeliness, new works by the author continue to be published. In 2001, the Atlantic Monthly, a magazine to which Twain was a regular contributor, finally printed his novella, A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage, 125 years after it was first rejected by the magazine. In 2003—a three-act play originally written in 1898, entitled Is He Dead?—was discovered and optioned for Broadway. The Mark Twain Project at the University of California at Berkeley, which serves as the main repository for Twain's letters and manuscripts, has since its founding in 1949 managed to annotate only a modest percentage of Twain's work, which includes some 28,000 letters (with tens of thousands estimated to be at large moldering unfound in attics and steamer trunks), along with notebooks and other sundries, including 500 incomplete and/or unpublished manuscripts. The project's general editor, Robert Hirst, who has been publishing books of Twain's annotated letters, estimates it may take until 2021 just to finish annotating the letters. Powers says he owes a debt to Hirst and the scholars at the archive, who provided much of the never seen before material and helped with the lion's share of research. Nichols goes so far as to call Hirst the "godfather" of the book, and says that Hirst's staff fact checked the manuscript.

Unfortunately, even as new works appear, Twain's reputation remains diminished. The author is a victim, Powers maintains, of career academics "who are probably a little bit jealous.

The major objection that is always raised against teaching Twain is the liberal use of the word "nigger" in Huckleberry Finn in particular. Resistance came early, when the Concord Library banned the book in 1885, calling it "trash suitable only for the slums."Momentum built in the 1950s, when the NAACP suggested the book contained "racial slurs" and "belittling racial designations." Similar allegations continue today. As recently as 1998, PBS rejected an offer to broadcast a filmed version of Mark Twain Tonight!—the theatrical one-man show the actor Hal Holbrook has been doing for 40 years (and recently revived on Broadway)—because of concerns over Twain's language.

Another part of the ongoing trouble with the academy may be Twain's reliance on satire and humor to make his point. Humor doesn't necessarily resonate across decades; will our grandchildren's children find David Sedaris funny? Powers points out that Twain's laughter was "a seamless extension of his anger," but that after his death, "his humor, and anger, amounted to character deformations, and worked fatally against his higher literary potential."

In addition, Powers writes, Twain's books "tended to be sprawling pastiches, grab bags of personal narrative, some of it true, mixed with found art: sections from other books, recollected tales, happenstance, memory fragments, self-plagiarized letters and essays, anything to meet the word count." Modern critics find this lack of formal structure off-putting, Powers writes.

That Twain is not very much appreciated by academic gatekeepers is no surprise. Much of Twain's career was a reaction to and revolt against the patrician thought police who guarded the gates to the garden of literary respectability. Assisted by other writers, such as his editor at the Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells, who became a lifelong friend and champion, Twain introduced East Coast readers to vernacular American speech and, in doing so, to proletarian –Americans' ideas about class and race. At the same time, Twain was a striver and for much of his life was as passionate about making money as writing. He is, after all, the man who branded the Gilded Age.

This duality, evident in his personality and double name— Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain—appealed to the deconstructionist literary critics who became dominant in the 1980s. They revived him somewhat, but unfortunately, says Powers "they viewed [Twain] as a walking Freudian casebook." The prevailing work on him was a form of "psycho-biography," says Nichols, that speculated on everything from his sexuality (he lived in San Francisco, he might be gay!) to the origin of his showmanship.

Powers, with his lifelong interest in Twain, observed this period and felt throughout that Twain the man "was pushed to the side and abstracted into theory." When the time came in his career to address Twain full on, he sought to "bring the man to stand next to the theory" and argue for his role in American history. "Here was a Rorschach blot of America in the 1880s and 1890s," says Powers, "the representative man of his age and a prophet of our time. The man internalized the American experience to the bones."

That Twain has always been a polarizing figure and still can inspire debate is a testament to his ability to embody the issues at the center of the national character. Powers's book may go a long way toward reasserting Twain's place as a titan of American letters. Nevertheless, Powers remains modest in his ambition. "I don't have any grandiose expectations of this book," he says. "I just want to reconnect people to the pleasure of reading him."

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