The unstoppable Twain industry … and the Iranian people’s struggle

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"Is He Dead?" on Broadway (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Some familiar names surface in the June 4 The Times Literary Supplement — the most recent one to land in American mailboxes.

UC-Santa Cruz’s Susan Gillman comments on the “over-the-top spirit of the Mark Twain industry,” which is working itself up to a fever pitch this year — did you know that there was a petition drive “respectfully requesting Pres. Obama to designate 2010 ‘the year of Mark Twain'”?  I didn’t, either.

Gillman contributes to the “all Mark Twain, all the time” spirit with her lengthy cover piece on the unstoppable Twain industry (with a mention of Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight! which visited here very recently).

Holbrook as Twain

Gillman’s through-line:  “Is He Dead?”  Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s revival of the play of the title, directed by Michael Blakemore in 2008, gets a mention.  So does Twain’s famous line, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”  Gillman writes: “As we return to and repeat his words, it is a joint venture in which we, author and readers together, bring him back to life, again and again.”

Some time ago, I discussed Fishkin’s insightful Library of America Mark Twain Anthology of writers and thinkers on Twain.  I had excerpted Dick Gregory’s essay here, and received a correction from Fishkin herself:  The term “Nigger Jim” never appears in Huckleberry Finn.  Who knew?  Apparently not Norman Mailer, writes Gillman:

“Mailer stepped right into the racial hornet’s nest with his phrase ‘Nigger Jim’, which Fishkin notes was used by Hemingway, Ralph Ellison and others but never by Mark Twain.  African American parents who in 1984 were worried about the reading aloud by teachers and students in classrooms of the word ‘nigger’, which is used many times in the novel, would surely not be comforted.  … Those apocryphal Twainisms just won’t go away … Scholars may tear out their hair over it but Mailer, Ellison and others collected in The Mark Twain Anthology keep the phrases alive.

Fishkin edited the mega-volume The Oxford Mark Twain, but Gillman notes that she got one thing wrong, in every single volume:  “the Editor’s Note in all 29 volumes reverses the birth and death dates: ‘the year 2010 marks the Centennial of Mark Twain’s birth and the 175th anniversary of his death.'”  That’s what second editions are for.

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Also in the TLS: Dick Davis doesn’t care for Homa Katouzian’s The Persians (Yale University Press).  Davis, the foremost translator of Persian literature into English, ever (as well as a gifted poet in his own right) writes:

“One would be hard put to say anything positive at all about the political culture Katouzian describes as perennial in Iran, and yet the artistic sensibility that produced the great works of Iranian culture, the majority of which were produced in or for a court milieu, was clearly highly civilized, cultivated and humane.  Given hat this sensibility must have come from somewhere, that it cannot have existed in a cultural vacuum, it would seem that we are not being given the whole story.  And even if we restrict ourselves to the modern political sphere, the Iranian people’s struggles to establish a just and representative government, from the moment of the country’s constitutional revolution early in the twentieth century up to the disputed election last June, constitute a record that for its combination of idealism and sheer dogged determination is incomparable anywhere else in the Middle East.  The simultaneous difficulty and necessity of marrying ethics and politics is a major theme of medieval Persian literature, and it is one that still resonates within the culture.”


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