Posts Tagged ‘Mark Twain’

Mark Twain in the Monkey Block … plus a San Francisco joke

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014
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MontgomeryBlock

The Monkey Block then…

Here’s a local riddle:

Transamerica

… and now.

Questioner: What’s the best vantage point for viewing San Francisco?

Respondent:  I don’t know, Book Haven, what’s the best vantage point for viewing San Francisco?

Questioner: The Transamerica Building.

Respondent: Why the Transamerica Building, Book Haven?

Questioner: Because it’s the only vantage point in San Francisco where you won’t see the Transamerica Building.

Twain

Local boy makes good.

On the other hand, you could enter a time machine and go back to oh, say, about the mid-19th century. Then you’d avoid it completely. Above, you can see what the Montgomery block, at 628 Montgomery Street, looked like when it was the home of a slew of literary Bohemians, among them Bret Harte and Mark Twain. According to the caption, “Lovingly known as the Monkey Block, the 1853 building was demolished in 1959; the Transamerica Pyramid now stands in its place.”  Before and after, which is better?  You decide.

San Francisco Chronicle book editor John McMurtrie dropped us a line earlier today. He thought those of us on his mailing list might get a kick out of the photo gallery he’s put together on Twain’s time in San Francisco. He was inspired by Ben Tarnoff’s new book, The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature. You, too, can see the fruit of John’s labors here.

Another photo in the series: Green Street in San Francisco, looking west, during the memorial march for President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. After the assassination, Harte’s column in the Californian praised this “simple-minded, uncouth, and honest” westerner who, in Tarnoff’s words, “liberated America from the cultural choke hold of New England.”  We’re still working on that, Mr. Tarnoff. It’ll come.

 

A “damn fine aphorist” shares a few thoughts among hundreds

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014
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A pensive Patrick. Stanford Bookstore’s Doug Erickson helps a customer in the background (Photo par Humble Moi)

A small, but enthusiastic, audience gathered at the Stanford Bookstore last week to hear archaeologist-poet and art historian  Patrick Hunt’s presentation of his most recent book, A Few Hundred Thoughts (Corinthian Press). According to the leading authority, James Geary, on his blog, All Aphorisms, All the Time, Patrick’s got an additional title we didn’t know about: he’s also “a damn fine aphorist.” His new book some honed-down thoughts culled over decades (with a few fabulae at the end of the volume).

A few of my favorites:

Only leaves know the true color of sunlight.”

Humans have stomachs twice the size of their brains and three times the size of their hearts.”

A constellation is a village where stars live.”

Anguish is proof of the soul.”

Stars obey the same laws as snails.”

Unlike comets and more like candles, souls don’t burn up but down.”

hunt1Clearly, he roamed territory that was witty, observant, thoughtful, and profound … but what’s the difference between an aphorism and a saying, anyway? Here’s what he writes in his preface:

Greek property in ancient society was often marked out by a boundary pillar, a horos stone that set up a determined space. One word for the act of marking boundaries was ‘aphorízein (“to mark off by boundaries, to set bounds, to define”). Derived in part from this Greek verb, an aphorism is a pithy saying, conveying defined truth in a tightly determined construction of a few words whose boundaries were set by verbal economy and precision.

In his talk, Patrick attempted to distinguish between the apothegm, the maxim, the epigram, the proverb, and the aphorism. The epigram, he said, “is meant to have stingers,” a sharp bite at the end. Maxims illustrate principles or rules. The aphorism, he said, is “intellectual judo – much like poetry, every word counts.” He hailed Voltaire, Montesquieu, Wilde, Twain, as “aphoristic masters.”

From his book: “These aphorisms are often sourced from the end lines of my poems intended as summations. They also derive from my theses of various belles lettres, essays and book chapters,” he wrote, adding, “It is hoped there are no platitudes, tendentious saws, bromides or non sequiturs and fallacies here, but that cannot be guaranteed.”

I don’t claim to be wise,” he demurred humbly to the assembled fans. Far be it for us to quarrel with an aphoristic master, but if he’s right, he made a very credible facsimile. I expect I’ll be returning to his book again and again.

Postscript on 1/23: The inimitable Dave Lull, patron of bloggers, alerted my attention to the newest post from aphorist emperor James Geary, about Patrick and this post – it’s here. We referred to him, and now he refers to us, and we are referring back to him again. It’s one of those infinite regression thingummes. Or maybe tennis.

Why every kid in China knows Mark Twain

Friday, January 10th, 2014
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Not just a funny guy.

Mark Twain is popular in China – and not only (predictably) for Huckleberry Finn, which has more than 90 different translations into Chinese. A lot of his fame comes from an obscure short story called “Running for Governor,” Twain’s imaginative account of his (fictional) 1870 gubernatorial run in New York.

Amy Qin, who calls Twain the “founder of the American voice,” tells the story in the New York Times hereand says that Twain’s tale of American incompetence, greed, sham, corruption, and lies made the piece required reading for middle school students across China, “along with other short stories that were seen to reinforce the anti-Western, anti-capitalist, socialist education agenda.”

According to literary scholar Guiyou Huang on the Library of America website, “ ‘Running for Governor’ was translated and filtered down into the high school textbooks throughout the country as a model piece of critical realism that exposes the so-called false democracy in a capitalist country. In other words, all high school graduates [in China] know who Mark Twain is.”

Our favorite Twain expert, Shelley Fisher Fishkin inevitably enters into the NYT story (we’ve written about her here and here and here and here, among other places):

“In a speech delivered in 1960 in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Twain’s death, the eminent Chinese writer Lao She hailed Twain as an ‘outstanding writer of critical realism in the United States’ and a bracing social critic who had been reduced by Americans to a figure who told jokes.

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She knows everything. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“That Twain was until recently remembered more as a humorist than as a satirist or social critic in the United States is not inaccurate, said Shelley Fisher Fishkin, an English professor and expert on Twain at Stanford University.

“’In a sense we threw out the baby with the bath water,’ said Professor Fishkin, citing the imperatives of the Cold War as a major reason for the distortion of Twain’s more serious accomplishments. For much the same reasons that China played up Twain’s social commentary and critiques of imperialism, the United States, she said, played them down. …  today in the United States, more than a hundred years after Twain’s death, many of his critiques of hypocrisy, ignorance and greed — ‘Running for Governor’ included — still ring true. ‘Twain the social critic who uses satire to skewer his society’s foibles is a Twain that is increasingly of value to us today,’ Professor Fishkin said.”

Read the Twain story over here.  Or read the story about the story here.

Hitting the road with Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013
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christmas-carolDickens-lover John Hennessy (also known as Stanford University’s president) told us some time ago that he reread A Christmas Carol at this time of year. Perhaps we’ll join him – certainly it’s short enough.  My little facsimile of the first edition is a double-spaced 166 pages long (at right).

It was the first book Charles Dickens took to the road for his famous readings, which made a killing in the U.S.  His second American tour raked in the equivalent of $2.3 million in today’s dollars. People camped out in the snow the night before to hear it – it was the 19th-century version of Black Friday sales at Walmart.

During that 1867 tour, the 32-year-old Mark Twain was in the audience, and was distinctly unimpressed.  Here’s how he described the “old” (55 years old) writer’s entrance:

Promptly at 8 P.M., unannounced, and without waiting for any stamping or clapping of hands to call him out, a tall, “spry,” (if I may say it,) thin-legged old gentleman, gotten up regardless of expense, especially as to shirt-front and diamonds, with a bright red flower in his button-hole, gray beard and moustache, bald head, and with side hair brushed fiercely and tempestuously forward, as if its owner were sweeping down before a gale of wind, the very Dickens came! He did not emerge upon the stage – that is rather too deliberate a word – he strode.

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Hamming it up

The verdict? “There is no heart,” he said. “No feeling – it is nothing but glittering frostwork.”

Dickens was renowned for his theatrical readings.  Here’s how he prepared:  two tablespoons of rum mixed with cream for breakfast, a pint of champagne for tea and, half an hour prior to performance, he would knock back a sherry with a raw egg beaten into it. During the interval of his reading he would sip beef tea, and at bedtime he’d have a bowl of soup – just like Ebenezer… or was that porridge?  I’ll have to reread and find out.

Dickens’ first public reading was A Christmas Carol, and it was also his last.  His son recorded his last words to a London audience in March 1870 (springtime is not the usual time for reading A Christmas Carol): “…from these garish lights I vanish now for evermore, with one heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and affectionate farewell.”

On performance days, Dickens would prep with two tablespoons of rum mixed with cream for breakfast, a pint of champagne for tea and, half an hour before he went on stage, he would knock back a sherry with a raw egg beaten into it. During the interval of his reading he would sip beef tea, and at bedtime he’d have a bowl of soup … just like Ebenezer … or was that porridge? We’ll have to doublecheck.

Just as Dickens’ first public reading was of A Christmas Carol, so was his last – an uncharacteristic springtime reading of A Christmas Carol in March 1870. His son recorded his final, admittedly hammy, words to the audience: “…from these garish lights I vanish now for evermore, with one heartfelt, grateful, and affectionate farewell.”

How do I know all this stuff?  You can read this and more little-known facts about the Christmas classic over at Mental Floss here.  And below is the bestest Christmas Carol ever, the 1951 version with Alaistair Sim.  And below that, Dickens’s distinctive bookplate.  Just because we like lions.

bookplate3-dickens

 

 

“A chill went through me”: How a Twain scholar discovered a long-lost letter on racism

Sunday, January 27th, 2013
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“Is He Dead?”

Shelley Fisher Fishkin has scored a lot of “firsts” with Twain – we wrote about her rediscovery of a long-lost Twain play Is He Dead? some time ago here.  In a recent interview in the journal Americana here, she discusses her lifelong partnership with the author.

Her adventures began shortly after her 1988 From Fact to Fiction: Journalism and Imaginative Writing in America was published:

My first wild adventure with Mark Twain happened shortly before that book was published. I was infuriated by the efforts of a black educator named John Wallace to close down a production of Huck Finn at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and to take the book out of the nation’s schools, on the grounds that the novel and its author were racist. (He wanted to replace Twain’s book with his own edition of it – which, like the recent New South Books edition, replaced every use of the word “nigger” with “slave.”)

I wrote an op-ed that the New York Times published on the 100th anniversary of the publication of Huck Finn in the U.S.  I observed that Mark Twain had had to turn to satire in the first place because his direct exposés of racism (towards the Chinese in San Francisco) were censored; but now he faced the prospect of censorship once again because some readers couldn’t understand his irony.

The day that op-ed appeared in the Times, I was awakened by a phone call. A woman said, “I don’t know you, but I just read your piece in the New York Times, and I’ve got to see you right away.  I have a letter Mark Twain wrote that nobody knows about yet, and after reading your column, I know you’ll know what to do with it.  Here’s what it says.”  She read me the letter over the phone. A chill went through me as I realized that the letter contained the only direct, non-ironic condemnation of racism that we had from Twain during the period in which he published Huck Finn. Indeed, it was written the same year that Huck Finn was published.

The woman who called me was an antiques dealer who had found it in an old desk. I authenticated the letter and I researched its context single-mindedly over the next few weeks, reconstructing a story that ended up intriguing others as much as it fascinated me: Warner T. McGuinn, the young  black law student Twain wrote about in the letter,  a young man whom he would end up funding  through his own private “affirmative action” plan,  went on to become a major civil rights lawyer who was a mentor to Thurgood Marshall.  The story (which the New York Times ran on its front page) got huge national and international attention.

The discussion includes the book that made her a Twain superstar, her 1993 book Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices:

I was somewhat astonished by the ruckus it caused!  Why should people have been so surprised by the idea that black and white writers and speakers had been shaping each other’s work throughout our nation’s history? Segregated lunch counters may have disappeared in the 1960s, but segregated syllabi were still alive and well in the 1990s.  In the early 1990s, there were “American Literature” courses, which were populated almost completely by “white” writers, and there were “African-American Literature Courses” that focused on writers who were invariably “black.” My book challenged the usefulness – and accuracy – of those segregated silos. …

If I were to have the chance to write Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices, again, I would do one thing differently: I would explain the title.  It was a mistake to assume that everyone would know that my title was signifying on the “one-drop rule.” Some of my critics ridiculed my argument by charging me with denying that any white voices had shaped Huck’s voice in the book, which is preposterous.  My title was simply playing with the idea that if we applied the “one-drop rule” to culture, and if Huck’s voice was shaped at least in part by black voices, then Huck was “black.” I should have said so.

Old friends, new friends, and more from the Monterey Coast

Saturday, July 14th, 2012
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When he wasn't starting forest fires, he was here.

Old friends, new friends:  Thursday’s post about reconnoitering with an old friend James Bryant, thanks to an Islamic prayerbook, fell into grateful and unfamiliar hands.

I received a pleasant note from Dwight Green, who was on his way to Monterey about the time he ran across my jottings.  He was already planning to visit the Robert Louis Stevenson house, where the author chilled while  awaiting the divorce of his wife-to-be. (“Yeah. It was complicated,” says Dwight.) I was pleased to discover that Dwight is a kindred spirit in the blogosphere: he runs the excellent blog, “A Common Reader“  – so you can read about his whole visit here.  He also points out that there’s some fascinating background about Stevenson’s stay in California here, But thanks to my heads-up, he also stopped into Carpe Diem and, given its excellent selection on California and the American West, resolved to save his pennies for the next visit.  (He also stopped into another Book Haven – no relation.)

The crowded shelves of Carpe Diem

And do yourself a favor and make a visit to this rugged stretch of the Pacific coast yourself: “The waves which lap so quietly about the jetties of Monterey grow louder and larger in the distance; you can see the breakers leaping high and white by day; at night, the outline of the shore is traced in transparent silver by the moonlight and the flying foam; and from all round, even in quiet weather, the distant, thrilling roar of the Pacific hangs over the coast and the adjacent country like smoke above a battle.”

Meanwhile, what is it about famous authors and forest fires?  Are they just more careless than other people?  I wrote about Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, and burnt acres on the Fourth of July here – now this from the Robert Louis Stevenson website:

While in Monterey, RLS also started a forest fire. He was fascinated by the many fires that spring up in the Californian forests and wondered whether it was the moss growing on the trees that first caught fire. The moss did catch fire – and quickly spread. RLS later described the incident in “The Old Pacific Capital” (1880).

Otherwise, I’m having a quite day, transcribing notes and revising a draft. Hope you are enjoying Bastille Day in a livelier way.

They started more than literary firestorms: Twain, Thoreau meet Smokey the Bear

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012
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Fire and the 4th go hand in hand

Traditional 4th of July celebrations involve fireworks, campfires, sparklers, gunfire and cannons, and all sorts of other incendiary tomfoolery.  What better way to celebrate than with the tale of two inadvertent literary firebugs?

Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin apparently agrees, according to her new post on the Library of America’s “Reader’s Almanac” blog.

Here’s the story:  Through their own naïveté and carelessness, Mark Twain burned 200 acres of forest around Lake Tahoe. He failed to break Henry David Thoreau‘s earlier record of setting 300 acres of his beloved Concord woods aflame.

“Yet each man kills the thing he loves,” wrote Oscar Wilde.  He might have had Twain in mind, for Twain loved Tahoe with a passion that all later lakes failed to arouse.  Italy’s famous Lake Como was as nothing.  The renowned Sea of Galilee was a downright disappointment.  (I understood this completely when I saw the mud puddle called the Jordan River.  Where was the mighty, rolling river of the spirituals?  It occurred to me as I gazed at the sluggish, fetid waters that the slaves had the Mississippi in mind.)

“Three months of camp life on Lake Tahoe,” wrote the dazzled Twain in Roughing It, “would restore an Egyptian mummy to his pristine vigor, and give him an appetite like an alligator. I do not mean the oldest and driest mummies, of course, but the fresher ones.”

America's answer to Como, Galilee

Yet he built a campfire on the shore one autumn day in 1861 and left it unattended while he returned to his boat.  A gust of wind did the rest.

Seventeen years earlier, a stray spark from Thoreau’s campfire started a conflagration.  According to Shelley:

Both writers were struck by the “glorious spectacle” (Thoreau’s words) of the fires they had started; Twain found the “mighty roaring of the conflagration” to be “very impressive.” Neither Thoreau nor Twain showed much remorse for the destruction he had caused. “I have set fire to the forest,” Thoreau wrote in his journal six years later, “but I have done no wrong therein, and now it is as if the lightning had done it.”

Twain, at least, has not been forgiven.

Said Shelley:  ”Last week I asked a firefighter at Fallen Leaf Lake, in the Tahoe Basin just south of Lake Tahoe, whether Mark Twain was still persona non grata in the area. He nodded grimly.”

Having fled my own home with suitcases and pets during two wildfires in that part of the world and stayed at home for a third close call, I can understand the firefighter’s umbrage.

Read the whole cautionary tale here.

Marcel Proust playing air guitar

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012
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OK, you’ve got to see thisSusan Sontag in a bear suit.  Flavorwire has Annie Leibovitz‘s photo of her partner thus outfitted – but go to the source, which is here, for a gallery of Leibovitz’s portraits, including some magnificent ones of Sontag.

Flavorwire’s “Extremely Silly Photos of Extremely Serious Writers” features Sontag as Exhibit #1, but some of them are more or less unsurprising. Mark Twain playing billiards, Ernest Hemingway kick a can, Hunter Thompson with an inflatable woman, Colette dressed as a cat – but this one takes the cake: Marcel Proust playing air guitar on Boulevard Bineau with his friends in 1892 (his mimetic beloved Jeanne Pouquet in center).  At this time of the photo, he was known as a snob, a dilettante, and a social climber.

But the somehow sad image brought back the words of René Girard (recently the subject of a post here) from his landmark Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, which celebrated its 50th anniversary since publication a few months ago. His words:

“The sterile oscillation between pride and shame is also found in Proustian snobbism. We shall never despise the snob as much as he despises himself. The snob is not essentially despicable; he tries to escape his own subjective feeling of contemptibility by assuming the new being which he supposedly procures through snobbism. The snob thinks he is always on the point of securing this being and behaves as if he has already done so. Thus he acts with intolerable arrogance. Snobbism is an inextricable mixture of pride and meanness, and it is this very mixture which defines metaphysical desire. …

“The snob bows before a noble title which has lost all real value, before a social prestige so esoteric that it is really appreciated by only a few elderly ladies. … The snob seeks no concrete advantage; his pleasures and sufferings are purely metaphysical.”

The anonymous photo is from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, which, incidentally, also has the René Girard archive.

Mark Twain, filmed by Thomas Edison in 1909

Monday, April 2nd, 2012
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My peregrinations around the internet led me to this charming footage of Mark Twain, filmed by Thomas Edison at the author’s estate in Stormfield, Conn., in 1909 – one of the many wonders of youtube. Twain is shown walking around his home and playing cards with his daughters Clara and Jean. The flickering is caused by film deterioration.  This is the only known footage of the author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is, of course, a “silent.”

A long day and a late night – more later.  I’d be curious, however, to hear what Twain expert and friend Shelley Fisher Fishkin thinks of this short film, 1 minute and 48 seconds long.

Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe: Did they take out the “J” word, too?

Monday, January 30th, 2012
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Liz Taylor and Joan Fontaine: 'scuse me, who's the heroine here?

Some time ago, we launched a firestorm about the controversial new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn that eliminates the “n” word altogether.

Now Sir Walter Scott‘s Ivanhoe is taking a thumping.  Apparently, modern readers find the 1819 novel, set in 12th century England, too ponderous and verbose.

According to an article in the Telegraph, a Scottish professor, David Purdie, has solved the problem with a pair of scissors:  he spent 18 months snipping it from 179,000 words to a mere 80,000:

While Prof. Purdie has retained the antiquated writing style used by Sir Walter, he has taken out the swathes of punctuation which extend the novel.

He said: “Very few people read Scott these days because he’s long and wordy and difficult for the modern ear and modern attention span.

“In the early 19th century, a comma was placed after every phrase, which makes it tedious reading.

Eliminating commas, however, does not account for cutting it down to less than half.  Last time I checked, commas didn’t count as words.

Some have questioned whether the book is so close to death that it needed this kind of life-saving surgery. Said, Professor David Hewit of Aberdeen University,  “The idea that Scott is neglected, no, it’s not neglected at all,” he said. “Ivanhoe is being well read.” He said that Penguin editions for the book had sold around 100,000 copies in the last decade, with worldwide sales of around 200,000 copies.

Moreover famous fans of Ivanhoe include Tony Blair, who said it he would take it to a desert island with him, and Ho Chi Minh, who praised medieval gallantry shown in the novel, as channeled by the Victorians.

Purdie appeared to have found an unexpected champion over at Billevesées. Blogger William V. Madison wrote about the novel earlier this month:

The plot that thrilled generations of readers is in constant struggle with Scott’s prose, which is verbose in the extreme. A character may typically take a long paragraph just to tell another to make haste, and my second-hand paperback edition provided very few notes (mostly Scott’s own, along with a thin glossary) to explain obscure terminology. (No attempt was made to explain the constant misuse of participles for past tense: “He sprung forth,” e.g.) Scott lards the story with “poetic” descriptions and song lyrics, and toward the end of the book, when poor Rebecca awaits her doom, Scott meanders off for several scarcely relevant chapters, sabotaging his own suspense. The resolution of the plot, hitherto relatively plausible, depends on one improbable death and an even more outlandish resurrection.

However – surprise! – Madison changes his tune:

In short, modern readers will find the odds stacked against them. And yet the damned thing does work. Almost against my will, I found myself caught up in the story, and this is largely due to Scott’s characterization, which in a couple of cases — notably the Jews, Isaac of York and his daughter — proves quite compelling. We feel so strongly the injustices they suffer that we care about what happens to them.

So much so that Scott complained after the novel was published why Ivanhoe didn’t elope with the Jewish Rebecca, rather than the boring shiksa Rowena.  That was even before the MGM movie that put a luscious Elizabeth Taylor in the supporting role.

It’s a fun read – Madison, I mean, not Ivanhoe (which I managed to read and enjoy as a teenager without too much trouble) – check out the whole thing here.  Madison even answers the eternal question why the evil Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert doesn’t ravish Rebecca, as he had originally planned. It’s included in a long-lost fragment of the novel here.

Postscript on 1/31:  A belated hat tip to Kevin Rossiter for the Telegraph article.  He put his own p.o.v. succinctly:  “I just object to the idea of making any work of literature ‘more accessible.’  Peter Brown gave a lecture at Stanford a couple of years ago and addressed the question, ‘Why would anyone want want to study late antiquity?’  He used a phrase I like a lot – he said late antiquity had a ‘salutary strangeness.’  I think that’s what great literary works often have, too.  A healthy departure from the unexamined and comfortable.”  See more on Peter Brown of Princeton’s lecture here.