Celebrating Mark Twain, with or without Halley’s Comet


twainFor most famous dead people, we celebrate the anniversary of births rather than deaths, unless they’ve been assassinated or canonized.  This year, we’re making an exception for Mark Twain.

Or perhaps not:  While it’s the 100th anniversary of his death on Wednesday, this year also marks the 175th anniversary of his birth.  “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835,” he famously said in 1909.  “It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it.  It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet.  The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ Oh, I am looking forward to that.”

In any case, at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, April 21st, Shelley Fisher Fishkin will share excerpts from The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works, which she edited for the prestigious Library of America series, at the Stanford Bookstore. (Zachary Baker will read a brief selection by Maks Erik that he translated for the book, in Yiddish and English.  Cintia Santana will read her translation of José Martí, in Spanish and English.)

The book is unexpectedly addictive, including writing from Marina Tsvetaeva, George Orwell, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, T.S. Eliot, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, William Dean Howells, William James, Helen Keller, Ursula LeGuin, Norman Mailer, Somerset Maugham, H.L. Mencken, Barack Obama, Eugene O’Neill, Franklin Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, Lionel Trilling, Gore Vidal, Richard Wright and others.


Twain’s “Is He Dead?” at the Cinnabar Theater this month

For my money, I like Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s essay:  “The brilliance of Huckleberry Finn is that it is the argument it raises,” she writes.

Twain would appreciate the attention, under any terms.  Fame enough for the man who said: “I can live for two months on a good compliment.”  Twain, who called himself “the most conspicuous man on the planet,” also said: “If it can be proved that my fame reaches to Neptune and Saturn, that will satisfy me.”

This year has also seen another performance of the play that Fishkin, author or editor of 33 books about Twain, rescued from oblivion and produced on BroadwayIs He Dead? just finished a 3-week run at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater.

Another book to celebrate this year: Mark Twain: A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, Other Travel Writings, edited by Roy Blount Jr., also from the Library of America.

Fishkin summarized the forever appeal of the journalist-turned-novelist for the Philadelphia Inquirer recently:  “He learned to tell the truth, and he learned to tell a fantastic tall tale.  Both stood him in good stead as a reporter and as an American writer.”



W.S. Di Piero

The hour-long Fishkin reading leaves plenty of time to hike to over to the Terrace Room of Margaret Jacks Hall for a 6:30 reading by poet, translator and essayist W.S. Di Piero.

According to David Kieley over at Bookslut:

“…W.S. Di Piero reads like a cop. In his charcoal suit, burgundy shirt and silver tie, he looked a lot more like his South Philadelphia roots than his current home of San Francisco. His speech was punchy and accented, his commentary sparse and to the point. A few times during the reading I closed my eyes and laughed at the ease with which I could pretend that Al Pacino was reading me a poem.

I don’t mean to rag on Di Piero; it was the sense that he felt cornered at the podium that made him seem sincere and relieved my fear of literary pretense. So let’s trust that he still is W.S. from the block, even if he’s “mixing it up” in a teaching gig at Stanford, because his book, like his persona, is all about finding the shepherd in sheep’s clothing.”

A few words from the poet himself:


“Take away whatever you want,

but deliver me to derangements

of sweet, ordered, derelict words.

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