"It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare."

Monday, December 29, 2008

When Twain Met Churchill

An astute reader of the New York Times pointed out in yesterday's Sunday Book Review that Carlo D'Este's new book about Winston Churchill, which was recently reviewed in the Times, contains a misrepresentation of Churchill's encounter with Mark Twain.

According to the new book, Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, Twain introduced Churchill to a New York audience in 1900 with the words, "a hero of five wars, author of six books and future prime minister of England." In actuality, it was the manager of Churchill's North American lecture tour who came up with that only partly accurate description, not Twain.

Twain, more in keeping with his personality and general attitude toward colonial warfare, actually described Churchill as "[knowing] all about war and nothing about peace."

This inaccurate attribution has been often repeated, so thanks go out to Times reader Peter Crane for pointing that out.

Twain and Churchill, incidentally, shared the same birthday: November 30.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Twain Maxim Inspires Story Behind 2008 Oscar Favorite

Any way you slice it, Mark Twain has had a profound and ongoing influence on American popular culture. The latest example of the stamina of Twain's wisdom can be found in one of the most acclaimed motion pictures of the year, one that has been making waves lately as a major Oscar contender.

When famous editor Maxwell Perkins related to his even more famous client F. Scott Fitzgerald that well-known remark of Twain's which asserts, "It's a pity that the best parts of life come at the beginning, the worst parts at the end," it inspired Fitzgerald in 1922 to pen the short story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"--about a man who comes into the world as an old man and literally ages in reverse, passing away as an infant.

It was that story which was eventually adapted into David Fincher's newest film from Paramount Pictures, starring Brad Pitt in the titular role. Actually, the story had been considered for film adaptation going back to Fitzgerald's lifetime, during his years as a Hollywood screenwriter. However, even a 1943 screenplay by fellow author-turned-screenwriter William Faulkner wasn't enough to get the unusual project off the ground. It popped up again in the early 1980s, but was stuck in development hell for the past 25 years.

And now, finally, after such a rocky road, the film based on the short story inspired by the words of Twain has made it to the silver screen, and is one of the biggest projects of the year. Ol' Sam would sure be amazed.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Twain Speaks from Beyond the Grave

The New Yorker has published the rare Mark Twain essay "The Privilege of the Grave" in this week's issue. Written by Twain in 1905 (five years before his death), it has not seen the light of day until now. The essay is part of UC-Berkeley's Mark Twain archive.

Here's a snippet:

"We have charity for what the dead say. We may disapprove of what they say, but we do not insult them, we do not revile them, as knowing they cannot now defend themselves. If they should speak, what revelations there would be!"

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

New Book Examines Clemens' Years as a "Journalist"

It was during his time writing for the Virginia City newspaper the Territorial Enterprise during the 1860s that Samuel Clemens transformed on the printed page into Mark Twain. The young upstart cut his teeth writing satirical and often outrageous parodies of real-life news in the mining town, and its that writing which University of Hawaii English professor James E. Caron looks at in his new study, Mark Twain: Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter.

Brian Burnes of the McClatchy Newspapers has written up an interesting review of the book, explaining that although it is clearly a scholarly work and not as populist as Ron Powers acclaimed 2005 biography, it admirably does the job of painting the picture of Sam Clemens finding his literary voice.

Twain wrote for the Nevada Territory paper beginning in 1862, and didn't achieve major success as a published author until The Innocents Abroad ion 1869--providing Caron with a long stretch of fertile ground to cover.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Own a Rare Twain House Sketch

Yesterday, Following the Equator reader John Farrell gave me the heads-up on a beautiful pencil sketch of the Hartford Mark Twain House, which he currently has up for auction on eBay. The sketch is by artist Charles H. Overly, an illustrator who produced many such pencil sketches of historical buildings during the 1950s and 1960s. Anyone interested in owning this piece of Twain-related art/memorabilia should head over here.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Happy Birthday, Sam

"Why is it that we rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral? It is because we are not the person involved."
--Pudd'nhead Wilson

It was on this date some 173 years ago, back in 1835, that Samuel Langhorne Clemens first entered into this world, the sixth child born to John Marshall Clemens and Jane Lampton in the little town of Florida, Missouri.

America, and the world, has never been the same.

Thank you, Mr. Clemens, you incorrigible genius. And happy birthday.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Hal Holbrook's Life as Twain

Of all those actors who have taken on the mantle of Mark Twain, Hal Holbrook is the most iconic and the most renowned. He's been doing his "Mark Twain Tonight!" one-man show since 1954--when he was 29! And Holbrook is still going strong today, and is in fact on tour at the moment playing Mr. Clemens to the delight of viewers and critics--now at age 83.

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat published a feature on Holbrook and his show last Thursday that's well-worth checking out.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Late George Carlin Awarded Mark Twain Prize for Humor

Being a great comedian is one thing, but being compared to Mark Twain in the field of American humor and satire is quite another. Yet the late, great George Carlin is now in that category, having posthumously received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor Monday night at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

Past winners Steve Martin, Billy Crystal and Lily Tomlin were on hand to honor Carlin, as well as other social humorists like Jon Stewart, Denis Leary and Bill Maher.

Possessing the ability to both comment bitingly on nearly every aspect of culture, and to simultaneously make that commentary brilliantly funny, Carlin was a worthy successor to Twain's mantle, and it's fitting that he receive such an accolade. Just a shame he didn't make it to receive the award in person.

In a development that no doubt would've put a twinkle in the comedian's eye, protesters outside the Kennedy Center held up signs that read, "George Carlin is Going to Hell". Well, as Twain himself said, "Go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company."

Monday, November 10, 2008

Musician Favored By Twain to Get CD Release

After hearing Polk Miller & His Old South Quartette perform in the 1890s, Sam Clemens commented, "I think that Polk Miller, and his wonderful four, is about the only thing this country can furnish that is originally and utterly American." Now that's what you call a compliment.

And now, some rare recordings by Miller and his group will see the light of day, as Tompkins Square Records gets set to release a CD containing 14 tracks--seven of which were recorded on Edision tube in 1909, and the other seven some 19 years later on disc.

A word to the politically correct of our post-modern age: the music of Miller and company was intended as a tribute to plantation music and Negro spirituals. Although it may sound a bit troublesome to some sensitive 21st century ears, one should also note that Miller's music contained none of the low farce or black-face then common in so-called "coon songs".

The new CD comes with a booklet featuring photos, memorabilia and notes by African American music historian Doug Seroff. You can order it here, as well as take a listen to Miller's tune "Oysters and Wine at 2a.m."

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Clint Eastwood to Direct Mark Twain Biopic

The UK film website Moviehole.com broke the news on Saturday that the next project Clint Eastwood will direct will be called Remembering Mark Twain. The tidbit was revealed by producer Albert S. Ruddy, who will be working with Eastwood on the project, as he previously did with Million-Dollar Baby.

Stepping in front of the cameras once again, Eastwood will also play Mr. Clemens himself at the end of his life, in hospital scenes that will bookend the movie. Ruddy describes it as "a really sweet, beautiful movie." Keep an eye on this one, it could very well be an Oscar contender next year.

Astonishingly, there has only been one other theatrically released Mark Twain biopic, and that was 1944's The Adventures of Mark Twain, starring Fredrich March.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Twain's Election Day Wisdom and Witticism

As November 4 swiftly approaches, I felt it best to gather here together some pertinent quotes from the master American commentator/humorist himself. As relevant today as ever. Enjoy:

"No party holds the privilege of dictating to me how I shall vote. If loyalty to party is a form of patriotism, I am no patriot. If there is any valuable difference between a monarchist and an American, it lies in the theory that the American can decide for himself what is patriotic and what isn't. I claim that difference. I am the only person in the sixty millions that is privileged to dictate my patriotism."
--The Autobiography of Mark Twain

"Our marvelous latter-day statesmanship has invented universal suffrage. That is the finest feather in our cap. All that we require of a voter is that he... bear a more or less humorous resemblance to the reported image of God. He need not know anything whatever; he may be wholly useless and a cumberer of the earth; he may even be known to be a consummate scoundrel. No matter. While he can steer clear of the penitentiary his vote is as weighty as the vote of a president, a bishop, a college professor, a merchant prince."
--"Universal Suffrage" speech given to Monday Evening Club, 1875

"In this country we have one great privilege which they don't have in other countries. When a thing gets to be absolutely unbearable the people can rise up and throw it off. That's the finest asset we've got--the ballot box."
--November 6, 1905 interview in the Boston Transcript

"If we would learn what the human race really is at bottom, we need only observe it in election times."
--The Autobiography of Mark Twain

Monday, October 20, 2008

EXCLUSIVE: Twain Scholar Responds to Controversial Nevada Findings

My last post concerned the recent report by Robert Stewart that would seem to indicate Mark Twain did a lot of embellishing in his autobiography and in Roughing It when it came to describing his early travels in Nevada. Last night I received a correspondence from David Antonucci, author of the conflicting report which ran alongside Stewart's findings. Here's what Mr. Antonucci had to say:

Stewart’s article is fraught with errors and invalid assumptions. Most obviously, his distance, terrain description and final location do not agree with the Roughing It account and related letters. He also conflicts with Twain contemporary and biographer George Wharton James on the location of the timber claim. I am ready to debate Stewart anytime, anyplace. I am preparing a point-by-point analysis that will show these and other discrepancies and will seek to present this to the Nevada Historical Society. It’s worthwhile to note that when I confronted Stewart with my criticisms he had no reply other than to say, “we just disagree.” A documentary filmmaker has reviewed both accounts and choose mine for their upcoming Twain documentary. Finally, my paper was peer reviewed by Twain scholars in 2005 at Fifth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies.
Strong words from a man who is obviously passionate about his own evidence. Thanks to Mr. Antonucci for allowing me to reprint his words, and I hope he and Mr. Stewart will be able to air out their differences in the near future.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

New Light Shed on Twain's Time in Nevada

It's long been known that Twain took much creative license in the crafting of his highly entertaining, posthumously published autobiography. Now, Twain scholar Robert Stewart is challenging the author's account of his grueling trek from Aurora to Virginia City, Nevada--where, as a young man, he came to work for local newspaper the Territorial Enterprise and get his first paid writing experience.

According to Twain's dramatic account, he walked alone from one town to the other; however, Stewart's research would indicate a much more mundane version, in which Twain actually rode on a horse, and was accompanied by a friend. In general, according to Stewart, the trip was far less difficult than Twain made it sound.

Stewart postulates that, much like a lot of the author's hyperbole in his autobiography, the license was taken in order to strongly accentuate his rise from obscurity to literary prominence.

"Reality was not as impressive, but Twain was not above altering reality when a good story was more effective, and it seems probable that he was the source of this story," said Nevada state historic preservation officer Ron James to the Reno Gazette-Journal.

In a second article, Stewart displays the research which helped him ascertain the exact route the young Sam Clemens took on his visit to the Lake Tahoe Basin. Both articles, in addition to a third article by David Antonucci postulating an alternate route, can be found in the recently published Summer 2008 issue of the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Albert Goldbarth Wins Mark Twain Poetry Award

At the fifth annual Pegasus Awards ceremony held last week in Chicago, long-time poet Albert Goldbarth was presented with the Mark Twain Poetry Award, given each year in recognition of excellence in humorous verse.

Established by the Poetry Foundation, one of America's leading poetry associations, the Pegasus Awards are intended for under-appreciated poets and under-appreciated forms of poetry. No, Mark Twain is not known for his poetry--rather, the Poetry Foundation has created the award "in the hope that American poetry will, in time, produce its own Mark Twain."

Quite a worthy hope, is it not?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Redding's Mark Twain Library Celebrates Centennial

On October 11, 1908, Samuel Clemens--upon discovering that his new hometown of Redding, Connecticut had no library--donated 3,000 books and opened one in a small abandoned chapel on the outskirts of his property. This Saturday, 100 years to the day, Redding's Mark Twain Library will commemorate the anniversary.

In the morning, children are encouraged to attend a birthday party dressed up as their favorite storybook characters. In the afternoon, historian Dan Cruson will present the lecture, "The Impact of Mark Twain in Connecticut". A reception will follow.

Twain did much to help found the library. For one, he tapped rich buddy Andrew Carnegie for a series of annual $500 donations for building a larger library, and also raised money through concerts and readings held at his "Stormfield" estate. Unfortunately, Twain didn't live to see the current library built, as construction did not begin until ten months after his death. Even more unfortunately, thanks to deterioration and lender "loss", only 300 of Twain's original 3,000 donated books remain in the library today.

If you live in the area and would like to attend the birthday bash, call 203-938-2545 for more information.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

University of California Celebrates "Mark Twain at Play"

UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library will be hosting a special exhibit in December entitled "Mark Twain at Play", casting the spotlight on the man's leisure life. And this Friday, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, visitors to the library will be able to get a sneak preview of the sure-to-be-fascinating exhibit.

Included in the collection will be such items of Clemensalia as:

  • A 1909 film of Clemens at home in Redding
  • Bills for cigars, tobacco and pipes
  • Photos of his beloved cats
  • A notebook used to help him navigate the Mississippi
  • Handwritten guest lists
  • A 1907 letter to a little girl he met on board a ship
  • Sketches for an unfinished play about doctors

"He never sparked out," said exhibit curator Lin Salamo. "I'm interested in how a person's sense of joyfulness is a wellspring for creative work. Writing is so solitary. But what feeds into it?"

Clemens' daughter Clara Samossoud donated her father's private papers to the University of California in 1962, leading to the establishment three years later of the Mark Twain Project, dedicated to collecting and preserving as much of the author's work as possible.

"Mark Twain at Play" will be free to all on Friday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. After that, its regular run will be from December 1 to March 31.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Rare Twain Short Story Dramatized on Florida Stage

Mark Twain's short story "A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage"--written in 1876--did not see the light of day until an obscure publication in 1945. It was not widely published and distributed until 2001--which is part of the reason why it was such a novel choice to be adapted into a musical play.

That's what playwright Aaron Posner and composer James Sugg have done. The production opens tomorrow to kick off the season for the Florida Studio Theatre.

The story of a betrothal between two young lovers in a small Missouri town interrupted when the suitor comes under suspicion of murder, it has been adapted with a few alterations to make it better suited to the stage, but that apparently hasn't taken anything away from the appeal.

"There's something dear and sweet in a very good way," director Pamela Hunt told Florida's Herald-Tribune. "It's very endearing, and there's an innocent sense of humor to it."

The show premiered two years ago at the Delaware Theatre Company. Posner himself staged a production at the Two River Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey last May.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Newspaper Profiles Author of New Twain Book

Brooklyn resident Pam McAllister's book The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Mark Twain came out last March, but the Brooklyn Daily Eagle has just published a piece on the author that's worth a read.

McAllister talks about her love of Mr. Clemens, and what it's like being an author in Brooklyn's gentrified Park Slope community.

"Of my 10 published books, this was the most fun to research and write," she says. "I have been a 'Twainiac' since my teen years. My book is a tribute to the world’s first global celebrity, 'the People’s Author.'"

I see I'm not the only one to adopt the "Twainiac" moniker!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Hannibal Invites Candidates to Debate, Colbert to Moderate

The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, Missouri is trying out quite a bold move to raise awareness for the suffering historic site, according to the AP. They're inviting Barack Obama and John McCain down for a presidential debate, to be moderated by a public figure who no doubt would be adored by Twain himself, satirical pundit Stephen Colbert.

No date for the hoped-for debate has been announced, but Colbert has already accepted, providing the dates on which he would be available. Unfortunately, despite the brilliant premise, this blogger believes there is a better chance of Twain showing up to the debate than either Obama or McCain.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

100th Anniversary of Stormfield Burglary

Tomorrow marks 100 years since the infamous break-in at Stormfield, Mark Twain's Redding, CT residence, during which burglars made off with Twain's silverware and were caught mere hours later attempting an escape by train.

The story made big headlines, and the local report from the Danbury Evening News, can be found here at the excellent blog, The Mark Twain Stormfield Project. Particularly hilarious is Twain's typically droll note to future burglars, left on the front door the next morning:

There is nothing but plated ware in the house now and henceforth. You will find it in that brass thing in the dining room over in the corner by the basket of kittens. If you want the basket, put the kittens in the brass thing. Do not make any noise, it disturbs the family. You will find rubbers in the front hall by that thing that has the umbrellas in it. Chiffonier I think they call it, a pegola, or something like that. Please close the door. -Yours truly, S.L. Clemens.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Unpublished Twain Essays to See the Light of Day

Very exciting news today. Bob Miller of HarperCollins' brand new imprint HarperStudio has announced on his blog that the very first book they will publish is going to be a collection of 22 never-before-seen Mark Twain short humor pieces entitled Who Is Mark Twain?

"The pieces are simply wonderful, witty and incisive and a fascinating look at Twain’s developing craft," writes Miller.

Fittingly, during his lifetime Twain was published by HarperCollins (then known as Harper Brothers) beginning in 1895. Also fittingly, Who Is Mark Twain? will arrive in bookstores on April 21, the 99th anniversary of Twain's death.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Advertisers Benefit from Twain's Wisdom

Adland, a website devoted entirely to the commercial advertising industry, has a highly amusing bit up today. It's called "9 Things Mark Twain Taught Me About Advertising."

Here are the tried-and-true Twain tenets cited in the article:

  • "Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising."
  • "When in doubt, tell the truth."
  • "Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable."
  • "Whenever you find you're on the side of the majority, it is time to reform."
  • "The difference between the right word and almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."
  • "Great people make us feel we can become great."
  • "The universal brotherhood of man is our most precious possession."
  • "A human being has a natural desire to have more of a good thing than he needs."
  • "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society."

The author provides specific examples and anecdotes for each quote. It's a great read--check it out here.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Documentary Films in Redding

One of the shadiest and littlest-known stories of Twain's life involves the conspiracy against him that occurred near the end of his life when his secretary Isabel Lyon and his personal assistant Ralph Ashcroft tried to defraud him of his fortune. Now that story will be the subject of a PBS documentary, which recently filmed some "recreation" footage in the town of Redding, Connecticut, where Twain lived when the original events unfolded.

Lyon, who secretly was involved with Ashcroft, lulled the recently widowed Twain into a flirtatious friendship, even hoping to marry the ailing, elderly author. Meanwhile, Ashcroft had treacherously acquired power of attorney over his employer's finances. With the help of his daughter Clara, Twain was finally able to identify the threat and dismiss both of them. After her father's death, Clara saw to it that any mention of the conspirators was removed from Twain's public papers, which is why the details of the story were a mystery for so long.

But using collections of the author's private works and journals, Karen Lystra was able to finally piece it all together in her 2006 book Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final Years. And it's that book which has inspired the documentary currently being produced by History Film Inc., according to the Redding Pilot.

Producer Richard Altomonte made the trip to Redding, former site of Twain's famous Stormfield mansion, to film some key sequences, using several Twain aficionados from the town to play the parts of people like Clara and Jean Clemens, as well as Lyon herself. The film is expected to air on PBS later in the fall. For more info, visit historyfilm.com.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Joe Paterno Invokes Twain

A cool little tidbit today from the Associated Press. Legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno draws a parallel between his line of work and that of Mr. Clemens, and how that is a source of guidance for him:

"I always call on Mark Twain. You know, he was a riverboat captain. He was talking about you've got to do things by the seat of your pants.

"He says every day a captain has to learn more than anybody should ever have to learn. Then the next day he's got to learn it again a different way. All right?


"That's what coaching is."


Maybe ol' Sam would've made a formidable football coach himself. Who'd have guessed?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Wolfe Compares Thompson to Twain

In an interview with Time this week, popular novelist Tom Wolfe draws a parallel between Twain and another brilliant eccentric of more recent decades, Hunter S. Thompson:

"[Thompson] was the great comic writer of the 20th century. I really do consider Hunter as being in the tradition of Mark Twain. Gonzo journalism, as he called it, is exactly what Twain did in things like The Innocents Abroad. You do some reporting of what's actually there, but you also let your imagination free. You're not deceiving anybody because they know that's what you do."

Wolfe has long cited Thompson as a major influence. To read the entire "10 Questions" interview, go here.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Roughing It Anthologized in True Crime Collection

Harold Schechter's new volume, Murder Ink: A Killer Collection, is a "celebration" of 350 years worth of true-crime writing. It's one of non-fiction's most popular genres, and one that wasn't left untouched by Twain. That is why Schechter has included an excerpt from the author's famous travel tome, Roughing It.

In particular, the editor has selected Twain's description of the frontier violence in the Wild West that he encountered while traveling to Nevada with his brother. Specifically, the young Clemens was taken by the propensity of would-be gold miners to seek retribution with a pistol.

Murder Ink: A Killer Collection is available now from the Library of America.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Archaeologists Excavate Farm of Twain's Uncle

As a child, Sam Clemens spent a lot of time at the farm of his uncle, John A. Quarles. He wrote about it at length in his autobiography, describing for example, how much he loved playing marbles there. Now, according to Hannibal.net, scientists are hard at work excavating the site in Florida, Missouri where the farm once existed. And they've found some of those marbles, among many other things.

Twain called the farm "a heavenly place for a boy," and described irises and day lilies growing there, which the archaeologists have also found, still growing. While the log cabin that served as the main house is long gone, there are many remains to be found--the diggers were even able to determine where the fireplace once stood, based on discoloration in the soil.

The dig is headed up by retired teacher Karen Hunt, who owns the site and has been studying it for over 20 years, digging there for the past two. Her plan is to eventually rebuild the Quarles house on the site, and turn it into a "living history farm."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Library Looks at One of the Most Challenged Novels of All Time

For 125 years now, Mark Twain's most revered and most famous work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, has been regarded as a cultural powder keg. Through the generations, it has fallen in and out of favor, periodically coming under attack for being racist--despite Twain's explicit efforts to the contrary.

And now, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Fort Worth Public Library will specifically spotlight Huck Finn during its "Banned Books Week", to take place September 27 through October 4. Held annually, Banned Books Week is dedicated to exploring those works which have come under fire throughout American history.

For more info, visit the Fort Worth Public Library website.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Playwright Brings Diaries of Adam & Eve to the Stage

Written toward the end of his life, The Diaries of Adam & Eve is a much darker, more cynical work than much of Twain's canon. And now Harvard theater professor Joann Green Breuer has turned it into a play which is to run at the Martha's Vineyard Playhouse, according to the Martha's Vineyard Times.

Breuer reportedly adapted the work keeping every word of the original text intact, although she has been secretive as to exactly how it will be presented.

The show runs at the Vineyard Playhouse starting next Tuesday, and wraps up on Saturday, September 6.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sculpture on Loan to Redding's Mark Twain Library

Utah sculptor Gary Lee Price is known for his unique sculptures of historical figures sitting on or standing near real, functional benches. Of particular interest to him is Twain--in fact, we have one of his Twain pieces in the heart of town right here in Fairfield, CT.

According to the Danbury News-Times, one of Price's Twain sculptures is currently on loan by Cavalier Galleries in Greenwich to the Mark Twain Library in Redding, CT (the town in which Twain died, incidentally). The sculpture depicts Twain along with his beloved characters Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher.

The work of art will be at the library until the end of the summer, or possibly even until the end of the year, inviting passersby to sit and take a break (as me and my kids often do in Fairfield). Entitled "Never the Twain Shall Meet", the work is one of 40 cast from the original mold last year. Interested in acquiring it permanently from the Cavalier Gallery? The cost is $48,000.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

College Buddies Re-Enact Huck and Jim's Mississippi Trek

Two intrepid students from the University of Northern Colorado have followed in the "footsteps" of the main characters in Mark Twain's most beloved novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

According to a story in the Colorado Springs Gazette, 20-year-old Nathan Oligmueller came up with the idea after falling in love with Twain and his book in high school. He convinced his friend and fellow Twain fan Dave Brandsma to help him build an elaborate raft out of plywood and steel, using 30 plastic fertilizer barrels for flotation.

"We decided this was something we wanted to do while we were still young: the Huck Finn adventure - an American dream kind of thing," Oligmueller told the Gazette via cell phone from his raft (an amenity Huck and Jim could never have dreamt of).

Oligmueller's father and another college friend initially joined the boys for the 930-mile voyage from Iowa to Louisiana, but bailed out early after encountering Iowa floods.

For a month, Oligmueller and Brandsma made their way down the Mississippi in emulation of Twain's heroes, smoking corn cob pipes and watching the sun set from the roof of their cabins. They stopped every few days for gas and supplies, also managing a brief layover in Clemens' hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. As for food, the adventurers have relied on the help of kind strangers along the way, who were happy to take the boys in just to hear their amazing story. One man even drove them to a hospital to treat Brandsma's swollen foot.

To read more about the journey, check out www.bearnakedrafting.com--a website Oligsmueller actually created while aboard the raft, using a laptop computer plugged into a solar generator! Upon checking the site myself, I discovered that the boys had made it to Louisiana, and are on their way back to Colorado. Once they get there, they plan to write a book about the whole thing.

I applaud these two fine gentlemen for their dedication, ingenuity and sense of adventure. It's one thing to fall in love with Twain and his work--but it's quite another to go out there and live it.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Writers Join Forces to Save the Twain House

In the wake of recent reports of the financial difficulties of the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, several writers will be holding a reading next month to raise money to keep the landmark in operation, according to The Boston Globe.

The addition of a costly visitors center several years ago have put the Twain House severely in the red, and the threat of closure now looms. But authors such as Jon Clinch--who wrote the Twain-inspired novel Finn--are determined to prevent it. Joining Clinch will be Philip Lopate, Stewart O'Nan and other authors. On September 23, they will be reading at the Twain House, with all benefits going to the non-profit organization that operates the House.

For more info, go to marktwainhouse.org.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Students Bring Tom Sawyer to Life in Summer Stock

The Marlowe Middle School in Huntley, Illinois will be presenting "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" as a summer stock production from tonight through Saturday. With students of all ages filling more than 30 roles, it's a new take on a Twain classic.

Producer Janet Burkhalter has added never-before-seen characters and scenes, as well as a pre-show segment intended to help place the audience in the period in which the story takes place, including candy and treats of the era, as well as a chorus singing popular songs of the day. Former Marlowe PTO official Kathleen Wiedenfeld will take on the persona of Aunt Polly and sell concessions out of Aunt Polly’s store, including lemonade, penny candies and popcorn, as well as period toys and games available for sale.

"The idea was to make it seamless, so people can’t tell where Twain left off and I picked up," Burkhalter told The Midweek News.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

This Year's Mark Twain Awards a Hot Ticket

The untimely passing of comic genius George Carlin has made this November's Twain Awards at the Kennedy Center into the must-attend event for the luminaries of comedy, according to an article today in The Washingtonian.

Carlin had been selected to receive the prestigious Mark Twain humor prize mere days before his death, and since then, it has been decided that the award will be given posthumously, and that the event will be turned into a tribute to the comedian.

In recent weeks, people such as Bill Maher, Will Ferell and previous Twain honorees Whoopi Goldberg and Steve Martin have been requesting tickets and offering to help out.

The 2008 Mark Twain Awards will be held on November 10.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Mark Twain on Trial for Racism

It's the old, tired war-horse of American literary/cultural criticism: Was Mark Twain a racist? From my point of view, anyone who has ever actually gone to the trouble of reading his work and studying his life knows that the answer is a resounding "NO". Yet the issue persists, due mainly to the The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it's treatment of the character of Jim, and its frequent use of the word "nigger".

Yet the matter will be dealt with in amusing fashion next week at Greeley, Colorado's High Plains Chautaqua festival, in which students will put Mr. Twain (played by popular Twain impersonator McAvoy Lane) on mock trail, on charges of racism.

In writing about "The Trail of Mark Twain" in the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza, Layne postulates a closing argument:

"Today, 'Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ is a problematical text that carries dynamics for trouble into today’s classroom with its emotionally loaded nomenclature. When you first encounter the offensive epithet that appears over 200 times in the novel, it sears the eyeball; makes you want to set the work aside and be done with it. In 1885 this word, which comes from the Dutch word for black, was a kinder word than the word 'slave.' But the word has become the most powerful secular blasphemy in our language today and has several times the preemptive force than it did in the 1880’s.

But if you can get through that word, not around it, but through it, I believe you will discover ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ to be a strong indictment against prejudice and racism, and a central document to 19th-century cultural America.”

Layne's words ring true, as they should for anyone of intelligence. The fact that the argument even still persists is testament to the superficiality and misplaced hyper-sensitivity of our times.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Home of Becky Thatcher in Danger

The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, Missouri is working hard to save the Becky Thatcher House, home to Laura Hawkins, inspiration for Tom Sawyer's famous girlfriend.

According to a story from the AP this morning, the house is in serious need of repairs, but the Mark Twain Home Foundation is also in serious need of cash. Visits to the museum this summer have been down 30 percent.

Right now, the foundation is looking for $250,000 to fix sagging rafters, foundation and floor problems, and termite damage. From there, they are planning a new $350,000 exhibit on childhood experiences during the 19th century, but the Becky Thatcher House can't remain open at all if the repairs are not made.

The Becky Thatcher House is directly across the street from the house Mark Twain grew up in, which explains how young Laura Hawkins inspired the character. On August 9, an auction will be held there to help raise money.

All those interested in helping may got to www.marktwainmuseum.org.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Twain's Work Included in Course on Deafness in Literature

"I am filled with the wonder of her knowledge, acquired because shut out from all distractions. If I could have been deaf, dumb and blind, I also might have arrived at something."
--Twain on Helen Keller

The works of Mark Twain have been included as part of a course this summer at the University of Virginia called "Deafness in Literature and Film", according to Media-Newswire. The course takes a look at the treatment of the deaf in some major movies and major books of the 19th and 20th centuries. The course also includes works by deaf authors, some performed on film in sign language. The instructor, Christopher Krentz, is director of the University's American Sign Language program.

Later in his life, Twain became fascinated with the young Helen Keller, whom he greatly admired. While residing in Connecticut, he also lived a mile away from a school for the deaf in the town of Hartbrook.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Last Mississippi Steamboat to Hit the Scrap Heap

Although constructed in 1926, the Delta Queen is the last traditional, 19th-century style paddle steamboat currently traveling the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. It is the last connection to a type of ship that is a part of Americana; the type of ship once piloted by Twain, and written about in his memoir Life on the Mississippi.

However, the U.S. Coast Guard has decided that the Delta Queen is too old and dangerous to remain in service, and so it has been scheduled for decommissioning, according to the international news website EURSOC.

That isn't stopping those who want to preserve this iconic piece of American culture. That's right, there's a movement afoot to save the Delta Queen. Those interested should visit save-the-delta-queen.org.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Styron's "A Literary Forefather" Reprinted in New Essay Collection

In 1995, the late novelist William Styron, best remembered as the author of Sophie's Choice and Confessions of Nat Turner, published in The New Yorker the essay "A Literary Forefather", in which he illustrated the parallels he saw between himself and one of his greatest inspirations.

"Our early surroundings possessed a surface sweetness and innocence - under which lay a turmoil we were pleased to expose - and we both grew up in villages on the banks of great rivers that dominated our lives," he wrote, referring to Twain's Mississippi River and his own James River in Tidewater, Virginia. Now this essay, and others, can be found in the brand-new collection Havanas in Camelot, reviewed yesterday in the Boston Globe.

Like Twain, Styron also grew up in the shadow of slavery (albeit a century later), living in a Southern culture with slaveholding in his family's history. And also like Twain, he wasn't afraid to deal with it in his writings.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Twain-Barnum Connection

Well, they're both famous former residents of Connecticut, and they were indeed friends, so I guess it makes some kind of sense.

The Bridgeport News reports today that the Twain House in Redding, CT (not the more famous Twain House in Hartford, but rather "Stormfield", the house in which Twain spent his final years) will be utilized to help celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of pioneering impresario (read: huckster) P.T. Barnum in 2010.

Specifically, the Barnum Museum in Barnum's hometown of Bridgeport is working on an exhibit, to be presented at Stormfield, that will focus on museums during Barnum's day, and how they were operated.

“We want to tell it with a Twain-esque voice,” says Barnum curator and executive director Kathy Maher. “I can’t think of two more prominent names in the state than P.T. Barnum and Mark Twain. We’re still in the planning stages, and I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for fun and for engaging the entire public.”

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

California's Mark Twain Cabin Nearly Destroyed by Fire

What is believed to have been a brushfire in California's Tuolumne County threatened 200 buildings, including the cabin where Sam Clemens sketched out the short story that brought him to prominence, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."

Thankfully, firefighters got the blaze completely contained late Tuesday night, and expect it to be fully extinguished by Thursday, according to the Union Democrat.

Although technically not the same cabin (the original was burned down in 1922 and an exact replica was built on the spot using the original foundation, fireplace and chimney), the cabin nevertheless is cherished by the folks in the surrounding area. During his days of trying his luck at gold mining, Twain stayed there with friends from December 1864 to March 1865. Although he was unsuccessful at striking it rich, the young writer did happen to hear the story of the jumping frog in a local bar in the nearby town of Angels Camp. The notes he took in the cabin formed the basis for the story he would later publish.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Wild Humorist of the Western Slope

Actor MacAvoy Layne will be performing his one-man show "Wild Humorist of the Western Slope, Mark Twain" at Taylor Creek, Nevada's Lake of the Sky Amphitheater, according to the Tahoe Daily Tribune.

Layne has impersonated Twain at Taylor Creek in a wide variety of shows over the past two decades. This one in particular covers the author's adventures out West, which made up the bulk of his 1872 memoir, Roughing It. Most Twain enthusiasts will recall that much of those adventures took place in the then-territory of Nevada, particularly in the fledgling Carson City.

For more information on the show, call the Taylor Creek Visitor Center at (530) 543-2674.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Unique Bed & Breakfast in Hannibal, Missouri

I've already paid a visit to the Twain House in Hartford, but one of these days, I need to get myself out to Hannibal, Missouri. Obviously, this is because it was the hometown of one Samuel Langhorne Clemens. And I know if I ever make it there, I'll be staying at the historic Garth House bed & breakfast.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a profile today of this historic B&B, voted number-one in the entire Show-Me State. Once owned by John Garth, schoolmate of Clemens and the purported inspiration for Tom Sawyer, the building sheltered Twain during his 1882 and 1902 returns to Hannibal. In fact, a letter from Twain commemorating his childhood friend, who had passed in '02, now hangs framed in the second-floor hallway.

If you're inclined to stay there, first of all, I envy you. Second of all, pay a visit to www.garthmansion.com.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Jim Post's Laughing River Returns

Folk singer Jim Post rolled out the acclaimed one-man musical show "Mark Twain and the Laughing River"--which he introduced in 1997--last night at Galena, Illinois' Trolley Depot Theater, according to the Tribune Herald of Dubuque, Iowa.

The show is a celebration of Twain's childhood on the Mississippi River, which he often cited as a major inspiration of his life. The Smithsonian Institution has this to say:

"Post's depiction of Mark Twain is nothing less than brilliant, and each sentence and song is a gem... nothing but kudos from our audience members of all ages... This is a show that should be on Broadway."

Post regularly performs the show throughout the Illinois/Iowa area, and even brought it out to California last February.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Twain's Heaven on Earth

Dr. Sean Carey, a research fellow at London's Roehampton University, argued yesterday that the island nation of Mauritius should return to its previous use of a famous Mark Twain quote as the slogan for its crucial tourism industry.

The quote in question comes from Twain's 1897 South Pacific travel tome Following the Equator, in which he declared, "Mauritius was made first, then heaven" (a line which he actually quotes from someone else in the book.) Writing in Mauritius' newsspaper L'Expresse, Carey deplores the recent switch to the much duller and vaguer slogan, "An unforgettable experience."

No reason is given for the change. But for Mauritius, located off the eastern coast of Africa near Madagascar, tourism is clearly of major importance, so maybe someone should listen to Dr. Carey.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Unearthing the Town Where Sam Clemens Became Mark Twain

The old Nevada mining town of Virginia City, where a 20-something Samuel Clemens lived and worked as a newspaper reporter in the early 1860s, is currently the site of an archaeological dig being undertaken by the University of Nevada, according to NBC-TV affiliate KRNV.

The ultimate destination of the westward journey Clemens and his brother made, which formed the basis of the 1891 travelogue Roughing It, Virginia City had literally sprung up just a few short years before Clemens' arrival, thanks to the Comstock Lode silver strike.

A rough town of poor repute, Clemens made his journalistic bones there as a newspaper reporter for the Territorial Enterprise, who never let the truth get in the way of a good story. In fact, it was in Virginia City that he first took up his fictional pen name of "Mark Twain". He eventually left the town after getting mugged one night walking home from a bender at a friends' house.

A summer field school from the University's Department of Anthropology plans to dig for the next two weeks in what was once a particularly seedy area of the town known as the Barbary Coast. The purpose of the dig is to learn what life was like in the city during Twain's time.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Twain House Mere Weeks from Shutting Down

The running gag is that Mark Twain is in danger of losing his famous home for the second time. But this is a serious matter, as the historic Hartford, Connecticut structure continues to struggle with its financial crisis.

Thanks to an overly ambitious visitor's center that was constructed in 2003, costing the Twain House nearly twice the $10 million it had expected, the situation is now grim. Twain House officials estimate coming up short by $370,000 by the end of the year, despite attracting 68,000 visitors in 2007 and eliminating two-thirds of its staff.

Within a month, the landmark--which the Clemens family occupied from 1874 to 1891--may be forced to close to the public if something is not done. Hartford television station WFSB is now joining the fight to keep the House open by further publicizing its plight and helping raise the necessary funds. Any wishing to contribute to this very worthy cause may do so here.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Twain's Jerusalem Hotel at Last Identified

As part of the famous international journeys which make up Twain's groundbreaking 1869 travelogue The Innocents Abroad, the author spent several days in Jerusalem, becoming the 19th century's most well-known Holy Land tourist in the process. Yet for years, the location of the "Mediterranean Hotel" at which Twain stayed during his time in the city has remained a mystery. Until now.

Haaretz.com reported yesterday that researcher Yoni Shapira, archaeologist Prof. Shimon Gibson and Rupert Chapman, secretary of Britain's Palestine Exploration Fund, have successfully identified the present-day Jerusalem hotel now known as the Wittenberg House, as the very same building that was originally named the Mediterranean Hotel when it was built in 1866, just one year before Mr. Clemens checked in.

Back then, the hotel was a hot spot for noted American and European luminaries looking to spend some time in Jerusalem. Apparently, the name change occurred some 120 years ago, when one Moshe Wittenberg purchased the hotel from its original owner. At least one of the letters Twain compiled in putting together The Innocents Abroad was written during his stay there. You can bet the place is about to get a whole new influx of American tourists.

For more on the discovery, go here.
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