29 May 2010

Mark Twain in Bed

His favorite place to write.
(Et cetera.)

The forthcoming publication of Mark Twain’s autobiography, a century after his death, has generated a good deal of press in recent days. This is precisely as Mr. Clemens would have it, for he was a master of self-promotion. Thus far, the publicity promises more than the book itself will provide: most of the anticipated revelations (a sex scandal; a bitter, probably clinically depressed psyche; angry opinions on culture and politics far removed from the banks of the Mississippi) are already well known to anyone who has read even a few key texts, including the Library of America’s indispensable Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches & Essays, Volume 1 and Volume 2. Scholars have been allowed to draw on the manuscript for their work, including three previous books billed as autobiographies. Presumably, however, the complete autobiography, in three volumes and half a million words, will give us more detail, and possibly more insight, than we had before.

Take the vibrating sex toy as an example.

Although the initial report turns out to be an exaggeration (the vibrating device in question was not a sex toy, after all -- see comments section below), we shouldn’t be surprised that Twain had a mistress and took a lively interest in sex. He’s the rare 19th-century author in English to make any sort of public statement approving the practice of masturbation (most notably, “Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism,” an after-dinner speech from 1879). True, he was famously devoted to his wife, Olivia, but she was nearing death when he hired Isabel Van Kleek Lyon as his secretary; once Olivia was gone, Lyon stepped forward. A trifle too zealously, perhaps.

We’re allowed to be disappointed that Twain capped off his affair with Lyon by writing a 400-page assassination of her character.* But beginning with Twain’s own carefully engineered public image, most of us have grown up with an idea of him every bit as whitewashed as Tom Sawyer’s fence, and the true colors emerge immediately once we read his work.

Lyon & Twain
Unfortunately for her, breaking up by Post-It Note
had yet to be invented.

Consider that Twain is easily the most visually iconic writer in history. A picture of Shakespeare might just as easily be Philip Sidney or Edmund Spenser (or the Earl of Oxford, for that matter). We describe a certain windswept handsomeness as “Byronic,” and certainly Lord Byron exploited his visual appeal — but he tended to change outfits, whereas Twain’s linen suit was an immutable costume, theatrical and practically trademarked. By it, even today, schoolkids recognize him and draw his picture for their book reports.

The suit, the fluffy white hair, and the droopy moustache belong to Twain alone: others didn’t copy his look (as they did copy Byron’s, and, to a lesser degree in Twain’s own day, Oscar Wilde’s), not least because Twain wasn’t representing an artistic movement. He was representing himself.

His initial success derived from a semi-fictitious representation of himself, not only “Mark Twain” — who was not Samuel Langhorne Clemens — but also The Innocents Abroad (1869), his first and (in his lifetime) best-selling book, in which he depicts himself as a character in the story of the first American package tour to Europe and the Holy Land. The creation and exploitation of “Mark Twain” became increasingly important in the years that followed.

Although public readings were common in the 19th and early-20th centuries, and used by many writers to supplement their incomes, public appearances were for Twain an absolute necessity, his surest means to surmount his recurring financial difficulties. He strove to appeal to an audience even larger than that which bought his books. He had to be funnier in person, more lovable, more recognizable than he was in print: he had to become a market brand.

He succeeded brilliantly, and other celebrity writers who followed him owe a clear (and often conscious) debt to his example. While some might sex things up for 20th-century consumption, the template remained Twain’s. Yet that public image runs counter to most of what we find in the pages of his books. The real Mark Twain was a sophisticated traveler who could get by in languages other than English; his moral outrage and his interest in social justice didn’t begin and end with Miss Watson’s Jim, and they extended far beyond the U.S. borders.

Moreover, quite unlike the Disney-fied cartoon of him we may cherish, he was a randy old cuss. Consider this passage from Roughing It, and its account of Twain’s visit to “the Sandwich Islands”:
At noon I observed a bevy of nude native young ladies bathing in the sea, and went and sat down on their clothes to keep them from being stolen. I begged them to come out, for the sea was rising and I was satisfied that they were running some risk. But they were not afraid, and presently went on with their sport. They were finished swimmers and divers, and enjoyed themselves to the last degree.
This is not the work of a writer indifferent to feminine charms. Might he take a mistress? Yes.

Meet the Press: John and Yoko had nothing on Mark Twain.

Consider, too, his description of “the lascivious hula hula,” from the same book, where Twain enjoys looking at another group of pretty and scantily clad young women. Yet here he also signals his opposition to Christian missionaries, whose attempts to “save” the Hawaiians led, Twain suggests, to prostitution. At every turn, he’s much more complex than we are brought up to expect. (And his views of missionaries, religion, and God would only darken as he aged.) Most of his “Thoughts on the Science of Onanism” are invented quotations (and weak puns that he’d have disdained to use elsewhere), but consider these reflections:
The signs of excessive indulgence in this destructive pastime are easily detectable. They are these: A disposition to eat, to drink, to smoke, to meet together convivially, to laugh, to joke, and to tell indelicate stories — and mainly, a yearning to paint pictures. The results of this habit are: Loss of memory, loss of virility, loss of cheerfulness, loss of hopefulness, loss of character, and loss of progeny.
Satirizing (from the relative safety of France) the sorts of anti-masturbation propaganda that were then dominant in Britain and the U.S., Twain hints to the 21st-century reader that, yes, he might actually be able to think of a good use for a vibrating sex toy. (Had he ever seen one.)

By stipulating that his autobiography be withheld for a century, Twain knew exactly what he was doing. He was protecting his public image (not least from libel suits) and guaranteeing heightened interest in the new book. And if the autobiography should in some way tarnish our image of him, the scope of the damage will be limited — as Twain surely realized. It is clear, for example, that attendance at his public readings will not suffer in the slightest, no matter how the autobiography is received now.

Call me a sucker, but I resolve to read the whole shebang. One of my greatest pleasures as a reader has been that, the more of Twain’s work I read, the more I feel that he evolves along with me. When I was a boy, I needed him as the kindly yarn-spinner of Tom Sawyer and “The Celebrated Jumping Frog”; later, I hailed him as a champion of social causes, a kind of American Zola (which Twain did want to be).

And now that I am more mature, I can accept him as a bitter, godless, outraged, horny, needy, snobbish, peevish, vindictive, depressed, insecure, money-grubbing, sometimes bigoted**, sometimes cruel, always complex old man.

Indeed, I welcome him.

*NOTE: Laura Trombley, in her book Mark Twain’s Other Woman, suggests that Twain was effectively blackmailing Lyon: as if to say, “If you don’t keep quiet about my daughter Clara’s adulterous affair, I’ll publish this — and ruin you.” Whether Lyon would have blabbed is unclear, but in the end, she kept her mouth shut.

**While Twain was famously ahead of his time in his attitudes towards blacks, both in America and in Africa, and towards the aforementioned Hawaiian Islanders, he showed little such enlightenment in his attitudes toward Native Americans (and, for that matter, Mormons, so frequently a target of his barbs that one quickly detects outright hostility). It strikes me as just that Injun Joe is usually portrayed by white actors, since he is ultimately a white man’s idea of an Indian.


Randy said...

I actually researched and "impersonated" Twain/Clemens for a school project called Night of the Notables. Parents would walk around to the different students (who were clad in appropriate costumes) and ask questions to try to figure out who they were impersonating. I'm glad no one asked about his vibrating sex toy gift, because the biographies in my school library conveniently left those kinds of details out!

I am somewhat interested in what he has to say about himself, but ultimately I don't think it will hold a candle to the kinds of scandals to which we have grown accustomed.

D. Cloyce Smith said...

There was no "vibrating sex toy." The confusion is from the word "vibrator" which referred to a machine of an entirely different nature.

See: https://listserv.yorku.ca/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind1005&L=twain-l&D=1&T=0&O=D&P=4795

Also: http://www.ucpress.edu/blog/?p=7932

William V. Madison said...

Well, poo. Once again a writer is undone by the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. How very irritating to be the writer in question.

I expect to cling tenaciously nevertheless to my assertion that Twain would have known what to do with a vibrating sex toy, had he ever encountered one. And so I shall let the article stand more or less as I wrote it.