The Icon Answers: 'Who Is Mark Twain?'

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The new anthology Who Is Mark Twain? features a collection of never-before-published writings by the famous humorist. Lynn Neary talks to Robert Hirst, the editor of the collection and head of the University of California Berkeley's Mark Twain Project.

LYNN NEARY, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

From Jane Austen to the devil himself, Mark Twain didn't hesitate to make his opinions known on any number of topics, and after publishing more than a dozen books, including a couple of masterpieces and hundreds of shorter essays stories and speeches, you'd think there wouldn't be much left to say.

But a new collection of never before published works by Twain has just been released. Robert Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California at Berkeley selected the material and wrote the introduction to the collection called "Who Is Mark Twain?" Hirst joins us now from a studio at the university. Good to have you with us, Mr. Hirst.

Mr. ROBERT HIRST (General Editor, Mark Twain Project, University of California at Berkeley): Good to be here.

NEARY: So what's the story behind these previously unpublished pieces? Where have they been hiding all this time?

Mr. HIRST: Well, they really haven't been hiding, at least as far as we're concerned. Mark Twain gave, or rather, his daughter gave his papers to the university in 1949. And about the mid '60s we started publishing them in a scholarly edition. And Bob Miller from Harper Studio came to us and said he'd be interested in publishing basically a popular edition of anything that we could come up with.

So we came up with 24 pieces that I think are really representative of the kind of thing that Mark Twain left behind him - sometimes deliberately not publishing it, sometimes just not finishing it and something that people can enjoy. Things that he would've published, for instance, if circumstances had been different.

NEARY: Well, it's really interesting because in one of the essays called "The Privilege of the Grave," Mark Twain writes about how the only time a person really has free speech is when he is dead. Let's hear a section of that from the audiobook. We're going to hear the actor John Lithgow reading.

Mr. JOHN LITHGOW (Actor): 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 not now defend themselves. If they should speak, what revelations there would be, for it would be found that in matters of opinion, no departed person was exactly what he had passed for in life. That out of fear, or out of calculated wisdom, or out of reluctance to wound friends, he had long kept to himself certain views not suspected by his little world.

NEARY: Of course I couldn't help but think of Mark Twain, what he would think of these works that were now being published from his grave.

Mr. HIRST: Of course.

NEARY: And I wondered if he'd have any reservations about any of these pieces being published?

Mr. HIRST: Well, that's a good question. I think basically you have to remember that Mark Twain says very clearly that he doesn't care whether his letters are published after his death. So long as he's not there, he's not going to be embarrassed by them. And he's very clear about saying I don't believe in the afterlife, I'm not imagining that I'm going to be looking down from heaven or up from hell and reading these and being embarrassed by them.

NEARY: Well, one of the pieces that I wondered about is called "Conversations with Satan."

Mr. HIRST: Yeah.

NEARY: And this piece, it starts off as a meeting with Satan and the narrator is saying I'd like to interview him, and he sits down with Satan. And then all of the sudden it becomes a dissertation on cigars. Satan is completely forgotten. And it just sort of feels like Mark Twain went off on some tangent and never returned to his original idea. What do you know about that story?

Mr. HIRST: Well, that is literally the case. I mean, I think it's actually a good example of the way Mark Twain jumps in and writes without any clear plan. And he can in certain circumstances get himself into this long detour that he can't really return from. That's really why it's unfinished. It's not something that I think a lot of people are going to want to have more and more of, but it's very illustrative of the way Mark Twain worked.

It is quite typical of him to write and write and write and then decide this isn't going anywhere and stop and sometimes go back and start over again. "Mysterious Stranger" is a good example of that. But even "The Jumping Frog," we have two early manuscripts of that that show he starts and he starts over in a slightly different way. Took him at least three tries to get "The Jump Frog" written.

NEARY: And in your introduction to this book you point out that some of these stories really might be better received now than they were written. Why did you say that?

Mr. HIRST: Well, I think it's because Mark Twain is a very forward-looking experimental writer. Not something the we - the world knows much about because they're so focused on "Huckleberry Finn," his masterpiece and so forth and so on. But many of these pieces are experimental. And he's really thinking in a way that probably isn't met by his contemporary audience.

"The Undertaker's Tale" is a good example. We know specifically that he read it to his family chuckling all the time. And of course there was just dead silence. They thought it was awful. And he never did really figure out why it wasn't funny to them. But of course he doesn't throw it away. I mean, so it's here for us to take in.

NEARY: So what do you think we learn about Mark Twain from these stories, including the ones we've talked about - some of them that were just works in progress, maybe weren't finished? I mean, do we as the public - not scholars -but does the public learn anything that maybe we didn't know already or not?

Mr. HIRST: Well, I dare say that the public is not aware of his experimental streak and not aware of the way he would plunge in and write as far as he could and then have to stop. So I think of it as a way to broaden our understanding of who Mark Twain is.

NEARY: Robert Hirst is general editor of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California at Berkeley. We spoke with him about the new book, "Who is Mark Twain?" a collection of previously unpublished works by the author. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. HIRST: Glad to be here.

NEARY: You can read a review of "Who is Mark Twain?" plus an excerpt of Twain's essay, "Conversations With Satan," on our Web site, npr.org.

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From Beyond, Mark Twain Lets Loose

'Who Is Mark Twain' cover image
Who Is Mark Twain?
By Mark Twain
Hardcover, 240 pages
HarperStudio
List Price: $19.99

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Mark Twain published more than a dozen books and hundreds of shorter pieces during his lifetime. Getty Images hide caption

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Mark Twain

Mark Twain published more than a dozen books and hundreds of shorter pieces during his lifetime.

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Best known for crowd-pleasers like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and for his lucrative speaking tours, Mark Twain was a writer whose livelihood depended on maintaining enough down-home affability to appeal to the masses. Yet as we see in Who Is Mark Twain?, a new collection of previously unpublished writings, he fantasized constantly about the freedom death would bring.

Among the writings left behind at Twain's death in 1910, at age 74 — in his "large box of Posthumous Stuff" — were squibs, rants, unfinished essays and his most heretical and passionate work, Letters From The Earth, a satirical attack on Christianity so scathing that his daughter forbade its publication until the 1960s.

Who Is Mark Twain? captures the folksy icon's furious but often repressed compulsion to tell the world what he really thought of its tedious platitudes and received wisdom. In "The Privilege of the Grave," Twain writes that the tomb offers its occupant "one privilege which is not exercised by any living person: free speech."

Although it does his "weather-beaten soul good" to write in a rage, he resists publishing the diatribes, lest his career be derailed, his family ostracized and his house transformed into "a despised and unvisited solitude."

Some of the entries are unfinished. "Conversations With Satan," for example, is a hilarious scene in the Letters From The Earth vein — exactly the sort of thing Twain would have been writing with an eye toward storing in his box (read the essay). The narrator, on learning that the Devil is in Vienna, thinks how much he'd like to "have the privilege of interviewing him." Lo and behold, the "slender and shapely gentleman in black" appears. He implores the narrator to treat him as an old friend, since, after all, according to Satan, "that was what he was." Soon the two are bemoaning Americans' elaborate and costly heating furnaces — "all ravenous coal-cannibals, and if there is one among them whose heat-output can be successfully regulated, I have not seen it." Satan, for his part, has not been to the States lately. "I am not needed there," he explains. The piece trails off into some irate musings on cigars.

Although Twain's wit and lethally precise powers of description are on full display in Who Is Mark Twain?, prior posthumous collections have pillaged much of Twain's sharper, weightier stuff. Still, much of the lighter fare here is very funny, and sometimes unexpectedly current. "Happy Memories of the Dental Chair" suggests that the many supposed developments of modern dentistry haven't actually improved the experience of having one's teeth cleaned all that much since Twain's day.

And "When I Am About to Publish a Book" gets in its digs at readers and critics alike. It's not hard to imagine the essay appearing toward the front of the next issue of Harper's.

Excerpt: 'Who Is Mark Twain?'

Conversations with Satan

IT WAS being whispered around that Satan was in Vienna incognito, and the thought came into my mind that it would be a great happiness to me if I could have the privilege of interviewing him. "When you think of the Devil" he appears, you know. It was past midnight, I was standing at the window of my work-room high aloft on the third floor of the hotel, and was looking down upon a stage-setting which is always effective and impressive at that late hour: the great vacant stone-paved square of the Morzin Platz with its sleeping file of cab-horses and drivers counterfeiting the stillness and solemnity of death; and beyond the square a broad Milky Way of innumerable lamps bending around the far-reaching curve of the Donau canal, with not a suggestion of life or motion visible anywhere under that glinting belt from end to end. If the square and the curve were dim or dark, the impressiveness would be wanting; but the multitudinous lights seem to belong properly with life and energy and the roar and tumult of traffic, and these being now wholly absent, the resulting impression conveyed to the spirit is that they have been suddenly and mysteriously annihilated, and that this brooding midnight silence and solemnity are the signs and symbols of the tragedy that has happened.

Now, with a most strange suddenness came an inky darkness, with a stormy rush of wind, a crash of thunder and a glare of lightning; and the glare vividly revealed the figure of a slender and shapely gentleman in black coming leisurely across the empty square. By his dress he was an Anglican Bishop; but I noticed that he cast a shadow. That gave him away, as Goethe phrases it; for by the ministrations of lightning no legitimate Anglican Bishop can do that — nor can any other earth-born creature, for that matter. This person was Satan. I knew it. It was in his honor that the sudden storm had been summoned and its thunders delivered in salute. It was inspiring, it was uplifting, this sublime ceremonial. If I had been a monarch it would have spoiled, for one while, my satisfaction in my little artillery salutes. And yet I would have tried to be properly philosophical, and ease and content myself with the reflection that the honors had been fairly and justly proportioned to the difference existing between Satan's importance and mine, I being but a passing and evanescent master of a limited patch of empire, and he the long-term master of the majority of the human race.

I had that glimpse of Satan and his shadow, and the next moment he was by my side in the room. He did not embarrass me. Real royalties do not embarrass one; they are sure of their place, sure of its recognition; and so they bear about with them an alpine serenity and reposefulness which quiet the nerves of the spectator. It is the prerogative of a viscount or a baron to make a person feel small, and of a baronet to extinguish him.

Satan would not allow me to take his hat, but put it on the table himself, and begged me not to put myself to any trouble about him, but treat him just as I would an old friend; and added that that was what he was — an old friend of mine, and also one of my most ardent and grateful admirers. It seemed a doubtful compliment; still, it was said in such a winning and gracious way that I could not help feeling gratified and proud. His carriage and manners were enviably fine and courtly, and he was a handsome person, with delicate white hands and an intellectual face and that subtle air of distinction which goes with ancient blood and high lineage, commanding position and habitual intercourse with the choicest society. The usual portraits of him are but resemblances, nothing more. They are very inaccurate. None of them is recent. The latest is as much as three hundred years old. They were all made by monks, and from memory; for the monks did not tarry. The monk was always excited, and he put his excitement into the picture. He thus conveyed an error, for Satan is a calm person; aristocratically calm and self-possessed. Satan's face is notably intellectual, and fine, and expressive. It suggests Don Quixotte's, and also Richelieu's, but it is not so melancholy as the one nor so austere as the other; and neither of those grand faces has the winning quality which is the immortal charm and grace of Satan's.

In Germany the sofa is the seat of honor and is always offered to the guest. It may be so in Austria also, therefore I tendered it to Satan, and called him by the loftiest titles I could think of — Durchlauschtigst, and Ihro Majestät — but he declined it, saying he would have no ceremony, and so took a chair. He said —

"You are very comfortable here. The German stove is the best in the universe."

"I agree to that, with all my heart, Durchlauscht. That one there is eleven feet high and four feet square, and looks like a graveyard monument built of white tiles; but its looks are its only blemish. At eight in the morning it burns up one small basketful of wood in twenty minutes, and that is all it requires for the day. This great room will keep the same level and pleasant and comfortable degree of warmth hour after hour without change, and there is no artificial heat in the world that is comparable to it for wholesomeness, healthfulness. It does not inflame the skin, it does not oppress the head or make the temples throb; there isn't a headache in a hundred years of it. As for economy, it is a good ten times more economical than any other house-heating apparatus known to the world."

"You use it in America, of course?"

I was pleasantly surprised at that, and said —

"Is it possible that Ihro Majestät is not familiar with America?"

"Well — no. I have not been there lately. I am not needed there."

At first I was gratified; but next I was suspicious that maybe his remark did not quite mean what I had thought it meant; so it seemed good diplomacy not to stir the matter, but leave it alone and go on about the stove again.

"No," I said, "we don't use the German stove in America. We have the name of being the most ingenious of the nations in the matter of inventing and putting to practical use all manner of conveniences, comforts, and labor-saving and money-saving contrivances, and we have fairly earned that name and are proud of it; but we do not know how to heat a house rationally, yet, and it seems likely that we shall never learn. The most of our stoves are extravagant wasters of fuel; the most of them require frequent attention and recharging; none of them furnishes a continuously equable heat, and we have not one that does not scorch the skin and oppress the head. We have spent tons and tons of money upon furnaces with elaborate and costly arrangements for distributing dry heat or steam or hot water throughout a house; but they are all ravenous coal-cannibals, and if there is one among them whose heat-output can be successfully regulated I have not seen it. As far as my knowledge goes, we have none but insane ways of heating houses and railway cars in America."

"Then why don't you introduce the German stove?"

"I wish I could. I could save the country money enough annually to pay the silly pension bill. And if we had that admirable stove we should soon find a way to rid it of its grim and ghostly look and make it a pretty and graceful thing to look at, and an ornament to the room; for we are a capable people in those directions. But I suppose we shall never see the day. The Americans who come over here do not study the German stove, they merely make fun of its personal appearance, and go away without finding out what a competent and inexpensive miracle it is. The Berlin stove is the best that I have seen. When we kept house there several winters ago we charged our parlor monument at 7 in the morning with a peck of cheap briquettes made of refuse coal-dust, let the fire burn half an hour, then shut up the stove and never touched it again for twenty-four hours. All day long and up to past midnight that room was perfectly comfortable, not too hot, not too cold, and the heat not varying, but remaining at the same pleasant level all the time. Do you like the German stove, Durchlauscht?"

"Not for my boarders — no."

"What do you use, Durchlauscht?"

He named sixty-four varieties of stoves and house-furnaces. Dear me, those old familiar names — they were all American! But I didn't say anything. I was ashamed; and yet at the same time I was conscious of a private little thrill of patriotic pride in the reflection that in a humble way we had been able to add a discomfort to hell.

Of course we were smoking, all this time, for Durchlauscht has had experience of the chief joy of man for many ages. The early American Indians introduced it in Sheol twenty or thirty thousand years ago, and out of gratitude he is never severe on that race. I thought I would venture to indicate in an unobtrusive way that by rights I was an Indian, though changed in the cradle through no fault of mine — and waited timorously for a comment. But I was disappointed. He only looked. It may be that he did not mean anything by the look, but often a look like that is discouraging, anyway, if you are conscious yourself that you have been trying to pull a person's leg, as the saying is. In such cases you let on that you did not know you had said anything; and it is the best way, and soonest over.

Then you change the subject; and I did. I asked him to try the Navy Cut, and I loaded his pipe with it and gave him a light. He liked it. I was sure he would. He sent up a cloud of fragrant smoke, and said admiringly —

"It is good; very, very good; burns freely and smells like a heretic."

That made me shudder a little, but that was nothing; we all have our metaphors, symbols, figures of speech, and they vary according to habitat, environment, taste, training, and so on.

"Where do you get this tobacco?"

"In London, Durchlauscht."

"But where in Vienna?"

"It is a pity to have to say it, but one can't get it in Vienna at all."

"You must be mistaken about that. You must remember that this is one of the most superb cities that was ever built; and is very rich, and very fond of good things, and can command the best of everything that the world can furnish; and it also has the disposition to do it. This is my favorite city. I was its patron saint in the early times before the reorganization of things, and I still have much influence here, and am greatly respected. When you intimate that there is anything of first excellence which one cannot get in Vienna, you hurt my feelings. You would not wish to hurt my feelings?"

"I? Indeed, no. Do not look at me like that, Durchlauscht; you break my heart. But what I have said is really the truth. Consider what this noble city smokes — latakia! It is true, just as I say. It smokes latakia, and fine-cut Turkish and Syrian ordure that burns your tongue and makes a mephitic odor which suffocates."

We are a vain and thoughtless race. In criticising in this large and arrogant way other people's tastes in the matter of tobacco I was satirizing myself, without for the moment being conscious of it. For it has been my habit to look down in a superior way upon persons who were so low in the scale of intelligence as to believe such a thing possible as the establishing of a standard of excellence in tobacco and cigars. Tastes in this matter seem to be infinite. Each man seems to have a standard of his own, and he also seems to be ashamed of the next man's taste and hostile to his standard. I think that no one's standard is steadfast, but is at all times open to change. When we travel, and are obliged to go without our favorite brand and take up with the cigar of the country we chance to be in, we presently find ourselves establishing that cigar as our standard. In Venice we are at first too good to smoke those cheap black rat-tail "Virginias" that have a straw through them, but a fortnight's familiarity with them changes all that and we adopt the Virginia as our standard. In Florence and Rome we are sorry for a people who are condemned to smoke the cheap menghettis and trabucos, but soon we prefer them to any other cigars. In Germany, France and Switzerland we take less kindly to the native cigars; but in India we quickly come to believe that the Madras two-cent cigar is much better than the Cuban cigar which costs twenty cents in New York. I must not claim to speak fairly and justly about high-priced cigars, for I have never bought any myself, and have not smoked other people's when I could substitute a cheap one of my own without being discovered; for to my mind there is no cigar that is quite so vile and stenchy and inflammable as a twenty-cent Havana. This is probably a superstition; for I am well satisfied that all notions, of whatever sort, concerning cigars, are superstitions — superstitions and stupidities, and nothing else. It distresses me to hear an otherwise sane man talk about "good" cigars, and pretend to know what a good cigar is — as if by any chance his standard could be a standard for anybody else.

We have all noticed this — and it tells its own story: that when we go out to dine at another man's house, we privately carry along a handful of cigars as a protection. We know that the chances are that his standard and ours will differ. We take his cigar, but we manage a substitution furtively. From long habit — backed by prejudice and superstition — I dread those high-priced Havanas with a fancy label around them; a label which costs the hundredth part of a cent, and augments the price of the cigar twenty-seven degrees beyond its value. I have accepted tons of those; and given them to the poor. It is not that I hate the poor, for I do not; but only because I cannot bring myself to waste anything, even a fancy-labeled execrable cigar.

Not more than two persons in eight hundred thousand know even their own cigars when they are outside of the box; they think they do, but that is another superstition. Years ago several friends of mine used to come to my house every Friday night to play billiards. They patiently smoked my cheap cigars and never said a wounding word about them. With one exception. That was a gentleman who thought he knew all about cigars, and whose opinion was like the rest of the world's — not valuable. He had a high-priced brand of his own, and he did not like my cheap weeds. He tried to smoke them, but he growled all the time, and always threw the cigar away after a few whiffs, and tried another and another and another. He did that all one winter. The truth was, that they were his own cigars, not mine. By request, his wife sent me a couple of dozen every Friday afternoon. He may not believe this when he sees it in print, but the other witnesses are there yet, and they will confirm the truth of my statement.

And I have another case. One winter, along in those years, I heard that the "long nine" of fifty years ago was being manufactured and marketed again, and I was glad, for I had smoked them when I was a lad of nine or ten and knew that twelve or fifteen of them could be depended upon to make a day pass pleasantly at light cost. I sent to Wheeling and laid in a supply, at 27 cents a barrel. They were delightful. But their personal appearance was distinctly against them; and besides they came in boxes that were not attractive; boxes that held a hundred each and were made of coarse blue pasteboard; boxes that were crazy, and battered, and caved in, and ugly and vulgar and plebian, and looked like the nation. Just the aspect of the box itself would make anybody sea-sick but me; with the burnt-rag aspect of its homely contents added, the result was truly formidable.

I could not venture to offer these things, undisguised, to my friends, for I had no desire to be shot; so I put fancy labels around a lot of them, and kept them in a polished mahogany box with a perforated false bottom that had a damp sponge under it; and gave them a large Spanish name which nobody could spell but myself and no ignorant person could pronounce; and said that these cigars were a present to me from the Captain General of Cuba, and were not procurable for money at any price. These simple devices were successful. My friends contemplated the long nines with the deepest reverence, and smoked them the whole evening in an ecstasy of happiness, and went away grateful to me and with their souls steeped in a sacred joy.

I carried the experiment no further, but dropped it there. A year later these same men were at my house to discuss a topic of some sort — for it was a social club, and its members met fortnightly at each other's houses in the winter time, and discussed questions of the day, and finished with a late supper and much smoking. This time, in the midst of the supper, the colored waiter came to me, looking as pale as amber, and whispered and said he had forgotten to provide proper cigars, and there was no substitute in the house but the vulgar long nines in the blue pasteboard boxes — what should he do? I said pass them around and say nothing — we could not help ourselves at this late hour. He passed them.

It was usual for these people to smoke and talk an hour and a half. But this time they did not do that. They looked at the battered blue box dubiously, and in turn took out a long nine hesitatingly, and lit it. Then an uncanny silence fell upon the company; conversation died. Then, after five minutes, a man excused himself and left — had an engagement, he said. In a couple of minutes, another man lied himself out. Within ten minutes the whole twelve were gone and I was alone; and it was not yet eleven o'clock.

In the morning at breakfast the colored man asked me how far it was from the front door to the upper gate. I said it was a hundred and twenty-five feet. Then he said, impressively, "Well, sir, you can walk the whole way, and step on a long nine every time."

What an exposure of human nature it is. Those were the same cigars that had lifted those people into heaven a year before. They had smoked all their lives, yet they knew nothing about cigars. The only way that they could tell a fine cigar from a poor one was by the label and the box; and the great majority of men are just like them. The wine merchant and the cigar dealer have an easy chance to get rich, for it is merely a matter of knowing how to select the right labels.

In the continental States, tobacco is a government monopoly, and the tobacco used is native — almost altogether. In Vienna there is but one shop where importations can be had. But it keeps no endurable brands of English or American smoking tobacco. When I speak of English tobacco I mean American tobacco manufactured in England. America has many brands of good smoking tobacco; and could have good and cheap native cigars, I suppose. In fact we had good native cigars fifteen years ago, but none now, so far as I know. I am not hard to please, but to my mind the American native cigar is easily the worst in the world — and it costs from seven to ten cents, too. The trabuco cigar, furnished by the Austrian government, suits my taste exactly, comes up to my strictest standard, and even a little above it; and it costs just 40 cents a hundred. The best native American cigar cannot compare with it. Perhaps it is our high protection that has degraded our tobacco. There being no foreign competition, we can compel ninety-nine Americans in the hundred to smoke any rubbish we please, since he cannot afford the imported article; and as a result we are the only considerable nation in the world which smokes supremely villainous cigars.

Possibly my approval of the Austrian cigar pays it but a doubtful compliment, but I do not think so. For I am one of the sixteen men now alive in the world who estimate a cigar by its personal qualities, not by its name and its price.

Excerpted from Who Is Mark Twain? by Mark Twain

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