Since 1949, the Mark Twain Papers (now the Mark Twain Papers and Project) have resided at the Bancroft Library, and for more than four decades, Robert Hirst, M.A. ’65, Ph.D. ’76, has presided over them as general editor and curator.
Over the years, the project has steadily acquired letters and artifacts from the author’s life while issuing a bookshelf’s worth of critical editions spanning the Twain corpus. In 2010, one of those editions, Volume One of the Autobiography of Mark Twain, sold hundreds of thousands of copies—a remarkable feat for a scholarly text from a university press and testimony to the author’s enduring appeal.
Thanks to Hirst, I have had the pleasure of handling Twain’s original notebooks and scanning file drawers filled with the letters Sam Clemens (the author’s true name) wrote to such pen pals as Ulysses S. Grant, Helen Keller, and Frederick Douglass. To an old English major like me, it was a bit like handling the Dead Sea Scrolls, for as Hemingway once declared, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”
In addition to being a giant of American letters, Twain was also our greatest wit, the man in whose name the annual Kennedy Center’s Prize for American Humor is presented.
Of course, these days, humor is a dicey game. Consider recent high-profile examples: Chris Rock smacked in the mouth at the Oscars, Dave Chappelle tackled on stage by an armed assailant. It’s perhaps especially dicey in the academic world; many comics are reportedly reluctant to perform at colleges, fearing the wrath of censorious youth.
All of which got me wondering how Twain might have fared today and whether his legacy is at risk of critical revision or even renunciation. In July, I sat down with Hirst in his office, amid piles of papers and stacked manuscripts, to discuss those and other questions.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let me start by sharing a story: I used to read aloud to my son when he was younger and I eventually grew bored with the children’s books, so I started reading him classics. One night, I picked Huck Finn off the shelf and I started reading it to him. And pretty quickly, you know, the word n***** is appearing several times on a page. So I said, “OK, we’re gonna stop, and we’re gonna have a discussion about this word.” I said, “I’m not going to edit it out, but you should know why this author is using it.” And I went on for a few more pages, until finally, I was like, “You know what, we’re gonna put this one down, and we’ll come back to it when you’re older.” I just couldn’t read it aloud.
How would you explain why that word is so prevalent?
You may remember Pap Finn, Huck’s dad. Pap is your archetypal racist. A redneck. And Mark Twain gets him in there so you can see what Huck’s class is like. He can’t have Huck say these awful things Pap says, because you’d never forgive him. But he can have Pap say it.
If you trim Pap’s wings so that he can’t say n***** or mulatto, you make it so that Pap doesn’t seem quite so bad as he is. You know, he learns that a mulatto guy from Ohio could vote back there. “Well, when I learned that,” he said, “I’ll never vote again. I was on my way to vote and if I weren’t too drunk to get there… ” I mean, it’s very effective.
When the Autobiography came out, I was being interviewed along with two other scholars, and we were asked how we taught Huckleberry Finn. And the others said they no longer teach Huckleberry Finn. They back away from it. And I said, “Well, I tell my students at the beginning of the class that I’m going to use the words that are in the texts. And that if this offends anybody, or they think it will offend them or hurt them, they are free not to come to class. I will set up a separate instructional arrangement to talk about Huck Finn with them.” So far, no one has taken me up on it.
It’s interesting to me that the other instructors don’t teach it anymore. Are you concerned that Huckleberry Finn will fall by the wayside?
I’m not worried that Huck Finn is going to be forgotten. What I think is true is that if you have an option of not doing it, you don’t. And I myself don’t have that option. I teach a Mark Twain seminar, and Huck Finn, let’s face it, is his masterpiece.
Has Twain been at any risk of so-called cancellation? I mean, if it can happen to John Muir and Dr. Seuss…
I remember when I was on tour for the Autobiography being on a radio program in Washington, D.C. The first question I got was, “Is it true that Mark Twain abused his children?” I said, “I don’t know where these things start. But that is utterly false. I’ve been reading his mail for 30 years. And I can guarantee you there is no truth whatsoever to that statement.”
When there was all this conflict about the canon, people like Melville and Hawthorne came in for criticism: they were wife beaters and this kind of thing. Twain never did. Whether or not that immunity to criticism will last is a good question.
In the current formulation, you’re either a racist or an anti-racist. Which was Twain?
He’s deeply anti-racist. I’ll give an example: He supports a white sculptor whom he sends to Paris. He also sends a Black painter. And he gets a letter from the sculptor’s wife, a white woman, that says something critical of this Black painter. And Clemens responds, “You know, you better be really sure about what you’re saying, if you’re gonna say any such thing.” And then he goes on to say, basically, Blacks have been permanently injured by whites. And that’s never gonna go away. He recognizes that this is a situation that isn’t mendable overnight, you can’t just free the slaves and then get to where you need to be.
The thing about Twain is he was born into a family and raised in a family that had slaves. And certainly up until 18-whatever, he’s a standard racist. We don’t really know exactly when the transformation occurs, because there’s just not enough documentation. But by the time he’s out here in the West, he can’t possibly be pro-Southern. It wouldn’t be acceptable. And there’s all kinds of evidence that he’s friends with a Black editor in San Francisco.
So, when I’m talking to high school teachers, I try to give them the tools to answer the objection that he is racist because he uses n*****. And then I read them a passage from Mark Twain’s notebooks where he points out that, although it doesn’t seem reasonable, the “ragtag and bobtail” of society were more insistent on keeping slavery than the plantation owners. He doesn’t say exactly why, but it’s pretty clear why. They saw ending slavery as threatening their already very low social status. Again, that’s why he’s got Pap in there, for us to hear what a true redneck would say, and he wants you to laugh at him.
Now, I can’t take away the hurt that is undoubtedly felt by people who don’t fully understand this. I try to make it clear, but I don’t know how much I succeed. It’s just a tough thing to get across, especially if you’re hypersensitive. You shut down too fast. The example I sometimes use is if I were to write a novel about a Gestapo member who turns out to be a really good guy, I’m not sure anyone who’s Jewish could read that book, no matter how well I limned the person’s goodness.
I think Mel Brooks probably pushed it as far as you could with The Producers.
He had a way of pushing.
A lot of humorists do. And that’s what Twain trafficked in: humor and satire.
Right. He obviously sees it as a much more powerful tool than making you weep. Although he’s capable of that, too. He wrote something called “A True Story” about an encounter he had with a Black servant at his in-laws’. Clemens said to this woman, “You always seem so happy.” And this elicits a story from her, which is about how her family was sold away from her. And one son eventually comes and finds her and brings her North. And this is what he would call “real” sentiment; that is, serious feeling for this woman and her family. She emerges as this absolutely heroic figure, standing over him and telling him the facts. And that’s early, like 1874—ten years before Huck Finn. It’s published in the Atlantic, and various people write to Clemens and say, “You do that very well, you ought to try that again.” I can’t say that he ever does. He makes a conscious decision, I think, to go beyond what Harriet Beecher Stowe was able to do in works like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His talents are elsewhere.
It seems amazing to me that here I have been doing this for 50 years, and I can still come across passages I’ve read before that make me laugh.
The last really good laugh I had while reading was Innocents Abroad. There’s a chapter where he’s serving as a second in a duel, which means he gets to choose the weapons used. He says, “Axes.” I don’t know why, but something about the delivery made me burst out laughing.
That’s just it; it’s all in the delivery. And what’s amazing is that he can get it down on paper. He’s not reliant on being present; the text is working for him. And most of the humor really does have this fundamental moral point.
He says early on that he had just two ambitions. One was to become a river pilot. The other was to become a minister of the Gospel. “I accomplished the one and failed in the other because I lacked the necessary stock in trade—that is, religion.”
In fact, he knew a lot of ministers and socialized with them. Of course, they read, they were literate. They were people that he had a lot in common with—just not the religion. He has an almost lifelong friendship with Joe Twichell, a minister in Hartford. They do not agree about the tenets of the Christian religion, and that is frequently a subject between them. But Twichell’s a wonderful guy. He didn’t need Clemens to agree with him.
Clemens is talking about the damned human race and Joe says, “This sounds an awful lot like fallen man.” He kind of co-opted him.
We’ve been talking about Twain as an author, but I’m equally curious about Twain the stage performer. Do we have any recordings of him speaking?
I get asked about this a lot, because it would obviously be wonderful to hear him actually speak. There are many recordings made in his lifetime but none have survived—that we know of.
He had a protégé named Gillette, who was an actor. And he recorded himself reading “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” in the way that he remembered Mark Twain doing it. It’s better than nothing. But we know that Edison recorded him. We know that he dictated The American Claimant on something like 24 or 38 wax cylinders. Wax doesn’t hold up well, but they’re probably out there somewhere, unlabeled. It’s gonna take somebody making the effort to actually put one on a machine that can play it and recognize what it is. But I fully expect it to happen. Probably when I’m on my deathbed.
You’re joking, but, at 80, do you have plans to retire, and if so, can I share that with readers?
You can say that I’m old with white hair. You can tell them that you delicately danced around this subject with Bob and that he just pointed out that he was building a wooden box in his office, approximately six feet long. And that while it looks a little bit like a bookcase, it isn’t.
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