Tasting Life Twice

Archive for the category “Mark Twain”

Finding our Voice


Last evening Ron Powers was our guest at William Woods.  He spoke on the occasion of the centennial of Mark Twain’s death.  In his lecture, Powers noted how Twain not only captured the voice of the voiceless in writing in the vernacular, but he gave America a distinct literary voice. 

At age 4, little Sammy Clemens emerges from a sickbed in his family’s cabin on his Uncle John’s Quarles’s farm in Florida, MO and toddles on over to the slave quarters on the farm’s far edge. He thus enters a 300-year-old, tightly compacted subculture that within a quarter-century will be abolished. The residue of those visits will flavor his writing for the rest of his life.

Sammy can’t stay away. He plays with the children there. He listens to the speech and the singing and the storytelling of this tightly compacted subculture. He is mesmerized by the urgency of the voices and by the terrifying imagery they convey: lightning bolts, apparitions from the spirit-world, chariots swooping down from heaven, skies of blood, animals crying out.

He seems to sense that the slaves treat spoken language as a living and cherished creature, to be passed around and partaken of.

He hears music in the language. In writing Twain’s biography, I came to believe that he heard spoken language as music, and reproduced it as well as he did by calling back its tonal shifts and rhythms.

This ear for the song of the people continued throughout his life.  It was out West:

where he becomes Mark Twain. He hears the vernacular speech of the West, far from the jurisdiction of Emerson and Holmes. It is pared down to the bare bones, at once factually outrageous and emotionally true. He notices the behavior of western men; outsized and risk-taking and often drunken; and imitates it, and writes about it for the Enterprise.


An Evening With Ron Powers

clip_image002This Wednesday marks the centennial of Mark Twain’s death.  To commemorate the occasion, Ron Powers will come to William Woods University to give a talk on the life and legacy of Mark Twain.  Powers is the author of one of the finest biographies on Twain.  He also co-authored Flag of our Fathers which Clint Eastwood made into a movie.  And he recently collaborated with the late Senator Ted Kennedy on True Compass: a Memoir

Powers received the Pulitzer Prize in criticism while on the staff of the Chicago Sun-Times, and has contributed to leading magazines and newspapers including the New York Times Book Review, Atlantic Monthly and Smithsonian.

Powers’ talk will begin at 7 pm in the Cutlip Auditorium of the McNutt Student Center on the campus of William Woods University (Fulton, MO).

A Village is the Place

I took my Twain class to Hannibal last week for a day trip.  I had given them an assignment this semester to write a paper demonstrating what Mikhail Bahktin termed “insidedness” and what Twain practiced so wonderfully. Using either fiction or non-fiction, the students had to capture character and conversation as if they were ‘”inside” the Other.  As biographer Ron Power describes it, Twain was a “prodigious noticer”.  He had a keen eye for his subjects.  One of the displays at the Mark Twain Museum expresses it well.


Helen Keller on Meeting Mark Twain


image“He entered into my limited world with enthusiasm just as he might have explored Mars. Blindness was an adventure that kindled his curiosity. He treated me not as a freak, but as a handicapped woman seeking a way to circumvent extraordinary difficulties. There was something of divine apprehension in this so rare naturalness towards those who differ from others in external circumstances.”

The River of Characters – Real and Imagined

Sam Clemens worked as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River from 1857-1860.  It was there:

I got personally and familiarly acquainted with about all the different types of human nature that are to be found in fiction, biography, or history…When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have known him before – met him on the river.


Mark Twain and Mardi Gras

With the New Orleans Saints in the Super Bowl and this, the centennial of Twain’s death, here is a description of the time when Sam Clemens first set foot in the “Big Easy”:

When the Crescent City docked at the New Orleans levee in late May 1857, Clemens was exhausted. But he had more than two weeks to practice something he was already quite good at – sightseeing. Two things particularly fascinated him, the market and the cemeteries. The bright colors, the variety of tropical fruits, the plethora of every kind of produce from the kitchen, the farm, and the sea, sent his senses reeling with delight. The market was as much a display of people as of products, their multi-toned voices, their variety of skin tones, their diversity of languages: ‘groups of Italians, French, Dutch, Irish, Spaniards, Indians, Chinese, Americans, English, and the Lord knows how many more different kinds of people.’ To him the variety was an asset, the differences desirable, the community both tactilely sensual and raucously harmonious, his first experience with the American marketplace as a polyglot, multi-ethnic epitome of the national culture. His sheer pleasure in New Orleans was a step toward his gradual transcendence of Missouri slave culture provincialism and his increasing discomfort with xenophobia” (The Singular Mark Twain: A Biography, Fred Kaplan).

Twain would write to his sister Pam: “It has been said that a Scotchman has not seen the world until he has seen Edinburgh; and I think that I may say that an American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi-Gras in New Orleans.”


The Woman Who Corrupted Columbus

You’ve heard of Twain’s short story, “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg”?  This week’s news of the weird is about the woman who corrupted Columbus.  Seems a woman went into the Burlington Coat Factory in Columbus, Ohio and offered to buy people’s merchandise out of the goodness of her heart and the goodness of her non-existent fortune.  Was the woman mentally ill? A devious prankster? a grad student in sociology doing a research project?  A jilted consumer?  Can’t wait to hear the rest of the story.



image A woman being driven around in a rented limousine pulled up at a coat store and announced she’d won the lottery and would pay for everyone’s purchases, police said, but she ended up causing a riot when customers realized it was a hoax.

Angry customers threw merchandise around and looted, leaving the store looking as though a hurricane had passed through it, police said.

Linda Brown was arrested Tuesday after an hours-long shopping spree that began when she hired a stretch Hummer limousine to drop her off at a Burlington Coat Factory store, police Sgt. Lt. Michael Deakins said. Brown walked to a cash register and loudly announced she had won the lottery and would pay for each person’s merchandise up to $500, he said.

"Well, of course, people like to hear that," Deakins said. "Apparently they were in line calling relatives who were not at the store and told them to come."

People flooded the registers as cashiers began ringing up purchase after purchase, but Brown had not yet paid the bill, Deakins said. At least 500 people filled the aisles and another 1,000 were outside trying to get in, he said.

"She was telling people she won $1.5 million," Deakins said. "But it ends up she didn’t win anything. She had no money to pay for anything."

About an hour later, Brown had the limousine driver take her to a bank to withdraw money, but she returned empty-handed, police Detective Steven Nace said. By then, store employees had called in two dozen police officers to handle the crowds.

Shopper Candace Jordan said she told Brown she didn’t need clothes, she needed help paying her rent.

"And she said, ‘How much is it?"’ Jordan told WBNS-TV. "And she promptly wrote out a check."

By the time employees realized Brown didn’t have any cash to pay, police said, she already had taken off in the limo.

That’s when angry customers, realizing they weren’t getting free coats, began throwing merchandise on the floor and grabbing clothes without paying for them, Nace said.

"Everybody was like, ‘I still want my free stuff,’ and that started the riot," he said. "It looks like (Hurricane) Katrina went through the store."

Police said they have no way of tracking down the customers who stole items and fled, but they’re reviewing surveillance video.

When the limousine driver realized he wasn’t going to be paid the $900 Brown owed him for the day’s rental, he turned her in to police, Deakins said.

Brown, 44, was arrested on three outstanding warrants for aggravated menacing, misuse of a 911 system and causing false alarms. She was jailed late Wednesday, but no charges had been filed against her related to the coat store chaos pending a mental health evaluation.

Police said they didn’t know if Brown had a lawyer. No telephone number was listed under her name, and no one answered repeated phone calls at the Franklin County Jail.

A spokeswoman for Burlington Coat Factory, which is based in Burlington, N.J., and has more than 300 stores across the country, said late Wednesday she couldn’t comment on the incident.

Twain the Preacher

Mark Twain once reported that his great desire in life was to be a Presbyterian minister, but he always lacked the faith requisite to the office.  When he returned to Missouri for his last visit in 1902, he addressed the congregation of First Presbyterian Church in Hannibal and reported on the trip:

“Many and many a time in my boyhood days….I desired earnestly to stand in that Presbyterian pulpit and give instructions – but I was never asked until today. My ambition of two generations ago has been satisfied at last!….I noticed in the Presbyterian Church this afternoon that the style of oratory has changed. In my day the speakers made more noise. Their oratory was bombastic, full of gesticulation, pounding the pulpit, and all sorts of exterior suggestions of sense, combined with the utter absence of that quality.”


Reading the Face of the River

image “The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book – a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day…Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!….No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river.”

Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

A Tribute to a Mother and to the Power of Curiosity

Mark Twain described his mother, Jane Clemens, in this way:

image “The greatest difference which I find between her and the rest of the people whom I have known, is this, and it is a remarkable one: those others felt a strong interest in a few things, whereas to the very day of her death she felt a strong interest in the whole world and everything and everybody in it. In all her life she never knew such a thing as half-hearted interest in affairs and people, or an interest which drew a line and left out certain affairs and was indifferent to certain people. The invalid who takes a strenuous and indestructible interest in everything and everybody but himself, and to whom a dull moment is an unknown thing and an impossibility, is a formidable adversary for disease and a hard invalid to vanquish, I am certain it was this feature of my mother’s make-up that carried her so far toward ninety.”

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