Michael Sheldon teaches us, in Mark Twain: Man in White (2010), that Mark Twain never wore his supposedly-trademark white suit until he arrived at the Library of Congress in 1906 to testify in behalf of a copyright law when he was seventy-one. On the other hand, Tom Wolfe was born in a white suit and has worn nothing else for his 79 years. So, in today's NY Fishwrap, white suits abound. The snark is plentiful, too. If this is (fair & balanced) sartorial splendor, so be it.
PS: The fussy academics who have written (and written) about Mark Twain do not refer the writer as "Twain," but always "Mark Twain." However, a white-suit maven like Tom Wolfe can thumb his nose at such conventions.
[x NY Fishwrap]
Faking West, Going East
By Tom Wolfe
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Coming in at No. 3 is MARGARET MITCHELL. Her Gone With the Wind captivated a huge international audience and brought her virtually unanimous literary acclaim, topped off by the Pulitzer Prize for 1937 and the ultimate accolade: a furious argument within the serious-lit hive over whether this was or wasn’t that long-awaited elixir, the Great American Novel.
Coming in at No. 2 is HARRIET BEECHER STOWE. Her Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, had the whole world shivering from the chilling suspense and shuddering over slavery in America. Lincoln said the Civil War would not have occurred had Mrs. Stowe not struck a match to the fuse.
Coming in at No. 1 — now, here we run into one of those beyond-baffling coincidences that take place only in a certain purple dimension Jung called “synchronicity.”
In 1871, Mrs. Stowe was living in a mansion in Hartford, when a 36-year-old writer came to town and built a bigger one barely a block away. There, practically next door, he proceeded to overtake and replace her as the most famous American writer of all time. He remains the title-holder this morning, in fact... the 100th anniversary, plus four days, of his death, April the 21st, 1910: MARK TWAIN.
Later American literary stars like Hemingway, Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck, Nobel Prize-winners one and all, never had more than a spoonful of the great gouts of fame that Twain — and Mrs. Stowe, for that matter — enjoyed everywhere in the world. From the moment he published his tall tale of the California mining camps, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” in 1865, the name Mark Twain began to romp around the world. He was looked upon as some kind of Huckleberry Homer.
The rest of the world regarded Americans as a mob of barbarians who happened to live on top of a mother lode of precious minerals, fertile land, inexhaustible woodlands and waterways galore... but were as uncouth as they were rich... and spoke in barbaric yawps. This improbable yobbo, Mark Twain, had risen up from the buried life of the mines and the boiler rooms and done an amazing thing. He had turned the local yokel’s yawping yodels into... literature!
England gawked. Europe gawked. The whole globe gawked, even India. It has been recorded that Twain once returned from India and said to a friend, eyes wide, mandibles agape, soul in a state of utterly sincere self-awe: “In India, they know only three things about America... Wall Street... the Statue of Liberty...and Mark Twain!”
Which brings us back to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Hartford.
Whether or not Mark Twain ever did a day’s worth of manual labor in his life is debatable. Early on, in Hannibal, MO, he was a spindly boy with a big head, a little neck, sloping shoulders and not a muscle in his body. His father was a thoroughly genteel lawyer, local officeholder and civic leader, whom everyone called Judge Clemens.
True, after the judge died when Twain was 11, the young man did have a cup of coffee in the mining country of Nevada. He wasn’t exactly roughing it, with his work and his wits his only hope of keeping body and soul together, however. His older brother, Orion, was secretary and acting governor of the Nevada Territory.
And, true, Twain did work... for a spell... as a steamboat pilot... but he made a living mainly as a journalist for The Alta California and other publications and as a comedian on the lecture circuit. He had one eye trained on his stock in trade, the Wild West, and the other searching the horizons 3,000 miles to the East, where all the great glorification factories were.
“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was first published not in The Alta California, but in a New York weekly, The Saturday Press, on November 18, 1865, then reprinted all over the country. Twain was far from the only wag out there working humorous journalism and comic lecturing on stage in tandem. Josh Billings, Petroleum V. Nasby and, the most successful of the breed, Artemus Ward, had preceded him.
Twain’s persona onstage was Wily Ol’ Roughneck Philosopher of the Wild West. He quickly supplanted Ward. His act magnified and re-magnified his literary reputation in a way that is unimaginable today in an age of volt-delivered entertainment, radio, movies, television, the www, the CD, the DVD, the iPhone, the iPod, the iPad, “Grand Theft Auto” and xporn.
Five years after the jumping frog appeared, Twain installed himself in an exclusive sylvan nest of celebrities on the west edge of Hartford called Nook Farm. It was exclusive because the developer would sell lots only to certified nobs. Nook Farm became a Bel-Air for the Belletrists, a Xanadu for the Godzillanaires of the Gilded Age (Gilded Age being Twain’s term) and high-profile politicians. Justin Kaplan describes it all in tasty detail in Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (1966).
Mansion after mansion went up in Nook Farm’s golden groves: Mrs. Stowe’s and her husband, Calvin’s; the famous abolitionist Senator Francis Gillette’s; former Connecticut governor and Courant editor Joseph Hawley’s; the writer Charles Dudley Warner’s — the list went on and the mansions went up.
Twain outdid them all with a Victorian palace whose many turrets were over the top, even for the Gilded Age. Outside, a coachman and a footman stood at the ready. The palace’s interior, with its posh toff’s furnishings and six retainers, was even more extravagant. Twain bought a hellishly expensive bed from a Venetian palace, featuring a headboard carved into a bas-relief of cupids, nymphs and seraphs, the six-wing angels who guard God’s throne. He claimed he found it so sublime he had put the pillows down at the foot of the bed and slept backward so that this heavenly vision of worldly success would be the first thing he saw every day when he awoke.
Life among the Nook Farmers was a ceaseless round of dinners and entertainment for one another — and for every celebrity who came to town, from William Dean Howells to Henry Morton Stanley of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” fame. The money, not to mention the time, his palace cost him, eventually drove Twain into bankruptcy in 1891, just as another folly, Abbotsford House, had sunk Sir Walter Scott in the early part of the century.
But just think of it — 20 years! For 20 years, Mark Twain had actually lived, in the flesh, as that heroic figure every American writer, except one (no use igniting angry letters to the editor), dreams of being: Big Spender from the East. Ω
[Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr. graduated from Washington and Lee University and earned a doctorate in American studies at Yale University in 1957, with a dissertation on "The League of American Writers: Communist Organizational Activity among American Writers, 1929-1942." The works of Tom Wolfe include The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), The Pump House Gang (1968), The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970), The Painted Word (1975), Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter and Vine and Other Stories, Sketches, and Essays (1976), The Right Stuff (1979), Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), A Man in Full (1998), and I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel," Harper's Magazine (November 1989), and Tom Wolfe and E. W. Johnson, editors, The New Journalism (1973). Tom Wolfe is at work on Back to Blood, a novel set in Miami.]
Copyright © 2010 The New York Times Company
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