Unconscious Plagiarism:

Samuel Clemens Writes My Past



Dear me, the power of association to snatch moldy dead memories out of their graves and make them walk.

Samuel L. Clemens,
“Chapters from my Autobiography”

When Samuel Clemens was confronted with his supposed plagiarism of Oliver Wendell Holmes for the dedication to Innocents Abroad (a story told in the twentieth chapter of the North American Review series “Chapters from my autobiography”[MTOA, 180-188]), he admitted the influence and summarized Holmes’ response to Clemens’ letter of apology. According to Clemens,

In [the letter] Holmes laughed the kindest and healingest laugh over the whole matter, and at considerable length and in happy phrase assured me that there was no crime in unconscious plagiarism; that I committed it every day, that he committed it every day, that every man alive on the earth who writes or speaks commits it every day and not merely once or twice but every time he opens his mouth; that all our phrasings are spiritual shadows cast multitudinously from our readings; that no happy phrase of ours is ever quite original with us, there is nothing of our own in it except some slight change born of our temperament, character, environment, teachings and associations; that this slight change differentiates it from another man's manner of saying it, stamps it with our special style, and makes it our own for the time being; all the rest of it being old, moldy, antique, and smelling of the breath of a thousand generations of them that have passed it over their teeth before!

In the thirty-odd years which have come and gone since then, I have satisfied myself that what Dr. Holmes said was true.” (MTOA, 182)

Clemens, of course, repeats Holmes again in this explanation; however, the point here is that we are very much the sum of the intellectual parts that have found their way into our being. We fool ourselves into thinking we are original. Not even Adam could escape from influence. If that be the case, how can scholars, who make their way into the world on the backs of the words of others, claim for themselves any possible originality or creativity.

Creativity, however, is made possible by the infusion of ideas with individual experience. Echoing ideas and words can be adjusted by the influx of my life experience: the ideas of others are modified by my experience. Thus it is that dissertations are born and articles and monographs are published. Our work stands on the shoulders of earlier scholars. Our take on their ideas is colored and blended by the reality of our past experience sloshing around the mix of ideas. Huck Finn's preference for meals made tastier by combinations of tastes is a good metaphor for our own awareness of hybrid ideas and mongrel associations. Like Huck's dinner (perhaps) we become more than the collection of our parts. We find a foundation in the lessons we are taught by others, but we also improvise our intellectual lives embellished as they are with the fact of our experience. I am, then, part of what others have taught me. I also take those lessons and season them with the facts of my own life.

Case in point.

As I think about an earlier generation of scholars and what I have taken from them, I hesitate to identify explicit people and ideas. Not because I can't think of any, but because there are so many. Two examples should help. My graduate work at the feet of Twain scholar John Gerber was foundational (and perhaps most foundational not from his ideas but the example of his work ethic). My recent (over the past decade or so) work on Clemens’ domestic sphere has in its background not in descriptions of Mark Twain as artist or as a voice of democracy (both topics covered in a course on Mark Twain with Gerber in 1981; he had just published the California edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer Abroad, and Tom Sawyer Detective) but in the work of Judith Fetterley as part of the reclamation project for 19th century American women writers (and part of a course with her in 1983). Gerber encouraged me to focus my early work on Clemens’ autobiography; Fetterley, whose connection to Twain studies comes from her often anthologized essay on Tom Sawyer as community sanctioned rebel (“The Sanctioned Rebel”), introduced me to the question of domestic politics and the value of the sentimental tradition (a value in its own right not as a mere comparison to supposed major – and male – traditions in American letters). Two very different emphases made more potent when brought together. Over the past decades I have at times talked and written about the connection between Clemens and early realist writers such as Caroline Kirkland and humorists such as Frances Whitcher and Marietta Holley or social critics such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I now occasionally teach classes that unite Uncle Tom's Cabin and Little Women with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Years of puzzling my way toward uniting these approaches pulled me into still other orbits. And I have come to appreciate scholarship done generations ago, work that offers an additional influence, such as the work of Albert E. Stone, Jr. When I read The Innocent Eye: Childhood in Mark Twain's Imagination (a book published in 1961 but which came into my hands only a couple of years ago) I found a symbiotic murmur, and Stone's words and ideas reframed (or perhaps more rightly reinforced) my thinking about Samuel Clemens’ domesticity. My copy of Stone's book is riddled with my underlinings and pencil comments. His thinking about Huck Finn vibrates. When writing about Huck's care for domestic peace, his willingness to become invisible when confronted by domestic unrest (whether that unrest is sparked by the crazy instigations of Tom Sawyer, especially in the final chapters of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or the potential violence of the Duke and the King), Stone is spot on:

When the Duke and the Dauphin settle their first quarrel on board the raft, Huck is delighted ‘because it would ‘a’ been a miserable business to have any unfriendliness on the raft; for what you want above all things, on a raft, is for everybody to be satisfied, and feel right and kind towards the others.’ This is Huck's creed of social harmony, the fruit of his initiation, and the most sweeping generalization about life he ever comes to. ‘I hadn't no objections,’ he says of the con-men masquerading as nobility, ‘long as it would keep peace in the family … If I ever learnt nothing else out of pap, I learnt that the best way to get along with his kind of people is to let them have their own way.’ Huck Finn lives by this ethic. It governs his personal relationships, his lies, his aliases, indeed all his personal relationships. It is, in fact, at the heart of his appeal as a character. (Innocent Eye, 157)

Huck's experience is awash with true sentiment, with the emotion of the lost child in search of home and safety. Stone later places that focus at the center of his reading of Clemens’ canon: “We know there always existed an opposite pole to Mark Twain's misanthropy. At the other end of his mind Twain was a man with strong emotional attachments not only to specific human beings but to the potential dignity of the human condition itself. Strongest of all his intuitive sympathies, of course, was his feeling for children” (Innocent Eye, 231). That feeling became resonant in Clemens’ fiction as his own children grew and perhaps especially as he suffered the loss of his young son.

No place does that come through clearer than Clemens’“Chapters from my Autobiography,” a final and extended meditation on his loss of Susy (his long quotes from her biography of him, written when Susy was 13, allow him to complete a version of their lives told in tandem) and, in one particularly striking paragraph, the loss of Langdon in which Clemens speaks publicly with the weight and burden of guilt. He writes, “I was the cause of the child's illness. His mother trusted him to my care and I took him a long drive [sic] in an open barouche for an airing … .I soon dropped into a reverie and forgot all about my charge … .The child was almost frozen. I hurried home with him. I was aghast as what I had done, and I feared the consequences. I have always felt shame for that treacherous morning's work and have not allowed myself to think of it when I could help it. I doubt if I had the courage to make confession at the time. I think it most likely that I have never confessed until now” (MTOA, 63). Clemens’ early loss (Langdon dies in 1872) is underscored in his fiction through the images and descriptions of foolish and addled adults, absent parents, negligent fathers, and a particular type of at-risk child. Many of Clemens’ most memorable child characters face terrible odds within difficult and soul killing households. Think of Huck, Tom Canty, Valet de Chambre. Consider Tom Sawyer, Joan of Arc, and perhaps the adult Hank Morgan.

In the end, we write what we are, and we are what we write. Clemens, I think, knew that. And I find myself back with Clemens and Holmes, though now wondering about the range of emotions struck within the tales of Clemens’ children, both real and imaginary. I grew up in a house very much like Huck's. My father was a less abusive Pap, but the years before (and even after) he lit out and before he died were tense and filled with volatile potential. Disappearing into the background was long a safety measure. It took time (years and years and years) for me to realize how that personal history affected my literary/scholarly life. I am still dealing with that. Over lunch one afternoon with James Martine a former professor of mine (one more bit of my past and the affects of ideas and experience), we talked about the relationship between criticism and our own biographies. His question to me was abrupt. “Do you think that your current scholarly interest is prompted by your own family history.” Very much. Fathers and sons. Absent fathers. Negligent fathers. A constant mix and swirl. And while I continue to find critical works that shed light on my own sensations, I am most indebted to Samuel Clemens who has given me access to portions of my own adolescence and adulthood and who has led me across the avenues to find ways to consider and accept loss and its potential within my own scholarly and (more importantly) daily life.