It seems senseless to equivocate: the major problem with the current state of Mark Twain studies is that most of it is written by humorless, dull pedants whose prose style alone would be enough to petrify an unwary reader as comprehensively as Ice-9.
—Hamlin Hill,“Who Killed Mark Twain?”
This is my favorite sentence out of the approximately twenty tons of Twain criticism that has been generated for the past one hundred years and Hamlin Hill wrote it. Every time I think about Mark Twain, I miss Ham. Not only was he the most brilliant Twain scholar of his generation, but he was a guy. The kind of guy who would ride shotgun in your pick-up and when you told him that smacking sound in the truck bed was a chicken carcass, he’d nod in complete understanding. Been there. I turned the corner going too fast to find a bar in Elmira in my S-10 and he just laughed.
His scholarship was exciting, risky, and exacting. While he came with a blue-chip pedigree, a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fulbright Scholar as well as having been part of the group of scholars who founded the Mark Twain Project, Hamlin comported himself with an innate ease and a Steve McQueen cool. In print and in person I always had the feeling that with a little encouragement he just might go off the rails, in an electric, intuitive, larger than life way. My favorite works by Hamlin include Mark Twain and Elisha Bliss, Art of Huckleberry Finn, his introduction to Roughing It, Mark Twain's Letters to His Publishers, his sublime Mark Twain: God's Fool, and every book review he ever wrote. While Ham was a wonderfully charming raconteur of the first order, as an old Texas boy he wasn't afraid to kick your ass if he thought you deserved it, as his devastating book reviews demonstrate.
It was Hamlin who attracted me to Twain studies, not the author. In 1984, I was living in Eichstaett, Bavaria and teaching at the Katholische Universität Eichstätt. The town was an Italian Baroque hamlet founded in the year 741 with a decidedly Brigadoonish feel. I was the tallest woman in town, the only American, and couldn't understand a word of the local dialect. One endless winter weekend while aimlessly messing about in the Amerikanistik collection, I ran across Hamlin's 1974 American Library Realism essay, “Who Killed Mark Twain?” where he laid into Twain scholars and their “flavorless” research. I was hysterical, laughing out loud, wondering who this angry scholar was and loving every pissed-off sentence because that was exactly how I felt at that moment: post-masters, pre-qualifying doctoral exams, and frankly bored to tears with the whole business.
It is difficult to understand, but an author whose own frame of mind was always open to ironies, word-plays, facetious turns of phrasing, and iconoclastic good fun has managed to attract some of the least pleasant scholarship and criticism in all American literary history. The heirs of the grand, late nineteenth-century philological tradition all seem to have inherited Mark Twain as their province. (ALR 119)
I was curious to meet this scholar and find out why he was he so mad. But before I did, though, I read Mark Twain: God's Fool. I didn't have the wherewithal to fully appreciate it at first; however, twenty-five years later, having worked my way through it dozens of times, the depth, skill and, frankly, the fearlessness contained in that biography remain unmatched. Working in the paper and pencil archival years with limited access to documents, Hamlin's prose style was riveting and he came so close to figuring out all of Twain's secrets it takes my breath away. I later learned that Hamlin wrote his American Literary Realism essay in response to the critical drubbing his biography received from the Twain establishment because they were unwilling to accept his rewriting of the conventional end-of-life story. Mark Twain had to have been happy at the end, so the hagiographers claim; after all, he wore white and he as a humorist. This was Ham's opportunity to give them a good backhand.
In my opinion anyone who attempts to contest Hamlin's work is on a fool's errand—I know, I tried. In my first biography, Mark Twain in the Company of Women, I fired a few shots across the bow at Hamlin, mainly over trivial details and wound up imitating exactly what he had railed against: “they grind exceeding fine, until the powder remaining from their inquires is not worth the breath to blow it away” (119). I had begun to imitate the clucking sound often heard from the keepers of the flame whenever Hamlin's name was mentioned. According to a Twain colleague who asked Ham about my challenging him, he responded, “people who stand in the road can get run over.” Now I take that two ways: that's exactly what a particular kind of Texan would say when annoyed, but he also might have meant it as a warning about the prevailing Realpolitik in Twain studies: “Whatever the limited range in which debate has been possible, there indisputably has been an Official Mark Twain image which it has been dangerous to question” (120).
Over the years at conferences in Cancun and Elmira, we had the occasion to talk and my admiration for him and his work grew. In 2002 Michael Kiskis and I co-edited Constructing Mark Twain, and Gary Scharnhorst and I co-wrote the chapter “‘Who Killed Mark Twain?’ Long Live Samuel Clemens.” Now, Gary and I share a similar sense of humor, snarky and schoolyardish at times, and we wanted to write a tribute to Hamlin as well as a critique of what we saw as the continuing brand of stultified research he identified twenty years ago. We thought the piece was hilariously funny and sent it to Kiskis who immediately pronounced it too mean and edited it. I sent Hamlin the unexpurgated version and we chatted over the phone. He liked it very much. Shortly thereafter, at age seventy, too, too young, too tragically, he passed away. His loss is still raw.
Documentarian Sandy Bradley worked for several years on a Twain film that was never completed. I saw some of her footage where she featured various scholars talking about why Twain meant so much to them. In his interview, Hamlin was overcome with emotion talking about Twain's work and wept. That's when I finally understood the point of “Who Killed Mark Twain?” We should know enough to savor Twain, to communicate that joy, to be audacious in our work and fastidious in our standards. Let's rise above and be as courageous and daring as Twain always was. Leave the parsing to the Poe scholars.
After publishing my latest biography about Twain's last decade, Mark Twain's Other Woman, the same period Hamlin wrote about, Ham has been often in my thoughts and never more so than when bickering broke out on the Twain discussion group list about some of my conclusions or when a reviewer, missing the forest for the trees, snipped about an incorrect first name, an obvious copy-editing error. What has changed in a substantive way, I think, since Ham first wrote his biography is that the newer breed of Twain scholars are less likely to follow the well traveled road and are more inclined to venture their own views, trivia like erroneous first names be damned. At least I hope so. Hamlin, more so than anyone else, made this openness possible.
Sixteen years ago in Cancun, I asked Hamlin to sign my copy of God's Fool. He wrote: “For Laura, Who knows better! Ham.”
You did Ham, you did.