Some Sly Hints



When invited to contribute an image for the Mark Twain Annual that would reflect my feelings about the 100th anniversary of Mark Twain's death, this original 1885 poster advertising the first edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn came immediately to mind. I was also invited to engage in a “thought experiment” explaining my choice. Inviting me to perform any kind of experiment is inviting calamity, so perhaps my choice will seem cautious and safe. Choosing anything pertaining to Huck Finn seems too easy, too obvious, even a cliché. Besides, in forty-two years of collecting things Twainian I’ve accumulated nearly 8,000 books, photos, letters, and other objects, and many are more visually striking or more historically relevant than this poster.

Things come to mind that are more intimately connected to Mark Twain–his 1868 stylographic pen, his elaborately gilded inkstand, a pair of glasses, a shaving mirror, the felt-topped card table on which he and his angelfish were playing cards when photographed at Stormfield, a silk keepsake printed in his presence at the Oxford University Press in 1907, a gilded Tiffany chalice given to him at a dinner with Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison, his gold Phi Beta Kappa key from University of Missouri, a sterling silver demitasse spoon given to him during his last visit to Hannibal in 1902, a worn out pipe he handed off to an elevator company executive, an ivory statue of Tom Sawyer he kept on his mantle, a portion of his personal “archive” of photographic portraits–some with his and Livy's loving inscriptions – and other objects including 250 volumes from his personal library; his Lecky, his Franklin, his Cervantes, quite a few Howells, his Artemus Ward, his Paradise Lost (did Twain actually read this classic?), one of his Bibles, and the Longfellow volume he was reading at the very moment when Sociable Jimmy knocked at his door.

There are several hundred photographs and letters to choose from, including letters about Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and other works, some of them unpublished. There are his own copies of The Gilded Age, Sketches Old and New (his copies of the British, the American, and the Tauchnitz editions), and The Prince and the Pauper. There are inscribed first editions–among them the first edition of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog” he gave to John Riley who died before he could fulfill his obligation to supply Twain the raw materials for Twain's abandoned second book about African diamond mines, a copy of the second book he ended up writing instead, The Innocents Abroad, inscribed for review, whose provenance hints that it may be the copy given to Howells whose review helped launch this, Twain's first best-seller, the set of Grant's Memoirs Twain gave to John T. Lewis who was one of his inspirations for the character Jim, the copies of Following the Equator and Eve's Diary that he gave to Kate Leary who faithfully served his family for thirty years until his death, two books he gave to Isabel Lyon who served him somewhat less faithfully, and books he gave his wife and daughters, friends, and others.

These books and objects all bring Twain to life, but there are also things that evoke his death. I have the original funeral home records for Twain's burial and the tag that was stapled to his casket on his final transit from New York City to Elmira. There are also things with unexpected personal connections, like the three bound volumes of Clara Clemens’ Chopin sheet music with instructive markings by her teacher Theodore Leschetizky who also taught the elderly German man who was my piano teacher in the late 1950s and early 60s. I’m still astonished to think that my first piano teacher shared a mutual acquaintance with Mark Twain. The evocative powers of these relics increase in proportion to our knowledge of Twain, but none of these things capture my feelings about the 100th anniversary of Twain's death the way this poster does.

This poster seems to me a taunting reminder that Mark Twain's greatest work, perhaps America's greatest work of fiction, was misunderstood from the very moment it was published, and after the passage of a century too much of this misunderstanding endures. The history of the world is rippled with the wakes of brave souls who explored the limits of human endurance, the boundaries of our cultures, and the most distant summits and deepest ravines of our psyches. Magellan had his Trinidad, Columbus had his Santa Maria, Cook commanded the Endeavor, Darwin evolved aboard the Beagle, Ishmael endured the Pequod, Thoreau and his brother shared their Musketaquid, and Twain himself navigated the mighty Mississippi a decade before he joined the pilgrims on the Quaker City. Then along came Huck and Jim aboard a raft without a name, unchristened, their voyage of discovery down the river that bisects our nation accomplished by night to escape notice.

Yet when it came time to announce to the world their wonderful adventure it is the “King”–in the guise of a pirate to fleece the faithful at a camp-meeting–who gets the top billing by way of a pictorial representation at the head of the poster. He appears again on the envelope in which this poster was mailed to a prospective agent who lived in the remote frontier beyond the territory that beckoned Huck at the end of his odyssey. The poster focuses on humorous events, and makes much of Twain's return to his “old style” of writing (whatever that might have meant). It boasts the number of pages and hawks the abundance of illustrations, but this was a subscription book and bulk was a selling point to potential buyers who had been conditioned to expect as much “book for the buck” as possible. The poster does not leave anyone out when it defines the potential readership as the “young and the old, the rich and the poor.” Like a patent medicine ad, it claims Huck's adventures will provide a “cure for melancholy.” It even goes so far as to falsely state that “not a sentence of this book has ever before appeared in print in any form” even though three entire chapters had appeared in The Century Magazine–not to mention briefer extracts in newspapers that quoted from Twain's performances during his tour with George W. Cable, where he’d recited some of the book from advance sheets.

It's not really shocking that a publisher's poster would exploit every marketable angle for their product, and it would be silly indeed to expect a promotional poster to offer learned literary explication. But a glance through the contemporary reviews of this novel also fails to uncover a single reviewer who expresses a literary appreciation for what was really going on in this episodic rendition of the evolution of a boy's soul whose experiences indict his entire culture. At one point in the text of this poster there is mention of the “sly hints at the different weaknesses of society” and it is this solitary phrase, buried among paragraphs of puffery, that is the sole saving grace that stops me from condemning that 1885 copywriter to the heavenly horrors of a sexless choir-singing eternity (when the society of the other place might have been preferred). Perhaps this phrase references the previous statement that this book is a return to Twain's “old style” of writing and is meant to suggest that in this newest book readers will become reacquainted with the social satire that defined Twain's older works like The Innocents Abroad and The Gilded Age. Still, that lone phrase does not begin to suggest the transformation that makes Huck Finn a hero for today.

After one hundred years of discussion and debate there are still school boards and countless critics who don't detect the irony and subversion that provided the buoyancy and ballast that floated Twain's metaphoric cargo down the river on board that nameless raft. Many modern readers don't even seem to suspect the “sly hints at the different weaknesses of society,” much less the pie-in-your-face thrusts at our collective moral failings. I’ve even met two numbskulled bigots who expressed admiration for this book as the greatest racist novel ever written. There are moments when I want to scream, “Why doesn't everyone get it?” But perhaps I can forgive those who fail to grasp the book today when I realize this poster is explicit evidence that even those who marketed the book from the very beginning did not fully comprehend what it was they were offering. But feelings of forgiveness cannot always be summoned, and at a time when the voices of intolerance seem to be growing louder, I am tempted to light out for the territories myself.

But what territory is there now to run to? Voyagers before me have circled the globe, discovered new continents, advanced science, sailed outward and paddled inward. Instead, as I gaze at this poster I think of one of Twain's contemporary readers, twelve year old Gertrude Swain who in 1902 wrote Mark Twain the most remarkable fan letter a child ever wrote to any author, saying among other things, that she’d read the book fifty times, that a clergyman who said it would harm children was wrong, that she thought it “the best book ever written,” and that her father teasingly called Adventures of Huckleberry Finn her “Bible.” She wrote Twain from her home in Nebraska, the very territory into which Huck escaped in Twain's aborted sequel to his masterpiece. Twain, utterly charmed, penned her an enthusiastic letter of thanks (also in my collection) explaining why he valued her lone opinion above those of fifty clergymen. So I reckon it can be my Bible too. All right, then, I’m not going anywhere.