Sunday, January 07, 2018

First comes the reading and then the literary tourism

I start each weekday watching the network news. Not sure why. Goes good with oatmeal, I guess.

I usually watch until Trump's smarmy face appears. It doesn't take long. I then switch around the the Weather Channel or Turner Classic Movies. Today I clicked on TCM just to see the middle part of "The Adventures of Mark Twain," a 1944 film starring Frederic March as Twain. I was shocked to learn that Twain ran a publishing company or, rather, he hired his nephew, Charles Webster, to run the company and named it after him. Two early successes were "Huckleberry Finn" and "The Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant," Parts I and 2.  I read Huck Finn. I have poked around in my 1885 copy of U.S. Grant, long enough to know it is not just a pretty good presidential memoir but a pretty good book. I wonder if Twain played a part in that? I will probably read the trade paperback copy as the old hardback is falling apart. Too bad I got to it so late -- it's probably worth something in pristine condition.

Twain's press folded in 1894, after publishing several Twain books and two volumes by some Russian guy, Leo Tolstoy. Twain had hoped to get rich off of other authors' works. Instead, he owed creditors more than $200,000, which adds up to millions in today's dollars. Instead of making a deal with them, he embarked on a world speaking tour to every continent. He made enough to pay off his debts. Meanwhile, his wife died. Twain's death coincided with the year that Halley's Comet returned. But I already knew that from the Wonderful World of Disney version of Twain's life.

Seems as if Twain is the gift that keeps on giving.

He may be the most notable American author of the 19th century. We continue to read him. His books, mainly Huck Finn, continue to be banned by school districts upset with the casual use of the N word, realistic depictions of slavery, and youngsters defying their elders.

I am a Twain fan. I have seen Hal Holbrook's stage presentation of "Mark Twain Tonight." The author was quotable, that's for sure, and Holbrook does a great job with the part.

I am a bit miffed at his participation in the "Gilded Age" with Rockefeller and Carnegie et. al. His youthful goal was thee be rich, not to be a notable man of letters. He reached that goal several times but keep losing it on other dubious get-rich-quick schemes.

He wrote some great novels and some scathing literary criticism. I dare you to read "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" and not laugh. Anyone who has read any of Cooper's convoluted "Deerslayer" tales should enjoy the humor. Here's a sample from the piece:
There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction -- some say twenty-two. In "Deerslayer," Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require: 
1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the "Deerslayer" tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air. 
2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the "Deerslayer" tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop. 
3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.

Remember that this was way before bloggers invented snark.

If we are looking for purists among our literary practitioners, well, the boat has already sailed on that one (not the one that Hart Crane jumped from). Hemingway was a misogynist, Fitzgerald a drunk. Flannery O'Connor couldn't stop talking about those scary creatures she invented to frighten us out of our lethargy. In this New Gilded Age, we want some literary heroes, or at least cool  hometowns to play tourist in, such as Cather's Red Cloud or Hurston's Eatonville. And Twain's house in Hartford.

As a literary tourist, I have seen most of these sights. They are interesting. But you can't really get to the heart of Hemingway's Nick Adams' stories by ogling the descendants of his six-toed Key West cats. You have to read the books. That comes first -- you cannot skip this step. Then you can talk to me about Annie Proulx's Wyoming influences or D.H. Lawrence's New Mexico years.

Read. And just think: every book you read is another blow against Trumpism.


Lynn said...

Snark has been around a long time--it just didn't travel so fast in the past:-)

I sort of fell into being a literary tourist by chance last year when I went to the Mari Sandoz conference in Chadron. I mostly wanted to support a fellow writer (a Brit, Alan Wilkinson) but landed in among a slew of Sandoz fans. It was a fascinating experience. Such passion! I can't claim to be a groupie of any writer, except maybe Steinbeck. I wholeheartedly agree with your assertion, though, that the reading comes first. Always.

Michael Shay said...

Mari Sandoz -- that sounds like a great conference. I want to explore Steinbeck's haunts in California. I passed through Monterey in 1980 when my brother Dan and I drove up the coast from Santa Barbara to San Francisco. I swear that we ate at a place called Steinbeck's Lobster Pot in Monterey. I can't find any mention of such a place on Internet searches. Maybe it was a figment of my overactive literary imagination.

RobertP said...


See the NY Times story in this link from 1982 with the following:

A final literary note: the Steinbeck Lobster Grotto, formerly the Steinbeck Lobster House, has seafood dinners for about $15-$16 a person. Reservations recommended: 408-373-1884.

Lobster House, Lobster Pot.....being 1980 imagine the effects of pot may have caused you to mis-remember....

Michael Shay said...

Thanks for the link. It's funny how the mind can play tricks on you, especially in altered states. A few days after this, Dan and I visited our friend Tom in Petaluma north of S.F. I was impressed when I took a walk down his alley and saw pot plants growing in most of the backyards. Guess they don't have to bother with homegrown any more.