Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Mark Twain: The Return of Halley's Comet by Donald Bliss

At our May 1 Open Door Reading, The Writer's Center will host a staged reading of "The Return of Halley's Comet," by Mark Twain's publisher's great great grandson Donald Bliss. Here's a piece Donald wrote for the Workshop & Event Guide:

Over one hundred years after his death on April 21, 1910, the Autobiography of Mark Twain is on The New York Times (NYT) bestseller list. From 1906 to 1909, Twain dictated (mostly from his bed, clad in a Persian silk dressing gown, propped up against snowy white pillows) some 5,000 pages (a half a million words) of rambling thoughts and memories, jumping around in time and place, replicating the thought process of the human mind. Amid the insights into historic events, like imperialist America’s occupation of the Philippines and tender moments of love and loss, are score-settling vendettas against statesmen and former colleagues—Theodore Roosevelt and my great-grandfather, Elisha Bliss, Jr., among them. Twain embargoed the unexpurgated version because “it is too shocking for today’s taste. There may be a market for it a century from now.” Not according to Garrison Keillor, who wrote in his NYT review that the book “is a powerful argument for writers’ burning their papers.” Other reviewers were ecstatic—“America’s first blogger,” “A prose paean to Twain’s enormous energy level,” “beautifully unorganized genius,” wrote the Los Angeles Times.

Then, precipitating a national debate, Auburn professor Alan Gribben offered up a sanitized version of Huckleberry Finn—the novel, according to Ernest Hemingway, from which all American literature comes. The “N” word (used 219 times) is replaced with “slave,” and “Indian” substituted for “Injun.” Gribben wanted to make the book less offensive to younger readers in today’s politically correct environment. Originally banned by the Concorde Library, it continues to be black-listed in some school districts. The uproar was deafening. The NYT editorialized: “We are horrified…it suggests that understanding the truth of the past corrupts modern readers, when, in fact, this new edition is busy corrupting the past…doing irreparable harm to the truth of [Twain’s] work.”

Last year—the 100TH anniversary of Twain’s death, the 175TH of his birth, and the 125TH of the publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—a dozen books about Mark Twain were published, each offering a unique insight into America’s first global celebrity. Mark Twain is many things to many people: a western humorist, a Mississippi River pilot, a scathing satirist and irreverent moralist, a New England progressive, a peripatetic globe-trotting public speaker, and “the Lincoln of our literature” (according to his literary mentor William Dean Howells, the Atlantic editor). Known for his quotable quips and witty wisdom, Samuel Langhorne Clemens—aka Mark Twain—suffered enormous personal tragedy. Growing up, he witnessed the death of three siblings and his father, causing him to quit formal school at 11 and begin work as a printer’s devil—“a poor boy’s college education,” according to Ben Franklin. As an adult, he suffered the loss of three of his four children and his beloved wife, Livy. He went through the humiliation of bankruptcy. He once said that “the true source of humor is not joy, but sorrow.” His well-spring was bountiful.

For those of us in the national capital area, there is a lesser-known dimension of Twain that continues to reverberate through the corridors of power. His caustic commentary on the corrupting influence of money in politics remains as relevant today as any cable TV talking head, Sunday morning roundtable, radio talk show host, or political blogger. He actually served as the legislative aide to a senator in 1867–68, but his propensity to satirize congressional misfeasance and speak truth to power were not well-received by his boss. He once dutifully answered a letter from a constituent seeking a post office for a town in Nevada, writing for the senator: “You don’t need a post office. A jail or brothel would do far more for the local economy.” He was fired in less than two months but contin-ued as a journalist in the capital, reporting on the radical Republicans doing battle with the inept, tin-eared President Andrew Johnson over reconstruction of the South, civil rights for the freed slaves, and eventually impeachment. When he left Washington in 1868, he took with him a “gold mine” of stories about Congress and government that would fuel his writing for years to come.

While living in Washington (at Fourteenth and F Streets, NW), he had received a letter from Elisha Bliss, Jr., asking if he would be interested in writing a book about his tour of Europe and the “Holy Lands” on the Quaker City ship. The book would be based upon articles he had written for New York and California papers. Twain traveled to Hartford to negotiate a contract for Innocents Abroad, which was to become a best seller and launch his career as a great American writer. A draft of the book was circulated to the directors of the American Publishing Company, the most successful of the subscription publishing houses that flourished during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The directors reacted with horror. Accustomed to reverent prose of a serious nature, they were shocked at the satire of religious institutions and European customs and traditions. For the first time, an American writer viewed our European heritage not as a grateful stepchild but from the perspective of a common sense democrat who could distinguish between stale tradition and high art. The directors pleaded with Twain to release them from their contract, but Bliss confronted the Board, threatening to take the book elsewhere. They backed down. Twain felt that Bliss never properly compensated him for the fame and fortune he brought to the publishing house. In his Autobiography, he calls Bliss a “rat-eyed professional liar and scoundrel,” who “told the truth once, to see how it would taste, but it overstrained him and he died.” Yet, in his old age, Twain had compassion for him and would “send him a fan” if he could.

In 1873, while living in Hartford, Twain was to collaborate with Hartford Courant editor Charles Dudley Warner in writing his first novel, The Gilded Age. Based on his Washington experience and the daily disclosures of Grant Administration scandals, the book gave the name to that epoch in American history when speculation in the financial markets ran ram-pant and the robber barons and industrial tycoons co-opted Congress. Illustrating the close working relationships between lobbyists, legislators, and financial speculators, the novel offers insights that ring true for contemporary critics of congressional practices. A fervent believer in American democracy, Twain was a lifelong critic of its imperfections—the polarization of political parties, the apathy of voters, the abuse of legislative and executive power, American imperialism abroad, and the precipitation of “unjust wars.” As recent events have renewed the public’s interest in the work of Mark Twain, it is timely to revisit his commentary on American politics, government, and foreign policy. They continue to have an uncanny relevance to the challenges we face today. 

Donald Tiffany Bliss is the great grandson of Elisha Bliss, Jr. For several of his last novels, Puddin’head Wilson and Following the Equator (after the failure of his own publishing firm Webster & Co.), Twain returned to the American Publishing Company, then managed by Frank Bliss and Walter Bliss, the author’s grandfather. Bliss has co-authored Counsel for the Situation: Shaping the Law to Realize America’s Promise (2010) and authored The Law of Airline Customer Relations, Stability, Security, Safety and Service (2002).

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