UNM English Professor Gary Scharnhorst probably spends more time in the 19th than the 21st century. His recent book, Twain in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates, University of Iowa Press, November 2010, required time to pore over correspondence, put it into perspective and get a sense of who Twain, or Samuel Clemens, really was.
This is Scharnhorst's fourth Twain title. “I'm persuaded that Twain is our most important American author. The commercial appeal of Twain never subsides. Any book with Twain in the title is sure to sell,” he said. Twain in His Own Time is hitting bookstores in the centennial year of Twain's death. Volume one of Twain's autobiography has just been published by University of California Press amid some controversy about Twain requiring them to wait until a century after his death.
Scharnhorst is heading to Hartford, Conn., to talk about Twain at a centennial celebration. The year 2010 not only marks the centennial of Twain's death, but also the 175th anniversary of his birth, and the 125th anniversary of the publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
“My favorite novel is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Scharnhorst said. “It's a subversive novel. Twain was a subversive novelist, not the white-suited comedian he's portrayed, especially by Twain impersonators,” Scharnhorst said.
He said that Huck Finn is often considered a “race novel.” But, he said, it's also an indictment of aristocracy, both inherited and moneyed.
“It's an indictment of the temperance movement and corrupt social institutions across the board, and an indictment of family feuds. It's an indictment of racism, but it is a novel that is eloquent in its condemnation of political hypocrisy,” Scharnhorst said.
Of this great American novel, Scharnhorst said, “It was condemned in the 19th century as vulgar, and condemned in 20th century by liberals for being racist. Any novel that can attract/receive condemnation must have something going for it,” he said.
Literary Scholar in Cyberspace
Scharnhorst found an interview with Twain's mother that was featured in a Chicago newspaper and never reprinted. He found correspondence between friends, family, editors and others that helped him piece together insight into Twain the man.
“Through the Internet I had access to digitized newspaper and magazine articles. I was able to do research that previously had to be done on site, in a library or archive,” he said. He added that since the invention of the telephone in 1876, the kind of correspondence that sheds light on historical, literary and average people dropped off. He said that email is another invention that allows conversations, insight, to slip into the ether.
Other Twain enthusiasts and scholars are praising Scharnhorst's Twain in His Own Time. Laura Skandera Trombley, author, Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years, wrote, “Scharnhorst has edited a marvelous volume that presents Mark Twain as his friends knew him, for the good, the genius, and the ugly. The expansive collection begins with a witty and scholarly (in this rare instance not an oxymoron) introduction that serves to beautifully contextualize the life and times and person of Samuel L. Clemens. This volume is an utter necessity for Twain scholars and researchers and will charm and fascinate a general audience. All current and future Twain scholars owe Professor Scharnhorst an enormous debt of gratitude on his accomplishment.”
“Twain in His Own Time is a delicious collection of anecdote and fond, and sometimes not so fond, recollections of Mark Twain. Collectively, these ninety-plus interviews, essays, and reminiscences provide fascinating crosslights on Twain'on his character, his craft, his many moods, and his humor. Individually, each selection offers a snapshot of the writer and the man at virtually every stage of his life.”'Tom Quirk, author, Mark Twain and Human Nature.
Never one to suffer fools gladly, especially if they wore crinolines, Mark Twain lost as many friends as he made, and he targeted them all indiscriminately. The first major American writer born west of the Mississippi River, he enjoys a reputation unrivaled in American literary history, and from the beginning of his career he tried to control that reputation by fiercely protecting his public persona. Not a debunking account of Twain's life but refreshingly immune from his relentless image making, Gary Scharnhorst's Twain in His Own Time offers an anecdotal version of Twain's life over which the master spin-doctor had virtually no control.
The 94 recollections gathered in Twain in His Own Time form an unsanitized, collaborative biography designed to provide a multitude of perspectives on the iconic author. Opening with an interview with his mother that has never been reprinted, it includes memoirs by his daughters and by men who knew him when he was roughing it in Nevada and California, an interview with the pilot who taught him to navigate the Mississippi River, reminiscences from his illustrators E. M. Kemble and Dan Beard and two of his so-called adolescent angelfish, contributions from politicians and from such literary figures as Dan De Quille and George Bernard Shaw, and one of the most damning assessments of his character'by the author Frank Harris'ever published.
Each entry is introduced by a brief explanation of its historical and cultural context; explanatory notes provide further information about people and places; and Scharnhorst's introduction and chronology of Twain's eventful life are comprehensive and detailed. Dozens of lively primary sources published incrementally over more than eighty years, most recorded after his death, illustrate the complexities of this flamboyant, outspoken personality in a way that no single biographer could.
And Twain Said…
“It makes one hope and believe that a day will come when, in the eye of the law, literary property will be as sacred as whiskey, or any other of the necessaries of life. It grieves me to think how far more profound and reverent a respect the law would have for literature if a body could only get drunk on it.“
– Twain at a dinner speech, 8 December 1881