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The Real Mark Twain, Part One of Two

Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg
with Ron Powers

WATTENBERG: Ron Powers, author of Mark Twain: A Life.
Welcome to Think Tank.
POWERS: Thank you, sir.
WATTENBERG: Itís a 600-plus page book and it is
spellbinding. Tell us a little about yourself and Mark
POWERS: Thank you, sir. He is spellbinding. I knew
that as a little boy because I grew up in his hometown.
WATTENBERG: You grew up in Hannibal.
POWERS: In Hannibal.
WATTENBERG: On the Mississippi River.
POWER: Yes. Yes.
WATTENBERG: In Missouri, right?
POWERS: Iíve told my friends that I didnít know him
personally. Lived over on the other side of town. But
Hannibal, I understand the call of place that Hannibal had
for him. I mean, itís different of course from what it was
in the 1830s, but hereís this little town out on the
prairie surrounded by miles and miles - weíre isolated -
but hereís this big river coming down, this great
interruption from the north, and Hannibal people donít
necessarily go anywhere, but the world comes to them.
They came to Sammy on the steamboat. Being on the river
having -- first of all, having come from that little town
where everybody in town is important, because thereís
nobody else out there to compare them to. So, after all
those - his friends, the town drunk, the town ruffians who
stabbed and shot people -- he saw a lot of that, by the
way, to have this kind of vivid repertory of characters
that he drew on the rest of his life, he recited them
pretty much from memory as an old man in Vienna, wrote a
kind of a city directory from his mind about the people in
Hannibal in the 1830s.
Then he gets on the river and he walks into one of the
enchanted moments of American history, the steamboat age.
So I understand the majesty that Hannibal held for him
because it held the same thing for me, and I still love the
town, although itís kind of been forgotten by the rest of
the world. And when I was a little boy, I could walk
downtown on a Saturday morning and I could see Mark Twain
on the back of a produce truck. I would go to movies at
the Tom Sawyer Theater and my father sold Fuller brushes
door-to-door. So I knew at a very early age that this man
was significant. One of our guys had made it out into the
world, and I decided Iíd find out more about him.
WATTENBERG: Now, you are a professional writer. You
have won a Pulitzer Prize. You had a book - youíve
written about Twain before.
WATTENBERG: And you had a book that was number one on
the New York Times bestseller list. Which title?
POWERS: The title Flags of our Fathers.
WATTENBERG: Flags of our Fathers.
POWERS: Co wrote with James Bradley.
WATTENBERG: So you and Mark Twain were in the same
POWERS: We were, Ben. And...
WATTENBERG: Sort of I mean...
POWERS: ... thatís the point at which I sort of turn
and run the other way, because I am in awe of him. I make
no bones of it. I take some exception to the decades of
his scholars, and critics, and biographers who have tried
to find the flaw in him.
POWERS: Who psychoanalyze him.
WATTENBERG: And weíll talk about some of that, but I
want you to read some of the stuff that you like mostly,
but there are some real, very unpleasant parts of his
character that -- I mean, the drinking too much, and
gambling too much, and being mean and vicious, and holding
grudges and...
POWER: And his temper. Right.
WATTENBERG: And his very strange attitude -- I mean,
that you mentioned, that he loathed American Indians, and
he had this very mixed attitude toward African-Americans.
Missouri, when he grew up, was a slave state.
POWERS: It was a slave state. I think his attitude
toward Indians; I think we can explain pretty quickly. His
mother Jane, Kentucky backwoods woman, would tell young
Sammy stories about Indian massacres of her family back in
the early 19th century, and I think those scared him and
stayed with him.
In terms of mixed attitudes, he really was sort of
consistent all of his life. He was - he swam in the water
of slave - of the slaveholding state as a boy and used the
worst word in our language routinely. But his journey away
from that, those received bigotries, I think was a great
pilgrimage and it shows up in his writings and it shows up
in his life, his humanity.
WATTENBERG: His father actually owned some slaves.
POWERS: He owned a few. John Marshall Clemens,
named for a Supreme Court Justice.
WATTENBERG: And sold some. I mean, it was part of - it
was an ugly part of our history.
POWERS: It was - maybe in 100 years people will say
that how could we eat meat? Well, thatís - we look back
on slavery as something such an aberration ...
POWERS: ... but it existed.
WATTENBERG: Alright. Letís do the Huckleberry Finn
thing. That book is - well, thatís the bottom of 495.
POWERS: Right.
WATTENBERG: Why donít you just - I mean how many times
that that word is used just - I mean, letís tell the
WATTENBERG: Because it becomes so inextricably bound up
with Twain.
POWERS: I talk about how criticism of the book changed
over the decades. Nobody mentioned the 'n-word'...
POWERS: ... the nigger, until 1957. But it had been
criticized for coarseness, vulgarity, and impoliteness.
But it was in 1957 that the NAACP condemned the book.
Condemned it because it carried - it read - Iíll read it.
A moving gathering force of the Civil Rights Movement,
the NAACP, condemned the novel as racist, a condemnation
that would rest in large part on Jimís diction, and on Mark
Twainís 211 uses of the word 'nigger.'
WATTENBERG: And some well known civil-rights leaders,
including Toni Morrison who is an African American, as she
calls it an amazing and troubling book, but she as you say
nevertheless concludes 'the rewards of my efforts in
reading it to come to terms have been abundant.' So it
really is -- people demand that it be taken out of...
POWERS: Schools.
WATTENBERG: ... libraries. Itís a - it is the best
book ever written in America. I mean, it becomes a real
issue, doesnít it?
POWERS: Well, it does. And itís kind of the way we
tend to reduce things in America, down to the nub, the take
away, the bottom line. If you stay on the bottom line, you
have to admit as I do that nigger is the ugliest word in
the English language, it has some competition, but itís the
ugliest. And he used it 211 times. He used it in letters
to his friends. He uttered it in speech. Does that make
Mark Twain a racist? Well, I canít go back and get into
his head, so Iíll never know whether he was a racist or
not. But the evidence of his life suggests that he was a
man of enormous brotherhood.
He paid for the Yale education of a young student, a
black student, named Warner Gwen, who took his law degree
and later became a patron of Thurgood Marshall. He married
the daughter of one of the leading abolitionist of the
East, and a man who was involved in the Underground
Railroad along with a companion named Frederick Douglass.
And there is other evidence in this book that Sam was
breaking the mold racism because in the book Jim scolds
Huck for playing a trick on him. Where else in 19th century
literature does a black man scold a white man? Hereís
another thing about Jim, hereís another thing about Jim,
hereís another piece of evidence in Samís favor as a non-
racist. Jim utters some of the most poetic and heartfelt
and morally compelling passages in American literature. Sam
has the gift of using this quaint vernacular, uneducated
speech, and puts it in the mouth of this man, this man on
the run, and you get a noble character out of him. Thatís
unavoidable. Thereís no avoiding the dignity of Jim.
WATTENBERG: You call him in your book, by three names;
Sam, Samuel and Mark Twain. Could you tell us ...
POWERS: Of course, Sammy, thatís the boy.
POWERS: Because his mother once referred to Sammyís
long talk so we knew he was called Sammy as a boy. Sam, as
a grown up in his life; as a citizen, husband, socialite,
speculator; and Mark Twain, when weíre talking about his
Now, a lot of his biographers have gotten hung up over
those distinctions, especially Sam Clemens and Mark Twain.
Theyíve gotten snarled in the sense of a divided man, a man
of darkness and light, almost a split personality. I donít
care about that. It doesnít matter.
WATTENBERG: Well, when you say you donít care about it,
but those are fascinating stories, and you write about it.
WATTENBERG: What they said, what you said.
WATTENBERB: I mean, he really was - I mean, he was this
guy who writes these wonderful narrative, witty, humorous,
deep books and at the same time has some characteristics
that are really very unpleasant. And you get into it.
WATTENBERG: And I mean...
POWERS: Well, yes, I do.
WATTENBERG: Thatís not whatís most important about him.
POWERS: No, Iím happy to talk about. I think we -
I mean, I have terrible characteristics and maybe you do,
too. Only one of the three of us...
POWERS: ... only one of the three of us wrote
Huckleberry Finn.
WATTENBERG: Thatís right.
POWERS: So, itís like Faulknerís alcoholism. We can
spend too much time wondering how his alcoholism influenced
his writing. Sam is interesting because he experienced
every emotion to a degree that most of us could never
When he was in love he was Shakespearian. He wrote
184 courtship letters to wealthy Olivia Langdon and won her
that way. When he was funny, no one could touch him. He
sent audiences into convulsions.
When he was angry, his great good friend, William Dean
Howells, who knew him for 41 years, Howells the great
editor and novelist, said Sam was fine as long as you were
his friend. If you crossed him, you were anathema and
marantha to him forever. He went on. Sam wouldnít forgive
his dead enemies. He wanted to chase them to the grave
and dig through the clay and take vengeance on their bones.
So, he was - he did have a testy side, but thatís just
part of the great, great personality that he was in all of
his phases.
WATTENBERG: How does he get that nom de plume, Mark
Twain? Because people, as you write, have explained that
Twain is really, you know, itís two sides.
WATTENBERG: But it has a river analogy.
POWERS: It does. And Mark Twain and river parlance
means two fathoms, and thatís the difference between safe
water and dangerous water.
WATTENBERG: About thirteen feet or something like that.
POWERS: About 12 or 13 feet. So, the Mississippi
was really a very shallow river and steamboats had to watch
where they were going so they had a guy out on the prow
with a leaded weight rope that was always calling out the
depth. And when he would say 'Mark Twain', that was either
theyíre going to move into dangerous, shallow water, or
theyíre going back out into the channel, and he lived on
the edge all of his life.
WATTENBERG: Wasnít there - did they do a movie about
Mark Twain where you see the ledsman or the leadsman and
heís singing out sort of [singing] 'Mark the Twain'.
POWERS: Fredric March. Fredric March, I think, way
back in the old days. Nobodyís got him right yet in the
WATTENBERG: Okay. Now, I had the sense when I read it
that it was not only about a great writer, and weíre going
to try to stick to that, but itís really about America,
isnít it?
POWERS: It is.
WATTENBERG: I mean the whole thing.
POWERS: Thank you for recognizing that, Ben.
POWERS: That was - let me talk about that for a
minute. I mentioned earlier that heís had a lot of cycle
biographers a hundred years after his death. And they,
basically, pried his head open to see what made him tick
and thatís fine. And itís produced some wonderful books.
But what theyíve left out is the century that grew up
around him; the century that he intersected with again and
again at its defining moments.
The steamboat age weíve talked about; the Civil War;
the great explosion of capital and technology called the
Gilded Age.
POWERS: The Imperial Age after the 1900s. He was
present at the creation and wrote about it and was listened
to by his countrymen.
WATTENBERG: Now, so Missouri was a slave state. What was
the Missouri Compromise?
POWERS: The Missouri Compromise was a way of trying
to ward off the Civil War by the - some new states were
coming into the Union in the 1850s and the question was
could or should the United States expand slavery into every
new territory as it became a state? They hammered out a
compromise in which I think Maine came into the Union as a
slave-free state. They didnít have much cotton to pick in
Maine. Missouri came in as a slave state and they were
going to sort negotiate that piecemeal in Congress, they
It never worked out, because the compromise was never
enough to promote, say, the fratricide between the
Missourians and the Kansans.
WATTENBERG: During the Civil War, he joins the
POWERS: Army. A little group of guerillas almost, a
militia. The Marion Rangers.
WATTENBERG: And then he deserts.
POWERS: He does. He lasts three weeks. I think a
lot of this was before people really understood what the
Civil War was going to be about. He trains with these guys
for three weeks. He shows up on a three-foot-high mule
clutching a parasol and wearing eyeglasses, and finally
they decide itís getting a little dangerous out there so
they disband.
WATTENBERG: And he splits.
POWERS: And he goes off.
WATTENBERG: To the West.
POWERS: To Nevada to sit out the Civil War and goes
out with his brother, Orion, whoís the secretary of the
Nevada Territory and Sam decides he will get rich on the
Comstock Lode, which was just then generating $30 million
dollars of wealth.
WATTENBERG: When does he start actually writing?
POWERS: I think he came into the world a writer. I
really do. The way he observed; the curiosity; the way he
soaked up sounds and language and memorized them. But he
became a writer as an early adolescent on his brotherís
newspaper when doofusy Orion would leave the...
POWERS: ... in Hannibal, when Orion would leave the
paper to go down to St. Louis, little Sammy would take it
over and it was like the Marx Brothers. It suddenly
invaded the Smithsonian. He would do hoaxes. 'Steamboat
Explosion' and the type would say, 'Well, it hasnít
appeared yet, hasnít happened yet but weíre going to save
this headline for when it does.'
WATTENBERG: And he just had this narrative gift of
spinning a yarn.
POWERS: He had the narrative gift, and hereís what
else he had, Ben, that I think took him beyond the other
writers of his time. He had a respect for language spoken
by the common man. He lifted that vernacular up. He
learned to do that in the West when all of these wild-eyed
poets were out there trying to make a living on these
little newspapers. Ralph Waldo Emerson was not looking
over their shoulder telling them how to be polite and Sammy
was in the middle of that writing tall tales, and hoaxes,
and feuds. He brought it back East with him at the end of
the Civil War and enshrined it in American literature.
WATTENBERG: And he got in a lot of trouble for having
such an accurate ear.
POWERS: He did. He never quite understood the line
between what was permissible in Eastern literature and what
was over the line. Mark Twain could take a sentence. He
could pick it up, and he could turn it upside down, an
ordinary sentence, and shake it a little bit and see what
new - what was new that fell out of it. So if somebody
would say to him, the commonplace or piety, truth is the
most valuable possession we have. Well, we can all get
behind that. Only Mark Twain could add, 'Let us therefore
economize'. Change the whole meaning.
When somebody told him - scolded him late in his
life that he was too chummy with the millionaire Henry
Huddleston Rogers, because Rogersí wealth was tainted, Sam
snapped back, 'Thatís right. Tíaint yours and tíaint
mine.' So, he heard the playfulness, the silliness in the
language, and thatís what he did time and again.
He also -- he was an angry man. And his friend
Howells said that he channeled that anger. He called it
his bottom of fury and it was a moral anger. Sam didnít
like injustice.
Now, hereís another one, if somebody had written
a newspaper article that accused you, Ben Wattenberg, or
me, Ron Powers, of being drunk in public, what would we do?
Weíd probably hire a lawyer. Iím kind of a macho guy, I
might go mano a mano. Hereís how Mark Twain handled it.
It was Captain Duncan, the guy who was the captain of the
ship that took the Pilgrims to the Holy Land, and he -
this proved to Sam from the very start. Sam showed up to
book his ticket three sheets to the wind, identified
himself as a Baptist minister, Duncan didnít like that at
all. Ten years later, he was still scolding Sam in print.
And Sam finally snapped back at him. He said, 'The Captain
says that when I came to engage passage on the Quaker City,
I filled his office with fumes of bad whiskey.' Well,
thatís where we are, you know, normally. Then he says,
'For a remorseless, tireless, 40-year public advocate of
total abstinence, the Captain is a mighty good judge of
whiskey secondhand.' So instead of a dumb lawsuit...
POWERS: ... we have Captain Duncan enshrined in
history. Thatís his humor.
WATTENBERG: He goes to Nevada during this great
POWERS: Right.
WATTENBERG: ... and then go he goes to California.
POWERS: He goes to California.
WATTENBERG: And is that where he writes the famous story
of The Jumping Frog?
POWERS: The Jumping Frog.
WATTENBERG: Can you tell us the title of that and,
briefly, the story?
POWERS: Let me read you some...
POWERS: ... stuff that led up to it. Here in
California, now - in California, Sam Clemens blundered in
to the counterculture. At the very fountainhead - they
called themselves 'bohemians' in those days, but they were
the great grandparents of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and then
all those people.
WATTENBERG: And in California the rich people as well
still have a place called the 'Bohemian Grove'.
POWERS: Exactly. And he was there at the founding
moment. He learned that sense of dissent, and playfulness,
and stepping outside the orthodoxy.
This was a paper sense of -- to cover a fancy dress
ball at the Lick House Hotel. And he decides heís going to
write this up at like the classic society journalist-
matron. So he writes, 'Mrs. J. B. W. wore a heavy rat-
colored brocade silk, studded with large silver stars, a
burnouse of black Honiton lace, scalloped, and embroidered
in violent colors with a battlepiece representing the
taking of Holland by the Dutch.' You see, he took it a
little farther than everybody else would.
So he had a good ear. You can hear Woody Allen in
this. You can hear Steve Martin. You can hear the great
S. J. Perleman taking the language into the realm of just
silly. And he did that.
The Jumping Frog was a little bit different. The
Jumping Frog story...
WATTENBERG: This is based - the title is The Jumping
POWERS: Celebrated.
WATTENBERG: ... Of Calaveras County.
POWERS: The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras
POWERS: Right. And it instantly established and is
a national wit. It came right after the Civil War, when
everybody needed a good laugh. Heíd had to basically
escape San Francisco because a friend of his got in trouble
for a bar-room brawl. So he goes up to the mountaintop of
Jackass Hill and spends a very bleak winter hanging out at
the bar and listening to people tell tales. And one of the
tales he hears is about a man with a frog who wants to take
on all comers and bet that the frog can jump higher and
faster. Well, one guy comes along, takes the bet, and when
the man is away fills the frog full of lead shot.
Thatís not even great sitcom as Iíve just told it.
But what he does with it is he puts the teller of the story
in the center of what he calls the frame. And Mark Twain
is a gentleman who asks about the story, the guy tells it
to him, and suddenly the narrator of the story is the butt
of the joke. And the people of the 1860s understand that
very well, because youíve taken a classic story style and
given it a twist. And suddenly everybody is laughing.
Theyíre reprinting it all over the Midwest, and the South,
and the East.
He comes back to California on the ballast - back to
New York on the ballast of that reputation, and he is now
an established humorist.
WATTENBERG: And it is to this day in every anthology of
American humor.
POWERS: It is.
WATTENBERG: You say that Mark Twain becomes the greatest
American celebrity of his time, and perhaps, the greatest,
on par with Benjamin Franklin.
WATTENBERG: And it gets him in trouble at times.
POWERS: Yes. Yes. Well, he was there at the
beginning really of the mass-media age when he was an old
man. Heís got this white suit that he starts wearing in
1902, and he loves to walk down Fifth Avenue, New York, and
be recognized. He doesnít mind that. Probably, the most
photographed personality of his generation. And now we can
- newspapers can reprint his likeness.
WATTENBERG: Heís photographed by Mathew Brady.
POWERS: He is, by Mathew Brady. One of the last
great photographs that Mathew Brady made, you see Sam in
robust early middle age, and heís a great-looking guy by
the way.
WATTENBERG: But a small guy, you keep saying.
POWERS: Iíve also thought of it as of...
WATTENBERG: As a big guy?
POWERS: No, he wasnít big, but everybody was small
back in those days, except Lincoln.
WATTENBERG: Yes, right.
POWERS: So he was a celebrity, and he got fan
letters at his house in Hartford. Now, who got fan letters
in the 19th century?
WATTENBERG: And he -- I mean, Iím guessing, but reading
your book probably the most traveled person in the world at
that time...
WATTENBERG: ... by stagecoach, and riverboat, and train.
And - I mean, heís everywhere, isnít he?
POWERS: He burst out of Hannibal in June of 1853,
heís 17. And one - heís been there all of his life, never
been beyond the curve of the earth. One night in June he
jumps on a riverboat packet and the next that his mother
knows, heís in St. Louis. The next she knows heís in New
York City. Imagine a 17-year-old travel stage, railroad,
steamship, he gets through Chicago, gets to New York, and
before long heís in Washington. We talked about the
Missouri Compromise earlier. Sam saw it as a 17-year-old
kid being thrashed out. Heís sitting in the visitorís
galley at the Senate chamber in Washington. He came in out
of the cold. Just wandering the East, and there he is
looking down on Seward, and the other great - Calhoun,
Stephen Douglas. There they were. And he was watching it
happen. He came back as a journalist ten years later, and
wrote about Reconstruction. He was so connected with the
WATTENBERG: Ron Powers, thank you very much for joining
us on Part One of our discussion of your book, Mark Twain:
A Life. And thank you. Please, remember to send us your
comments via email. We think it makes our program better.
For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.

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