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Posts Tagged ‘Mark Twain’

A Toast to Babies

May 6, 2016 | by

Master of baby jokes.

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary; 
It rains, and the wind is never weary; 
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall, 
But at every gust the dead leaves fall, 
And the day is dark and dreary. 

—Longfellow, “The Rainy Day”

In New York, the foreseeable future is unremittingly gray. (That’s not strictly true; there’s one lone “sunshine” icon in the ten-day forecast, which otherwise is a vertical column of rain clouds and two midweek bashful suns.) In short, it’s dirty weather. Weather that, in a perfect world, would find us turning to hot-water bottles and cozy reads and stupid movies and, I don’t know, stews, but that more often means trudging through subways smelling of wet dog and never quite getting your feet warm.  

Such a grim outlook calls for a lot of things. (Personally, I’m a great believer in the palliative effects of a bright-orange towel, but then I also own a Feel-Good Candle, so.) But one great reliable is Mark Twain. So if you’re feeling dreary and blue and chilly, do yourself a favor and read his “Toast: The Babies,” which is exactly what it sounds like, and furthermore can be read from your desk. Read More »

The Shade of Mark Twain, and Other News

March 4, 2016 | by

Emily Grant Hutchings, who claimed to commune with Mark Twain’s ghost.

  • Today in exotic forms of posthumous success: In 1917, seven years after his death, Mark Twain wrote a novel called Jap Herron by communicating through a medium using a Ouija board. This led to some legal troubles (to say nothing of the metaphysical quandaries) because Twain had a deal to publish all his books with Harper & Brothers. Did his ghost have to make good on that deal, too? The New York Times gave a taste of the courtroom antics: “[I]t is possible that the Ouija Board will be made to perform in court and that the shade of Mark Twain, or what purports to be his spirit, will undertake to confound Mark Twain, the unbeliever. That Mrs. Hutchings intends to get into communications with that very important witness is an assured point.”
  • Vivian Gornick looks back at Constance Fenimore Woolson, who “was a popular American writer of the late nineteenth century whose friendship with Henry James has, among James scholars, long qualified hers as a distinctly lesser life. In all the James biographies, Woolson appears as a shadowy presence whose morbid anxieties simply echo those of the Master himself. Now, with the publication of a full-length biography and the reissue of a collection of her stories, Woolson emerges as a figure of some dimension in her own right … Turning to her Miss Grief and Other Stories is something of a shock; that’s how unexpected is the punch that much of the book delivers. There are seven stories in all, three set in Europe, four in America. The writing in all of them is remarkably good, but it is the American stories that will send the reader looking for more of Woolson’s work.”
  • Rivka Galchen envies only one thing about men, and it’s not (or not exactly) that men have traditionally been able to get away with behaving like cretins: “The first gender-envy thoughts I have had, really in my entire life, started maybe not immediately following the arrival of my daughter in my apartment, but shortly after … The envious thought was simply that a man can have a baby that his romantic partner doesn’t know about. This is a crazy thought, of course, but I find myself feeling it with such sincerity that I cannot see its edges. The thought seems a descendant of a thought I had while hoping to become pregnant, which was imagining a woman who was pregnant with twins but didn’t have the courage to confess this to her partner, whom she believes will be devastated by the news, and so she dreams up plans to come up with some ‘hysterical’ reason for not wanting her partner there for the birth, and then what? What will she do with the second child? Raise it in secrecy? I knew I wouldn’t be having a second baby.”
  • It’s Friday. Why not go on a little jaunt through Chekhov’s notebooks? That’s what they’re there for. And what do we find: “A passion for the word uterine: my uterine brother, my uterine wife, my uterine brother-in-law, etc.” “A conversation at a conference of doctors. First doctor: ‘All diseases can be cured by salt.’ Second doctor, military: ‘Every disease can be cured by prescribing no salt.’ The first points to his wife, the second to his daughter.” “A theatrical manager, lying in bed, read a new play. He read three or four pages and then in irritation threw the play on to the floor, put out the candle, and drew the bedclothes over him; a little later, after thinking over it, he took the play up again and began to read it; then, getting angry with the uninspired tedious work, he again threw it on the floor and put out the candle. A little later he once more took up the play and read it, then he produced it and it was a failure.”
  • Today in failing to follow instructions from the master: seems like we may have been playing Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” incorrectly all these decades. Specifically, our nation’s finest orchestras have made a mess of the part calling for French taxi horns to bleat: “The ambiguity stems from how the taxi horn parts are notated in Gershwin’s original handwritten score. To put it in Gershwin terms, we got rhythm: The score shows that the horns play sets of accented eighth notes. But when it comes to pitch, things are less clear. Gershwin’s score labels the four taxi horns with a circled ‘A,’ a circled ‘B,’ a circled ‘C’ and a circled ‘D.’ Those circled letters have been interpreted as indicating which note each horn should play—A, B, C and D on the scale—since at least 1945 … But the new critical edition will argue that Gershwin’s circled letters were merely labels specifying which horns to play, not which notes.”

Punch, Brothers

October 15, 2015 | by

Do it. Do it!

The other night, we had the chance to see the Mets play the Dodgers. In an effort to rally the team, the jumbotron repeatedly blared that “Everybody clap your HANDS!” command—accompanied at Citi Field by a graphic of Mr. Met leading the cheer—and we all furiously, dutifully clap-clap-clap-clap-clap-clap-clapped until Andre Ethier went down in the bottom of the ninth and we trudged sullenly onto the 7 train.

Now, a couple days later, my sore hands have ceased to ache and the smell of hot dogs has faded from my jersey—but that chant is still in my head. It follows me wherever I go, an insistent tattoo on the back of my brain. Mr. Met bobs through my dreams, clapping and beaming. Yesterday, apropos of nothing, my husband texted me the words of the chant. Periodically, the two of us break into joyless but insistent clapping. 

It made me think of Mark Twain’s “A Literary Nightmare.” In the 1876 story, Twain recalls coming across the following bit of doggerel in the newspaper: Read More »

In Which Mark Twain Perspires

July 20, 2015 | by

Sam Clemens in September 1867.

A letter from Mark Twain to John T. Moore, July 1859. Moore, also known as Tom, was an “old river man” and a longtime friend of Twain’s. More than twenty years later, in 1883, this note appeared in The Arkansas Traveler and was afterward reproduced by papers nationwide—a few weeks later, though, the Traveler’s editor, Opie Read, claimed it was a hoax, thus casting doubt on its authenticity. Today most Twain scholars believe it to be genuine, suggesting that the notion of a hoax was, itself, a hoax.

Memphis, July 6, 1859.

My Dear John:—

I have made many attempts to answer your letter which received a warmth of welcome perspiringly in keeping with the present system of hot weather; but somehow I have failed. Now, however, I screw myself down to the pleasant task. It is a task, let me tell you, and it is only by the courtesy of friendship that I can call it pleasant. Read More »

Twain Trove, and Other News

May 5, 2015 | by

John_White_Alexander_-_Samuel_L._Clemens_(Mark_Twain)_(1912_or_1913)_-_Google_Art_Project

John White Alexander’s portrait of Twain, ca. 1912.

 

  • At UC Berkeley, scholars have discovered a cache of stories by Mark Twain, written when he was a twenty-nine-year-old newspaperman in San Francisco. “His topics range from San Francisco police—who at one point attempted, unsuccessfully, to sue Twain for comparing their chief to a dog chasing its tail to impress its mistress—to mining accidents.”
  • Filmmakers have always struggled in depicting the act of writing. Authors in movies tend to act, all too realistically, like total bores—sitting there, typing, thinking, gazing out windows, et cetera. But it is possible to make good films about writing. One of them is Joachim Trier’s Reprise, which “recognizes that much of the stuff of writing and literary circles is, well, talk. And unlike many other such films, it can talk that talk.”
  • Bellow had a way with similes: “When Professor Ravelstein laughs, he throws his head back ‘like Picasso’s wounded horse in Guernica’ … Eddie Walish has a woodwind laugh ‘closer to oboe than to clarinet, and he releases his laugh from the wide end of his nose as well as from his carved pumpkin mouth’ … A man with a wooden leg walks ‘bending and straightening gracefully like a gondolier.’ ”
  • In the late sixties, the progenitors of land art were “literal groundbreakers”—a new documentary, Troublemakers, tries to rediscover their works, many of which have “succumbed to natural forces.”
  • Plenty of horror video games borrow from Dracula—but they take only the “shallowest trappings” from Stoker, preferring instead to lean on Lovecraft. A new game, Bloodborne, “offers a backward lens into a particularly strange point in horror history in which the anxieties of a changing world found its way into the monsters and terrors of the genre.”

Talk to the Animals, and Other News

April 22, 2015 | by

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Henri Matisse, The Horse, the Rider and the Clown, 1947, color pochoir.

  • Larry Kramer, seventy-nine, came of age at a time when being gay was still illegal; his latest opus, The American People, is kind of a novel, kind of not, very long, and very gay: “a history of hate [from] one among the hated.” “Most histories are written by straight people who wouldn’t know, see the signs that a gay person does when they look at a person’s life,” he says. “I mean, how could you write the life of Mark Twain without realizing that he was hugely, hugely gay? The way he lived, who his friends were, and how his relationships began. And what he wrote about! I don’t know how you could avoid the assumption that he’s gay.”
  • An interview with Atticus Lish, who won our Plimpton Prize this year: “Spoken language is primary, and I want it to be primary. Everything should pass the reading-aloud test; that became a real theme with me before I even was aware of it. I said, ‘Don’t write like a writer; write like a talker.’ ”
  • But how do you write like a talker if the person talking is an animal? Fiction is still grappling with animal consciousness, with varying degrees of success: it may be largely impossible, as Thomas Nagel wrote in his 1974 essay “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?”, reminding us that “acts of sympathetic imagination are fatally restricted by the incalculable difference between human and bat.”
  • In which Kerry Howley follows two boxers: “Sportswriters talk constantly of ‘focus,’ ‘dedication,’ and ‘single-mindedness.’ It is a measure of this cliché’s persistence that, despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary, men still use these words to describe Manny Pacquiao. This is a boxer who sidelines as a working politician and a low-budget-movie star, a man who leads Bible study on Sundays and moonlights as one of the shortest professional basketball players in the Philippines. He has recorded two platinum albums, and a hit single called ‘Sometimes When We Touch’ …”
  • And Chris Offutt pursues “trash food,” whatever that may be: “The term ‘white trash’ is an epithet of bigotry that equates human worth with garbage. It implies a dismissal of the group as stupid, violent, lazy, and untrustworthy—the same negative descriptors of racial minorities, of anyone outside of the mainstream. At every stage of American history, various groups of people have endured such personal attacks. Language is used as a weapon: divisive, cruel, enciphered. Today is no different. For example, here in Mississippi, the term ‘Democrats’ is code for ‘African Americans.’ Throughout the U.S.A., ‘family values’ is code for ‘no homosexuals.’ The term ‘trash food’ is not about food, it’s coded language for social class. It’s about poor people and what they can afford to eat.”