01 January 2018

What's Old Is New Again

by Steve Liskow

Happy New Year. Either online or in your local newspaper, you've probably seen one of those cartoons of 2018 in a diaper and 2017 with a long white beard, so I'm going to spare you another one. It expresses the idea that the old pass the world to the young and that there's still hope for the future if we build a strong foundation in the present. One of the great practitioners of that belief was also one of my favorite writers, Mark Twain.

And to prove it, this last September saw the release of Mark Twain's newest children's book, The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine. Yes, it's true, a new book from Mark Twain! And it's wonderful.

The Clemens family moved to Hartford, building the Farmington Avenue house in 1873-4 and living there until 1891, leaving forever after daughter Susy died suddenly of spinal meningitis. In the cigar-smoked study on the third floor, Samuel Clemens composed Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi, The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

He also observed the ritual of creating a nightly bedtime story for older daughters Susy and Clara.
In 1897, they made him continue a story they liked for five consecutive nights. He later jotted down notes and the first part of that story, but he never finished it. The new book includes the convoluted saga of how the partial manuscript was discovered in the Twain Archives at UCal Berkeley in 2011 and how the estate picked Caldecott winners Philip and Erin Stead to complete and illustrate the story--which they have done beautifully.

Prince Oleomargarine shows Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain at the peak of his powers, but used in a way we've never seen before. It combines elements of popular fairy tales (Jack and the Beanstalk, for one) and several quest myths with a poor boy named Jack as the unrecognized hero. We meet a chicken named Pestilence and Famine, a skunk named Susy, and a menagerie of other quirky animals, all tied together with prose that's lyrical, ironic, and often bittersweet. My favorite line: "He felt as though he carried on his back the weight of all the things he would never have."

Wow...just...wow.

I never would have heard about the book if it weren't for my wife, who has one of the coolest jobs in the universe. She is a "Living History" tour guide at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford,
which held the book launch last September. She portrays the Clemens' housemaid Lizzie Wells and shows guest the house as it "is" in 1887. She got the gig because we both worked with several of the other guides (and the script-writer) in local theater for years, and the mansion wanted to increase the number of guides and tours. The offered Barbara a spot and she grabbed it.
Virginia Wolf (her real name), my wife Barbara, Lisa Steier,
author Philip Stead, Tom Raines, and Kit Webb. We worked with
all the actors at some time or another.

According to National Geographic, the Mark Twain House and Museum is one of the ten most visited historical homes in the WORLD. In the 1920s, a developer purchased the vacant mansion, planning to raze it and erect an apartment building. A coalition formed to buy the house back--for less than that developer hoped to gain--and restore it to its former glory. Middle daughter Clara, who died in 1962 at age 88, helped track down the original furniture. She also gave Hal Holbrook a private audience when he was developing his Mark Twain impersonation and approved his performance. How's that for a reliable source?
Samuel Clemens...and
Kit Webb, who portrays him at various events

Clara and Susy showed Papa pictures from a current magazine and had him tell a story inspired by those pictures. Today, we would call that a "writing prompt," but I never heard the term until near the end of my teaching career. My wife tells of writing stories to accompany the pictures in one of her favorite childhood books--when she didn't think the story already there was good enough. Do kids still do that today? Do they get encouragement?

Clemens and his children created dozens of stories involving The Cat in the Ruff, a picture in the family's library, but none of those survive. It's only through a freakish stroke of luck that Prince Oleomargarine has come to light.

The image of a busy and often irascible father spending his evenings sharing the excitement and joy of creating fresh stories for his children is one I can't stop thinking about. We all need to pass on to our children and grandchildren the magic of creating something new, whether it's stories, music, or painting. How will they discover it for themselves if we don't show them where to look? Buy them books for Christmas and birthdays, preferably with great pictures. Read them and share them. Play games that help them make things up. Let them pretend. Help them dream.

Pass it on.

9 comments:

O'Neil De Noux said...

What a cool story to start the new year. Maybe 2018 will be all right. Discovering a new Mark Twain is amazing. If someone could find Hemingway's lost suitcase ...

Jeff Baker said...

Wonderful, Steve! I bought "Prince Oleomargerine " for someone for Christmas. I'm keeping it, I got them something else! And I've done a lot of picture prompt writing myself (thanks to two Facebook pages!) It'll seriously improve one's work if they do it regularly! Happy New Year!

janice law said...

A super piece to kick off the new year. The cat in the ruff strikes me as being very inspirational, too.
Good holiday wishes.

Eve Fisher said...

Steve, what a wonderful job your wife has, and what a wonderful piece! I love anything about Mark Twain, and someday hope to visit his house. And Hal Holbrook was the best MT impersonator, ever.

David Edgerley Gates said...

Terrific piece. I love the fact that Barbara's a docent. I visited the Twain house in Hartford years ago, with my dad. The front hall - lobby, even - is two stories tall, and there's an inside balcony or porch that juts into it at 45 degrees, much like the bridge of a steamboat (I think it even has some kind of brass instrument mounted there), overlooking any arriving guests. Oh, and his billiard table's still there.

Deborah Elliott-Upton said...

I love Mark Twain! What a great article for us to begin the New Year!

Leigh Lundin said...

Wonderful article, Steve. While I've visited historical sites in and around Hartford, I'm sad to admit I haven't visited the Twain house. From the timeline, it appears the museum was opening shortly before I departed New England. The architecture is stunning, isn't it!

I seem to recall Twain (who used a typewriter) invested heavily in some kind of typesetting machine, but lost his investment when the industry went in a different direction. Barbara surely has that at her fingertips.

Family legend says my father's family was supposedly related to Clemens, but I don't know details. I do love the stories.

Steve Liskow said...

Leigh,
Twain blew about $250K on the Paige Compositor machine. A prototype of the gizmo--which never did work--is in the basement of the museum now. In today's money, that's several million dollars. In 1873, the house in the picture cost roughly $45K to build.

David, Clemens loved cats and often found one curled up in a pocket of his billiard table.

Jeff, I don't blame you for keeping the book. Barb got one through the museum for one of our nieces, too. And isn't it interesting to notice the sophistication of the story for Clemens's comparatively young children at that time?

And O'Neil, I'd love to find Hemingway's suitcase, too.

Carol Tapia said...

Surely, someone has a Hemingway’s suitcase just waiting for the right time and price.
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) was born on earth with the sight of Haley’s comet in the sky and on the night he died, Haley’s comet again crossed his path. I know he was brought to earth by (God) or a society of ultra sophisticated beings and taken back into the stratosphere to do his work somewhere else. Or was that the end of this phenomenal writer. In spite of his other worldly success, the burdens of being “human” did not come without a heavy price tag and heartbreak while on earth. God Bless him for the sacrifice.