‘Twainiacs’ have a weekend to relish
June 9, 2010
He’s been dead 100 years, but Mark Twain’s popularity is on the rise.
Twain’s final work – his autobiography – is expected to be published in November, the site where he started a fire at Lake Tahoe may soon be dubbed a federal landmark, a book about his relationship with a secretary was published this spring and a two-day celebration in Zephyr Cove, Mark Twain’s Wild West Weekend, is Saturday and Sunday, June 12-13.
Why is Twain, whose birth name was Samuel Clemens, still so popular?
“He’s extremely funny – that’s news, isn’t it?” said Robert Hirst, the general editor of the Mark Twain Project and curator of the Mark Twain Papers. “People overlook it, especially academics. His humor is not just good. It lasts.
“I speak a lot and I use things that he said just to keep the audience happy and not have to listen to me too much. I’m always amazed that I could do these quotations and it’s like being a standup comic with 100-year-old jokes. They simply endure. Why do they endure? Because he had a deep insight into human nature and he really is joking about things that are not going away.”
Tahoe resident McAvoy Layne, a self-described “Twainiac” who has made a career out of impersonating the author, next month will open the Mark Twain Cultural Center at Incline Village.
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“His humor is eternal,” Layne said, agreeing with Hirst who is overseeing seven editors compiling the autobiography.
“He really captured the American West with “Roughing It” and then the satire of Huckleberry Finn, which will last forever,” Layne said.
“Then he slid off into old age and indignation and sarcasm, which makes me a little nervous about the rest of the autobiography that’s coming out. I’m a little bit afraid it might have a little too much of the dark side.”
The biography, which will be published in three volumes, comes from 5,000 pages Twain left, requesting it not be published until he had been dead 100 years.
“This is a guy who knew how to sell a book,” Hirst said. “Here’s 10 percent of it and you can’t see the rest for 100 years. Are you going to buy that book? I guess you will.”
Twain’s daughter, Clara Clemens Samossoud, gave the manuscript to UC Berkeley when she died in 1962. It is in the Bancroft Library, which includes nearly everything Twain wrote, including 50 notebooks the author kept between 1855 and 1910 and about 11,000 letters written by him or by his immediate family, according to the Berkeley Independent.
“I’m going to pitch a pup tent on the lawn of the Bancroft so I can get my nose on the window the day they release it,” Layne said.
Many more are anxious to read the book.
“I’ve been dealing with all kinds of calls all day long – unbelievable!” Hirst said. “It came out in the London Independent and then boom, it hit the blogosphere and everyone from CBS Evening News to Reuters is wanting to know about it.”
It’s a minor miracle Twain’s request was granted. A handful of publishers had access to the biography, but they may have been unaware it was completed, Hirst said, only printing portions of it. It is not written chronologically and the topics change in what may have seemed in a haphazard fashion. The first volume will have about 770 pages, 200 of them footnotes.
Historian Robert Stewart of Carson City, who is behind the effort to name the area where Twain started the Lake Tahoe fire Clemens Cove, said it is Nevada’s responsibility to recognize Twain.
“President Lincoln appointed Orion Clemens as the secretary of Nevada territory, and Orion brought his brother with him,” Stewart said. “That was Lincoln’s great, great gift to American literature. Because it’s in Nevada where Sam Clemens, who has cast around and done a variety of things, says ‘Gee. I’ve got a skill at writing.’ “
Twain wrote about his time at Tahoe in “Roughing It.” Before becoming a reporter at the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, Twain was a would-be logger. He and John Kinney of Cincinnati were making a tree claim when he started the fire, which has been exaggerated over the years.
“He started a fire there, yes, but it was not a forest fire,” Stewart said. “It was a brush fire in the forest. Sam and John Kenny row out in the lake and they watch the fire burn. Sam says every once in a while a dead tree would flare up and we called them signal trees. Well, if a dead tree flares up and becomes noticeable then the live trees aren’t burning. It was a brush fire.”
Stewart and retired U.S. Forest Service hydrologist Larry Schmidt found the spot of the fire.
“When you’re doing historical research it all begins to flow in different directions, and when you start you never know where you’ll finish,” Stewart said. “It led us all to a particular round rock that’s in a little cove just north of the Thunderbird Lodge on the east shore of Lake Tahoe.”
The Nevada Board of Geographic Names meets for the second time Sept. 14 to consider naming the area Clemens Cove, said Bill Watson, the manager and curator of Thunderbird Lodge, the site of both meetings. It’s nearly a certainty it will be approved and sent to a federal agency, which also is expected to approve it.
The only opposition to the plan came from Tahoma resident David Antonucci, the person behind the discovery and restoration of the 1960 Olympic biathlon course. He said Twain camped on the California part of Lake Tahoe.
“It’s a situation where Nevada wants to claim that Mark Twain was there, which would make them like any chamber of commerce,” Antonucci told the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza. “I guess they would have a hard time accepting that he camped in California.”
The huge flat rock Twain in “Roughing It” described using as a dinner table was the major evidence Stewart and Schmidt provided.
“Antonucci did me a big favor because he challenged that and made me start looking,” Stewart said. “OK, I’ve got to find some additional information. And I came up with original hand-written documents that showed the Nye brigade was building the road to Tahoe and the tree claim and things like that. It made it an interesting little trip back through history.”
People can be included in the journey during Mark Twain’s Wild West Weekend June 12-13 at Zephyr Cove Resort. Layne will be the host, and events include a cherry pie eating contest, a Wild West shoot-out, cowboy poetry and music, a “Bold-Faced Liars” contest, live theater and a race between Lake Tahoe’s two paddleboats, the Tahoe Queen and MS Dixie II. The highlight for history buffs is a $100-a-plate dinner and lecture by Hirst and Stewart. Layne again will be the host.
Hirst will talk about Twain’s autobiography he wants to finish and release by Nov. 30, the 175th anniversary of Twain’s birth.
“I will give a brief look at the autobiography and say why it’s exciting for us and exciting for the world and, if I can squeeze it in, I’ll read a few passages from it – frankly that’s much more interesting than listening to me,” he said.
Layne and Hirst disagree about whether Twain had an extra-marital affair, the subject of Laura Skandera Trombley’s book “Mark Twain’s Other Woman,” which she researched for 16 years.
Hirst doesn’t believe Twain had an affair with Isabel Van Kleek Lyon, his nurse and secretary during the last six years of his life.
Layne said: “I love that book because Laura let us decide. She put out a lot of circumstantial evidence. I claim there was something more than stenography going on.”
Layne wants to make Mark Twain’s Wild West Weekend an annual event and have Trombley speak next year.
Layne’s Mark Twain Cultural Center opens July 2 at 760 Mays, in the Incline Village Center, and will be have live theater, music and, of course, himself portraying Twain on both children’s and adult nights.
Layne’s fascination with the author began during a ski trip when he rented a cabin in Tahoma during a historic snowstorm.
“I was snowbound, trapped like a rat, for five days by myself, but as luck would have it on the coffee table was the complete essays of Mark Twain,” Layne said. “I got cabin fever, naturally. And my brain got soft, and in that condition those essays made perfect sense.”
Twain’s writing remains a contemporary source.
A June 7 New York Times editorial quoted Twain in reference to members of the nascent Tea Party who wish to dissolve the Constitution’s 17th Amendment, which calls for United States Senators to be elected by the people, not state legislators. Described as a 19th-century robber baron, William A. Clark openly paid Montana legislators $10,000 of vote, inspiring Twain to support the 17th Amendment and to call Clark “as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag.”