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To the editors.,
Christina Athanasiades is by no means the only person who has studied both the writings of Mark Twain and the history of the American theatre (Letters, August 5), but she may well be the only person who has done so with her head inserted completely up her ass. The synopsis she offers of Twain’s career is largely without basis in fact.
For starters, Twain did not get “his break altogether unexpectedly” when a French publication picked up his “Jumping Frog” story in order to denigrate it. The story was first published in 1865, in a small literary journal, from where it was picked up and reprinted by newspapers throughout America and England, becoming enough of a hit to warrant being published in book form shortly thereafter. The French journal Revue des deux mondes did translate it as part of a critique of American humorists, but the article praised Twain handsomely and appeared in 1872, by which time Twain was already an author of international reputation.
More surprising is Athanasiades’s claim that Twain founded his publishing house because “no publisher wanted to have anything to do with” Huckleberry Finn, and that his famous bankruptcy was a result of Huck’s failure in the marketplace.
Twain’s bankruptcy was caused by his investment in James W. Paige’s typesetting machine. Over an eleven year period, Twain poured his fortune into the machine, which proved worthless and left him with $160,000 in debts. As for Huck, it was published seven years earlier. It came out first in England, because that country’s copyright laws offered an author better protection. Its publisher was Chatto and Windus, one of Britain’s most prestigious firms. It was brought out in the U.S. two months later by Twain’s firm, Charles L. Webster and Co. Self-publication was not a last resort, however; Twain undertook the founding of a publishing house–to be run by Webster, his nephew-in-law–as a way to increase his share of the income from his sales (in much the same way that successful rock groups today will start their own record labels). Huck was indeed the object of condemnation by the literary establishment, as Athanasiades says; however, the publicity this engendered helped sales. Amidst attacks from such luminaries as Louisa May Alcott and the Concord, Massachusetts Public Library, Twain wrote in his notebook, “No other book of mine has sold so many copies within two months after issue as this one has done.” Indeed, Twain’s royalties from Huck in its first year of publication came to $54,500. His publishing house did eventually fail, but it did so because Webster and Twain were bad at business, not because Twain’s books were unpopular.
Athanasiades’s errors become offensive when she writes that except for Twain’s short story about the black mother (not “his maid,” by the way), he had “never written another story in favor of the black people” and that he got out of his bankruptcy by writing “within weeks . . . the most racist book ever being (sic) in print,” Pudd’nhead Wilson.
Twain’s writings supporting the black race’s human dignity and attacking the institutions that held blacks down are of course numerous. Among others, there is his masterpiece, the aforementioned Huck Finn, as well as the slave sections of Connecticut Yankee (the slaves here are sixth century white Britons, but to a readership of nineteenth century Americans, the point could not be clearer), his militant essay “The United States of Lyncherdom,” and numerous passages in his autobiography, most notably Chapters Two and Seven.
There is also Pudd’nhead Wilson, a book Athanasiades has completely misconstrued. Its central premise is the switching of two babies at birth: a slave’s son, whose bloodlines are only one thirty-first Negro and whose complexion seems entirely Caucasian, is switched with the master’s newborn. Each of them then grows up in the other’s family and is reared accordingly. The book’s most obvious point is that the subjugation of the black race is entirely a product of an imposed social condition; Twain argues that there is no biologically or genetically inherent basis to it. This is the very opposite of racism. What’s more, the book’s heroine, the slave Roxana, is one of Twain’s great characters. She is strong, courageous, beautiful, earthy and utterly dignified. To call Pudd’nhead Wilson “racist” is just plain stupid. Only an ignoramus could do it.
Moreover, the book was not dashed off in weeks, nor did it attract rich sponsors to bail Twain out of bankruptcy. Twain began it in November 1892 and completed it the following August. Twain’s debts were paid off in January 1898, not by any rich sponsors, but by himself. Twain in fact refused to accept the lenient terms negotiated for him and agreed to by his creditors, which would have enabled him to meet his obligations by paying only fifty cents on the dollar. Instead, he embarked on a grueling world lecture tour designed to enable him to pay his creditors one hundred cents on every dollar he owed them. So much for Athanasiades’s unscrupulous money-grubber; he is a product of her imagination.
If her letter is typical of her academic expertise, I look forward with glee to any analysis of American theatre she might have to offer.