Cover image for Mark Twain remembers : a novel
Title:
Mark Twain remembers : a novel
Author:
Hauser, Thomas.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Barricade Books, [1999]

©1999
Physical Description:
207 pages ; 22 cm
Language:
English
ISBN:
9781569801543
Format :
Book

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PS3558.A759 M37 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Grosvenor Room-Rare Books-Appointment Needed
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Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Veteran novelist (The Hawthorne Group) and biographer (Muhammad Ali and Company) Hauser has "commingled Mark Twain's words and ideas of my own" in this witty, elegiac novel. When it opens in 1910, Twain, believing his death is near, remembers a chain of events that changed his life. In the spring of 1856, 20-year-old Samuel Langhorne Clemens surveys his spotty work history, and decides to travel. Aiming for California, he makes his way to Saint Joseph, Mo., where he boards an overland stage. After two days, he stops at a small town, where he first encounters Hiram Kane, an enterprising freed slave who's promoting an act where, for a nickel, white men can punch Bones, a "nigger" who's guaranteed not to hit back. Kane's cruel character leaves a strong impression on Twain, who is "part fascinated and part revulsed." Low on money, Twain decides to stay awhile in his next stop, a friendly town in northwestern Kansas. Soon he is aware that "Bleeding Kansas" is abroil with the question of slavery. Meeting Kane again, Twain learns the hard way that Bones is a skilled defensive fighter. Twain wins ownership of Bones in a poker game and wants to free him, but, discovering Bones has no prospects, he sets up a deal in which Bones fights and the proceeds are split 50-50. But a passionate liaison with beautiful woman rancher, and the suspenseful discovery of her betrayal, leaves Twain fearing that he must cancel the bout. Against the odds, they go ahead with the racially charged and exciting fight. A bittersweet ending perfectly caps this swift moral adventure. Succinct history lessons contextualize the tale, and the writing is so smooth it's impossible to tell which words are Twain's and which Hauser's. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter One     I'm old now. On November thirtiethth of this year, I shall be seventy-five years old if alive--and about the same if dead. People never consider the age they are to be the best one. They always put the ideal age at least a few years older or a few years younger than they actually are. For my own part, I now believe that life would be infinitely happier if we could all be born at age eighty and gradually work our way back toward eighteen. It is now April of 1910. I believe that this April will be my last.     During my life, I have been called everything from a great writer to a vulgarian and a buffoon. Of the three, I prefer being called a great writer. When I was young, I could remember anything whether it had happened or not, and that ability fueled my writing. Now my faculties are less reliable, and often I remember only the latter. Still, with one exception, I have written most of what I believe that it was ordained I should write. Now I write one last time.     In the sport of boxing, the heavyweight champion of the world is a large colored man named Jack Johnson. Johnson mocks the entire white race by his conduct in and out of the ring. He won his crown two years ago in Australia by conquering Tommy Burns. Since then, Johnson has been unbeaten in five contests. There is awesome power in his fists. He is also a master at defensive fighting. In America, a white nation, a self-possessed colored man is now king.     It is widely assumed that only one man is capable of beating Johnson. James J. Jeffries reigned as champion from 1899 until his retirement in 1905. Jeffries has never lost a fight. He is a larger man than Johnson, and counts among his victims the likes of Tom Sharkey, James J. Corbett, and Bob Fitzsimmons. Last month, Jeffries bowed to public pressure and announced that he would wipe the smile from Jack Johnson's face. Both men are presently in training for their bout, which will take place on July 4th of this year. Their impending confrontation is the most anticipated event in the lifetime of this country. Johnson is the most hated man in America. Jeffries is the annointed savior of the white race. I am less certain than most that Jeffries will prevail.     Nor am I certain where my sympathies lie.     I shall explain. * * *     I was born in 1835. But to say simply that I was born in 1835 is a remark that states a fact without interpreting it. It is akin to giving the dimensions of a sunset by astronomical measurements and cataloging the colors by their scientific names. One doesn't see the sunset; it would have been better to paint a picture of it. So let me elaborate by saying that, when I came into the world, Andrew Jackson was President of the United States and there were soldiers still alive who had wintered with George Washington at Valley Forge. Abraham Lincoln was a store clerk in New Salem, and John Wilkes Booth had yet to be born. The Origin of the Species was unwritten. The average life span for a white man was thirty-eight years. Life was short for many reasons, the most prominent of them being that many children died in infancy. If a white child made it to age ten, he could anticipate living well into his forties.     The United States was composed of twenty-four states when I was born. And the country was vastly different from what it is now. The America I grew up in was a land of dreams. Its rivers and forests were unspoiled and, like the herds of buffalo that ran wild, seemingly inexhaustible. Small towns were beginning to emerge on what had once been the frontier. They might have looked like sleepy towns, but scratch the surface and you found people who were bustling with hope and excitement. Common men and common women could read. They owned the land they tilled rather than renting it from the church or some nobleman. They even had the effrontery to complain if they were not properly governed and to take hold of the government themselves.     The America I grew up in was a land where people worked by day and dreamed by night. We were idealistic, optimistic, and proud of our nation. Most of us had more hope than wealth, but our hope was well-founded because we lived in a land where people succeeded or failed based on merit. Americans were honest, straightforward, and industrious. They held to the view that a man had to earn a thing fair and square before he could enjoy it. And before them lay the richest continent in the world, ripe for the taking.     I was born in the village of Florida, Missouri; a small town in Monroe County with a population of one hundred. My parents, John Marshall Clemens and Jane Lampton Clemens, had eight children; three girls and five boys. Two of my brothers and a sister, Margaret, died before the age of ten. I was a seven-month baby, two months premature. As a child, I was often sick. Years later, when my mother was in her eighty-eighth year, I asked her if she'd been worried about me.     "The whole time," she answered.     "Afraid I wouldn't live?"     "No; afraid you would," she told me.     At birth, I was christened Samuel Langhorne Clemens. That's still my name, although most people know me now by my nom de plume --Mark Twain. In 1839, when I was four, my family moved to the Mississippi River town of Hannibal, Missouri. The railroad was still in its infancy, and the Mississippi was the greatest highway in America. We were poor but respectable. I suppose everybody in Hannibal was poor but did not know it, and comfortable and did know it.     My father was very grave, a man of rigid probity. He never amounted to much in business, but was kind and honorable. He laid his hand upon me in punishment only twice that I remember, and then not heavily--the first time for telling him a lie, which surprised me and showed me how unsuspicious he was, for that was not my maiden effort. My mother was a small slender woman, with a heart so large that everybody's grief and everybody's joys found welcome in it. Unlike my father, she attended church regularly, and I was raised as a Presbyterian with its traditions of damnation, fire and brimstone.     My father died when I was eleven. At that time, I left school and my formal education ended. Soon after, I stopped going to church on the theory that, if a man goes to church every Sunday, either he's a Christian or he's wasting his time. During the succeeding years, I worked at a number of jobs, but failed to impress anyone with my prowess, I was a grocery clerk for one day, but consumed so much sugar that the proprietor found it advisable to relieve me from further duty. I studied law for an entire week, but gave it up because it was tiresome. I engaged briefly in the study of blacksmithing, but wasted so much time trying to fix the bellows so it would blow itself that the master turned me adrift in disgrace. I was a bookseller's clerk, but the customers bothered me so much that I could not read with comfort. I clerked in a drug store, but my prescriptions were unlucky. And ultimately, I became a tolerable printer, albeit a slow compositor.     That brought me to the spring of 1856, when I was twenty years old. I had never been away from home, and the word "travel" had a seductive charm for me. Mainly, I wanted to be a wanderer; get away from the tedious, and journey to strange far-away locales where life was mysterious and romantic. My plan was simple. It was a six-day riverboat trip from Hannibal to St. Joseph at the edge of the Missouri frontier. From St. Joseph, one could travel the overland stage all the way to San Francisco. I vowed to travel twenty dollars worth, which would leave me somewhere in Kansas. Then I would take my leave, see what transpired, and eventually work my way to California.     I set out on my journey on the ninth day of June 1856, and arrived in St. Joseph a week later. The overland stage allowed twenty-five pounds of baggage per passenger, so my inventory was limited. Three shirts, underclothing, a spare pair of pants, two blankets, twine, a fishline and fish-hooks, a pipe, lucifer matches, smoking tobacco, and a canteen. Also, meal utensils; a frying pan, cup, knife, fork, and tin plate.     The stage company had a well-designed system. Each two hundred and fifty miles of road was under the supervision of a manager. His job was to erect station buildings, dig wells, purchase horses, hire the station-keepers, drivers, blacksmiths, and conductors, and discharge them when circumstances warranted. There was a daily stage each way. The coaches traveled virtually twenty-four hours a day, stopping only briefly at each station to change horses and, twice a day, let on a new driver.     Our coach left St. Joseph on a sunny morning. It was a great swaying contraption drawn by six large horses, and as we pulled away from the station, I felt a great sense of freedom and exhiliration. Soon, I would be hundreds of miles from home. I would see antelope and buffalo and have all kind of adventures and maybe get hanged or scalped and write home to tell about it. The only other passenger was a sour-faced gentleman in his late-thirties, who, I came to learn, was a banker. He had the iron expression of a man who had not smiled for seven years and intended not to smile for another seven. The few words he cast in my direction had to do with common people who should know their place in society but didn't. Finally, the inclination to speak my mind overcame my diplomatic instincts, and I suggested in return that no people on earth were quite so vulgar as over-refined ones. That ended our conversation.     The coach moved quickly into Kansas, traveling a route marked by hoofprints and the trace of wheels on either side. The thick black mud of the spring thaw had dried, and dust billowed upward as we passed. The prairie was a seemingly endless expanse of coarse green grass undulating to the horizon like a motionless ocean, broken occasionally by shrubs and trees that clustered around ponds and lined the banks of streams. At night, we traveled without seeing so much as a flame to testify to another human presence. Yet the night air was scented with wild flowers, and the buzzing of insects never ceased.     Shortly before noon on the second day, we came to a small town and stopped to change drivers. Most of the buildings were made from blocks of prairie sod. The rest were sparse frame shacks, only one of which had been painted. "Ten minutes" the station-keeper told us as we disembarked. That was enough time to stretch my legs and refill my canteen with water. It was unlikely that I'd find a pleasant spot to relax, but--     Behind the station house, a voice rang out: "Hit the nigger."     Hit the nigger. The words weren't shouted with outrage or anger. To the contrary, they sounded joyous, as though spoken by a carnival barker.     "Just half a dime. Money won't save your soul. Money is ours to purchase comfort and happiness in this life. Therefore, there is no sense in holding your money, when you can gain enjoyment from your money now. There's no need to worry. The nigger is trained. I give you my word. The nigger won't hit back."     The voice, despite the ugliness of its words, had a seductive, almost charismatic quality. I moved toward the station house, then around to the back. A small group of men, all of them white, were gathered beneath a sparse pine tree. Another man, naked above the waist with skin the color of bitter chocolate, stood off to the side. He was, at a guess, five-feet-eight-inches tall. His body was lean and his face devoid of emotion. This, apparently, was "the nigger," but it was the speaker who drew my attention. All eyes were focussed on him; and appropriately so, because I have never seen another man like him.     The speaker, too, was colored. He was a large bulky man, more than six feet tall, weighing well over two hundred pounds with extra flesh around his middle. Despite the heat of the day, he was dressed in baggy black pants, an orange frilled shirt, black frock coat, black vest, and silk top-hat. Also black boots that looked as though they had been used to kick many a man who had been down in the dirt before him. A wilted flower was affixed to his lapel. A gold watch-chain led to a pocket in his vest. His hair, as though in defiance of the laws of gravity, rose upward toward the heavens.     "Half a dime. Five thin pennies. Hit the nigger; he won't hit back."     Drawn by the speaker's voice, I moved closer to the assemblage and our eyes met.     "Hello, son. Professor Hiram Kane's my name. You look like a man who woke up this morning and said to himself, `I think I'll whup me a nigger.'"     I gave no answer. Almost instantaneously, Kane turned away, as though possessed of some special power that allowed him to know at a glance what others must study to understand. And with his power, he had already learned that I would not give up a half-dime for this form of entertainment.     "Of course, you can't whup the nigger with a strap or switch. You can whup the nigger with your fists. Five cents. Feels so good. This here nigger, he might move a little, raise his arms out of fear to protect himself. But it's guaranteed that this here nigger will never ever hit back."     One of the onlookers, a man in his twenties, leaned forward.     "You, sir," Kane continued, responding to the man's movement. "You appear to be a gentleman who is capable with his hands. Perhaps you would like to take advantage of this unique opportunity to demonstrate the power of a white man's fists."     The man turned toward his companion. "I reckon I never heard a colored man talk anything like this. It's part speechifying and part like he's a clown."     "Five cents. A half-dime."     "Three cents," the man in his twenties countered.     "Three cents? Three cents?" Kane bellowed, feigning insult. "Three cents? A fine upstanding gentleman such as yourself should be ashamed to--"     "Four cents," the man's companion shouted.     "Four cents. Well, four cents is more than three cents, but four cents is less than five. However, I'm a reasonable man, and I have great respect for people such as yourself who are willing to negotiate with a colored man such as myself, and I recognize that we are close to reaching an understanding. Now, four cents alone would be insufficient for the blows that you intend to land upon this unfortunate nigger. But if the two of you will pay a total of eight cents, that would be the equivalent of four cents each. And while it wouldn't be fitting and proper for the both of you to hit the nigger at the same time, I believe I could arrange for you to strike your blows one after the other for a total of eight cents."     "Seven cents total," the first man offered.     "Sir, I appreciate your kind offer. But due to the circumstances of the moment and the fact that I have certain expenses of my own in life, I must respectfully decline and insist upon eight cents."     "Eight cents," the man conceded.     Meanwhile, the smaller colored man had been standing to the side, impassive, as the negotiations progressed.     The first white man took off his shirt.     "Money first," Kane told him.     The man reached into his pocket, took out a half-dime, and handed it over. "That's my share plus a penny. We'll settle the difference later." He was anxious now to get on with the business of hurting.     The smaller colored man raised his arms in a defensive posture.     "Now," Kane chortled, "the festivities begin."     The white man moved forward. The smaller colored man stood with his feet roughly twenty inches apart, his left foot pointed forward. The white man swung; a right-handed blow directed toward the jaw. The colored man turned his head to the side and the blow sailed harmlessly by. The white man swung again, this time a blow to the body, and the colored man dropped an elbow to his side for protection. Another blow aimed at the head struck the colored man's raised hand.     Kane's voice sounded above the fray, as noticeable as a false note in music. "Ah, yes; the glory of our times. Only a half-dime. Hit the nigger."     I stood watching, part fascinated and part revulsed.     The voice of the station-keeper interrupted my thoughts. "Last call! Stagecoach is leaving."     I turned to go, but not before casting one last glance over my shoulder toward Hiram Kane. At the moment, he was acting the buffoon. But beneath his veneer, I thought I saw an extraordinary meanness about him.     Then it was back on the stagecoach again. There were occasional hills, ridges and valleys, but mostly we traveled across a great level prairie. Wild turkeys and prairie hens were abundant, sharing the land with wolves, snakes and badgers. The daytime heat was tempered by prairie breezes, and the nights were pleasantly mild. By the third day, though, the landscape was less green and the perennial springs less plentiful. The wild strawberry plants that marked our earlier passage were no longer in evidence, and my twenty dollars worth of travel was just about exhausted.     It was then that we came to a comfortable-looking town in northwestern Kansas near the Nebraska border. Its main steeet was three blocks long, with several brick buildings interspersed between white frame stores. There was a sidewalk made of boards that were loose and inclined to rattle when walked upon. Several of the stores had awnings in front, and all of them offered hitching posts for horses. A few narrow lanes extended off the main street, but not very far before turning to wheat.     Something in the town sang to me; I really can't tell you why. It seemed like a good place to stop and rest for however long it was meant to be. So not knowing what lay ahead, I said goodbye to my banker traveling companion and left the stagecoach to meet my destiny.     In the main, the events of life are small events. They seem large only when we are close to them. But the occurrences of the days that followed still loom large in my mind. They changed me. They altered what I believe. Much of what goes on around me today is blurred. But even now, more than fifty years later, the days I spent in this small Kansas town are still sharp and vivid in my memory.     Everything that I am about to recount for you is the truth, precisely as it happened to me. Copyright © 1999 Thomas Hauser. All rights reserved.