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Twain Talk: An Interview with Alan Gribben.

What's your earliest memory of reading Mark Twain?

I found The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in the public library during my early teens. It was a great read from the very first page.

Where and when did you first encounter Twain in the classroom?

As for the masterful sequel to Tom Sawyer, well, the middle and high school teachers of my generation (the 1950s) in the small town where I grew up near Kansas City were still staunchly dedicated to British authors, so I never encountered Adventures of Huckleberry Finn until my literature survey course in college. The book came as quite a revelation inasmuch as it violated so many conventions and yet carried so much literary and moral freight on that raft. Even the smallest details reverberated for me. For example, I had lived at the edge of town and often fished in a nearby creek or in our river, so the night sounds of bullfrogs and the smell of discarded gar fish (in Chapter 19) were familiar to me. These days, however, I have to pull up YouTube recordings of bull frogs and Google photographs of gar fish so that my students can imagine these things. They have never heard frogs croaking in the country or seen a fish outside their grocery store.

What was your dissertation topic and who directed your dissertation?

In 1967 Frederick Anderson, then the General Editor of the Mark Twain Project, hired several graduate students as editorial assistants, and I was lucky enough to be one of them. Eventually, after considerable training, he assigned me to write the introductions and annotations for Notebooks 1, 2, 19, and 20. These tasks immersed me in Twain's nineteenth-century world and I resolved to write my doctoral dissertation on this fascinating author. Although I had benefited from taking classes from Frederick Crews, Larzer Ziff, and James D. Hart, it was logical that Henry Nash Smith, a former Editor of the Mark Twain Papers, would direct my research. In reality, though, it was Frederick Anderson who looked over my findings day-by-day and made arrangements for me to have access to ail of the Twain materials at his disposal. Fred lived to see the completion of my dissertation but not the book that grew out it, Mark Twain's Library: A Reconstruction (1980).

Have your impressions of Twain and his work changed at all over the years?

Not that much. I have always tried to avoid idolizing the figure I have principally studied ail of my life. (I edited a collection of Edith Wharton's letters to her lover Morton Fullerton and I made a few forays into other literary subjects, but primarily I have focused on Twain's life and works.) Human beings are never perfect in their actions and emotions, and Twain clearly made errors that should be acknowledged. Among other problems, he clung to his father's pro-slavery stance far too long, he was periodically cruel to his elder brother Orion, and he made mistakes (as we all do) as a parent. What sets him apart from the rest of us is that he himself recorded these missteps--and many other faults--because he wrote compulsively and continuously. He analyzed his own life as though he were a literary character, and he invites us to do so, too. We see ourselves reflected in him, and measure our better and worse decisions in reading his accounts of an incredible rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches-and-grief life story.

What, if anything, have you grown to dislike about Twain the man and Twain studies?

Twain's willingness to play the role of comical jester for Henry H. Rogers and his political and Wall Street cronies is a little hard to take, even if one sympathizes with how beholden Twain felt to his financial savior in the final decade and a half of his life.

I have concerns about the impact of a drastic transition underway in Twain studies. Graduate students are being urged to study broad issues of race, class, and gender rather than to specialize in individual authors, especially where a white male writer of the nineteenth century is concerned. The majority of the best work on Twain lately has been accomplished by independent scholars rather than professors belonging to a university faculty. Those of us who knew personally the earlier giants in our field--such as Henry Nash Smith, Walter Blair, Howard G. Baetzhold, Edgar M. Branch, Lewis Leary, John S. Tuckey, Victor A. Doyno, Thomas A. Tenney, Lawrence I. Berkove, Hamlin Hill, Everett Emerson, and Louis J. Budd--are aging fast ourselves. We will soon retire and slip from the scene. Only two of my graduate students have chosen to follow me into Mark Twain studies. Much good work has already been accomplished, of course, and many questions have been answered. But it bothers me to think that future commentaries on Twain will necessarily be written by nonspecialists. Will they fully comprehend the complexities of Twain's life and thought, or completely appreciate the tenor of his times? The prospect of their ill-informed guesses weighs on me.

What common misperceptions about Twain do you strive to correct?

We can never stress enough the capacity of this mercurial writer to alter his views and redirect his energies. To those people eager to typecast him as a passionate atheist, a devout Native American-hater, an anti- or pro-women's suffrage citizen, a pro-colonialism or anti-colonialism advocate, a pro-business or pro-union partisan, and dozens of other labels, I always say: "First, specify the decade of his life." Twain was always striving to achieve the largest possible perspective on a problem. More than anything, one has to admire his capacity to change, which was often the result of his appetite for daily reading of every sort of book.

What do you consider your most important contribution to Twain studies?

For nearly half a century--since I initially chose my dissertation topic in 1969--I have endeavored to expand our information about Mark Twain's library and reading. Not during every evening, I will admit, and not during every weekend, and sometimes not for months at a time, but little by little, as classes, grading, and family responsibilities would allow, I have made a concerted effort to increase our awareness of Twain's literary knowledge. This has seemed to me the most useful and enduring contribution I could make to our common field of study, and I leave behind my forthcoming three-volume compendium as a tribute to those who taught me as a student, encouraged me as a fellow working scholar, and proved themselves truly collegial in sharing what they had learned.

What is your best story about a Twain scholar from an earlier generation?

My doctoral dissertation sprawled far more than I had ever imagined owing to the evidence I found in various places that registered the contents of Twain's library and recorded the extent of his reading. Ultimately I conceived a catalog form that consolidated all sorts of information. Frederick Anderson was forever urging me to include everything I could find in this catalog (partly because those results would benefit the Mark Twain Project), whereas my dissertation director Henry Nash Smith was really only interested in my preliminary five chapters assessing the effects of Twain's reading, and was impatient with the whole concept of the catalog form.

When I landed an assistant professorship at the University of Texas at Austin in 1974 I was expected to show up there on a certain day in August with a Ph.D. degree in hand, and I was also under pressure to wrap up the now-2,370-page dissertation by the summer deadline for filing for graduation. By then Professor Smith had retired and moved away from Berkeley, so on the night before the filing deadline my wife Irene and I drove down the coast to Pacific Grove where Henry was residing in order to obtain his crucial signature on the title page.

Henry was a very careful, deliberate person, and to my horror I soon realized that he did not consider this a pro forma ritual at all, even though he had previously read and approved drafts of the five chapters that preceded the huge catalog. He took the seven bound volumes into his study at the rear of the large apartment and disappeared. After two hours it dawned on me that he intended to read every single page of that massive dissertation before he would consent to sign it, even the huge catalog that he had never been favor of my compiling. After four hours I contemplated the probability that he had found something he disliked and was writing an explanation of why he could not sign the document. My wife dozed fitfully on the couch in the living room, but I was too distressed to think of sleep. I could see my new teaching job vanishing. I began to think of ways I could support us, jobs I might apply for while we stayed in Berkeley and I sought a new, less demanding dissertation director. Maybe Fred Anderson would rehire me as an editorial assistant. Then suddenly, at 6:00 a.m., Henry opened the door and emerged. He rather solemnly announced that he was ready to sign my work. He found a pen and wrote his famous name on the line, I staggered out the door, drunk with relief, and drove sleepily back along the twisting coastal highway to the Bay Bridge and the University campus, where I waited until the Office of Graduate Studies opened for the day. I had never been so alarmed in all my life.

What do you think still needs to be done in Mark Twain studies?

The greatest need in our guild is to work to return Mark Twain to the middle school and high school classrooms. Because teachers are not familiar with any works by Twain other than Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, as these novels get erased from the reading lists because of their racial slurs the students rarely study Twain during their entire education. We should encourage teachers to substitute the piloting chapters from Life on the Mississippi, excerpts from Twain's travel books like Roughing It, A Tramp Abroad, and Following the Equator, or selected short stories in schools where his controversial novels are prohibited. Many colleges do not require a course in American literature for most majors, and for that matter an increasing number of college instructors are dropping Twain from their syllabi rather than engage in the inevitable debate about whether the n-word should be included in assigned readings. If this trend continues Mark Twain's name will become less recognized and he will no longer be accorded a prominent place in the American pantheon of great authors. We should struggle against this dismal prospect. To lose Twain would be to lose one of the finest planets in the literary solar system.

What is your best advice for someone just starting in the field?

Mark Twain's travel writings continue to be alluded to rather than read and studied. Partly this is the result of a surfeit of televised information about ail places and ail people. But look how well Twain taught Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson the wry, curmudgeonly poses that have earned them so much money. Jeffrey A. Melton and I tried to resuscitate Twain's reputation as a travel narrator by shedding the factual passages and collecting the funnier portions in our jointly edited Mark Twain on the Move: A Travel Reader (2009), yet it did not make much of an impact. Maybe someone can figure out a way to salvage this delectable portion of Twain's writings. All five of his travel books deserve to be more widely known than they now are.

I would also encourage younger students to follow up on the books that I have proved Mark Twain read and see how these works fit into his patterns of thought and writings. Dozens of good dissertations could derive from the findings now conveniently presented in this vast catalog. Only a relatively small proportion of his library and reading has ever been studied in depth.

Two energetic people should consider taking over The Mark Twain Journal: The Author and His Era after Irene and I retire. It really requires two people to maintain the momentum; the journal fell behind its publication schedule when previous editors tried to do everything by themselves. The Mark Twain Journal was one of the earliest scholarly journals devoted to a single author, and there is a definite place in Twain studies for an eclectic periodical of this nature. It merits a centennial.

I wish the Mark Twain group much success and satisfaction. My study of this engrossing writer has brought me good friends and much enjoyment. Let us hope that many successive generations will be able to enjoy these privileges.

Alan Gribben teaches English at Auburn University at Montgomery where he was named the Nance Alumni Professor in 2006. He is currently preparing an expanded revision of his Mark Twain's Library: A Reconstruction (1980). Volume I of Mark Twain's Literary Resources: A Reconstruction of His Library and Reading will be published in Spring 2018. For more information visit
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Publication:Mark Twain Circular
Article Type:Interview
Date:Nov 1, 2018
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