Twain Talk: An Interview with Judith Yaross Lee.
I did not grow up fascinated by Mark Twain. I had heard of him before reading "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" in middle and high schools (yes, the same story twice in the same school system, and the book version of the yarn rather than the periodical "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" version). I didn't get it. I recall thinking (insert Yiddish inflection here), "This supposed to be funny?" and "How did this story make him famous?" And while I certainly enjoyed reading Huck Finn and Connecticut Yankee somewhere along the way to graduate school, I was a moody teen who preferred political and avant garde poetry (or imitations thereof), big popular novels like James Michener's, and contemporary fiction (Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller) to nineteenth-century writing. I did not harbor any aspirations to be a literary scholar until two years after I graduated from Oberlin, when I enrolled in an evening course on European Romanticism in Translation to offset the boredom of my full-time job with the order fulfillment side of World Book Encyclopedia.
My attitude changed when I enrolled in Hamlin Hill's course on Mark Twain my first quarter in the M.A. program in English at the University of Chicago, because he introduced me to the scholarly work of the Mark Twain Project--beginning with Walter Blair's edition of the manuscripts included in Mark Twain's Hannibal, Huck, and Tom (1969), which hooked me on two counts: the way in which Clemens kept going back to Huck and Tom as characters and the way in which Mark Twain scholarship explored the author's creative output in light of biographical, textual, and cultural history. So in some ways I fell in love with Mark Twain's writing through interdisciplinary Mark Twain scholarship.
What was your dissertation topic and who directed your dissertation?
My dissertation, To Amuse and Appall: Black Humor in American Fiction (University of Chicago, 1986) arose from a topics seminar with Ham on post-World War II American humor, but he decamped to the University of New Mexico before I was ready to write a proposal. I never published it or much of anything from it, because I was eager to move on when I finally finished, although bits and pieces of it have showed up in other work.
The process had enough entrances and exits for a French farce. I had trouble finding an advisor after Ham left UChicago (where doctoral students in those days took only five courses, spending the rest of our time reading for exams), but a nineteenth-century Americanist with whom I'd had one course agreed to direct the project on two conditions. The first was that I sit for a field exam in rhetorical theory to imbue my humor portfolio with gravitas, a requirement that I have always gratefully credited with enabling my teaching career. The second condition was that I pair every humorous writer with a canonical author who also joked around with serious topics, a requirement that expanded the dissertation in size and scope almost beyond my ability to complete it. I wrote about Melville's Confidence-Man and Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee, Faulker's As I Lay Dying and Nathanael West's A Cool Million, and Philip Roth's Great American Novel, which I was supposed to pair with Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow as a last chapter, but the project took so long--complicated as it was by adjunct teaching, divorce, a cross-country move, remarriage, and my first child-that my advisor eventually forgot that including Pynchon was his idea and let me drop it. John Cawelti, the pioneering scholar of popular culture, had agreed at the start of the project to be a second reader although I had never studied with him, but he left UChicago about three years into my writing, so James E. Miller, Jr. (then chairing the department and with whom I had also taken one course) generously came on board in year 5; the third reader, assigned by the department in that era, was Lauren Berlant, then a new assistant professor whom I met at the defense, where the dean's representative, philospher Ted Cohen, the only humor specialist involved, kept asking me about films I had never seen. The whole process was like an intense anxiety dream still with me after 30 years; whatever else I learned from it, tenacity and independence probably top the list. But it set the stage for my thinking about Mark Twain always in the context of the long history of American humor and in the context of other comic writers and performers.
Have your impressions of Twain and his work changed at all over the years?
The more I learn about Mark Twain, the more impressed I grow with Clemens's imagination, his creative process, and the human experiences--his and others'-behind the texts. The biographical Clemens did not interest me much in the beginning, but now it thoroughly colors my approach. Recent journeys following his footsteps in Hawaii and Australia have left me amazed by the energy and curiosity that drove his travels and the reading and writing that went with them. Matching his pace was not so easy, even traveling by automobile and plane. My understanding of the Sandwich Island letters and lectures and More Tramps Abroad now includes how he rode a horse up to the Kilauea volcano, canoed over to the ruins of Pu'uhonua o Honaunau on the Big Island, and chased all around Hobart, Tasmania, and nearby areas by carriage in the roughly eight hours that his ship docked there en route to his New Zealand lecture gigs.
What, if anything, have you grown to dislike about Twain that man and/or Twain studies?
Even though no one would study a figure who did not fascinate in some way, I worry about the tendency toward hagiography that lurks below the surface in Mark Twain studies. In addition, only something remarkable would get me interested in another reading of Huck As for Clemens himself, I certainly would not want to be the object of his most caustic wit.
What are some of the common misperceptions about Twain that you strive to clarify/correct/amend?
The canonization of Mark Twain as a Great Author has blinded students--and thus a large part of the American public-to the liveliness and irreverence of his literary humor even though his witticisms (authentic and otherwise) circulate continuously like dollar bills. I like to shake up students' sense that he belongs in some nineteenth-century ash heap, except as a curmudgeonly commentator on modern life. Since I teach in a communication studies program rather than an English department, I have an opportunity to help students see Mark Twain from an unfamiliar angle, as a rhetorical performer, so we read his anti-imperialist polemics and some of the sillier burlesques (my current favorite is "Mamie Grant, Child Missionary"), and maybe a short novel that they haven't heard of, such as Pudd'nhead Wilson. The one time I taught a course on Mark Twain, I focused it on satire and set myself the task of teaching it almost entirely from Budd's two-volume Modern Library Collected Tales, Sketches and without Huckleberry Finn. When I do teach Huck, I contextualize it as humor by introducing students first to the comic dialect tradition including Petroleum V. Nasby, in terrupting their reading of assigned chapters with class performances of tall and frontier tales, and acculturating them to unreliable narrators via contemporary instances of irony in print. By the time we get to chapter 31 and the evasion sequence, they can appreciate the farce at Phelps Farm even as they are dismayed by Huck's role in Jim's suffering. We have such lively discussions all along the way!
What do you consider your most important contribution to Twain studies?
I am pretty proud of the work that I did in Twain's Brand: Humor in Contemporary American Culture (University Press of Mississippi, 2012). Until about 15 years ago Mark Twain stood mainly as background for my scholarship. My first two books on humor treated Garrison Keillor and the New Yorker; although I contributed five entries to the 1991 Mark Twain Encyclopedia and wrote an afterword to the $30,000 Bequest in Shelley Fisher Fishkin's Oxford Mark Twain, my articles, essays, and edited books addressed other topics in American cultural history and practice. Twain's Brand brings many of those disparate strands of work together, because it not only names the brand, describes its hallmarks, and shows its significance for Clemens's career as Mark Twain, but also highlights Mark Twain's contributions to humor as a cultural phenomenon, especially in a broad contemporary context that includes popular comic performance, fiction, graphic storytelling, and the humor business. I argue that Mark Twain's discovery and exploitation of branding as a commercial phenomenon helped him build a career in the years after the Civil War by tapping into the formative years of what we now know as the information economy--and that today, when we are deep into that post-industrial age of information, we can see from his example how and why humor is the quintessential rhetorical mode of our time. Brands identify, differentiate, and confer meanings upon a commodity, performer, or whatever (we all know that educational institutions are seriously into branding these days), and those three functions also define humor, a rhetoric that likewise unites idea, attitude, and meaning. But humor has an advantage over branding because the cognitive resources needed to resolve comic incongruity also create memories, giving humor more psychological power over an audience than possible with sincere expression. But in the same way that Mark Twain has been a jumping off point for much of my scholarship--my discussion of Garrison Keillor's Matter of Minnesota was informed by what Henry Nash Smith called the Matter of Hannibal--Mark Twain is also a jumping off point in that book for discussions of stand-up and situation comedy, literary humor, print comics and animated cartoons, the comedy business, and what I call "humor and empire" (my next big project). The book ranges across examples from Margaret Cho and jerry Seinfeld to Philip Roth, The Simpsons, The Boondocks comic strip, Second City, and Comedy Central, Mark Twain developed the first major comic brand, and its staying power reflects the cultural importance of his innovations, as I show in my discussions of the contemporary heirs to Twain's brand in stand-up and situation comedy, literary humor, animated cartoons, and the humor business.
What's your best story about a Twain scholar from an earlier generation?
I love recalling Hamlin Hill's presentation at a 1987 American Studies conference in Tampere, Finland (my husband had a Fulbright to Helsinki University, which hired me, too). Ham rescued the session-and quite possibly the conference-in his 5-10 minutes as the last speaker in the closing plenary session. He came before the group in a large, darkened auditorium following an intensely uncomfortable, lengthy reading of contemporary sentimental poetry by its author. I remember nothing about what Ham said except for the punch line, which (I now know) came from one of Mark Twain's Alta California letters: "Found my old girl setting in her old place by the taffrail, sighing and pensive, just as she always is, ... reading poetry and picking her nose with a fork. I cannot live without her."
What do you think still needs to be done in Mark Twain studies?
Well, to judge by the Prince Oleomargarine manuscript, a lot of stuff in the archives remains to be excavated. And my recent work on Clemens's relationship with African explorer Henry Morton Stanley suggests that we can learn a lot more about Mark Twain's writings by continuing to mine his personal relationships, social experiences, and reading. Alan Gribben's new edition of Mark Twain's Library should accelerate that work. Recent research on Mark Twain's anti-imperialist writings and related topics, including Kerry Driscoll's new study of his responses to aborignal peoples, makes Following the Equator and its British Commonwealth edition, More Tramps Abroad, big targets for new attention.
What's your best advice for someone just starting in the field?
Join the Mark Twain Circle to learn a lot and experience academic collegiality at its best!
Judith Yaross Lee teaches at Ohio University where she is Distinguished Professor of Communication Studies & Charles E. Zumkehr Professor of Rhetoric. In 2013, colleagues in the School Communication Studies nominated Lee for Ohio University's highest honor, the Kennedy Distinguished Professor A ward.
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|Title Annotation:||Mark Twain|
|Publication:||Mark Twain Circular|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2017|
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