Sunday, July 19, 2009

Mark Twain, William Shakespeare, and How Good Writers Don't Necessarily Make Good Scholars

This week’s entry is for a book whose title jumped out at me from my bookcase.

This is a first edition of Samuel Clemens’s (a.k.a. Mark Twain’s) provocatively named book Is Shakespeare Dead ???? (yes, the cover title does include four question marks, though the histrionic punctuation is muted to only one everywhere else the title appears in the book). The text of the book was first part of Twain’s so-called Autobiography, which was actually not published in book-format until after his death; instead, during his life he published various “chapters” as articles, serial-style, in twenty-five issues of The American Review between 1906 and 1907.

Evidently Twain thought this “chapter” worthy of full book-format publication and in April 1909, one year before the author’s death, Harper & Brothers Publishers of New York and London released the first edition in at least three issues (see below). Twain took the opportunity also to add some material and expand on some original material in the original serial version of the essay, but it is largely the same as the The American Review version. Since then it has reappeared in many editions, both bibliographically independent and as part of anthologies or collections of Twain’s works.

The book is hard-bound in green cloth with gilt lettering on the front board and spine. I do not believe that it was released with a dust-jacket, though some dealers online specify that their copy is “without dust-jacket”, which may indicate that it was. My copy has a slight scuffed stain on the lower outside corner of the front board and the corners are bumped slightly; otherwise it is in very good condition, with no marks inside the book itself. The binding is stitched and still quite tight.

The pages measure 13.5cm x 21cm and are of a heavy cream stock. The fore-edges are rough, indicating that the book was sold uncut originally and it was opened by an early owner. The top-edge of the pages is gilded, though whether this was original to the edition or added later I cannot determine.

As far as the book’s printing goes, the signatures are signed numerically (see photo) and its collation may be expressed as crown 8o: [#] [18]-108 [π]; $1. The pagination begins on the first page of the book’s content (14r) and runs 1-[150]. Inserted between the blank 11 and the title page (12) are two facing black-and-white photographic plates, one of a drawing of William Shakespeare on the verso and one of a statue of Francis Bacon (Twain’s favored son regarding the “authorship question” -- see below) on the recto. As usual, the initial leaf and ultimate leaf are blank flies conjugate to the front and rear paste-downs respectively. The verso of the title page -- facing the recto half-title -- is an advertising list of other books by Twain, with their prices and options for binding. Some printing tricks had to be employed to make the content stretch to fill an entire book and there is much white space throughout, mostly in the form of very wide margins (especially the lower margin) which consume at least one-third of each page.

Judging from copies currently being offered by dealers online, the first edition of the book appears in two distinct states. The true first included two pages of publisher’s advertisements at the back and a telling typographic error on p. 55 (the word “equipped” was erroneously set as “epuipped”). The second issue does not include the advertisements and has corrected the p. 55 error (see photo). Based on this evidence, my copy is of the first edition’s second issue and thus is valued at between $30 and $50. There is no table of contents, but the text is broken up into thirteen chapters

Twain’s book is a digressive and largely unscholarly tangent defending his personal take on the so-called “authorship question” regarding the plays of William Shakespeare. The start of the book provides some connection to the putative objective of “autobiography” that the essay was originally part of by explaining how Twain came to be concerned with the authorship issue. As a young man, undergoing steamboat pilot training on the Mississippi, he would regularly fall into intense arguments with an older pilot about the issue. The remainder of the book follows this up with what Twain takes to be evidence against “the man from Stratford” and generally in favor of Francis Bacon. His evidence, while wittily presented (as one would expect from Twain), is quite shallow.

First, he contends that little is actually known with any reliability about Shakespeare’s life and that most biographies written about him are purely speculative. In response, see Sam Schoenbaum’s magisterial William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life, which brings together nearly all of the extant documentary evidence about the man (all of which, it is immediately obvious to even a casual reader, supports the fact that the man from Stratford wrote the plays). It should also be noted that, contrary to popular mythology, we actually know quite a bit more about Shakespeare than we do about many of his contemporaries. As evidence that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare, of course, our lack of biographical evidence is largely irrelevant, particularly given the absolute wealth of bibliographical evidence that shows that he did. And against Bacon we might also urge the volumes of evidence, derived from what we know about the London theatre industry of the day, that would render his candidacy considerably more improbable than that of Shakespeare’s.

Second, Twain notes the number of legal professionals who have suggested, based on legal references in the plays, the dramatist must have been familiar with the law -- something that, Twain states, the man from Stratford was largely inexperienced in but that Bacon had in spades. This argument neglects one of the most important qualities of Shakespeare’s writing -- its ability to be all things to all people. We know that Shakespeare read very widely and that he was able to incorporate ideas and language from dozens upon dozens of different sources into his work. The result has been that members of various professions (soldiers, lawyers, doctors, scholars, actors, etc.) have all claimed Shakespeare as their own, even though there is no external evidence of the fact (except, of course, for claimants who assign him to the ranks of glove-maker or actor). A tally of imagery in Shakespeare’s plays shows that he uses, for example, military language as much as legal language, but Twain does not use this fact to suggest the plays were written by Walter Morgan Wolff.

Third, and most ridiculous, is Twain’s suggestion that small communities, like Stratford, would never given up on celebrating a famous son. To support this argument he draws evidence from his own life and his continued celebrity in his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. He suggests that if Shakespeare from Stratford were really so famous, he would have been as well-known in modern day Stratford as Twain was in modern day Hannibal. Setting aside the fact that Twain was alive when he wrote this and Shakespeare had been dead for two-hundred and ninety-three years, and the fact that applying standards of modern social conduct to an early modern community is grossly ahistorical and thus irrelevant, anyone who has been to Stratford-upon-Avon today will find little evidence that the town has forgotten (or at any point since 1616 did forget) its most famous resident.

Besides the weakness of the evidence underlying his arguments, Twain’s book is also marked by a high degree of personal vitriol and ad hominem attacks upon Stratfordians. In particular, he chastises his opponents as mindless slaves and draws direct comparisons between them and the followers of cultic prophets and messianic religious figures. Ironically, what particularly irritates him is how Stratfordians employed the very same terms of condescension and disregard against Bacon’s supporters; that he was tarring himself with the same brush was either of no great concern to him (some commentators suggest the entire book is meant to be satirical) or something he was simply too blind with polemicism to realize.

Although my copy does not have any of the usual marginalia that I enjoy, it does have an intriguing news clipping inserted that reveals a previous owner possessed the book because he or she was a Twain fan and not, like me, interested in Shakespeare. The clipping is a television review written by Lawrence Laurent, an extremely influential media critic who helped define the field when he wrote both reviews and industry news for The Washington Post in the 1960s and 1970s. His prerequisites for effective criticism were formative for writers, both then and now; as James A. Brown of the Museum of Broadcast Communications summarizes it, Laurent demanded, “sensitivity and reasoned judgment, a renaissance knowledge, coupled with exposure to a broad range of art, culture, technology, business, law, economics, ethics, and social studies all fused with an incisive writing style causing commentary to leap off the page into the reader's consciousness, possibly influencing their TV behavior as viewers or as professional practitioners.”

The review is a glowing account of Emmy- and Tony-winning performer Hal Holbrook’s “long overdue” performance of his ninety-minute one-man play Mark Twain Tonight!, which aired on CBS on March 6, 1967 (Holbrook is shown to the right; Clemens, in 1909 when Is Shakespeare Dead? came out, is below). Directed by Paul Bogart and produced by David Susskind, the play was written by Holbrook using published and archival material from the estate of Samuel Clemens. It was one of the staples of Holbrook’s development as an actor, a part he had been playing and constantly refining since 1947, when he was twenty-two (the depiction of Clemens, in his play, is at the age of seventy!). In 1966, his Broadway revival of the play won him a Tony and ushered in a new popular genre of one-person biographical drama. For the CBS performance, Holbrook took the liberty of adding even more material, particularly content that highlighted Twain’s eloquent disapproval of war -- something that directly reflected the actor’s own outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War. After the broadcast, Holbrook continued to play the role, logging more than 2,000 performances after 1967. For those who don’t know him, Holbrook is known to fans (including this blogger) of Aaron Sorkin’s celebrated television series The West Wing as the curmudgeonly but avuncular Assistant Secretary of State Albie Duncan, from the 2001 and 2002 seasons.

To whomever it was that owned this book in 1967, Holbrook’s performance as Twain merited preservation in the form of a small reminder -- Laurent’s Washington Post review -- tucked safely within the covers of Is Shakespeare Dead... a book that ended up in Tarquin Tar’s Bookcase for an entirely different reason: namely, the book’s topic, and not so much its author (though I must admit that, since I have little patience for “authorship” controversy books, the only reason I can stomach owning this particular one is because of its author). This little discordance in the book’s ownership history comforts me to a certain degree -- a reminder that all literature, whether a play by a sixteenth-century English icon or a close-minded harangue by a nineteenth-century American icon, can mean different things to different people. Indeed, I would argue that that is the very definition of literature.

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