Monday, January 10, 2011

Jumping frogs and other phenomena of the literary swamp

I've been on a bit of a Mark Twain kick ever since I saw a superb PBS documentary about his life a few months ago. I got a copy of the DVD, along with two massive biographical tomes, the kind you can hold in each hand to attain rippling biceps in only three weeks.

I want to reread Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn to see how much they've changed since my youth (ahem), but until then I tread deep water in these books, packed with too much information. Twain wasn't the nicest fellow, was an egotist, was moody, was often suicidal, and definitely pushed his own agenda. Good thing, too, or the following harrowing scene (which took place when Twain was still relatively young, but with a growing readership) would have erased Huck Finn from our collective memory:

"Sam, 'charmed and excited', had every reason to believe that a contract would be extended to him as soon as he walked through Carleton's door. So certain was he of this that he dashed off a private letter to his sponsor at the Alta, John McComb, in early February, boasting that he was about to 'give' Carleton a volume of sketches for publication. The paper printed a brief summary of this letter for Mark Twain's followers in mid-March - nearly a month after Sam had kept his appointment with Carleton, and been given the bum's rush.

"He never forgot it: his diffident arrival in the publisher's office at 499 Broadway, the brusque statement of the clerk that Mr. Carleton was in his private office: his admission to the great man's quarters after a long wait; Carleton's icily impersonal greeting: 'Well, what can I do for you?'

(Editor's note. This would happen to me on a good day. But wait! Here comes the best part.)

"Sam's abashed response - that he was keeping an appointment to offer a book for publication - triggered a temper tantrum from Carleton that lives in the annals of bad editorial judgement. . . Whatever the impetus, Carleton treated his speechless visitor to a vintage New York-style tongue-lashing At the end, he swept his arm around the room and delivered the coup de grace that will forever be associated with his name:

'Books - look at those shelves. Every one of them is loaded with books that are waiting for publication. Do I want any more? Excuse me, I don't. Good morning."

After this, the biographer Ron Powers cites the infamous "Whales, Mr. Melville?" (to which I add, "Scribble, scribble, eh, Miss Bronte?"). These can be lumped in with "These guitar groups are on their way out" (Beatles) and "Who's this Bob Dylan?" ( - oh, and - one of Twain's early magazine stories found an enthusiastic audience, but unfortunately the editor spelled his name Mark

There are whole books full of "famous rejections", which are supposed to make the aspiring writer jump up from his/her bed of suicidal depression, all fluffy and flumphy like freshly-plumped pillows. It doesn't work, however, because greatness has a way of coming through no matter what. Or does it? How many Huckleberry Finns languished in drawers somewhere, only to be thrown in the fire a la Thomas Carlyle when the weather got cold?

It's too depressing to contemplate.

Man walks into a publisher's office. Disreputable-looking, shabby clothes, big intimidating cookie-duster of a moustache and untameable head of (red) hair. Obviously a bad character. Has this manuscript he thinks he can sell me, haven't looked at it yet and haven't got time. Worked as a rough-and-ready reporter out West somewhere, has nothing to say to a sophisticated New York audience. Wrote one story, something about a jumping frog, that was published all over the country, but who wants to hear about a jumping frog? This fellow seems to have a million ideas spilling out of him, and we can't have that. He'll stain the Wilton carpet. Uncouth, he is. Smells like tobacco and gin. A man's man, with feverish ideas. But the stunned look, the look of a small child who has been slapped instead of kissed, reveals him to be just another no-talent who can't take his rejections like a man.