Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Marian Anderfuren:
February 1, 2010 — As a popular lecturer, humorist, essayist and novelist in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Mark Twain may have been the first American idol. A new exhibit at the University of Virginia explores his influence on American culture, and how that culture shaped his work and ideas.
"The Making of Mark Twain and American Culture: A Commemoration of the Centennial of His Death" runs through June 1 in the lower gallery of the Mary and David Harrison Institute of American History, Literature and Culture. The artifacts on display are drawn largely from the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature, part of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library
Stephen Railton, professor of American literature at U.Va., said that although Twain wasn't the first "celebrity" writer – Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe were also big 19th-century names – he was the most recognizable and most frequently photographed. His witty sayings were often reprinted, and cartoonists loved portraying his hair, mustache and cigar, "though the white suit came only near the end of his life."
"It's boggling to think what Twain could have done with our modern culture's electronic means of self-promotion," he said.
During the fall semester, nine graduate students in Railton's "Mark Twain in His Times" course identified pairs of items from the Barrett collection to show how Twain and the preoccupations of American culture affected one another in a kind of symbiosis. The results of their research make up the exhibit.
"I expected the students would find this an intellectually and professionally valuable opportunity to explore the rare materials in the Barrett Collection and to write about what they found for a public audience," Railton said.
The students discovered some remarkable connections. Kenny Williams found an intersection between race and modern science at the end of the 19th century and tied it to Twain's "Pudd'nhead Wilson."
"Twain, like a lot of people in the 19th century, was interested in new science," Williams said. "At that time, Sir Francis Galton published the first forensic study of fingerprinting and tried to align it with race."
Galton argued in his book that the fingerprints of "Englishmen, Welshmen, Hebrews and Negroes" are somehow different. Two years later, Twain used this "finding" to resolve in his novel which of two indistinguishable babies is black and which is white.
"It was a total Perry Mason device," Williams said. "Twain uses it to cheat." Both Galton's book and an early edition of "Pudd'nhead Wilson" are in the exhibit.
Jenny Braun explored Twain's response to free market capitalism; he coined the term "The Gilded Age" as the title of his book criticizing the American pursuit of wealth. Lisa McGunigal looked at Twain the performer; when a lecture circuit partner suggested he read "Le Morte d'Arthur," the novel "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" appeared shortly thereafter. Jean Franzino connected portrayals of Jim in "Huckleberry Finn" to illustrator E.W. Kemble's "fantasy of racial otherness."
The other students – Audrey Golden, Lauren Hauser, Anna Ioanes, Kirsten Paine and Sean Ruday – explored life on the water, Twain's opposition to U.S. imperialism, the westward expansion of the American frontier, the rise of the American hero, and the image of American boyhood as contrasted between Huck Finn and Horatio Alger's Abraham Lincoln in "The Backwoods Boy, Or How a Young Railsplitter Became President."
Railton said the generosity and help of Special Collections and the Harrison Institute were invaluable. Kelly Miller, director of outreach at the Harrison Institute, said the students' research and resulting exhibit were exciting to see.
"This is how we want the library to work – to connect students with original sources in meaningful ways and to help them share their discoveries with others," she said.
Railton said the Twain centennial is being widely commemorated. Events are already happening in upstate New York and Connecticut, where the author and his family lived for years.
Of course, as Railton points out, Mark Twain still lives. It was the man behind the pen name, Samuel Clemens, who died on April 21, 1910.
"Everybody calls it Mark Twain's death. If you never were born, you cannot die," he said. "But I think if they said it was the centennial of Sam Clemens' death, a lot of people wouldn't know exactly what they were talking about."