AN INTERVIEW WITH KENT RASMUSSEN
Not to drift too far toward “The Turning Point of My Life,” but do you recall any early experiences with Mark Twain that contributed to your later scholarly interests?
My interest in Mark Twain doubtless began when I was eight and my family inherited the 25-volume Collier’s Author’s National Edition of Mark Twain books from my paternal grandfather. My older brother and I shared a bedroom in which we kept those books on a shelf high above our beds. I always treasured books, but there were few in our home, so those 25 Mark Twain volumes were always special to me. Reading Tom Sawyer made a powerful impression on me when I was nine. In my mind’s eye, I can still visualize how I set down the book when I finished it. Disappointed that the book had ended, I briefly considered turning it back to page 1 and immediately starting it again. I think I decided I would enjoy a second reading more if I waited. The next reading I can remember came years later, however, when it was assigned reading in the seventh grade. At that time, I took a special pride in reading the novel from my own, private copy, instead of one provided by the school. I also took pride in owning and having read “Tom Sawyer Abroad” and “Tom Sawyer, Detective”–stories of which my classmates had never heard. As you can see, I was starting to grow arrogant about my Mark Twain expertise a long, long time ago.
Ten-year-old Kent (right) playing Monopoly with his cousin below the wall-mounted bookcase holding his family's Mark Twain books.
My next formal instruction in Mark Twain came in the tenth grade, when Huckleberry Finn was assigned reading. All I can clearly remember from that experience was having difficulty understanding Jim’s dialect. However, a friend from my high school days with whom I’m still in touch insists that while I was taking that class, I went around the school crowing about Huckleberry Finn’s being the greatest novel ever written. I have no recollection of doing something like that, but given how I feel about the novel now and allowing for the fact that I took that tenth-grade class more than sixty years ago, I suppose it is possible. Besides, I’ve already established that I was cocky about my Mark Twain expertise.
Incidentally, I took that class at Berkeley High School and had the pleasure of returning to my old school in 2011, when I was in Berkeley for a class reunion. An English teacher I had met at the Mark Twain Project at the nearby Cal campus invited me to speak to her class. To my surprise, I ended up speaking to about six classes that gathered in two sessions in the school’s library. While I was there, I gave the library some of my own Mark Twain books and a lot of others, including the complete Oxford Mark Twain set, which the late actor and sometime Mark Twain impersonator Bill Erwin had bequeathed to me.
Those junior high and high school English classes were the only times in my life that I have studied Mark Twain formally. Everything about Mark Twain I have learned since then I have learned on my own and through the Mark Twain conferences held at Elmira and Hannibal–all of which I’ve attended since 1997.
Kent & Pat Ober, Hannibal 2011 Conference
After finishing high school, I stayed in Berkeley to attend the University of California. Through those years I was completely unaware of the presence of the Mark Twain Papers on the campus, although I eagerly read Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth after it came out during the early 1960s. Now, of course, I can’t help but wonder how my life might have been different, had I wandered into Henry Nash Smith’s office and inquired about serving as a student volunteer. Never mind. That’s a turning point that didn’t turn. As Kevin Mac Donnell explains in the “legacy” article he wrote about me for the Mark Twain Journal’s spring 2015 issue, my career at Cal was erratic, as I jumped around among majors. I took nothing resembling a literature class beyond lower-division writing courses in the speech department and ended up graduating in economics (much to my later regret). Here, I should probably jump to your next question.
Though we all think of you as a Twainiac, I believe your doctorate was actually in African History. What drew you to that specialty?
Yes, that is true. At Cal I developed a passion for studying history. At first, I was strongly drawn to Latin American history and particularly the history of Mexico–a subject that still fascinates me. In fact, if I were to live my life over, I can easily imagine going into archaeology so I could work in Maya history. (By the way, I own a copy of Joe Goodman’s book on Maya hieroglyphs!) My interest in Latin American history peaked during the 1964-1965 academic year, which also happened to be the year of Cal’s Free Speech Movement (FSM). It was a heady time–possibly the single most exciting academic year ever experienced on any American college campus. In addition to getting caught up in FSM meetings and demonstrations, I was getting really deeply involved in my academic work for the first time and starting to think of making a career as a historian of Latin America. But then, something unexpected happened: I discovered African history!
I often think of Mark Twain’s “The Turning Point of My Life” essay when I recall the exact moment–the very minute!–when my life changed. At the beginning of the fall 1964 semester, I had to have my class schedule rubber-stamped by a graduate student adviser. After waiting in a long line for my turn, I presented my proposed schedule to a graduate student, who nodded his approval and then showed me a page in the campus’s supplemental class catalog. He pointed to a course that had been added late: “History 119A, Subsaharan Africa.” He asked me if it interested me and apologized for being required to show that entry to everyone. I immediately said “no,” and that was the end of the matter. For the moment, anyway.
One of the classes for which I signed up was a very popular course on modern U.S. history. When I showed up for its first session on a Tuesday morning, I discovered that the class was so popular its lectures were likely to mean standing-room-only for anyone not arriving ten minutes early. I’ve never been a ten-minutes-early kind of guy, so I knew that wouldn’t work. Luckily, I remembered that new African history class–the first such course ever offered at Cal–met at the same time. On Thursday morning, I went to that class and was instantly hooked. Before taking that course, I knew virtually nothing about Africa beyond what the average person picked up from Tarzan movies and the like. In my ignorance, I thought of most of sub-Saharan Africa as a great steaming jungle, in which nearly naked “natives” (how I loathe that word now!) ran around with spears, living in social chaos. It didn’t take me long to realize how far from reality that racist stereotype was. Indeed, one of the first things I learned about Africa was how well most African societies were organized. Two things then started drawing me deeper into African history. One was the excitement I experienced in constantly learning new things–things I had never even imagined–about Africa. It was much like the excitement I later experienced when I started learning about Mark Twain. The second thing was the dynamic energy of that history course’s instructor, a young British journalist and historian named Michael Crowder. Crowder had gotten into African studies through his work in West Africa, mainly in Nigeria. Making no pretense of expertise on other parts of Africa, he built his entire History 119A-B courses around West African history, focusing mostly on Nigeria. That left out a lot of sub-Saharan Africa, but it was more than enough to fill a year-long course.
After the excitement of the FSM year, my final year at Cal was a bit of anticlimax, culminating in my decision to change my major to economics, which I mistakenly felt I needed to understand better if I were to delve deeper into history. After graduating and getting married, I more or less put my life on hold by taking a job in an Oakland camera store, while my first wife finished at Cal, and I tried to figure out what to do next. I wanted to study African history in graduate school but also actually considered a career in retail business as a possible alternative. UCLA had one of the leading programs in African history, but my academic record wasn’t strong enough to guarantee me entrance there.
During the summer of 1966, I had my next “turning point” experience. As with the earlier t.p. experience I described, I remember it with crystal clarity. One night, my father and I had dinner at a pizza place just north of the Cal campus. As we were leaving, we ran into Thomas N. Layton, one of my high school classmates, and his father, whom my own father happened to know very well from work. As our fathers chatted, Tom and I got caught up on what we both had been doing since high school. I had just graduated from Cal and was selling cameras. Tom had just earned his master’s degree at Cornell and was about to begin a doctoral program. That chance meeting with Tom (who later went on to a distinguished career as an anthropologist) shook me up. It left me feeling like I was wasting time, so I decided it was time to act. Shortly afterward, my wife and I made a lightning trip to Los Angles, where I had a productive meeting with the graduate adviser in UCLA’s African area studies program. With her encouragement, I devised a plan for sneaking into the graduate history program through a back door. Remarkably, that plan actually worked.
On New Years Day, 1967, my wife and I packed everything we owned into a big U-Haul trailer and moved to Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. There we rented a cottage in Sherman Oaks and enrolled in San Fernando Valley State College (now Cal State University Northridge)–my wife in the teaching credential program and I as an “unclassified grad student.” During the spring semester, I padded my transcripts by taking courses in African politics, geography, and anthropology. After an agonizing wait through a miserably hot summer, I was accepted into UCLA’s master’s degree program in African studies on a probationary basis. I got the “probationary” label removed after the fall quarter, and by the spring quarter I had transferred to the history department’s master’s program. The rest, as they say (I’m not sure who “they” are), is history: I got my master’s degree in the spring of 1969 and my Ph.D. in the summer of 1975. By that time, I had made two research trips to Africa and had already written two books on Africa, in addition to my dissertation, which I later published.
I’m sure many of us can identify with your experience that coincidences can ultimately fuel lifelong passions. What was your dissertation topic and how did you settle on it?
My dissertation’s title is (if I remember correctly; it has been a long time) “Ndebele Wars and Migrations, c. 1821-1841.” If that doesn’t answer your question, perhaps the title I used for the published version will: Migrant Kingdom: Mzilikazi’s Ndebele in South Africa. That doesn’t do it, either? Okay, I’ll give you the long-winded explanation. Again, as Kevin pointed out in his “Legacy” article about me, much of what has happened to me in my life has been accidental. The road to my dissertation topic was paved with accidents.
My graduate studies in history covered all the vast regions of sub-Saharan Africa, but by 1970 I found myself focusing primarily on East Africa, and my course work included Swahili, the Bantu language most widely spoken between northern Mozambique and Kenya. During the summer of 1970, I traveled in East Africa and spent a month or two doing archival research on the history of the then-capital city, Dar es Salaam, in the national archives of Tanzania. That trip was an exciting start to my serious study of history, and by the following spring, I felt pretty much committed to writing a dissertation on the social history of Dar es Salaam. My wife was even offered a teaching job at an international school in Dar. Around that same time, I passed my qualifying exams for advancement to “candidacy,” and I applied for grants to support my research travel.
As notifications of grants went out to recipients, I heard nothing, and things began to look bleak. Assuming that I would probably come up dry and thus be unable to afford the travel necessary for research in Africa, I fished around for an alternative subject. The idea I came up with had a surprising relevance to the research on Mark Twain that I’m doing right now (more on that later). I proposed to study the history of Africa’s depictions in movies–a subject I figured I could research entirely within California. I began investigating the holdings of UCLA’s film archive and started working with a member of the theater arts faculty. Before long, however, I was notified that I had been awarded a Fulbright-Hays Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship, so research in East Africa was suddenly back in my future.
Wouldn’t you know it? Another snag arose. The University of Dar es Salaam, which then monitored all foreign academic research in Tanzania hadn’t approved my research application, and I couldn’t take up my grant without such approval. Why my project wasn’t approved, I never learned. Probably bureaucratic inefficiency, but I couldn’t wait indefinitely, so I scrambled to find yet another dissertation topic. As much as I liked East African history, I had a similar fondness for Southern African history, so I turned my attention in that direction. I had even studied South Africa’s Afrikaans language during my first year in grad school.
Incidentally, I still marvel at the fact that in order to advance to doctoral candidacy, I passed examinations in two languages I had never even heard of before I entered college–Afrikaans and Swahili. While I’m on this subject, I should mention that while in grad school, I translated the first two or three chapters of Tom Sawyer into Swahili. I don’t know where that translation is now, but I’d love to find it because my language instructor at the time told me it was pretty good. (Of course, if I ever do find those chapters, I probably won’t be able to understand them without faking it because of my familiarity with Tom Sawyer.)
The alternative dissertation topic I came up with was something to do with the 19th century history of the majority Shona people of what was in 1971 called Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). I got the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to approve that subject, but it then threw yet another wrench into my plans by telling me I couldn't use my federal grant to go to Rhodesia, which was then the subject of international sanctions because of its white government's racial policies. To get around that restriction, I redrafted my proposal to show that I could do all my research in Great Britain and South Africa (whose racial policies at the time were actually much worse than those of Rhodesia). That wasn't really true about my research needs, but it secured my grant and sent me on my way to England in the fall of 1971. As things turned out, I shifted my dissertation topic yet again to a subject more amenable to research outside Rhodesia ... but I ended up going to Rhodesia anyway. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm guessing that people who write dissertations about Mark Twain generally don't have to jump through similar hoops.
Kent sitting atop a massive granite hill near the capital of what is now Zimbabwe during a break from his dissertation research in August 1972.
I'll try to speed this up now by saying that the ensuing year proved to be one of the happiest and most productive I've ever experienced. With my first wife and infant son (now a professor of computer science at the University of Delaware), I lived in London for six months, spending my days researching in missionary and government archives and starting to learn what deep research on a big project really means. Along the way, I realized that because of the range of primary materials to which I would have access, a dissertation on the Shona people wasn't feasible, so I shifted my attention to the Shonas’ neighbors, the Ndebele, who had originated in South Africa during the early 19th century, when their original leader, Mzilikazi Khumalo, broke way from Shaka Zulu's kingdom. Here I can jump way ahead by simply explaining that while I researched the history of the Ndebele kingdom from its early 1820s origins through its 1890s conquest by the British, I ended up writing my dissertation on only the migratory decades that led up to the kingdom's permanent settlement in what is now southwestern Zimbabwe. The research material that didn’t go in my dissertation wasn’t wasted, however, as I later used it in other books.
That’s quite a road! Who directed your dissertation?
You might wish to rephrase that question after hearing how little direction my dissertation appeared to have. The four faculty members on my exam committee represented my four fields of examination: African history, colonial Latin American history, social anthropology, and Swahili literature (through the linguistics department). I was allowed that unusual fourth field because African history was only a single examination field, unlike the two fields available for other history subjects. I’m pretty sure representatives of all four fields later signed my dissertation, but I doubt anyone reading this interview would recognize any of their names. My primary adviser was Edward Alpers, and I also added a second Africanist, Terence O. Ranger, who had relocated to England by the time he signed. He also later wrote a foreword to my dissertation when I published it.
I know you ended up in publishing and independent research, but did you initially intend to teach once you’d completed your doctorate?
After receiving my doctorate in 1975, I taught a special UCLA adult class on East African history. I liked teaching that course and was confident I would do well as a college teacher, but my would-be academic career soon fizzled out because of my inability to find a regular teaching post. Like countless newly minted PhD's in all fields, I had hoped to fall into the traditional career path of settling into a teaching post--preferably in a research university--continuing my research on Ndebele history, and eventually expanding my dissertation into a really substantial book. Unfortunately for me and many other new PhD’s, that was bad time for finding jobs in ethnic study fields. Consequently, I feared not only that I might be shut out of an academic career, but that I might also see my dissertation rot in obscurity in the basement archives of the UCLA Research Library. Determined not to let that happen, I went on a quest to find a publisher for the dissertation as quickly as possible, knowing that its publishability would not improve with age. In one of the little miracles of my life, I succeeded. In 1978, my dissertation was co-published by two small but distinguished firms--Rex Collings in London and David Philip in Cape Town. I even received a cash advance! Of much greater importance, I had the satisfaction of seeing what was still essentially my unrevised dissertation get widely, and generally favorably, reviewed and acquired by libraries around the world. It was very gratifying to know that my work would be used by future historians. Around that same time, I also had the satisfaction of knowing that a little biography of Mzilikazi I had written was being in used in many African schools.
I might mention here that a notable literary event made possible publication of my dissertation, which otherwise had no literary connections. Its London publisher, Rex Collings, was unusual in specializing in children’s books and books on Africa. In 1972, he had published Richard Adams’s Watership Down after numerous other publishers had rejected it–primarily because its great length made it seem unsuitable for the children’s market (this was decades before the Harry Potter books). When I met Collings in 1977, he told me what he had made from selling publishing rights for the now-famous book to Penguin had netted him enough money to keep his own firm going for at least another four years. In other words, I owe publication of Migrant Kingdom to the great success of a novel about migrant rabbits!
I can’t resist also mentioning one more tangential literary event connected to Migrant Kingdom. The day I met Collings, I visited him at his firm’s brand-new office in a former Victorian era home in London’s Marylebone district. As I entered his office, I found him sitting among piles of unpacked boxes talking to an African man whom I didn’t recognize at the time. I quietly waited until they finished their conversation and the other man left the room. Collings then politely introduced himself to me, casually adding that the man who had just left the room was Wole Soyinka. Yes, that was Wole Soyinka–the great Nigerian playwright who would receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986! All these years later, I still feel a little miffed when I recall how easily Collings could have introduced me to Soyinka, who had been barely socially distanced from me. I suppose, however, I should forgive Collings, as he is credited for having single-handedly brought Soyinka’s greatness as a writer to the attention of the world, from the time he had been an editor at Oxford University Press through the years he was Soyinka’s publisher.
You mentioned earlier that there were some points of intersection between your work on the Ndebele and your interest in Twain. How do you see that continuity?
Participating in this interview has moved me to give a great deal of thought to a question I’ve often wondered about over the past thirty years but never fully worked out in my mind: What relevance has my background in African history had to my work in Mark Twain studies? Surely, there can’t be too many fields in the humanities more different. Surprisingly, however, Mark Twain actually mentions the subject of my dissertation in one of his books. As you know, he spent several months in South Africa in 1896 and discusses that region (not yet a unified polity at the time he visited there) in Following the Equator. Most of his attention in that book is on European figures, such as Cecil Rhodes, Albert Beit, and Leander Starr Jameson and the white Afrikaners more commonly known as “Boers”–all of whom I’ve written about in my books on Africa. He also mentions some native African peoples, such as the Zulu and their Nguni relatives, the Ndebele (“my” people). The latter he refers to by their Sotho name “Matabele” in Following the Equator’s chapters about how the British screwed over the people of what is now Zimbabwe. The Pudd’nhead Wilson maxim at the beginning of chapter 65--“In statesmanship get the formalities right, never mind about the moralities”–is essentially a condemnation of British duplicity in their relations with the Ndebele. My Ndbele.
It must have been around 2008, when organizers of the next Elmira conference put out a list of suggested paper topics that included “Mark Twain and Africa.” When I saw that, I figured it was about time for me to present a paper myself and it may as well be on Africa. Apart from his time in South Africa, Mark Twain’s connections with Africa were slight, so I was concerned about how much could be said on the subject. I figured I’d better explore resources, such as Mark Twain’s 1896 journals, in Berkeley before committing myself to a paper. By the time I made it to Berkeley, however, I had come up with my idea for a book collecting readers’ letters to Mark Twain. I wanted to get an idea of what resources Berkeley might have for that subject, too. Before asking to see Mark Twain’s journals at the Bancroft Library, I looked at sample files of letters to Mark Twain. I only had to read a few letters to decide to do the book that became Dear Mark Twain, and that was the end of any thought of a paper on Mark Twain and Africa.
I’m getting away from the original question here about how my African dissertation work has influenced my work on Mark Twain. The first thing that comes to mind is that the long hours I spent in British and African archives and libraries taught me the importance of meticulous care in finding and squeezing useful information out of primary resources. The Ndebele people whom I studied were a nonliterate society during the 19th century. Not a single document I examined was written by an Ndebele person in that time period. As a consequence, I had to draw on records written by outsiders–European explorers, hunters, traders, and missionaries–who visited the Ndebele, as well as people reporting on events from a distance. I also drew heavily on recorded oral traditions collected from Ndebele informants as well as traditions collected from members of the many societies with whom the Ndebele encountered–and often fought–during their two decades of migrating and shifting settlements between Zululand and present Zimbabwe. Clear, concrete information about the Ndebele was often thin, so it often required careful sleuthing work to reconstruct what actually happened. I regarded my dissertation as kind of a case study in historical reconstruction from diverse source materials, and I was very pleased when its South African publisher, David Philip, later said it read like a detective novel. I believe that the research and analytical skills I acquired from writing my dissertation, not to mention the stamina I developed from intense and prolonged work on a single subject, prepared me well for diving into similarly intensive work on Mark Twain.
I should add that even before I finished my dissertation, I coauthored Dictionary of African Historical Biography, for which I personally wrote more than 400 biographies. Shortly after I completed the dissertation, I began a second encyclopedic reference work, Historical Dictionary of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. Writing those two books well prepared me for writing Mark Twain A to Z, and the fact that I had written them no doubt contributed to Facts On File’s giving me the contract to write A-Z.
Kent actually published his fifth book on Africa in 1998--well after publishing Mark Twain A to Z. Around the same time he also published a book on the history of segregation in the United States. His other, more recent, non-Twainian writings have included books about World War I and Native Americans.
I needn’t go into the details here of how I came to write A-Z, as Kevin Mac Donnell tells that story well in his “Legacy” article about me in the Mark Twain Journal. For now, I’ll merely say that my getting the contract for the book may have been the greatest miracle in my life. I still marvel at the fact that Facts On File’s acquisitions editor Susan Schwartz had the courage to risk signing a complete unknown in the field of Mark Twain studies like me for a book of that nature. I can still feel uncomfortable at the thought of how many little turning points leading to that decision could have gone wrong and I can only wonder how different my life would be now had I not gotten that contract.
A common thread in my motivations for writing about African history and about Mark Twain is my desire to see my work read and appreciated. Neither field has made me rich, but I've taken great pleasure in knowing that my books are being read and appreciated. I know that's true of my books on Africa because I've seen them cited in numerous other books and because people teaching in that field in Africa have told me they had often seen my reference works plagiarized in student papers. Whether American students are now plagiarizing my Mark Twain books, I don’t know. But if they are, I’ll simply say I’m glad I’m not the person who has to grade their papers.
What realization(s) or encounter(s) do you think were primarily responsible for your later transition into Mark Twain studies?
As I pointed out earlier, accidents have played important roles in my life. What might be called one occurred during an African history seminar during my first year in grad school at UCLA. For a reason I no longer remember, a fellow student quoted Mark Twain’s scathing description of the Book of Mormon as “chloroform in print.” As a former Mormon myself, I probably laughed harder than anyone else, and I never forgot that line. More than twenty years later, I was back at UCLA, working as an editor on the Marcus Garvey Papers, for which, incidentally, I was finally making professional use of my training in African history. The Garvey Papers project was like a much smaller version of Berkeley’s Mark Twain Project and drew most of its funding from the same federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities. In contrast to the Mark Twain Project, the Garvey Papers dealt primarily with purely historical documents–those relating to the life and movement of the Jamaican pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey (1887-1940). A major part of his movement centered on Africa, and that part gave rise to the “back to Africa” slogan.
One day, that Book of Mormon quote I mentioned, along with Mark Twain’s famous quip about the coldest winter he had ever spent being a summer in San Francisco, came to mind. During my lunch break, I walked up to the campus’s Research Library to see if I could find the book in which Mark Twain recorded those remarks. I might add that I had a special interest in the San Francisco quote because I had grown up in the Berkeley hills, from which I looked across the bay at San Francisco almost every day of my youth. I knew San Francisco weather was quirky and generally colder than it was in Berkeley but “coldest winter” ever? Really?
As I was later to appreciate even more, the Research Library had a pretty good selection of Mark Twain books, and I quickly settled on Roughing It–which I had never read–as the most likely source of the Book of Mormon and San Francisco quotes. You might call that moment during the summer of 1990 the beginning of my “transition” into Mark Twain studies. Reading Roughing It was like a revelation to me. I loved its evocative descriptions, its outlandish characters, and its comic incidents. I was particularly taken in by Mark Twain’s use of plain language to transform something ordinary into something marvelous. A simple example is his description of his “pitiful little Smith & Wesson's seven-shooter, which carried a ball, like a homeopathic pill, and it took the whole seven to make a dose for an adult.” Mark Twain has a wonderful ability to write descriptive prose in ways that stick in one’s memory. My pleasure in reading Roughing It for the first time was enhanced by the fact that I read part of the book while vacationing in the eastern Sierras and visiting sites such as Mono Lake, which Roughing It describes so vividly ... and accurately.
Of course, I found the Book of Mormon quote in Roughing It, but the San Francisco weather quote eluded me. In fact, most of what Mark Twain says about San Francisco weather in that book contradicts that quote. As I later learned, no one has ever successfully linked that quote to Mark Twain. The Mark Twain Project got so many inquiries about it that its editors printed a handout on the subject to save time in answering questions.
I happened to read Roughing It around the same time I had been enjoying Leonard Louis Levinson’s lively collections of witty and often acerbic quotes, The Left-Handed Dictionary and Webster’s Unafraid Dictionary, and I was already an admirer of Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. As I read Roughing It, it occurred to me that a similar collection of quotes might be built from Mark Twain’s writings alone. Being completely unaware of Caroline Harnsberger’s and Alex Ayres’s already published quote collections (both of which I later discovered by accident), I decided to assemble such a collection myself. To that end, I set myself the goal of reading all of Mark Twain’s published works.
It's hard to imagine going from that point—where your primary adult experience with Twain is a recent reading of Roughing It—to actually compiling A-Z. Tell me more about that process.
A constant throughout my life has been my desire to write books. I’ve never seriously expected to get rich and famous from my writing, but I have always liked the idea of being read. It was thus not out of character for me to get a publishing contract for the book I expected to call Mark Twain’s Dictionary. I got the contract from the reference-book specialist Scarecrow Press, which had recently published the second edition of my reference book on Zimbabwe. What I had in mind was a homely little hardbound book that would sell perhaps 500 copies to libraries and would, with luck, earn me enough in royalties to cover what I expected to lay out for books, photocopies, and other expenses.
It may be worth pausing for a moment to say something about my work plan. Keep in mind that at that point, all I aspired to do was collect as many snappy quotes as I could find in Mark Twain’s writings that might serve as at least approximations of dictionary-type entries. I wasn’t looking to analyze or interpret Mark Twain’s writings or to discover anything profound about the man or his writings. With the habits of my African history training and writing, however, I wanted my “Mark Twain Dictionary” to have a high standard of authority and accuracy. I wasn’t interested in the kinds of “attributed” quotes found in many collections. Every quote I used had to come from an authoritative text of Mark Twain’s own writings, and for every quote I planned to provide precise chapter and verse. Those standards came from the “scholar” in me. Not particularly lofty ideals, I suppose, but definitely not characteristic of many published quote collections.
My methodology had an interesting effect on me. Remember that I had had no formal training in textual analysis and had mostly approached literature as books to be read for pleasure. Searching for pithy quotes in Mark Twain’s writings helped me to look harder at what I was reading and think more about what texts were saying and what they meant. In short, it made me a more critical reader and started me on the path toward an understanding of Mark Twain.
Kent's first immersion in literary writing was co-editing this fantastical novel about Africa written for a newspaper serial under a pseudonym by African American journalist George S. Schuyler during the 1930s.
After about a year and a half, I had read most of the books in standard sets of Mark Twain’s writings, along with many others and had assembled a rough draft of my planned dictionary. I generally read one book at a time, highlighting prospective quotes in my own copies and marking them with Post-Its in library copies. As I finished each book, I entered the marked quotes into a database of my own design, assigning each one a key word, and adding information on its source and other details. Having the whole collection in a database allowed me to edit and organize the entries in a variety of ways without having to retype texts. Eventually, I exported everything to a file arranged under alphabetically arranged subject headings, with the entries under each heading arranged chronologically. By the beginning of 1992, I had a substantial draft of the book printed out and ready to present for review.
In another of those accidents that have punctuated my life, my timing was fortuitous, for it happened that by the end of 1991 I found myself unexpectedly unemployed—one of the perils of working for projects such as the Marcus Garvey Papers that are funded with “soft” money. After having risen to the highest level of the university’s editor ladder, my salary was too hard, and the project’s funds were too soft, so I had to go. As painful and disheartening as that blow was, it was probably a good thing it happened. If it hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be having this conversation now. Scarecrow probably would have published my “Mark Twain Dictionary,” and that would have been the end of my Mark Twain career. Instead, losing my job forced me to reassess my priorities while looking for employment, and one of the first decisions I made was to waste no more time on my quote-collecting hobby. I had my Scarecrow contract canceled and grabbed every freelance editorial job I could scrounge up. Meanwhile, another of those little miracles that have changed my life began taking shape.
I’ve told this story before, so I won’t go into details here. Instead, I’ll merely say that thanks to my history of networking among UCLA’s campus writers and editors, I was put in touch with a literary agent willing to take me on. With my “Mark Twain’s Dictionary” and other manuscripts ready to go, she canvassed publishers. The quote book elicited interest but found no takers; however, Facts On File happened to be looking for someone to write a Mark Twain reference book similar to its recently published William Shakespeare A to Z, and, against all odds, I turned out to be that someone. (After the editor who made that decision moved to a new publisher, she remembered my quote book and gave me a call that led to The Quotable Mark Twain.)
We first met in Hannibal in 2011, and I distinctly remember a scholar from Japan asking you to sign his copy of Mark Twain A-Z and telling you, “This is my Bible.” (If memory serves, that’s an exact quote!) I doubt many of us ever work far from our own copies of A-Z, but you’ve published at least a dozen books on Twain. Do you have a personal favorite from among your many projects?
It’s certainly gratifying to hear compliments like that. In fact, when Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan spoke at the Elmira conference in 2001, Duncan said Mark Twain A to Z had been their “bible” while they were making their Mark Twain documentary. What most tickled me about that remark, however, was the audible gasp it elicited from my wife. At the first conference I attended in 1997, I wasn’t sure what kind of reception I would get. I was a rank outsider to the field when I published A-Z in 1995, and I feared I might be regarded as an unwelcome interloper for having presumed to write such a comprehensive reference work on a field in which I had no background or credentials whatsoever. Kevin Bochynski (the current administrator of the Mark Twain Forum), who had given me prodigious help while I was writing the book, assured me that scholars “would line up” to thank me for the book. I had my doubts, but to my astonishment, what Kevin predicted almost literally came true. Not only did dozens of people thank me for the book; the Mark Twain Circle gave me a certificate of appreciation for my “Contributions to the Study of Mark Twain.” All that naturally surprised and delighted me, but even more surprises were yet to come. I figured that at that conference I had gotten my fifteen minutes of fame and that would be the end of it. Not so. Since 1997, I have attended five more conferences at Elmira and three at Hannibal, and at every one of them, people have approached me to thank or compliment me for Mark Twain A to Z! Despite the fact that I have published at least one new book on Mark Twain before every conference, the bulk of attention I have received has always been for A-Z. I’m not sure how I should feel about this. I’ve now published eleven more Mark Twain books, several of which I’m pretty proud of, but frankly, it seems a little strange that most of the attention I get is for the first Mark Twain book I published twenty-five years ago. I suppose it makes sense, however, because A-Z is a comprehensive reference work that almost every serious Mark Twain owns and uses frequently. Hell, I even refer to it occasionally myself.
You asked if I have a favorite from among my Mark Twain books. A-Z naturally ranks at the top for many reasons, but let’s take it as a given and pick another title. That would have to be Dear Mark Twain: Letters from His Readers. Like that of A-Z, its creation was an unmitigated labor of love–from the hundreds of joyful hours I spent finding the letters and selecting which of them to publish to the still more hours I spent researching the mostly obscure correspondents and writing their stories. The book is also special to me because–in contrast to A-Z and some of my other books proposed by publishers–its conception was entirely my own idea. A very literate friend once suggested that in publishing the book I might have created a new literary genre. I don’t know if that’s true, but I know of nothing quite like it that has been published about any other major writer. When the book came out, I was excited about the impact it would have in revealing a dimension of Mark Twain that was previously little known, viz., what ordinary readers thought of him and his writings. What’s more, I thought the book was awfully fun simply to read. For all those reasons, I had hopes it would attract some national attention and become my best-selling book. Alas, none of that was to be. The book garnered fine reviews and generated a very faint national buzz, but the New York Times didn’t give it a front-page mention, no talk shows ever contacted me, and the book’s sales soon settled into the category of “still exhibits some signs of life but keep the oxygen handy.” (My best-selling book is The Quotable Mark Twain, which though first published fifteen years earlier than Dear Mark Twain presently stands more than three million places higher on Amazon’s “Best Sellers Rank” list!)
There are things about each of my other books that make them special to me. The Quotable Mark Twain, for example, is the unexpectedly successful realization of the modest quote-collecting hobby that brought me into Mark Twain studies, and I’m rather proud of the way I organized it and added illustrations. Perhaps my most unfairly neglected book, Bloom’s How to Write About Mark Twain is a guide to essay writing I never could have imagined myself writing back when I was writing essays in high school. My two Critical Insights volumes and Mark Twain and Youth, which I co-edited with Kevin Mac Donnell, are filled with innovative essays by scholars with whom it was a thrill to work, and I take pride in my contributions toward shaping many of those essays. In Mark Twain’s Autobiographical Writings, which I edited for Penguin Classics, I put together an unusual combination of texts that moved Alan Gribben to make a comment in his Mark Twain Forum review that is perhaps my favorite line from the hundreds of reviews my books have received through more than forty years:
What Rasmussen has done--and it is another one of his shrewd feats that will leave more than a few Twain scholars saying to themselves, "Well, I could have edited a book like Rasmussen's myself (if I had only thought of it)" ...
I love that line because it acknowledges my originality in selecting texts. I like to think that I bring original thinking to all my writings, but I can’t recall another example of my originality being praised in such a delicious way. Thanks, Alan.
I also have a special fondness for my little book Mark Twain for Dog Lovers–another unmitigated labor of love that I worked on at the same time my pal Mark Dawidziak was putting together Mark Twain for Cat Lovers for the same publisher. I considered myself blessed to be able not only to work on a book that was that much fun to edit but also to be paid for it. It’s also difficult not to tingle with excitement at the thought of how well the dog and cat books might sell if the publisher had actually done anything to promote them. Incidentally, an aspect of my dog book that might not be evident because of its playful title is that it contains a considerable amount of primary material about Mark Twain never before published in another book.
Despite the slowness with which Mark Twain from Page to Screen is coming together, it is another of my true labors of love. I would be surprised if anyone who has read my recent articles on the subject in the Mark Twain Journal or in John Bird’s Mark Twain in Context didn’t laugh aloud at least once. What screenwriters and producers have done--or have tried to do--to Mark Twain’s stories is often almost beyond belief, and my book will be full of such surprises. I can only hope it will also be full of serious insights. It’s always invigorating to do research in a new field, and I imagine few fields are more entertaining and full of surprises than film history.
As you’ve delved into the archives over the years, have your impressions of Twain and his work changed?
Not that I’ve noticed. When I was writing Mark Twain A to Z I couldn’t help but observe that I never got bored with the man, despite being fixated on him, ten hours a day, seven days a week, for two and a half years. If the demands of real life hadn’t intervened, I would have been happy to soldier on at that pace for another two and a half years. In my introduction to the book, I wrote “Virtually everything about this extraordinary man fascinates me.” Then, paraphrasing Roughing It’s description of Captain John Nye, I added, “Surely, such another man has never lived. I have more questions about him now than when I started ...” Even now, twenty-six years and eleven more books later, I can still say the same thing.
Back when Shelley Fisher Fishkin was writing Lighting Out for the Territory during the late nineties, she and I swapped emails almost daily. One day, she had an epiphany and sent me a note with this observation (which I write from memory): “I’ve figured out why we never get bored with Mark Twain ... it’s because he connects with everything!” Exactly! Think about it: Mark Twain traveled through much of the world, wrote about almost everything of interest during his time–past and current world events, leaders in almost every field (many of whom he personally met), scientific discoveries, religions, daily trivialities, speculations about the future, and much more. Name almost anything from his time you can think of, and chances are he had something to say about it. Indeed, his own daughter Clara marveled at how her father “could manage to have an opinion on every incident, accident, invention, or disease in the world.” How could anyone become bored with a person like that, especially when he expressed his opinions in such wonderful and often humorous language? When I was writing A-Z, I often thought to myself, “I’ve written a book about a society [the Ndebele], I’ve written a book about a whole country [Zimbabwe], and I’ve written a book about a continent [Africa], but the biggest subject I’ve yet tackled is Mark Twain!” A bit hyperbolic, for sure, but remember that I was talking to myself.
Do you have any Twain-related projects in the pipeline right now?
I do, indeed, but I’m a little embarrassed by how far that pipeline has stretched. For more than three years, I’ve had a contract with the University of Missouri Press for a book on screen adaptations of Mark Twain’s works. Film is a subject that has interested me most of my life. As is the case with literature, I’ve never had any formal training in the field, but I have done some related work. When I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, for example, I had a job as a projectionist in a run-down two-screen theater on the north side of the campus. Before I started at UCLA’s Garvey Papers, I had a commercial editorial job that included writing all the film reviews and program notes for a pay-TV service’s monthly program guide. And, as I mentioned earlier, while I was in grad school I started researching the history of films about Africa until I got the fellowship that enabled me to go abroad to research my dissertation. And, for what it’s worth, I also collect 16 mm films and own two sound projectors. My collection includes three dozen Mark Twain-related features, shorts, and documentaries. Digital movie formats are making film collections like mine obsolete, but anyone who has worked with actual celluloid films knows there is something exciting about seeing, smelling, and touching film that no DVD, Blu-ray, or download can match. I imagine it’s similar to the feeling vinyl record buffs have.
As for my unfinished book, it will focus on Mark Twain’s four most frequently adapted novels–Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Prince and the Pauper, and Connecticut Yankee–plus Pudd’nhead Wilson and analyze how aspects of each book have been translated to screen productions. Right now, I’m thinking of titling the book Mark Twain from Page to Screen. Instead of a film-by-film approach, I’ll be looking at the books’ story lines, themes, characters, and other elements. My research has taken me deep into original scripts, production notes, contemporary reviews and news stories, published interviews, biographies, and other materials. With more than fifty different productions to consider, the volume and quality of source material I’ve explored has naturally varied greatly, and I will certainly not attempt to give equal space to every production. My goal is keep my focus on Mark Twain’s texts and do my best to demonstrate and explain how they have been adapted to the screen.
As you might imagine with the length of time I’ve been doing research, I’ve accumulated an immense amount of material. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say I have more than enough to write an entire book on adaptations of each of the novels I’m covering (except, perhaps, for Pudd’nhead Wilson, which has seen only two significant screen adaptations). One of the interesting problems I’ve encountered is what to do about the many adaptation projects that were considered or even begun but never made. With so much to say about productions that were finished, I decided not to devote much space to those that weren’t. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist looking deeply into the MGM Huckleberry Finn musical that never got off the ground during the 1940s and 1950s. The unused scripts, detailed production notes, and other materials I found in film archives were simply too compelling to overlook. As you no doubt know, I decided to use all that material to write an article about that aborted musical for the Mark Twain Journal, whose editors, Alan Gribben and Irene Wong, shared my enthusiasm. To my astonishment, what I began as a modest spin-off from my book grew to a two-part monster totaling about 45,000 words filling 125 pages. If I needed 45,000 words to cover one film that wasn’t made, how many words, I wondered, would I need to cover the fifty or so productions that were made? Meanwhile, I’m looking into the possibility of turning that huge journal article into a book. I also have lots more ideas for future journal articles about film-related subjects that I won’t have room to cover in depth in my book. Finally, I suspect I’ll never run out of ideas for still more books–such as one about the Mississippi River. I’ve built a substantial collection of books about the Father of Waters, and I find every one of them fascinating.
Finally, what is your best advice for scholars just beginning their journeys into Twain Studies?
As one who is not a true academic, I’m not sure I’m qualified to advise young people starting academic careers. I’ve never had to worry about such things as tenure tracks, departmental rules, curriculum requirements, or impressing other scholars who might have influence on my career. I’ve always studied and written about what interests me, and I’ve been more than a little lucky in finding publishers willing to publish what I write. What I can say to young scholars is this: If you hope to get as much pleasure out of your work as I have, follow your hearts, and, as much as possible, focus on subjects you love, rather than those that other scholars think are important. Even more importantly, don’t be afraid to take your work in new directions.
I believe the secret of generating fresh ideas is asking questions that haven’t been asked before. When I first thought of working for a doctoral degree, I felt daunted by the bedrock dissertation requirement of coming up with an entirely original subject and using evidence that hasn’t been used before. That concern helped draw me to study African history, a field in which so little professional work had been done that I was sure finding original topics would be easy. That proved to be true; however, I was wrong in thinking that a field like American history had already been worked over so thoroughly that finding original research subjects would be difficult. Since writing my African history dissertation, I’ve researched and written about Mark Twain and other subjects (including American history) and discovered that it is easy to find original topics in almost every field. Again, it’s largely a matter of asking fresh questions. This, incidentally, is a method I discuss repeatedly and at length in my book Bloom’s How to Write About Mark Twain. That book is part of a series aimed at students writing high school and undergraduate essays, but I think many of the points it makes are equally relevant to graduate-level research and writing.
If I may change the subject for a moment, I’ll make an embarrassing confession. As you know, “deconstruction” was an important subject in literary fields about twenty years ago, but I never had the slightest idea what the term even meant. I felt very uncomfortable about my ignorance on the subject and wondered if I should do something about correcting it until one day during the 2001 Elmira conference when I strolled across the campus while having a pleasant conversation with Lou Budd–then generally considered the dean of Mark Twain scholars. As we neared Emerson Hall, Lou casually mentioned, “the next session in the auditorium is about deconstruction.” He paused for a moment, then added, “I won’t be there.” I didn’t go there, either. And since then I’ve rarely given deconstruction a second thought. Does anyone else think about deconstruction now? I don’t know, but I’m grateful to have had the freedom not to have to worry about such things and hope that young scholars have similar freedom.