Mark Twain: A Skeptic's Progress



of an Exhibit

by Dawn Eshelman

Published on December 30, 2010

  • Description:

    What would Mark Twain think of today’s experiential museum, filled with gadgets and interwoven with social media? I imagine a huff, a puff on a cigar, and a head of disheveled white hair turning away to gaze out over the porch while crafting a clever, gruff reproach. He was, after all, a man who was born in the pre-electricity time of candlelight, and whose beloved writing celebrates a flame-like human spirit while warning of the destructive power of the industrial revolution. But, actually, once his great-great-grandchildren turned him on to Facebook, I bet the grand declaimer would out-status-update them within a month.

    My affection for Twain, the author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and many other yarns, brought me to the beautiful Morgan Library and Museum, where an exhibition on his life and work (created with the New York Public Library) coincided with the centennial of Twain’s death. I am, I will admit, partial to the less traditional and more experimental style of exhibitions, and I wasn’t sure the Morgan, with its upper-crusty reputation, would (want to) deliver the type of experiential museum visit I wished to herald in this exhibition review.

    I say this bolstered by newly inspired Twainian sass: I was right. It was a plain vanilla exhibition. Good vanilla, but vanilla, nonetheless. I thought about seeking out some more unusual exhibition about which to write, but I felt loyal to the exhibit’s loveably stubborn subject. And the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to spend some time thinking about differences in approach between two camps of exhibit developers – those that favor traditional, academic offerings, and those that favor participatory exhibits.

    I entered the Morgan and at once was invigorated by the light-filled atrium, warm and sunny on a cold winter’s day. I was glad to receive a free audio guide, but disappointed to learn it was only for the library and permanent exhibits. I quickly explored the majestic library, in awe of the intricate, multi-colored marble floors and endless filigree, with its secret spiral staircases and wealth of unique books. A friendly staffer talked aloud to the visitors, asking if we had any questions, and, undaunted by the lack of replies, succeeded in reading minds with the helpful information he provided.

    In another wing of the building, I encountered the Twain exhibit, interestingly named Mark Twain: A Skeptic’s Progress. Twain, though not a luddite (this exhibit taught me that he went bankrupt trying to realize a new type of printing press), was certainly suspicious of anything modern society called “progress.” My first glance into the exhibit elicited two reactions. First, I was surprised to find myself quite moved by the simple beauty of the colors in the room. The walls were a pale gray, the silk-screened text a deep chocolate, and the objects – mostly black-and-white letters, writings, and charcoal-and-ink illustrations – were framed in plain gold frames that seemed to glow. The room was (in great contrast to the library) unadorned, classy yet earthy, and reverently simple. My second reaction, however, was a sinking feeling. In this single smallish room over sixty objects awaited my close attention. I felt a little disappointed by the small size of the room while daunted by the high concentration of text-based objects.

    Once I gave over to the textual experience, however, I was engaged. Here were the drafts of famous novels in Twain’s own fountain pen hand, the deleted bits legible beneath the asterisk-shaped cross-outs. There is something very special about seeing a beloved author’s handwriting – a fingerprint of the artistic soul, and an illustration their unique humanity. Taking the time to read this writer’s efforts, I was rewarded with his sophisticated thoughts, juicy language, and clever humor the way only a reader can be. Though the small exhibit offered no seating, I often made use of handsome gray leather hand rests lining the glass cases. This practical element let me know that my comfort had been taken into consideration. Even such a small thing was surprisingly satisfying in a tactile sense, and its quality gave a feeling of aesthetic integrity.

    I was glad to see the label text quoted and reflected the subject, using vocabulary that was likely to be found nowhere else in the museum that day:

    Skeptical tumble-bug
    High and sassy
    Bogus decorations
    Spoonful of supposition
    Masterful pastiche
    Shabby career
    Clownish self-loathing

    The room was organized into clear sections, somewhat chronological chapters in Twain’s life and subjects of his writing: Detective Fiction, Following the Equator, Sir Walter Scott, Life on the Mississippi, A Connecticut Yankee, and the grand finale, Huckleberry Finn. One of the most successful sections was Sir Walter Scott, named after Twain’s favorite enemy, and recipient of Twain’s hefty accusation of causing more destruction than anyone who ever wrote. In an exchange of several passionately angry letters, Twain’s arguments are colorful and vicious, declaring Scott’s role as one who helped slave-owning southerners justify their way of life through his novels. The focused nature of this section, along with the intensity of its content, propelled the reader along the various letters, creating a suspenseful narrative.

    The element of Twain’s life that was driven home most effectively for me was his dedication to the cause of race and class equality, and his understanding of their intertwined relationship. A quote from novelist Toni Morrison packs a punch near the end of the exhibit: “Mark Twain talked about racial ideology in the most powerful, eloquent, and instructive way I have ever read. Edgar Allan Poe did not. He loved white supremacy and the planter class, and he wanted to be a gentleman, and he endorsed all of that. He didn’t contest it or critique it.” I do not mean to make any implications about the politics of the Morgan family or museum, but it was interesting to read this quote in an environment that was extremely dedicated to gentlemanly ways, though certainly with a different definition of the word “gentleman.” An exhibited letter from Twain to Mr. Morgan thanking him for purchasing an original manuscript put the museum’s friendly relationship to the artist in clear terms, adding another layer of complexity and interest.

    Only once I was home and perusing the Morgan’s website again did I discover that the museum offered, on occasion, a tour guided by an actor embodying Twain, himself. How sorry I was to have missed this! It surely adds an element of participation I was craving. I wonder if this might have also provided an opportunity for discussion about the controversy behind Twain’s racial content and vocabulary, something that might elicit very different responses from each visitor.

    I found myself considering, due to my own preferences, ways to increase the exhibit’s capacity for interaction without severely altering the formal vision of the exhibit developers and the institution that housed it, and found myself coming back to a particularly striking image. The picture that stays with me most is that of Twain, fancied up in his white suit yet keeping it real with unkempt hair, posing for a series of pictures in a rocking chair on a porch. His handwriting mars each frame of the filmstrip-like photographs with this quote: “A series of moral photographs: Shall I learn to be good? I will sit here and think it over. Oh, never mind, I reckon I’m good enough just as I am.” I imagine a simple and elegant rocker in the exhibition space, perhaps with a thick volume of Twain’s writings nearby. When empty, the rocker could evoke Twain’s presence; when occupied, it would frame Twain’s favorite hero, the everyman, in modern form. Either way, it would provide something Twain might call progress – a good place to read.

Latest Comments (3)

lovely review, Dawn

by Kathleen Mclean - January 02, 2011

How long is this exhibition on view? I definitely will make a special trip when I’m next in NYC. I hope a rocking chair finds it way into the exhibition before it closes.

Thanks, Kathy

by Dawn Eshelman - January 03, 2011

Unfortunately the exhibit closed yesterday, but you can see the online version here:

A simple rocking chair

by Wendy Pollock - February 08, 2011

Your review and ideas about what might have further animated the Morgan Library’s exhibit called to mind a time many years ago when my family visited the Twain house – probably in Connecticut, though I’m not sure. What I do remember is seeing a white-haired man through the window of the study. I’m not sure he even said anything, but the simple presence of someone who, in a child’s mind, might have almost been Mark Twain, brought the building and objects to life. Thank you for a well-written review!

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