The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2010

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NOV 2010 Issue

Twain and Trane

Harriet Elinor Smith
Autobiography of Mark Twain
(University of California Press, 2010)

Chris DeVito
Coltrane on Coltrane: The John Coltrane Interviews
(Chicago Review Press, 2010)

Other than their iconic status in the world of letters and notes, Mark Twain and John Coltrane seem entirely remote from one another. One was a writer and the other a saxophonist. They lived in different eras and had vastly different personas. One was a voluble public figure, the other shy except when on stage. And yes, one was white and the other black. But as I read two fascinating new volumes—the Autobiography of Mark Twain and Coltrane on Coltrane—I couldn’t help thinking how both figures make a seemingly simple question even more perplexing. What, indeed, is the best way to tell a life? Twain, of course, wrestled with this question for the better part of his career, as the Autobiography illustrates in great detail. During his lifetime, he told readers plenty of true stories about his own life, most famously in Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), and Life on the Mississippi (1883). And real people he had known served as the basis for Tom Sawyer and several others of his fictional characters. But such fragments did not add up to a full-scale autobiographical account of the real life of the writer.

That he was known as a satirist, and that Mark Twain was not even his real name, might have caused a skeptical reader to wonder about the veracity of any such accounts. This hardly stopped Twain from trying. The Autobiography (assembled under the direction of chief editor Harriet Elinor Smith) showcases his early attempts, the most important of which explain his pivotal role in convincing a reluctant, and under-confident, Ulysses S. Grant to publish his memoirs (which Twain’s publishing house made a killing on). In those early efforts, Twain also served up several entertaining portraits of the many Wall Street swindlers, stuffed shirt traveling lecturers, and various other fools he encountered. 

But after three decades of false starts, by the early 1900s Twain realized that his biggest autobiographical obstacle was himself—or more specifically, the constraints he faced as a writer. As a journalist, novelist, and all-around story-teller, he couldn’t escape the dictates of narrative, chiefly the need for a beginning, middle, and end. Yet such is not how memory works. “With a pen in hand,” he observed, “the narrative stream is a canal; it moves slowly, smoothly, decorously, sleepily, it has no blemish except that it is all blemish. It is too literary, too prim, too nice.” In order to let his memories flow in many directions, he chose to put down the pen and literally tell the tale of his life.

Oral recollection, Twain discovered, would enable him to start the story wherever he pleased. He could then “wander at free will” and “talk only about thing which interests [me] for the moment.” Liberated from chronology, such a format would be more honest and intimate, and capture the reality of how his mind worked. “What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and words!” he declared in one of his prefatory notes to the final autobiography. “The mass of him is hidden—it and its volcanic fires toss and boil, and never rest, night nor day. These are his life, and they are not written, and cannot be written.” By delaying publication of the work until 100 years after his death, Twain felt he would be free to share his innermost thoughts, unafraid of the reactions of his family or contemporaries. In “speaking from the grave,” Twain stated, he hoped to achieve the intimacy of a “love letter.”

There are indeed plenty of intimate moments in the work, which Twain dictated to a stenographer. Some of my favorites are when Twain notes the changes in the directions of his memories—e.g., “Now let me see, there was something I wanted to talk about—and I supposed it would stay in my head. I know what it is—about the big Bonanza in Nevada.” Such passages amount to raw footage, most of which would normally end up on the cutting room floor—but hearing Twain think aloud makes it seem like he’s alive and talking to you. A bit later, just after his discussion of his family’s regular games of charades at home, Twain digresses as follows: “To Susy [his daughter], as to all Americans, General Grant was the supremest of heroes, and she longed for a sight of him. I took her to see him one day—however let that go. It belongs elsewhere. I will return to it by and by.” Here again, such statements make a literary legend seem very real. If subjected to an editor, this passage likely would have been cut, or at least queried.
But this is not to say that the Autobiography is full of endless digressions and outtakes. Twain was far too practiced a public speaker and story-teller to ramble incoherently. Besides, he wasn’t alone as he told his story. As Harriet Elinor Smith explains in her Introduction, Twain most often sat in his bed—at 21 Fifth Avenue—with an accomplished editor, Albert Bigelow Paine, and an experienced stenographer, Josephine Hobby, at his side. One can only imagine the reactions—and perhaps editorial gestures—of Twain’s audience, especially Paine. And some of the tales Twain tells, such as the one of how he lucked out of a duel, seem a bit too neatly tied together, like he’s told them many times over the years.
Twain’s Autobiography is thus experimental, but not free-form. To borrow his metaphor, his narrative stream is less like a canal than a tributary—and it’s well worth panning for the gold. Above all else, the work uniquely captures the processes of individual memory. As Twain reminds us, the reason that the book is not bound by chronology is “because life does not consist mainly—or even largely—of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.” Which brings to my mind the work of a certain saxophonist.
A half-century after Twain, John Coltrane reckoned with his own “volcanic fires” and the “storm of thoughts” in his head most certainly came out of the other end of his horn. Thoughtful but hardly loquacious, Coltrane’s own observations of his life and work often seem only to scratch the surface of his inner person. It is this very elusiveness that makes Coltrane on Coltrane, a collection of nearly everything Coltrane ever said publicly about himself, so captivating. Even though no explosive solo bursts forth on these pages, as I read the book I could hear a great mind and horn at work.
In the collection, Coltrane archivist Chris DeVito compiles a wide range of profiles, interviews, reviews, and liner notes that in one way or another conveyed some of Coltrane’s thoughts throughout his career. There are many filters—e.g. critics and their editors—who shaped the original material, so this is no sense an autobiography. But since many of the interviews presented in the volume are verbatim transcripts, the elements of one are here. Regardless, whether the material is raw or polished, Coltrane emerges very much alive, speaking in his own way from the grave.
After breaking out into stardom by the late ’50s, Coltrane was forced to contend with the charge that his expressive solos made him sound “angry.” (Though Twain dealt frequently with race, in both his writings and the Autobiography, as a white person he never had to worry about such an accusation.) On one level the charge itself was enormously condescending, especially amidst the fight for black equality; but on another, Coltrane was also breaking away from Miles and the cool jazz style. And so in 1960, Coltrane inelegantly but honestly explained to a Swedish interlocutor that “maybe [his playing] sounds angry because I’m trying so many things at one time I haven’t sorted them out. I have a whole bag of things that I’m trying to work through and get the one essential.” Here, as elsewhere, it was not exactly clear what the one thing was, but that hardly made his goal any less “essential.”
When distilled by a writer and editor, Coltrane’s voice was less halting, but his aims were no more precise. “I don’t know what I’m looking for,” he told Downbeat’s Barbara Gardner in 1961. “Something that hasn’t been played before. I don’t know what it is. I know I’ll have that feeling when I get it. I’ll just keep searching.” The very open-endedness of that search was its greatest virtue. “Music,” he informed Downbeat editor Don Lees one year later, is “just another way of saying this is a big, beautiful universe we live in, that’s been given to us, and here’s an example of just how magnificent it is.” Perhaps the words just don’t yet exist that identify the places where Coltrane’s horn traveled.
How then do we capture the lives of these two figures, one so relentlessly articulate and the other so expressive by other means? To be honest, I really don’t know. I can say that the reversal involved in hearing one, and reading the other, produces a treasure trove—full not least of the little things, like Twain’s descriptions of castor oil treatments and his love of cigars, or Coltrane’s penchant for salted walnuts and a post-show cup of hot water and a cigarrette. The little stuff indeed says a lot about larger-than-life figures. As the note below suggests, I am focused on something else right now, so I will wrap this up here: As they composed, experimented, and riffed their way through their way through life, Twain and Trane left behind vast and lasting legacies, making their works foremost among “My Favorite Things.”

In memory of Howard Harrington, who passed away on November 1, 2010, at the age of 46.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2010

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