In June 2017, I visited the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, where Mark Twain and his family lived from 1874 to 1891. That 17-year period is the longest that Twain ever lived in one place, and those years were among the happiest and most productive of his life.
In the billiard room on the third floor, Twain kept a writing desk, and this is where he wrote Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, and Life on the Mississippi, among other works. Twain biographer Justin Kaplan described the beautiful but unorthodox house as “part steamboat, part medieval fortress and part cuckoo clock.” After the house was built, Twain said, “It is a home – & the word never had so much meaning before.” Later, he would write:
To us, our house . . . had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with; and approvals and solicitudes and deep sympathies; it was of us, and we were in its confidence and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction.
For anyone who has ever been disappointed by a visit to the purported Shakespeare birthplace in Stratford, a trip to the Mark Twain House – which, just like Twain himself, utterly oozes authenticity – is the perfect antidote. In 2012, the Twain House was named one of the Ten Best Historic Homes in the world in The Ten Best of Everything, a National Geographic Books publication. Right next to the house is a more modern building, the Mark Twain Museum. It features a Ken Burns film about Twain, numerous exhibits from Twain’s life, and, as one might expect, a statue of Mark Twain made entirely of legos. It also has a bookstore, filled with books by – who else? – Mark Twain.
When I walked into the bookstore, I asked the salespersons the question that is bound to be on the tip of the tongue of every Shakespeare authorship skeptic who finds himself in such a thoroughly Twainian bookstore: “Do you have Is Shakespeare Dead?” The reference was to Twain’s hilarious 1909 book, subtitled From My Autobiography, in which he lampoons the theory that William Shakspere of Stratford wrote the works of “Shakespeare.” At the end of a chapter summarizing the conjectures, surmises, and speculations about how the Stratford man came to write these great works, Twain asks: “Shall I set down the rest of the Conjectures which constitute the giant Biography of William Shakespeare? It would strain the Unabridged Dictionary to hold them. He is a Brontosaur: nine bones and six hundred barrels of plaster of paris.”
My question appeared to cause consternation to the two very congenial and helpful women who worked at the bookstore. One of them commented that she thought that Is Shakespeare Dead? was a short story. I responded that it was part of Twain’s autobiography, which seemed to surprise her. She asked if it was humorous. I replied, “It’s by Mark Twain – of course it’s humorous.”
The second salesperson looked up Is Shakespeare Dead? in the store’s computer and said that they didn’t have that title. After a while, however, the first salesperson industriously managed to locate the full Is Shakespeare Dead? buried in an anthology of Twain works in the store. Another Twain anthology contained a lone chapter from the book. But the bottom line is that the Mark Twain Museum did not appear to carry Is Shakespeare Dead? as a stand-alone volume in its all-Mark-Twain bookstore.
This situation may seem like “déjà vu all over again” to Oxfordians who are aware of the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship’s recent difference of opinion with the University of California at Berkeley’s taxpayer-funded Mark Twain Project Online (MTPO). The MTPO inexplicably omitted Is Shakespeare Dead? from its online version of Twain’s Autobiography, despite the fact that Twain expressly titled the book, Is Shakespeare Dead? From My Autobiography. The SOF publicly protested the MTPO’s decision and received a response that it found less than satisfactory. (See also Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, Summer 2016, p. 5.)
Can it be that there is embarrassment within the Mark Twain establishment (if such an entity exists) that Twain, one of the few great writers considered worthy even to be mentioned in the same breath as Shakespeare, believed that the widely-accepted scholarly attribution of the authorship of Shakespeare’s works was a colossal misunderstanding, if not an outright hoax? At any rate, the Mark Twain Museum bookstore is probably far less culpable than the MTPO, which professes to be an all-inclusive Twainian project. The bookstore, on the other hand, has limited physical space and is subject to the laws of supply and demand: it probably doesn’t experience a great many visitors walking in and asking for Is Shakespeare Dead? Perhaps we can change that.
I reported my findings to the SOF Board of Trustees, who unanimously voted to send ten paperback copies of Is Shakespeare Dead? to the Mark Twain Museum bookstore. Although we know that the books have been delivered, we do not know if the bookstore has yet placed them on its shelves for sale. Therefore, if you should visit the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford (an excursion that I highly recommend for its own sake), I encourage you to walk into the bookstore and ask, with great expectation and aplomb, “Do you have Is Shakespeare Dead?” Please be prepared to buy a copy if the answer is yes.
This article appeared in the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, Summer 2017.
For information on visiting the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, visit their website.
See also Professor James Norwood’s article, “Mark Twain and ‘Shake-Speare’: Soul Mates,” published in Brief Chronicles, Volume 6.[posted August 22, 2017]