Huck's creator comes in for historical revision

April 29, 1994|By David Holahan

POOR Mark Twain. He earned his rest but we won't let him have it. Periodically he is accused of this and that. To some he was a racist whose books belong in a pile next to the kindling. To others he evinced an inordinate interest in young girls. Now inquiring minds want to know: "Was Twain gay?"

The poser of this delicate inquiry, Andy Hoffman, professes to be a professor, or to be absolutely accurate (although this is not required nowadays, as will become apparent), a visiting scholar at Brown University. His temporary status in Providence is to the eternal credit of that unselfish arsenal of Ivy League erudition.

Before I trot out the "evidence" -- that isn't the right word but I don't want to spoil the ending -- the reader should know this fact: the aforementioned academician is writing a biography of Mark Twain, to be published by William Morrow & Co. Clearly he is under a great deal of pressure.

And now to the evidence:

Mark Twain, who wrote lovingly about women and longingly in his old age about sexual intercourse with same, was once saluted in a letter from a man thus: "My dearest love." There is no evidence that Twain objected to being addressed in this fashion.

Need more? All right, there were two instances when Mr. Twain broke off friendships with men "in a manner suggestive of romances scorned," as the scholarly argument was paraphrased in a press account.

There's more: Twain hung out during the '60s (admittedly the 1860s, not the real '60s) with literary types in San Francisco who called themselves "Bohemians."

That's right, literary types in San Francisco. The only thing that would have been more suspicious is if Twain had consorted with stevedores -- those burly fellows whose ambivalent sexuality compels them to hide behind extremes of macho behavior.

Finally, Artemus Ward, that zany humorist, once wrote that Twain and another gentleman, a fellow blessed with the euphonious name of Dan De Quille, "are to be married shortly. About time."

Was Ward being funny or was this some sort of wedding announcement? And was Dan De Quille (pronounced Dandy Quill) a real person or some Wardian invention?

In fairness to Twain, let the record show that, rather than marry Mr. De Quille, he tied the knot with Miss Olivia Langdon and sired four children.

Ergo, to wit, there is strong evidence here that the novelist was not simply gay, as we have already established beyond a scintilla of a doubt, but bisexual. Stop the presses!

Let us try to imagine what Mark Twain thinks of all this looking down (or perhaps up) from his final resting place. A newspaperman and an author himself, he understood the power of the printed word, however fatuous it might be.

In a piece written in 1870 he details his stint as a visiting editor of an agricultural paper. His sojourn was cut short after he published the following:

"Concerning the pumpkin. This berry is a favorite with the natives of the interior of New England, who prefer it to the gooseberry for the making of fruit-cake, and who likewise give it preference over the raspberry for the feeding of cows, as being more filling and fully as satisfying. The pumpkin is the only esculent of the orange family that will thrive in the North."

To this day there may be people who consider the pumpkin a berry. And our visiting scholar in Rhode Island way may well convince some people that Mark Twain was gay -- although he isn't apparently totally convinced himself. He'd probably settle for convincing people to buy his book.

May I suggest that our visiting scholar knows as much about Mark Twain as Twain did about the pumpkin? As for the overseers of tabloid humanism in Providence: They might consider lowering their tuition -- at least until this wayward biographer resumes his wanderings.

David Holahan writes from East Haddam, Conn.

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