December 09, 2011

My Mark Twain (A tenuous, triple relationship)

I have always suffered from the pleasant illusion that I have a personal relationship to Mark Twain. This is a family matter.  Those who have read Roughing It will recall that Mark Twain describes going to Nevada, where his brother was to serve as the secretary to the Governor. That governor was named James Nye. In fact, an entire county is named after him today, Nye County, in Southern Nevada.  Go look at any map, and it is there, perhaps the largest county in the state, and some of it highly radioactive.  On the map below, it is the largest green spot, the green being a case of false advertising, for this is a sun-baked desert of little value to most people, unless you like rattlesnakes and tumble weed.

No doubt it was this part of Nevada that Twain had in mind when he remarked, "Some people are malicious enough to think that if the devil were set at liberty and told to confine himself to Nevada Territory, he would...get homesick and go back to hell again." Nye County has one of the most impressive suicide rates of any county in America. It is almost exactly the same size as Denmark, and I am proud of its sun-baked potential. It will surely one day prove to be a solar energy bonanza. If any of you want to  know more about Governor (and later US Senator) James Nye, I have a book in the office that gives a short biography of him. My uncle, George Nye, the family antiquarian and genealogist until he passed away in 2000, wrote that book.

But this is not my chief reason for thinking I have a personal relationship to Twain. No, it gets worse. Twain spent much of his time as a platform speaker and humorist. One of the other  speakers of the day was Edgar Wilson "Bill" Nye. Like Twain, he was a Midwesterner who had gone out West. Bill Nye was the editor of a newspaper in Laramie, Wyoming for a while in the 1880s, with the wonderful name The Boomerang, and while writing for that paper he became a funny man. In 1894, considerably after escaping from Wyoming, he wrote a comic history of the United States that sold almost as well as some of Twain's books. Both of these men began as newspaper reporters. They started stretching the truth to fill their pages, and ended up telling tall tales and making fun of the world, as a way of making a living. This line of work has always appealed to me. It explains why I became a historian. Twain once said of Bill Nye, "Edgar W. Nye's humor I enjoy for it is the frosting on the cake. There is something shining out through it all."

Bill Nye and Mark Twain were friendly, and they even appeared on the stage together a few times. The difference between them, however, is, that Mark Twain is still funny today, while much of Bill Nye's humor seems a bit faded. Some of his remarks are still fresh, however, such as: "I have been told that Wagner's music is much better than it sounds." Bill Nye was in tune with his times, and he made Victorians laugh, but Twain was more in tune with the ages. He not only made his contemporaries laugh but all those who came after him as well.

Still, I like to think that with these blood relatives who knew Twain, one at the start of his career and another one later on, I have some deeper connection to him than most people. I also have visited his house, which is now a museum, in Hartford Connecticut, not far from where my parents once lived. I could give the tour guide's talk myself, if I had to. So, if after a few drinks I begin to make mystical claims about Twain, you will have to consider the fact that my family and his have been connected for about 150 years. Of course, Twain died decades before I was born, but I have spoken to people whose lives overlapped with his. My great aunt, Grace Nye, lived to be 101. She was born in 1892, so it may well be true, as she said, that she once saw Twain when she was a little girl.

Mark Twain
None of this really means a great deal. In the world of criticism it counts for nothing at all.  But I want to claim a genuine and ineffable superiority to anyone who does not have a giant desert wasteland county named after their family in Nevada, a now forgotten ancestor who was a platform humorist who knew the great Mark, and a deceased aunt who (she said) once met him.