MONTVILLE, NJ – Montville Township residents were treated to a visit from “Mark Twain,” who assured them – tongue in cheek – that rumors of his death were greatly exaggerated, but when the real Mark Twain died, “I went to heaven and didn’t see any of my friends.”
Mark Twain re-enactor Charles Kiernan of the Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild paid a visit to the Montville Township Public Library on July 19, to educate and entertain attendees about the classic American author. His visit was part of the library’s adult summer reading program, Libraries Rock! – Montville “U” Summer School.
Kiernan as Twain said he had been asked to talk about any topic of his choosing, but he would discuss nothing unseemly, so he would not discuss sex, politics or the French.
“Twain” described one episode in his childhood when, afraid of contracting the measles when the then-deadly disease swept through Hannibal, he escaped in the night out the window and crawled into his friend’s bed because the friend had caught the illness.
“His mother soon found me and sent me packing, but I caught the measles,” he said. “Neighbors inquired as to my health as, for 14 days I lay close to death. On the 14th day I took a turn toward the better – and they were disappointed.
“My poor mother decided, after my episode with the measles, that I needed a stronger hand in being raised than hers,” he said. Twain’s father had died when he was young. So Twain’s mother apprenticed him to a printer to learn to be a type-setter. Twain practiced his writing while he worked, Kiernan said. Twain became “afflicted with wanderlust,” according to Kiernan, and left Hannibal, although “it never left me.” Hannibal became the backdrop of several of his stories, and people in the town were characters in Tom Sawyer, Kiernan said.
Twain traveled quite a bit and saw many cities.
“I was always going into a newspaper job and going back out of a job, forcing me to move from town to town,” he said. “Which was exactly what I wanted.”
Eventually Twain wound up in Iowa, working for his brother. While there, he read a book about a man who had explored the Amazon, and the author talked about a “miraculous plant called the coconut. The white interior of it could sustain a man all day long.”
Kiernan said Twain wanted to go to Amazon and farm these plants, but had no way to get there until he found a $50 bill on the street.
“Another man, another fool, would have drunk that money,” Kiernan/Twain said. “Another man, another fool would have tried to find the owner. Only this fool would try to take it to the Amazon. To be honest, I did advertise for the owner – and left for the Amazon on the same day.”
Twain got onto a steamboat and headed south as far as New Orleans, “not wearing a hat so he would get the weather-beaten look of a traveler.” He was in his glory because he loved to travel. He called steamboats the lifeblood of the Mississippi River.
Kiernan described how Twain apprenticed to be a riverboat pilot and how his mentor “Boss Bixby” taught him the navigation of the river, not through a map but just by recognizing landmarks, even at night. Bixby taught him how to predict the next day’s weather from the sunset, and how to read the surface of the water, Kiernan said.
When the Civil War began, the steamboats ceased, so Twain traveled to Nevada with his brother, Orion Clemens, who was the secretary to the governor of Nevada. Twain worked in silver mining and lumberjacking, in addition to his writing. It was during this time that he heard someone tell the story of the “Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which he wrote down – and later discovered, according to Kiernan, was actually an ancient tale.
Kiernan spoke briefly about Twain’s wife. Their first date was to attend a reading of Charles Dickens’ work. He called her his editor, his better half and his conscience – because “without her, I have none. Nothing leaves the house without her approval, for which I am grateful – and you should be too.”
Kiernan quoted from Twain’s last work, in which he discussed how circumstances vs. temperament drive a man, and how even a seemingly meaningless situation can represent “The Turning Point of My Life.”
“A circumstance is a measles epidemic sweeping through Hannibal,” Kiernan as Twain said. “Temperament is to go out and ‘find’ the measles. Circumstance is being apprenticed out to learn the trade of typesetting. Temperament is to take that and become more. Circumstance is to a $50 bill rolling around on the street. Temperament is to ‘take it to the Amazon.’”
Twain wrote in that essay, “[…] I can say with truth that the reason I am in the literary profession is because I had the measles when I was twelve years old.”
The Montville Township Public Library hosts re-enactors throughout the year, along with lectures, movies, concerts and programs for adults, teens, kids and families. For information, please click library.
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