The Complicated Backstory to a New Children’s Book by Mark Twain – The New Yorker

When Mark Twain died, in 1910, his literary output slowed but did not
cease. In the decades since, Twain’s posthumously published works have
included a novel, two short-story collections, four essay collections, a
book of letters, a book of notes, a translation of a German children’s
story, and a three-volume, twenty-three-hundred-page autobiography. This
month, Doubleday will add one more work to the list: “The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine,” a children’s book. “Oleomargarine” is based on
sixteen pages of handwritten notes discovered in Twain’s papers at the
Bancroft Library, in Berkeley, California, by a Twain scholar and
professor emeritus at Winthrop University named John Bird. The notes
describe a bedtime story that Twain told his young daughters, likely in
April of 1879, when the family was in Paris. It’s a fairy tale,
featuring magical seeds, a kidnapped prince, and talking animals,
including a kangaroo. Scribbled in the manuscript are editorial
suggestions from Twain’s daughter Susy. “I got chills in the reading
room when I realized what I had stumbled on,” Bird told me recently.

The notes trail off just as the reader learns, from a talking bat, that
the giants who kidnapped Prince Oleomargarine have taken him to a dark
cavern guarded by two mighty, sleepless dragons. So Bird drafted an
ending of his own, in which Johnny, with the help of his talking-animal
friends, rescues the prince, winning the promised “prodigious reward in
money—a princess, & a home in palace for life” from the king. Bird
shared the story with the Mark Twain House in the hopes of finding a
publisher. Cindy Lovell, an old friend of Bird’s who was then the
executive director of the Twain House, began clearing rights and
permissions, and eventually landed the deal with Doubleday, which is
part of Penguin Random House. She hoped that the book might earn a
little money. “I don’t think it’s a secret they need funding,” Bob
Hirst, the curator of the Mark Twain archive at Berkeley, told the Associated Press earlier this year.

Random House, somewhat to Lovell’s surprise, ultimately scrapped Bird’s
version. Instead, it opted to try Philip and Erin Stead, a
husband-and-wife author-illustrator team based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The Steads, who became stars of the children’s-publishing world with
their first book together, “A Sick Day for Amos McGee,” which won a
Caldecott Medal in 2011, got a call from their agent saying that Random
House had a project for them, and that it involved Mark Twain. The agent
couldn’t tell them anything else about it. “We said yes because we had
to,” Erin told me.

In Twain’s notes, Prince Oleomargarine is kidnapped and taken to a dark cavern guarded by two mighty, sleepless dragons.

Illustration by Erin Stead

The project consumed the next three years of their lives. They started
by marking up the manuscript with their own ideas. “Right away we had to
figure out how willing we were to collaborate with Twain, and tell him,
potentially, when he was wrong,” Philip said. He read the first two
volumes of Twain’s sprawling autobiography, compiled from hours of
personal history that Twain dictated to a stenographer, in order to get
a feel for Twain’s voice. The experience was unsettling. “If you start
delving too far into his catalogue,” Philip told me, “it doesn’t take
you long to start getting the heebie-jeebies about something that he’ll
have said. He can, on one page, seem progressive well beyond his
years—he can seem like he’s talking right out of 2017, or 2050, even—and
then the very next page he’ll say something that makes you smack
yourself on the forehead and say, ‘I can’t work with this guy.’ ”

The Steads began making changes. They gave the story’s protagonist,
Johnny, a surly grandfather and a pet chicken named Pestilence and
Famine. (Twain had a cat, or perhaps two, by that name.) They replaced
the talking kangaroo with a friendly skunk. Twain and Philip both became
characters in the book: co-narrators and interlocutors. The cabin on
Beaver Island, Michigan, where Philip had gone to write the manuscript
became part of the story, too. It grew from sixteen pages to a hundred
and fifty-two (with Erin’s illustrations). “We felt empowered because
this story began as oral tradition,” Philip said.

The Steads’ most striking editorial choice was to make Johnny, the
book’s hero, black. “It was me,” Erin said, laughing nervously, when I
asked about that decision. “The most honest answer is, that was just how
I saw him from the beginning.” Specifically, she imagined Johnny’s face
to be that of their close friend’s young son. (Both of the Steads are
white.) “I don’t normally do that,” she added. Her process, which
combines pencil drawing and woodblock monoprinting to produce delicate,
dreamlike imagery, is elaborate, and does not leave much room for error.
To get Johnny’s face just right, she consulted photos of the boy and old
childhood snapshots of his father as she worked. “The truth is, you have
all these fairy tales, and in the fairy tales we know, you see a lot of
little blond girls running around,” Erin told me. “With this one, I
wanted it to be different.”

Among the changes that the Steads made were the animals featured in the story.

Illustration by Erin Stead

Each year, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison compiles statistics on the thousands of books it
receives. In 2016, only eight per cent of the more than three thousand
newly published children’s books that it catalogued were about black
characters—a tiny uptick from the year before. Grassroots campaigns,
such as #WeNeedDiverseBooks,
have worked to draw attention to the dearth of characters of color in
children’s books, but the gap persists. And so there is something
refreshing and welcome about the lovingly rendered image of Johnny on
the cover of “The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine.” But part of what
makes the image so striking, of course, are the three words just inches
above him: “BY MARK TWAIN.”

“I was surprised by that,” Bird told me, when I asked him about the
Steads’ interpretation of the character. “I just didn’t see the textual
evidence for it. If Mark Twain wanted to make somebody black, he would
make them black. He was not shy about dealing with matters of race.”
When Twain told his daughters bedtime stories, he often incorporated
household objects or magazine illustrations in the narrative. In his
journals, he wrote, “The tough part of it was that every detail of the
story had to be brand-new—invented on the spot—and it must fit the
picture
.” (Susy, in particular, was an “alert critic.”) The journals
suggest that Johnny, a recurring character in Twain’s bedtime stories,
was based on a rather clinical William Page illustration of the male
figure that the Clemens daughters spotted in an April, 1879, issue of
Scribner’s Monthly magazine. It seems likely that neither Twain nor his
daughters imagined Johnny as the Steads do.

Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a professor at Stanford and the author of
several books about Twain, including “Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices,”
told me that, hypothetically speaking, she had no problem with the
decision to make Johnny black—it was plausible, she said, that Twain,
with his lifelong interest in the African-American experience, might
have created a character like the one the Steads envisioned. But having
read Twain’s notes and the Steads’ book, she was concerned that the
husband-and-wife team hadn’t been faithful to Twain’s idiosyncratic
views on everything from flies (he abhorred them) to kangaroos (he
delighted in them), and also, more significantly, on race and American
exceptionalism. She cited the book’s opening chapter, in which the
narrator riffs, half satirically, on what makes America the place it is.
Here—be it Michigan or Missouri—the luckless and hungry are likely to
stub a toe, look down, and discover at their feet a soup bowl full of
gold bullion. Eureka!” To Fishkin, this passage, when paired with an
illustration of a small black boy, rang false. “The author is trying to
be charming here,” she said, “but he’s not doing justice to Twain’s
alertness to the ways in which black Americans were likely to be
luckless in America due to the deck being stacked against them as a
result of racism and prejudice.” When the Steads decided to make a
character in a Mark Twain story black, Fishkin said, they took on “the
responsibility of thinking about how Twain would have viewed him.” (The
question of what it meant to be a black child in eighteen-seventies
America is never directly addressed in the book.)

Fishkin pointed me to the plot synopsis of a novel that Twain considered
writing sometime in the eighteen-eighties. The outline for the project,
“The Man with Negro Blood,” describes the fate of a light-skinned black
man whose father was a slaveholder and whose mother was a slave. After
the Civil War, the young man, who has been separated from his mother and
sister, tries desperately to find them. When that effort fails, he
decides to forge a new life passing as a white man. He moves north and
prospers. In the story’s last scene, he is out to dinner with his white
fiancée and her relatives when the black waitress at their restaurant
recognizes him: she is his sister. (In a final plot twist, it’s revealed
that his fiancée is actually his white cousin from the plantation.)
Twain never completed the novel—or a book on lynchings that he also
considered writing. (“I shouldn’t have even half a dozen friends left
after it issued from the press,” he wrote his publisher about that one.)
But they reflect, Fishkin said, how his views on race shifted throughout
his life. When the Civil War broke out, in 1861, Twain spent two weeks
in a pro-Confederate Missouri militia. Two decades later, he financed
the education of one of Yale’s first black law students.

The novelist and essayist David Bradley, Jr., has written and lectured
widely about Twain and race. “Was he a racist? Wasn’t he a racist? It’s
sort of amusing,” Bradley, who is black, told me recently. “That
question isn’t asked of most other American writers, and I think that’s
because Twain actually did something about race, and most of them
didn’t.” In the mid-eighties, Bradley went so far as to argue—in a
lecture delivered to a group of scholars at Twain’s Hartford home—that
Mark Twain could very well have been black. “Who said Mark Twain was
white? Nobody ever saw Mark Twain. They saw Sam Clemens,” Bradley told
me. “When someone creates a persona, they can be whoever they want.”

The Steads replaced Twain’s talking kangaroo with a friendly skunk.

Illustration by Erin Stead

When Bradley learned that the Steads’ version of the Prince
Oleomargarine story featured a black protagonist, he was immediately
skeptical. “As soon as you invoke the name of a historical writer, then
you encounter the responsibility to insure that it’s at least consistent
with his life and the process that he would’ve been going through,” he
said. The news magazine headlines and details of Twain’s own home
furnishings likely hold the biggest clues about the content of his
daughters’ bedtime stories, he noted. In the eighteen-seventies, the
American dairy industry was waging a strenuous campaign against
margarine, which had just been invented. This resulted in the federal
Margarine Act of 1886. Back then many Americans were paying more
attention to that than to matters of racial justice, Bradley said.

“In a children’s book, you have to be careful not to overdo it on the
politics,” Philip told me. He added, “I don’t want to underdo it on the
politics, either, because children grow up in politics one way or
another.” And so writing the book, he said, “became a delicate dance.”
Twain’s sparse notes do contain some fairy-tale-style moralizing—Johnny
is warned that the magic seeds he’s given will only flower if he can
“tend to them constantly, and keep a pure heart” and “avoid
complainings,” for instance. In their adaptation, the Steads play up
such messages, and add more pointed ones that reflect their own
convictions: at one point, Twain the character gives a shout-out to
Charles Darwin; elsewhere, the narration makes a nod to the condition of
Native Americans. In what the Steads saw as a deliberate and necessary
departure from Twain’s own political views, Chapter 2 opens with a
reference to the time when “a boatful of bunglers first burgled this
land from its Original Citizens.” It’s not a line that Twain is likely
to have written. “Our names are on this, too,” Erin said, “and this is
the story we were going to tell.”

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