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The 'Splintering' Of America's Black Population
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
There was a time when there was a clear black agenda, when we could talk
confidently about the state of black America. But not anymore, writes
Eugene Robinson in his new book, "Disintegration: The Splintering of
Desegregation, affirmative action, urban decay, the decimation of the
working class, and waves of immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean are
some of the reasons why instead of one black America there are four
increasingly distinct groups with their own mindsets, hopes and fears.
Robinson says there's the mainstream middle class; a large group of the
abandoned poor; a small transcendent elite with enormous wealth, power
and influence; and two newly emergent groups, individuals of mixed-race
heritage and communities of recent black immigrants.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist who won a Pulitzer for
his commentary on the 2008 presidential campaign. He's also a news
analyst for MSNBC.
Eugene Robinson, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you know, in your book,
"Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America," you've divided black
America into four separate categories, just â just have a way of
thinking of black America, not because everybody fits so neatly, but...
Mr. EUGENE ROBINSON (Washington Post Columnist): Right.
GROSS: But anyways, so the two possible categories I could see you
fitting into would be the mainstream middle class or perhaps the
transcendent elite - not that you have Oprah Winfrey kind of money or
Barack Obama kind of power, but you are a Washington Post columnist and
an MSNBC news analyst, so you do have a lot of sway, and a lot of
Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah, I would certainly put myself in one of those two
categories. If you're just talking bank account, obviously I'm in the
mainstream category. But you know, I put other people in the book who
had that sort of juice and influence.
So I guess as long as I have these platforms that I have, and I blame it
mostly on the platforms and not (unintelligible), but I guess I probably
would put myself in that category.
GROSS: You grew up in South Carolina, in a community that was very
educated. You grew up, like, a few hundred feet from two African-
American colleges. There were a lot of African-Americans with Ph.D.s, a
lot of African-Americans who were affiliated with colleges in one way or
another, where a lot of the white people in the town weren't nearly as
Mr. ROBINSON: That's correct. I grew up in what was kind of like a
college town. Most of the adults I knew had advanced degrees. And white
Orangeburg was basically an agricultural community. So I kind of grew up
thinking that black folks had all this â they didn't necessarily have a
lot of money, but they had a lot of sophistication, and they traveled
widely, they read books all the time. And white people had more money
and power but maybe not as much culture or learning. It was the
impression that I got as a little kid.
GROSS: Now, did that impression that you got as a little kid jive with
what you were seeing in American popular culture? Though at the time
there were far fewer African-Americans in - represented in American
popular culture on TV or in the movies. But nevertheless, how did it
jive with what you saw?
Mr. ROBINSON: It â well, as you said, there wasn't all that much to see.
I remember when "I Spy" with Bill Cosby as one of the two lead
characters in a network series - this was revolutionary.
I remember whenever Leslie Uggams would appear on Mitch Miller, we would
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Oh God.
Mr. ROBINSON: Yes - dating myself and maybe you too. We would all be
called into the living room because Leslie Uggams was on, or if one of
the jazz greats was on Ed Sullivan, for example, Ella Fitzgerald or
What we were able to see, we held onto, and it was so exciting to see
African-Americans, even if in a very small way, kind of break into
popular culture. And it was exciting that they were being seen by the
rest of the country at the same time.
GROSS: Now, you went to a school that was part of a series of schools
built by a philanthropist at the turn of the 19th century, the Rosenwald
Schools. And I had never heard about this before. So I'd like you to
tell the story of your school and how it fit into this chain, or
whatever, of schools.
Mr. ROBINSON: Right, this â I went to a school called Felton Training
School. That was the name of the school at the time. It was on the
campus of South Carolina State University. It was a very simple kind of
literally four-room schoolhouse, four big rooms, two grades per room.
And there were four main teachers, but the schoolhouse itself was one of
some thousands built throughout the South by a Chicago philanthropist
named Julius Rosenwald. That's where most of the money came from.
And he started doing this as a result of a meeting he had with Booker T.
Washington, who had the idea that he could fund schoolhouse-building
projects in the South, and that this was a great vehicle for a kind of
GROSS: You grew up in a kind of African-American elite, in a way. You
know, you were in a small town, but your community was built around two
colleges, and your family was connected to those colleges. You got a
good education in a small school, but a good education. And yet you were
growing up in the segregated Jim Crow South.
So you were an elite, but you were also not part, you were not allowed
into mainstream America. So what was your sense then of where you and
your family fit into America?
Mr. ROBINSON: First of all, even as a kid, I think I was, and I think
most of, if not all of my friends were acutely aware of the civil rights
struggle and what was going on. And I think we really defined ourselves
in terms of that struggle, as participants, as soldiers in the struggle
for freedom and equality.
And there were, you know, pressing issues about the right to vote and
about public accommodations. There were stores in Orangeburg that you â
you couldn't go in the front door. You had to go in the back door.
In 1968, when I was in high school in Orangeburg, there was an incident
called the Orangeburg Massacre, in which three black students were
killed by highway patrol, state troopers, at the culmination of a three-
night demonstration that started as a protest over a segregated, whites-
only bowling alley in 1968.
So the kind of reality of Jim Crow was a huge factor in forging really
my sense of myself. At the same time, if I'm being honest, because it
was essentially a college town, there was a certain intellectual
arrogance that we all shared, and you know, when I go home to
Orangeburg, or when I run into folks from Orangeburg, then I think, you
know, we still share in a way.
GROSS: What do you mean by intellectual arrogance? How would it express
Mr. ROBINSON: It was said at the time that Orangeburg was the town with
the most black Ph.D.s per capita of any town in America. You know, I
never tried to truth-squad that, to be honest, Terry. So I don't know if
that's true. But that was always what was said.
And that, I think, gave those of us who came from that community just a
sense of ourselves as special and as capable and as, you know, smart and
kind of special.
And that feeling of specialness, really, in the context of Jim Crow, at
least, was a kind of armor, I think. It certainly helped me at
Orangeburg High School. I didn't go in with any sort of feeling of, you
know, gee, can I measure up here. It was like, you know, wait till they
see this, you know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROBINSON: You know, I'm not taking any stuff from these people. And
I had a geometry teacher who seemed to really resent the presence of
black students. And so I resolved that I would never give her the
satisfaction of grading me down one iota in geometry.
So I would study geometry for hours every night. I'm not really good at
math. And I don't really have a good spatial sense. But I got an A-plus
in geometry just because I wasn't going to give anybody the satisfaction
of not giving me an A-plus in geometry.
GROSS: My guest is Washington Post columnist and MSNBC News analyst
Eugene Robinson. His new book is "Disintegration: The Splintering of
Black America." We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Eugene Robinson. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning
Washington Post columnist and an MSNBC News analyst. His new book is
called "Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America."
We're talking about his coming of age. Earlier he said that growing up
in the segregated South, he and his friends defined themselves in terms
of the civil rights struggle.
So being very caught up in civil rights movement, when you went to
college - and this would have been early '70s?
Mr. ROBINSON: This was 1970.
GROSS: Okay. So this is a period when the Black Panthers are active.
There's still a very strong civil disobedience movement. So you've got,
like, both ends there. You've got, you know, a much more, like,
aggressive, angry movement, and a much more, you know, Martin Luther
King-oriented movement. Where did you fit in, and how did your family
feel about where you fit in to that?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROBINSON: I kind of â that was kind of the period when I kind of
didn't, in a way. I mean, I got to â I went to the University of
Michigan in 1970. And everything was going on.
My father had gone to school at Michigan. I remember he drove me up to
school, and he's showing me around the campus and, you know, this is
this hall, and this is that hall. And we went to the Michigan Union,
this old gothic kind of building in the middle of campus.
And we're walking upstairs and look out the front window, and down in
the plaza, you know, in front of the union, radical lesbians are doing
street theater, complete with fake blood and simulated copulation and
everything. I thought my dad was going to have a heart attack.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROBINSON: But I, I was thrilled. I was, like, oh wow, actual
lesbians, you know. You know, I've read about them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROBINSON: And there were like actual Jewish people. I had met one in
my life until then. And there - so I was kind of very fascinated with
the whole â what was happening with young people at the time, and much
less fascinated at the time with specific questions of race.
And then I stumbled into the student newspaper. I had wanted to be a
architect. I was a lousy architecture student, but I stumbled into the
student newspaper, and that was love at first sight. And so kind of the
combination of everything that was going on in Ann Arbor in 1970 plus
this whole new way of looking at the world, this journalistic way of
going up to people and asking them questions that were none of your
business, and they would answer you, and you could write about it. You
know, I found that a really interesting and satisfying way to experience
the world, and thrilling in a way. And so that's kind of what I did in
GROSS: So you grew up in an African-American community, very college-
oriented, and then when you had children, you were bringing up your
children in a predominately white neighborhood, predominately white
middle-class neighborhood. How did your sense of what it meant to be
African-American compare to your father's?
Mr. ROBINSON: Entirely different. And it's really, if you look at those
three generations, you just see how much things have changed. My father
as an infant made the great migration. He was born in 1916 in rural
Georgia. His family was kind of gradually making the trek north.
Every â there were six siblings, and every one was born in a different
city. As they made their way north out of Georgia, they went someplace
else, and then to Columbus, Ohio, and finally ended up in Ann Arbor,
Michigan, which is where my dad grew up.
And he served in the segregated Army in World War II, as did his
brothers. He moved to the Jim Crow South to marry and be with my mother,
whom he had met during the war years.
So he grew up at a time when those basic, fundamental civil rights
battles were being fought. He was there in Orangeburg when there were
NAACP meetings at our church, and Dr. King came to speak at our church.
And it was a question of basic, fundamental rights that were being
And that's kind of different from the way things were by the time I
reached adulthood, when those sorts of fundamental rights were
guaranteed and totally different from the world in which my kids grew
You know, one evening I will never forget was the election night in
2008, when I, from the MSNBC set, got to call my mom and dad. My dad was
92 at the time. He has since passed away. My mother at the time was 87.
And I got to call them and tell them that they had lived to see the
election of the first African-American president, and then spent several
days thinking about that, the fact that a life had spanned such a
period, thinking about the world in which, into which my father was born
and the world in which he died, two different worlds.
GROSS: Do you think that President Obama's political opposition is using
language or positions that are a reaction in one way or another to his
Mr. ROBINSON: I do think so. I see it in the emails that I get from
critics, and fortunately this is just a small portion of the email that
But I've got to tell you, I get some flat-out racist stuff of a kind
that I don't think I've seen since the old Jim Crow days, and...
GROSS: Really? Like what's the tone of it? I mean, what's the â what's
it focused on?
Mr. ROBINSON: Sometimes just flat-out racism. You know, the coloreds,
you know, couldn't organize a two-car funeral. And then, you know, a
caricature of the president's a monkey and, you know, that sort of
Again, that's not most of the email I get, and I get a lot of very
reasoned, fair, I think, conservative or progressive criticism of the
president. But I get more of this really racist stuff than I thought I
would get and than I've ever seen before.
And I'm talking, you know, I get a few of these things a week, and
they're not all coming from the same person.
GROSS: So what do you think it is that has empowered people to think
it's okay to write emails to you like this and to express overt racism
like this? I mean, there was a time not too long ago when even racists
thought it was socially inappropriate to express it publicly or that
there'd be too much criticism for them if they expressed it publicly.
But now you're finding that it's okay in some circles to just let it
Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah, it's okay to just let it rip. And I think there are
a number of different reactions that I think President Obama's election
and inauguration have provoked. To some people, and I don't think this
is a whole lot, but to some people it provoked them to write me emails
or comments on my column that essentially say, you know: What more do
you people want? You've got a black president. What more do you people
want? That sort of thing, that sort of you people construction that we
used to hear and we haven't heard a lot of recently.
And what I think it has done to some people is kind of stoke anxieties
that are partly demographic, about the fact that, you know, in 30 years
or so there won't be an ethnic or racial majority in this country, there
won't be a white majority, everybody'll be a minority; anxiety about the
economy, and not just about the recession but about the kind of
structural economic problems and whether or not my kids are going to
have more opportunities and a better life than I have; and if they're in
danger of not having more opportunity and a better life, well, who's to
blame for that? And they look at President Obama.
So that's why you can finding, like a poll I saw a few months ago in
which really a staggering number of Republicans, I don't think it was a
majority, but it was a huge percentage, who really and I think honestly
felt that President Obama's policies had somehow favored or were
designed to favor African-Americans, when in fact the White House has
kind of gone out of its way to not propose policies that have that sort
of overt goal, that speak specifically to African-Americans, precisely,
I think, because that's the sort of thing they'd be accused of.
So I can't think of a single one that they've come forward with, and yet
there's this sense out there, and I think it's â I just think it has to
do with these anxieties, and there's something about Obama's election
that brings them out and for some people I think makes them more acute.
GROSS: Well, Eugene Robinson, thanks so much for talking with us. It's a
pleasure to talk with you.
Mr. ROBINSON: Well, Terry, it was great to be here. Thanks so much for
GROSS: Eugene Robinson is the author of the new book "Disintegration:
The Splintering of Black America." He's a Washington Post columnist and
an MSNBC News analyst. You can read an excerpt of his book on our
website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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On Publishing Mark Twain's Autobiography
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross. Yesterday, November 30th, was the
birthday of Samuel Clemens, better known by his literary alias of Mark
Twain. He was born in 1835 and died in 1910, 100 years ago, which makes
it rather remarkable that this week Mark Twain has a new autobiography
on The New York Times bestseller list, right alongside memoirs by George
Bush, Keith Richards and Baba Booey. "Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol.
1" is the first of three volumes of a 500,000 word memoir written by
Twain himself. He completed it in the last years of his life but
stipulated that the manuscript not be published for 100 years. Well,
those 100 years are up and the interest in Mark Twain remains so strong
that a book originally scheduled to print 6,000 copies has become a
These new autobiographies are published by the University of California
Press at Berkeley and are edited and annotated by the Mark Twain Project
at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library.
Our guest is Bob Hirst, who for 30 years has served as general editor of
the Mark Twain Papers. Our own David Bianculli, a Twain enthusiast,
spoke with Hirst.
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Bob Hirst, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. BOB HIRST (General Editor, Mark Twain Papers and Project): Glad to
BIANCULLI: Let's start with the most obvious question. Why has it taken
100 years for this autobiography of Mark Twain to be published and what
makes it different from the versions previously available over the
Mr. HIRST: Well, to be honest, it really is not because he said it
couldn't be published for 100 years. It's taken us really about two
decades to figure out how to edit and publish the autobiography. As you
know, the manuscript has been available to scholars and really anyone
who came to the Mark Twain Papers since I'd say 1962. And many, many,
many scholars have read it and - or used it, referred to, quoted from
it. But to them and to us, the editorial project, there was a lot of
mystery about how the thing fit together.
For the longest time we thought that Mark Twain had left a series of
drafts, that he had never completed it, and that we were going to
basically be forced to publish it in some kind of arbitrary way, like
everything chronologically. But in the last three years, the editors
who've I've worked with for 40 years figured out that he had finished
it. He knew exactly what he wanted in it and exactly what he didnât want
in it - that's very important - and how he wanted it ended and how he
wanted it structured. So all of a sudden out of what seemed a kind of
Mr. HIRST: ...emerged what turns out to be Mark Twain's last major
BIANCULLI: Well, let's talk about what that structure is, because he's
quoted as saying, I mean, the first time in history that the right plan
has been hit upon.
Mr. HIRST: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
BIANCULLI: He's so proud of how he did this, and also...
Mr. HIRST: Yes, he is.
BIANCULLI: Yeah. He said I'm the only person who has ever found the
right way to build an autobiography. So what was that way?
Mr. HIRST: Well, the way is basically to dictate it, to have someone to
take down exactly what he says and to talk about what interests him at
the moment, to allow himself to change the subject as soon as his
interests flags a little bit, and to talk about the thing that interests
him then, and so, in fact, not in any way to give you a chronological
account of his life. It does not begin November 30, 1835, I was born in
so forth and so on. He does not want and has struggled really for 30 or
35 years to get away from the conventions of ordinary autobiography. So
it's the randomness of this which is unique as far as I know, and which
is one of the things he's most proud of.
Why? That's complicated. But I think it's partly that it's - he senses
that this is a way to be more honest than he could be if he had
structured it in a kind of self-conscious way.
BIANCULLI: Well, one of the things that, if I may, one of the things...
Mr. HIRST: Yeah.
BIANCULLI: ...that he, we can quote him from a 1906 passage where he
sort of explains it. And if I can ask you to read it. It's in volume
one, on page 441. Just a paragraph...
Mr. HIRST: Yeah. I see it.
BIANCULLI: ...that describes the autobiography.
Mr. HIRST: Sure.
I intend that this autobiography shall become a model for all future
autobiographies when it is published after my death, and I also intend
that it shall be read and admired a good many centuries because of its
form and method - a form and method whereby the past and the present are
constantly brought face to face, resulting in contrasts which newly fire
up the interest all along like contact of flint with steel. Moreover,
this autobiography of mine does not select from my life its showy
episodes, but deals merely in the common experiences which go to make up
the life of the average human being, and the narrative must interest the
average human being because these episodes are of a sort which he is
familiar with in his own life, and in which he sees his own life
reflected and set down in print. The usual, conventional autobiographer
seems to particularly hunt out those occasions in his career when he
came into contact with celebrated persons, whereas his contacts with the
uncelebrated were just as interesting to him, and would be to his
reader, and were vastly more numerous than his collisions with the
BIANCULLI: And that paragraph itself was just dictated and not
Mr. HIRST: Absolutely dedicated? I don't have the typescript literally
in front of me, but I'll bet you anything there is hardly a mark on it.
BIANCULLI: Is this because he had been a public speaker, one of the
first sort of standup comedian celebrities, that he was so comfortable
writing on his feet?
Mr. HIRST: Well, Dave, that's a â it's a good question. I don't think
there's any question that lifetime hours of practice is a crucial matter
here and certainly speaking publicly as much as he did. Not just on the
lecture circuit but as an after dinner speaker. I mean he's notoriously
good at that. I think the fact is, this is a real gift and it's a gift
that's quite unusual. I mean most of us have a separate part of our
brain that attends to writing and one that attends to speaking. In this
case they are the same place. I mean he is able to speak in such a way
that you couldnât tell that it wasn't written if you didn't know.
BIANCULLI: And yet even though he says that, you know, he's going to
spend as much time on the uncelebrated as the celebrated, the people who
went through his life are fairly amazing.
Mr. HIRST: Yes, they are.
BIANCULLI: If I can get you to read one more passage.
Mr. HIRST: Sure.
BIANCULLI: If that's okay. Page 465, he meets Helen Keller...
Mr. HIRST: That's right.
BIANCULLI: ...when Helen Keller is 14 years old. Her teacher, Annie
Sullivan, is there.
Mr. HIRST: I see it. He's out at Princeton. And as you say, Helen is
really only 14, so she's not really famous at this point. He's going to
go on to get support for her education and basically to be a kind of
help to her throughout her life.
The guests were brought one after another and introduced to her. As she
shook hands with each, she took her hand away and laid her fingers
lightly against Miss Sullivanâs lips, who spoke against them the
personâs name. When a name was difficult, Miss Sullivan not only spoke
it against Helen's fingers, but spelled it upon Helen's hand with her
own fingers - stenographically, apparently, for the swiftness of the
operation was suggestive of that.
Mr. Howells seated himself by Helen on the sofa and she put her fingers
against his lips and he told her a story of considerable length, and you
could see each detail of it pass into her mind and strike fire there and
throw the flash of it into her face. Then I told her a long story, which
she interrupted all along, and in the right places, with cackles,
chuckles, and care-free bursts of laughter. Then Miss Sullivan put one
of Helen's hands against her lips and spoke against it the question:
What is Mr. Clemens distinguished for? Helen answered, in her crippled
speech: For his humor. I spoke up modestly and said: And for his wisdom.
Helen said the same words instantly: And for his wisdom. I suppose it
was a case of mental telegraphy, since there was no way for her to know
what it was I had said.
BIANCULLI: I absolutely love that story. The first time...
Mr. HIRST: Isn't that stunning?
BIANCULLI: The first time you read that, what was your reaction?
Mr. HIRST: Well, I don't know that I remember, Dave. I mean I've been
reading it for a long, long time.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HIRST: But I'll tell you what's more interesting is, what's my
reaction the 15th time I've read it? It is exactly the same, is it's
utterly charming, it's just utterly amazing that he has managed to put
on paper this encounter. After all, it's a very unusual situation,
right? He doesnât have a lot of experience communicating with someone
who's blind and deaf and so forth, and yet he gets it perfectly. He gets
it down here perfectly. And I think you can't but be moved by it. It's
very tender. It's really outside the kind of, oh, the frame that I think
we most often think of Mark Twain occupying, this sort of curmudgeon
Mr. HIRST: Here he's quite tender. Here he's quite attentive and very
fascinated by her, and still able to kind of joke with her and to enjoy
the encounter in a way which, well, all I can say is it hits me the same
way every time. I love it.
BIANCULLI: We're talking with Robert Hirst, general editor of the Mark
Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley. Their newest
work is "The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume One."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: We're talking with Robert Hirst, general editor of the Mark
Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley.
As the general editor of the papers, nothing in here is new to you or
has been for decades. But what do you think even in volume one is going
to be most revelatory to the general public?
Mr. HIRST: Well, first of all, I think that relatively few people have
read the earlier editions of autobiography - Paine, DeVoto and Neider.
And if they have read them, they got - I think necessarily got - a
distorted view of what the autobiography is like, because those editors
very deliberately and self-consciously and publicly said that they
didn't approve of the way Mark Twain had organized his autobiography and
they had better ways of organizing it and that's what they did. They
took the pieces and put them in the order that they thought was good.
So I think for the first time both people who have managed to read those
earlier editions and people who have not will encounter Mark Twain in a
kind of personal way that they won't have seen him in any of his
literary works. This is like having a conversation with Mark Twain, of
course in which he does all the talking, but you supply the questions in
a way, and it's a very intimate experience. It's - I've seen it
described as feeling like meeting Mark Twain for the first time. I think
that's a sound insight. And I think you are going to be surprised to see
how continuously charming and interesting and humorous he can be about
just about anything.
BIANCULLI: Looking over all of the original manuscripts that you have at
the Mark Twain Papers, you can tell when there is an awful lot of
revision going on, when there's some sort of inspirational jag where
there are virtually no changes for pages on end.
Mr. HIRST: That's correct. Correct.
BIANCULLI: What are some of the best finds in that regard?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HIRST: Well, as far as I'm concerned, when the first half of the
"Huckleberry Finn" manuscript showed up in 1991, that gave us a window
into how Mark Twain revised "Huckleberry Finn," because what he does is
to write the whole book out in longhand, in manuscript, as it were. And
if you look at those manuscript pages, they have relatively few changes
on them. Not a lot of cancellation and insertion or anything like that.
Now, of course, there's always the possibility of his having thrown away
pages that did have revision on them and just, you know, made a fair
But what we discovered was that he has this manuscript typed in order to
provide the printer with a very clear text to set the book from. And if
we compare the manuscript with the book, we find out that 80 percent of
the revision that he makes on this book takes place on this missing
For instance, the chapter 19, which is the very, very famous and
deservedly famous and heavily praised description of the sunrise on the
Mississippi by Huck. We can show that the draft - that is to say, the
handwritten part of that - is so very different from the published text
that Mark Twain must have extensively revised it. And we can show also
that the things which people have pointed to as being characteristic of
this wonderfully inventive way of describing the sunrise all occurred on
the typescript. They all occurred in revision. And that's amazing
because we know that Mark Twain in general never revised books after he
You know, unlike Henry James, or actually most authors, he does not take
advantage of reprinting or the second edition or the third edition to go
in and correct or adjust or in any way tinker with the text. He simply
eschews that completely. It's part of, I think, his mindset: I'm on to
the next thing.
Mr. HIRST: I'm not going to be caught in the eddies of what I've just
BIANCULLI: What do you make in 2010 of the continued furor over the use
of the N-word in "Huckleberry Finn"?
Mr. HIRST: Well, I'm afraid I have a kind of unpopular view of all this.
I think the furor is just terribly mistaken. I think I understand why it
exists, but what it's done, I'm afraid, is to prevent them from reading
the book in which this word becomes an issue. Because the book is
designed to heap ridicule on racism. It's designed to make fun of people
like Pap Finn. It's designed to show that even Huck, who is a - who's a
small little racist, a little redneck, even Huck is unable fully to
grasp what's going on and also not to shed it. That is to say, even
though he's friends with Jim and manages to act out a friendship for
Mr. HIRST: ...he never sheds the basic commitment to slavery and to the
notion of white supremacy and so forth and so on. I mean Mark Twain goes
to great lengths at the end â in the end of the book to show you that
even though Huck has tried to save Jim and acted really only in Jim's
interest, he has not changed his mindset about all this.
And it seems to me that what's happened is that the only writer that I
am aware of in the 19th century in America to devote his masterpiece to
an attack on racism, not on slavery, on racism only - slavery is dead.
Slavery is at least legally dead. The only writer to devote his
masterpiece to that has now, you know, has been since the mid-'60s
accused of being a racist himself. There is in fact no support for that.
He's as anti-racist as anybody you can find in the 19th century. He's
very enlightened. And the book itself is an attack on, as I said, people
like Pap Finn.
So I think it's too bad that that happens. I can understand why some
people simply, you know, have a kind of gut reaction to it before -
really before they have a chance to read it or take it in.
BIANCULLI: I keep hearing, and you can document this for me, that
letters written by Mark Twain are still being found.
Mr. HIRST: Yes, that's correct, at a rate which is actually stunning.
When I took this job in 1980, I think we were finding about one a week,
and it went up to two a week, and it's recently gone up to at least
three a week. That means letters in all kinds of ways. Can be original
letters found in libraries that are finally getting around to
cataloguing their letters, people whose grandmother or grandfather knew
Mark Twain, you know, and put the letter in a book on the library shelf
and it falls out when they use the book. But in particular, recently the
effect of the Web is stunning.
BIANCULLI: How so?
Mr. HIRST: Libraries - well, libraries are now putting up their
catalogs, so using various tools that have digitized newspapers. A
remarkable number of letters from Mark Twain get published at the time,
you know, contemporarily, and because these things can be searched, I
mean I must have on my desk now at least 100 folders containing new
letters that need to be processed, need to be dated and to a certain
extent identified, in order to enter into the catalog.
And I think that what's happening is that the simple fact that he wrote
50,000 letters in his lifetime is coming to bear on the reality. It's
not uncommon to come across a letter that says I've just written 35
letters today and you go look in your files and you have two of them.
That tells you that - he's not out there writing more letters. He did
die in 1910.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HIRST: But...
BIANCULLI: You've established that for certain.
Mr. HIRST: Yeah, we're confident of that. But the letters themselves are
kept by people because they're wonderful letters. They're often very
funny. Now, what happens as a result of that, this is like a great big
picture with little tiny dots in it, and those dots are the letters. And
what you're doing as you find these letters and gradually bring them
into, you know, into consciousness, is you're filling in a picture of
him that you would never in any other way. And I think the world should
be happy - pleased that that's going on.
BIANCULLI: Well, Bob Hirst, thank you so much for being on FRESH AIR.
Mr. HIRST: Glad to do it.
GROSS: Bob Hirst is the general editor of the Mark Twain Project at the
University of California, Berkeley. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor
You can read an excerpt of "Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume One" on
our website, freshair.npr.org.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
The 'Unbroken' Spirit Of An Ordinary Hero
TERRY GROSS, host:
For seven years and in 75 separate interviews, author Laura Hillenbrand
talked to the now 93-year-old Louis Zamperini about his extraordinary
experiences during World War II. The interviews were always conducted
long-distance over the telephone, a fact Zamperini didn't think much
about until he read an article about Hillenbrand. The article talked
about her 2001 bestseller "Seabiscuit" and about the fact that
Hillenbrand suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, a condition so
debilitating it's pretty much confined her for years to her row house in
Washington, D.C. When Zamperini realized the effort it was taking for
Hillenbrand to interview him, let alone write a book about him, he sent
her one of his three Purple Hearts.
Hillenbrand's book about Louis Zamperini is called "Unbroken." Book
critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Laura Hillenbrand is shaping up to be the Woody
Guthrie of contemporary narrative historians. It's not just that she has
an affinity for singing the ballads of dark horses, who through
tenacity, skill and a lot of heart turn themselves into folk legends.
It's also that Hillenbrand has a gift for recovering the spirit of mid-
20th century America - its despair, sure, but also its humor and its
graceful refusal to put on airs.
"Seabiscuit" was an almost impossible act to follow, but as Hillenbrand
says in the acknowledgements to her new book, "Unbroken," she knew she
had found her next subject when she spoke to a then-octogenarian Louie
Zamperini on the phone and the wisecracking spirit of a bygone age came
through loud and clear. I'll be an easier subject than "Seabiscuit,"
Zamperini told her, because I can talk.
He sure can and sure did - in seven years' worth of interviews with
Hillenbrand. The tale Zamperini has to tell, augmented by mountains of
diaries, letters and official documents, is a stunner. In a nutshell, it
goes like this: Zamperini was born in 1917, a son of working-class
Italian immigrants who made a life for themselves in Torrance,
California. Louie was a juvenile delinquent from the get-go, always
stealing food from neighbors' houses and concocting homemade explosives.
Louie's older brother saved him by forcing him to try out for track in
high school; all those years of scampering from the cops turned out to
be excellent training, and Louie eventually competed in the 1936
Olympics with Jesse Owens. Hitler even gave Louie a congratulatory nod.
When World War II broke out, Louie joined the Air Corps as a lieutenant
stationed in Hawaii, where he learned to operate the bombsight on a B-
24, an unwieldy plane known to flight crews as The Flying Coffin. His
pilot, Russell Allen Phillips - known as Phil - was respected as a damn
swell pilot by the other men, and Hillenbrand vividly describes a few
knuckle-biting missions where Phil's skill nursed the injured bomber
back to base, sans brakes or fuel. But Louie and Phil's luck ran out on
Thursday, May 27, 1943, when on a rescue mission in the middle of the
Pacific an engine died and their plane went down, killing all the crew
onboard but Louie, Phil and the tailgunner, nicknamed Mac.
For a record 47 days, the men floated on two, then one, rubber rafts.
Sharks circled constantly, scraping their fins under the bottom of the
rafts. Water came, when it did, from the skies. Food consisted of raw
fish and a couple of unwary albatross that alighted on the rafts. They
were strafed by a Japanese fighter and tossed around in a typhoon. The
men lost half their body weight and drifted for some 2,000 miles on open
water. Mac didn't make it. The other two men survived to become
prisoners of the Japanese - subjected to starvation, torture and slave
labor. Because of his Olympic fame, Louie became the special target of a
sadistic Japanese corporal who dedicated himself to shattering Louie's
Hillenbrand writes here with authority and her distinctive sensual
intensity. You smell the stink of the maggoty fish the prisoners of war
were forced to eat, you feel the horror of the void out on that raft.
But "Unbroken" aims for something beyond vicarious secondhand suffering.
Through the lens of Louie's story, Hillenbrand explores how people fight
to preserve their essential selfhood - their dignity - in the most
extreme circumstances. She describes how the prisoners of war fought
back against their captors - stealing newspapers to find out war news,
farting when they were forced to bow to the emperor. She gives ample
space to the home front too - the everyday courage of Louie's mother,
who refused to believe he was dead; his father and brother, who schemed
to buy a boat after the war and search every island in the Pacific until
they found him.
Louie Zamperini is still with us. He even ran with the torch at the
Olympics in 1998 in Japan. He's lived on into an age where we're more
skeptical about heroes. Inspiration is considered an attribute of
middlebrow popular literature, not the highbrow stuff. Maybe that's why,
as I couldn't help but notice, The New York Times buried its review of
Hillenbrand's moving and, yes, inspirational book deep in the middle of
the Sunday Book Review.
Don't let the cynics intimidate you. Louie's story - and Hillenbrand's
unforgettable new book - deserve pride of place alongside the best works
of literature that chart the complications and the hard-won triumphs of
so-called ordinary Americans and their extraordinary time.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand.
You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.