May 5, 2016
English professor awarded National Endowment for the Humanities summer stipend
Mark Twain is the superstar of American literary history, and a Kansas State University professor is exploring how he came to be thought of as the folksy writer from Missouri who spouted quotable wisdom.
James Machor, professor of English in the College of Arts & Sciences, received a National Endowment for the Humanities summer stipend to pursue his book project about how readers received Twain's work. Summer stipends support advanced research that is of value to humanities scholars, general audiences, or both. National Endowment for the Humanities funds approximately nine percent of proposals to the program, and Machor's $6,000 award is one of two given in Kansas for 2016.
In the popular imagination, Twain is a witty, white-suited southern gentleman with a shock of unruly white hair and a mustache and eyebrows to match. But Machor says he looked and acted that way for only a small portion of his life and career, and the persona is drawn from a tiny sliver of his 28 books and many stories, essays and letters.
"What's interesting is, when we are talking about Twain, what Twain are we talking about? How did we get that version of Twain when he wrote such a big body of work?" he said.
Some readers saw Twain as a sardonic philosopher who probed the nature of the human condition, some as a humorist and political commentator, and others as a good-natured companion.
"You have a mercurial figure — he could be many different things," Machor said.
To determine how Twain's readers and critics shaped how he is remembered, Machor is looking at how his works were received in his lifetime as well as how he has been represented and viewed in the last 160 years. He also is working to address a gap in Twain reception scholarship: most of the work has focused on "Huckleberry Finn," "The Prince and the Pauper," and "Tom Sawyer," and posthumous reception has been limited almost exclusively to "Huckleberry Finn," a book that was controversial for encouraging bad behavior in boys long before readers raised questions about racism and racially charged language.
Machor said his work helps shed light on how readers and the larger culture shape the meaning of literature.
"What literature is — what it means, its status — depends not only on the literature itself. It's a product of the way works are received, how we value them, how we define them. When you look at an author like Twain who is so important and so central, you can't just look at the works. He was a construct, a projection: What have readers done with him and his texts?" he said.
Karin Westman, head of the English department, agrees that Machor's scholarship offers a timely contribution to our understanding of Twain's work.
"We are thrilled that the National Endowment for the Humanities has selected Professor Machor's project for funding," she said. "Recognition from the NEH is a hallmark of significant scholarly contribution to the humanities, and Professor Machor's book will fulfill that promise."
Machor's study of Twain's reception in his lifetime required examining correspondence from "common readers" to Mark Twain. The Mark Twain Papers at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley contains more than 12,000 such letters. Machor visited the collection for five weeks in the summer of 2013 with help from a University Small Research Grant through the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs. During that time, he combed through 7,000 of the letters and notes written from 1867 through 1908. Advanced study of a database listing the dates and authors of the letters helped him target what he wanted to read, and although reading many styles of handwriting was difficult, he became adept: After some practice, he could read and take notes on 300 to 350 letters a day.
Machor's book is still a few years away. He hopes to finish a draft by summer 2018, then he'll need to edit, revise and write the preface. Some material from the book will be published as articles before then. Machor published "Reading for Humor or Realism: W.D. Howells and Mark Twain's Early Reception in the U.S. Public Sphere" in the winter 2015 issue of American Literary Realism and "A Trying Five Years: The 1870s Reception of 'Roughing It,' 'The Gilded Age,' and 'Sketches New and Old'" in The Mark Twain Annual in 2015. He also plans to publish an article based on the chapter he's writing this summer.