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Commentary

A Line Between Ear and Pen

Often, writers need an initial audience of one.

March 28, 2004|Rachel Cohen

Mark Twain was having a little trouble with the Mississippi pieces. The first one had come out well, but the second seemed stiff, and he wrote to William Dean Howells that perhaps this wasn't such a good idea after all. Howells wrote back not to worry: "All that belongs with old river life is novel," the readers of the Atlantic would be receptive, and Twain should just try to "yarn it off as if into my sympathetic ear."

They had had the idea for Twain to write about the Mississippi a few weeks earlier -- when Twain was up visiting. They had stayed up very late and drunk a lot of scotch, and Twain had walked up and down, smoking a cigar and regaling Howells with steamboat stories -- and it was, Twain found, not difficult to imagine yarning it off for Howells' ear. Howells made some wonderful edits -- and some that later readers would disagree with -- and Twain enjoyed joking about the swearing his wife told him to cut out, but once he had an immediate audience the sketches came more easily. Twain now saw that "a whole book will be required," and the book became "Life on the Mississippi," and the landscape in which Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn would live their lives unfolded on the printed page.

Howells listened not only to Twain but to Henry James and to Sarah Orne Jewett. They all wrote -- in completely different idioms -- a language his ear recognized as true, and he published them in the Atlantic, where for 10 years he was the editor. Many writers work privately for a long time -- "speaking" too early can destroy a work -- but when the right time comes to talk, it helps to have someone to talk to. Twain often practiced his stories on Howells before he wrote them down; James talked through many of his early ideas about American fiction walking around Boston with Howells; Jewett visited the people who lived in her small town in Maine, and she caught their dialogue just as truly as she could, and then sent her beautiful sketches down to Howells.

In any artistic community there is a listener, a person to whom reports are sent back and stories are told. And the eagerness and capaciousness of the waiting listener heightens the perceptions of the storytellers out surveying the terrain.

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When Zora Neale Hurston finished recording the tall tales and "lies" and work songs of the men and women working in the lumber camp in Polk County, Fla., or when she regretfully bade goodbye to the Frizzly Rooster, the foremost practitioner of hoodoo in New Orleans, she sent a postcard to Carl Van Vechten. She knew he was there, in his apartment in New York, probably going through the latest batch of photographs he'd taken or recovering from an enormous party he had thrown the night before, and that he would be thrilled to hear from her.

The mail table in Van Vechten's hall was always piled high. He was constantly receiving letters and poems and plays and short stories and novels from Langston Hughes. Gertrude Stein said Van Vechten was one of her earliest and one of her best readers. She was pleased he understood that part of what mattered in her work was its sound. If Howells thought of listening as a walk with a friend, Van Vechten thought of it as a party, certainly not the easiest situation for every talker, but well suited to the ones Van Vechten knew best. Hurston, having finished her book, "Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica," chose as a dedication: "To Carl Van Vechten: God's image of a friend."

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Twain claimed to have been the first author to complete a manuscript on a typewriter, and he was one of the first to have a direct telephone line installed in his house. Hurston was glad to help Alan Lomax make newly possible recordings of the blues and folk music when she acted as his guide on a research trip. When people began to travel by plane, Van Vechten was quickly an expert, and he kept Stein and Alice B. Toklas company on their first flight. These people all sought new methods of expression and communication.

If I had to guess, I would think Twain would have a cellphone now, and Hughes would e-mail Van Vechten from Cuba. But I do not think that Twain would talk to Howells while a grocery clerk bagged his groceries, or that Hughes would drop Van Vechten a line from an office while also talking on the phone. They were too committed to the human value of talking and listening. I think each one felt that conversation and correspondence meant the most when they came from a private place.

Howells and Van Vechten, Twain and Hurston and the others felt, as we all sometimes do, inundated by information. And they despaired as they watched political decisions being made by people who had a gift for mass communication but who refused to do the kind of close, personal listening that attended to people as individuals. No matter what the political circumstances or the technological possibilities, these writers and talkers, listeners and friends, tried to stay attuned to the complexity of personal knowledge. This was in their minds when they sat together in a room. It echoed when Hurston said "Carlo!" or Twain said, "my dear Howells."

Rachel Cohen is the author of "A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967" (Random House, 2004).

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