Everything you’ve heard about Mark Twain and me is true: I won’t deny it. Twain and I have had a relationship for years.
A line from Twain, an intimate companion in my academic work, became my motto: “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” As a resident of Connecticut, I have the good fortune to call myself a neighbor of Twain’s and can brag about being a regular visitor to his home.
In fact, it’s gone beyond that: I’m now one of the trustees of the Mark Twain House and Museum. My husband knows about it and approves. As a professor of American literature, Michael has forged quite the relationship with Mark Twain himself over the years.
Is it odd to be talking about Twain as if he were still alive? Not really — not since Twain is publishing an entirely new, never-before-seen book on Tuesday. Not many dead authors get to aim for the bestseller list. (Look, I’m still aiming for my last book to get into paperback.)
Please understand that Twain’s death was not greatly exaggerated: It’s not as if Samuel Clemens (the author’s real name) has been found playing billiards and smoking cigars in his restored Hartford home. What has been discovered among his papers at the University of California, Berkeley, however, are notes detailing characters Twain invented for the stories he told his children before bedtime.
A keen-eyed scholar unearthed these while researching a possible paper on Twain and food. He was given the pages because they contained the word “oleomargarine.”
Oleomargarine turns out to be both inedible and delicious. It’s the name of the rotten little kid in “The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine” — the glorious book being published by Penguin Random House.
The new work exists because other people also have intimate relationships with Mark Twain, shockingly enough. The Caldecott medal-winning author-and-illustrator team of Erin and Philip Stead collaborated with Twain’s ghost and brought to life the story of an innocent, humble and resilient boy named Johnny.
Johnny is destined to become as much a part of Twain lore as Tom, Huck, Jim and the Mysterious Stranger.
Initially referred to as “Our Luckless Hero” and illustrated as a child of indeterminate ethnicity, astonishing sympathy and unsurpassed compassion, by the end of the tale, Johnny emerges as (spoiler alert) triumphant.
As Michael Meyer argues in his introduction to Twain’s 1869 “The Innocents Abroad” (I told you my husband had his own relationship with the author), Twain’s “characteristic concern” is for the “welfare of humanity, particularly the impoverished and the disenfranchised.”
That concern is at the heart of “Prince Oleomargarine.”
Despite the grinding poverty and brutality of his lonely upbringing, you see, Johnny remains capable of the rarest of deeds: providing “unprovoked kindness” to others.
Twain’s newest hero possesses another rare skill: the ability to communicate fluently with animals. By speaking simply and from his heart, Johnny even learns how to make himself understood by the most savage of all creatures — human beings.
Twain’s signature ability to embody complexities — moral, economic and social — in straightforward terms without diminishing them is one reason this new book is clearly part of the Twain canon. As his co-author, Philip Stead’s playful interaction with Twain on the page — sometimes they agree but occasionally they are at odds — intensifies the pleasure of seeing the tale emerge from the fragments.
Young readers can hear the graver notes without losing track of the plot, while older readers can, like Johnny, translate meaningful ideas into tangible actions.
Speaking of tangible, there are direct benefits, as well as indirect ones, attached to “The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine.” As Pieter N. Roos, executive director of the Mark Twain House and Museum, says, “We are both delighted and grateful to be receiving a small share of the royalties of the book, which will help us fulfill our mission as the primary steward of Twain’s legacy.”
Stories from our childhood remain with us. Throughout our lives, they continue to influence us in subtle but profound ways. Ridiculing absurd rules, satirizing unjust laws and championing the idea that to be without money is not the same as being without worth, Twain’s works steadfastly remain examples of great American literature.
Join me in welcoming Johnny. You’ll love him.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?”