Kent Rasmussen’s Late-Blooming Tale of Mark Twain

Kent Rasmussen’s Late-Blooming Tale of Mark Twain

He was many things — printer, steamboat pilot, reporter, gold miner, humorist. But he wasn’t a late bloomer.

His first widely-published short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” brought him national acclaim at age 30.

His first novel popularized “Gilded Age” to describe the corruptness of post-Civil War America.

He also wrote about a couple of clever young men named Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

But since he’s not a late bloomer, I won’t be talking about Samuel Langhorne Clemens — otherwise known as Mark Twain. I’ve got a more intriguing tale, about an accidental Mark Twain authority, a dubious dinner party, and who really said what.

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” ~Mark Twain

I met R. Kent Rasmussen last August while speaking to the Conejo Valley Writers Group. He mentioned in passing he had a great late bloomer story — an understatement, as I learned from our correspondence.

Like many of us, Kent came to a crossroads in his late 40s.

He’d received his PhD in African history, but couldn’t launch an academic career despite several well-received publications. Then his first wife left him, partly due to his professional failings.

He entered a dark period that lasted several years, until he found work editing historical documents for a UCLA publishing project. That job lead to others. Kent eventually spent sixteen years as a reference-book editor and project manager before retiring two years ago.

That alone would make a great comeback story, but even more fascinating — during the same period, Kent became one of the world’s foremost Mark Twain authorities. In his own words:

While I was working at UCLA, I started reading Mark Twain intensively, mainly for fun, while collecting quotations for a modest volume I planned to assemble as a hobby.

In 1992, I received a contract to write a big reference book on Mark Twain, despite the fact that my only credentials were my experience in writing two respected reference books on Africa and the fact I had been reading Mark Twain intensively for a few years.

Getting that contract proved to be one of the miracles of my life. I had no training in literature, had never published a word about Mark Twain, and hadn’t even taken a literature course since high school. The resulting book, Mark Twain A to Z, won a major award, sold about 20,000 copies (a lot for a specialized reference book), and gave me an instant reputation as an authority on Mark Twain.

Mark Twain & Kent Rasmussen, c. 1902/1992
Mark Twain & Kent Rasmussen, c. 1902/1992

Since then, publishers have approached Kent on seven

of his nine Twain titles. His latest, Dear Mark Twain: Letters From His Readers (scheduled for 2013 from UC Press), marks the first-ever collection of letters to an eminent 19th century author from his fans.

Speaking of education beyond schooling, Kent tells me the quote used to introduce this section can’t be authenticated:

Misattributions to Mark Twain are so common on the Internet that it might not be an exaggeration to say that that the majority of the popular quotes are bogus.

Here’s another famous quote  — “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” It’s attributed to George Eliot, but can’t be verified. Someone based a book on it and I considered it as a blog tagline before I knew.

It’s a cautionary note on the Internet’s power. We might have to admire the spirit, rather than absolute truth, of many sayings.

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”  ~Mark Twain

Mark Twain's 70th and special guests
Mark Twain’s 70th and special guests

As befitting someone who writes about the world’s greatest raconteur, Kent has some fantastic stories.For instance, despite evidence all over the Internet to the contrary, Kent did not attend Twain’s 70th birthday party, nor the great writer’s daughter’s wedding four years later.

The producers of  the 2010 docudrama Dangerous Intimacy took the image above from Kent’s website without his knowledge or permission, and passed it off as an authentic historical photograph in the video. (You can see it at the 30-minute mark.)

Hilariously, they didn’t notice Kent had doctored it to include himself (at right rear), his wife (at far left), a good friend (behind Twain), the chief editor of The Twain Papers (behind the lamps) and his friend the late actor Bill Erwin (in the hat).

Kent wrote the producers to point out the error and ask for compensation. They gave him 20 DVDs, which he gifted to Mark Twain scholars and friends. I think Kent should have gotten an “as himself” credit in the film’s IMDB credits.

“Don’t part with your illusions. When they are gone you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.” ~Mark Twain

Successful later bloomers don’t just follow their bliss. They revel in sci fi author Bruce Sterling’s exhortation to “Follow your weird!” (I’ve the attribution for that.)

They become obsessed with a subject some might consider unusual or obscure. It changes their life and they want to share some part of that transformation with others. Kent’s a perfect case in point.

Here are some of his plans for “retirement”:

  • He’s currently finishing World War I for Kids (in the same Chicago Review Press series as his Mark Twain for Kids)
  • His next Mark Twain writing gigs include new introductions and notes for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in the Penguin Classics series. He’s also planning another Mark Twain book.
  • He’ll be lecturing about Dear Mark Twain at Twain sites in Hartford, Conn.; Elmira, N.Y.; and Hannibal, Mo. next May.
  • He’s just launched a new author website.

As Kent told me,

If my rising from complete obscurity in the field of Mark Twain studies when I was 52 to my present status as one of the world’s leading authorities ain’t a late-bloomer story, I don’t know what is.

It’s a fabulous tale, as inspirational as Twain himself. I’ve become so enchanted with Twain through Kent that I can’t wait to dive into some of these books.

Kent Rasmussen, world-reknown Mark Twain authority
Kent Rasmussen, world-renowned Mark Twain authority

And though Samuel Langhorne Clemens — otherwise known as Mark Twain — wasn’t a late bloomer, he would turn 177-years-old this Friday, November 30. Happy birthday to the master of storytelling and wit!

Now over to you. Do you have an unusual subject you’ve found endlessly fascinating?

Sources

28 Responses

  1. I don’t believe I’ll ever get enough of these wonderful stories. Each one I read makes me try harder, dream bigger, and worry less about what may come.

    I’m very pleased to read about your book reaching number #1 on Kindle’s ‘Motivational’ bestseller list! Usually I’m horribly jealous of other writers, but you are too wonderful for me not to cheer and holler from the rooftops…figuratively speaking. (It’s very cold in Iowa and the ladder is put away for the year.)

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks so much, Brian. It was my 15 minutes, as Warhol says. But hey, it was still 15 minutes! And please, no frostbite on my account.

  2. Lindsay
    | Reply

    A marvelous opportunity fell across Kent Rasmussen’s path, and he said yes to it. Another great story.

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, Lindsay. I think Kent might have been a little modest here. He’s obviously a gifted academic researcher, writer, and editor, and those talents translated to his new interest. Yet talent alone doesn’t make a career like Kent’s. A lot of studying and hard work must have been involved too. But what a subject!

  3. Adventurer
    | Reply

    Hello Debra,

    I just read your recent “A Late Bloomer’s Tale for Mark Twain’s Birthday”. I love all your stories, and concidently they mostly arrive when I need to be reminded that it’s never to late.

    I was managing my Linkedin profile when this one arrived, so I went looking for you there to connect with you but I did not find you.

    I had a thought that it would be great to connect late bloomers in Linkedin as a group.

    So here an idea, why don’t you create a profile on Linkedin, send out a notice to all your followers, which I am sure will follow you there, and lets all create bloomers group on Linkedin.

    • Debra Eve
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      Glad to hear my erratic posting schedule isn’t a problem:) I’m on LinkedIn as Debra Eve, but I’m not very active. I love your idea, though, and will definitely implement it. I hadn’t thought about making a late bloomers group there, even though a belong to a few writing groups.

  4. Jennette Marie Powell
    | Reply

    Great story – love the Photoshopped pics! I have a fascination with local history, but I don’t think that’s all that unusual. Thanks for sharing Mr. Rasmussen’s story!

    • Debra Eve
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      Your welcome, Jennette! It is a tale befitting Twain himself.

  5. florence fois
    | Reply

    Debra … is the expression … never give up… a cliche here? I think not. I think that the inspirational stories you post have taught us that we can live our dream at any age. And to reach these heights when Kent thought he was a failure … that is such poetic justice 🙂 Thanks as always.

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, Florence. I’ve been so inspired by Kent’s story because I’d like to do some archaeological writing, but have been avoiding it because my degree’s “out-of-date.” He proves that having the passion is the key!

  6. Barbara McDowell Whitt
    | Reply

    Having just turned 70 on November 5th, I enjoyed seeing the photo of Mark Twain’s 70th birthday party. I have a copy of another book, Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, edited by Harriet Elinor Smith, and published in 2010 on the 100th anniversary of Twain’s death, written in Twain’s own words and exactly as he left it. So I was able to compare the original party attendees with the later arrivals who took their places at the table.

    You asked, at the end of your informative piece about Kent Rasmussen as a Twain biographer, “Do you have an unusual subject you’ve found endlessly fascinating?” I have to admit that, as I transcribe the nightly entries I wrote in my college diaries in the first half of the 1960s, in my blog, I have thought about my inspiration coming from spending my days and evenings on the banks of the Missouri, across the state of Missouri from where Mark Twain was getting his inspiration on the banks of the Mississippi. His then small town of Hannibal and my then small town of Parkville had to have had a lot in common.

    My husband and I will look for forthcoming information on Kent Rasmussen’s appearance in Hannibal in May to talk about his Dear Mark Twain: Letters From His Readers.

    • Debra Eve
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      What a lovely story, Barbara! I’ll be having Kent back for an interview in March and I’m sure he’ll have the details of his tour by then. I’ve been meaning to check out Twain’s autobiography — that looks like a good place to start with my new obsession. Thanks!

  7. Cathy | Treatment Talk
    | Reply

    Hi Debra,

    Love this comeback story. It’s always nice to know that late bloomers happen at any age. R. Kent Rasmussen sounds like he really found his calling and it’s interesting to hear the details of Mark Twain. I love the quote too – “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” by the maybe George Eliot, and thought about using that for my tagline as well. It works in so many areas. Thanks for sharing this great story.

    • Debra Eve
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      Kent actually did some research on the Eliot quote and found an almost-attribution, but the quote is definitely a loose paraphrase, if anything. But of course, it’s the spirit of these things that count. Thanks, Cathy!

  8. David Stevens
    | Reply

    I loved Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as a boy…think I still have the books stored somewhere. What a terrific story about Kent Rasmussen! Thanks for sharing
    be good to yourself
    David

    • Debra Eve
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      Glad to hear that Twain is popular in Australia too, David! Thanks for stopping by.

    • Kent Rasmussen
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      When I was collecting letters for DEAR MARK TWAIN, I was struck by the disproportionate number written by Australians, who weren’t numerous during Mark Twain’s lifetime. I included only two of them in my book, but if I ever edit a second volume, I’ll use some others, including a really charming letter from a young girl. English editions of Mark Twain’s books must have been readily available in Australia, and Australians doubtless found it easy to appreciate his American themes and settings. Mark Twain spent several months in Australia in 1895 and wrote about the continent (not yet a unified nation) in FOLLOWING THE EQUATOR. He also visited and wrote about New Zealand, India, and South Africa.

    • Debra Eve
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      I didn’t know Twain had been to Australia! Fascinating as usual, Kent.

  9. Marcy Kennedy
    | Reply

    You’d think the producers of Dangerous Intimacy a) would have checked their facts a little more closely, and b) wouldn’t have essentially stolen a photo. Crazy. This was a really interesting post.

    • Debra Eve
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      I know, especially considering a writer we know got sued for something like this. The photo itself is in the public domain, but, of course, Kent’s changes are his own. Unfortunately, you can’t find the film anywhere, so I guess that says something too. Thanks, Marcy!

    • Kent Rasmussen
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      DANGEROUS INTIMACY is available on Amazon.com. However, the producers’ willingness to give me 20 DVDs when I asked for only 15 made me suspect they have a lot of unsold discs in their warehouse (which, incidentally, ain’t far from where I live).

    • Debra Eve
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      So it is, but it has no reviews. I was looking at its IMDB listing, which is also a bit bare. I think I watch the Ken Burns special first 🙂

  10. Chris Edgar
    | Reply

    I do get the sense that it takes “dark night of the soul” experiences for many people, myself included, to start out on the path that most deeply interests them — something to convince us that the safety we’ve been striving for is an illusion. It sounds as if Kent had an experience like this with his earlier career.

    • Debra Eve
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      I too had a “dark night,” so I’m sure you’re right. Thanks for the great insight, Chris!

  11. Richard Talbot
    | Reply

    I met R. Kent Rasmussen quite by accident on the internet. I collect rare first edition Mark Twain books and one night I was perusing offerings for such on eBay, a very risky proposition. There I found an item for sale listed as a “Genuine Faux Mark Twain Autograph.” The opening bid was something like $25.00. A faux autograph? I read the description, which was tediously long, and noticed that the writing style was similar to that of Kent Rasmussen author of Mark Twain A to Z. Because I read from this compendium daily, I was intimately familiar with his style. eBay wonders aside, I said to myself, “What kind of idiot would offer a fake Twain autograph? And I pushed on to the end of the eBay entry. There the seller was revealed. It was Kent Rasmussen with tongue-in-cheek stating that he would include the faux autograph along with a signed copy of his book for the price listed. Laughing aloud I couldn’t help myself. I wrote to the seller, introduced myself and this became the beginning a friendship that has lasted many years. Debra Eve’s article about Kent as a late bloomer is a balm to my beleaguered middle-aged soul. Kent’s friendship is a better still blessing in my life. I look forward to his next book Dear Mark Twain and will give it a place of honor in my Mark Twain collection.

    • Debra Eve
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      Great story, Richard! That sounds like Kent 🙂 Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing it.

  12. David H Fears
    | Reply

    For those who hunger for more, the “Ultimate Mark Twain Reference” is now available in FOUR volumes, each from 1100-1450 pages!

    • Debra Eve
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      That’s for the real fan! Thanks for the info, David.

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