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He entered a dark period that lasted several years, until he found work editing historical documents for a UCLA publishing project.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.
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
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.
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?