Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How We Remember the Dead

Dead writers' bodies--or at least their graves--argues one study, were the way that Westerners first "visited" literary places. Long before tourists lined up to see Shakespeare's birthplace, they were lining up to make rubbings of his grave stone. Early literary tourists wrote elegies (like Wilde's) upon poet's gravestones and true fans sought out Shelley's and Keats' final resting places. Westminster Abbey was a literary tourist mecca long before anyone thought of developing historic sites at the childhood and adult homes of the poets.

I spent time at Twain's grave while I was fellow at the Center for Mark Twain Studies. But I have not made literary grave visits a habit (despite the fact that the highlights for me of two recent trips have been cemeteries--Salem, Ma. and Mystic, Co. have wonderful storied graveyards). Literary graves are less appealing. Maybe it's not just me, I think Americans have gotten out of the habit of remembering writers at their graves (with the great exception of the Poe Toaster).

This week, on Wednesday, April 21, many will remember Mark Twain, now dead exactly 100 years. The Hartford Courant ran the very same obituary it did 100 years ago, the New York Times ran a piece on Mark Twain's Library and marginalia, even our local paper the Philadelphia Inquirer did a piece on Twain's time in Philadelphia as a typesetter.

Elmira, New York will stage a reenactment of his funeral and its procession from Park Church to Woodlawn Cemetery. Residents and visitors are invited to look on and carry umbrellas, as the original funeral was on a sober and rainy April day. Many will gather at Woodlawn and think about Mark Twain/Sam Clemens and his legacy and participate in the most ancient kind of literary tourism.