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Two Men Bigger Than Life: Oscar Hijuelos’ “Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise”

At the time of his death in 2013, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Oscar Hijuelos, was working on an epic novel about Mark Twain and Sir Henry Morton Stanley, the great African explorer. Whether Hijuelos considered the manuscript finished, I do not know, though his wife in the “Afterword” says he had been working on the novel for twelve years. Lori Marie Carlson-Hijuelos also reveals that the material was thousands of pages and that it was edited by Gretchen Young. The result is more than satisfying though the title is somewhat deceptive. Before I read the book, I assumed that it would include scenes of Twain and Stanley in the afterworld. Perhaps that was, in fact, Hijuelos’ intent, but no such passages exist here, though both men are followed up to the time of their deaths. I mention this only because throughout much of his career, Twain was an outspoken critic of what he considered religious sham. He did not believe in an afterlife, though Stanley did. Thus, such a scene with the two of them after death might have provided the novel with some additional fireworks.

A fair bit of Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise reads as if it is a joint biography of the two famous men, both bigger-than-life, yet the entire text (including supposed letters and journal entries) is Hijuelos’ creation. You don’t feel as if you are reading a novel but, rather, an authentic account of the relationships of the two men. That in and of itself is a major accomplishment, an obvious attestation of Hijuelos’ imagination. And to solidify that relationship, Hijuelos has them meeting one another years before their actual first encounter. That scene, in 1859, takes place on a Steamship, “bound from New Orleans to St. Louis,” when Twain is still a riverboat pilot and Stanley is a passenger. They could have met this way, though they did not. Twain was thusly employed early in his adult life, later recording it in one of his most significant books, Life on the Mississippi (1883).

Stanley, whose name was John Rowlands, was born in Wales, never knew his father, and was later rejected by his mother. He spent a good part of his childhood at St. Asaph Union Workhouse for the Poor and immigrated to the United States in 1859, arriving in New Orleans. A couple of years later, he took the name of his mentor, Henry Hope Stanley, and fought, briefly, for both sides during the Civil War. Stanley’s days of twainstanleyinternational travel (and exploration) began after the war, when he worked as a journalist covering the Ottoman Empire. His reportage made him famous. The subsequent incident with Dr. Livingstone took place in 1871, near Lake Tanganyika. Hijuelos has Stanley and Twain travel together to Cuba well before that incident, in search of Henry Hope Stanley, who had disappeared there during a business trip. It is that invented journey with the two young men that solidifies the friendship between them and results in their life-long friendship. Both men were wanderers, explorers, world-travelers who became famous by writing about their exploits. Thus the logic of Hijuelos’ narrative and the clever pairing of the two men.

In Hijuelos’ novel, there’s a third important character: Dorothy Tennant, Stanley’s wife. They were married well after his famous explorations, and even Hijuelos speculates that their marriage was never consummated. She was a neoclassicist British painter from a wealthy family. By the time of their wedding, Stanley was a physical mess, suffering from continuous bouts of malaria and gastritis. She had refused his offer of marriage a few years earlier but then changed her mind. It is from her perspective that major sections of the novel are narrated. She often painted street urchins, as well as the famous. In the novel, she has lengthy conversations with Twain as she paints his portrait. Twain who suffered numerous tragedies late in his life (a daughter’s death, his wife’s fragility and eventual death) is smitten with Dorothy’s beauty.

Both men had very difficult years late in life. Twain made bad business investments that had to be paid off. His pessimism is known in any number of his bleak writings from that time (“The Mysterious Stranger” and “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,”) not mentioned in Hijuelos’ story. Stanley was accused of treating Africans wretchedly and contributing to King Leopold’s rape of the Congo. (“Stanley had no awareness that he might have set into motion a colonial machine that, as rumor had it, was responsible for the mutilation and deaths of hundreds of thousands of Congolese natives.”) He was frequently vilified in the British press, though his popularity in America remained largely intact. Twain lectured in England, Stanley in the United States. Twain was also disturbed by the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. Each man, in Hijuelos’ story, visits the other during their international lecture trips. Twain published a book about the Congo tragedy, King Leopold’s Soliloquy, after Stanley’s death, in 1904. Twain lived until 1910.

Oscar Hijuelos’ Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise is a big book, often marvelously entertaining. The structuring of the story is clever, including Stanley’s supposed first-person account of his early years that appears at the beginning of the text. Much later—after Twain’s enormous debts pile up from bad publishing ventures—Twain will ask Stanley to write an account of those years that he, Twain, will supposedly publish. The intent is that Stanley will make money from his autobiography, but so will Twain, as the publisher. Yet, Twain never sees the manuscript; it is left, instead, for Dorothy Tennant to discover after her husband’s death. There are any number of clever plot surprises such as this. (I assume they are Hijuelos’ and not the editor who dealt with the manuscript after his death). Whatever/whoever Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise captures much of the enormity of two great men’s lives. It is easy to understand why Hijuelos devoted so much of his life to his final work.

Oscar Hijuelos: Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise

Grand Central, 465 pp., $28.00

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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