FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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

More articles by:

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

July 19, 2018
Rajai R. Masri
The West’s Potential Symbiotic Contributions to Freeing a Closed Muslim Mind
Jennifer Matsui
The Blue Pill Presidency
Ryan LaMothe
The Moral and Spiritual Bankruptcy of White Evangelicals
Paul Tritschler
Negative Capability: a Force for Change?
Patrick Bond
State of the BRICS Class Struggle: ‘Social Dialogue’ Reform Frustrations
Rev. William Alberts
A Well-Kept United Methodist Church Secret
Raouf Halaby
Joseph Harsch, Robert Fisk, Franklin Lamb: Three of the Very Best
George Ochenski
He Speaks From Experience: Max Baucus on “Squandered Leadership”
Ted Rall
Right Now, It Looks Like Trump Will Win in 2020
David Swanson
The Intelligence Community Is Neither
Andrew Moss
Chaos or Community in Immigration Policy
Kim Scipes
Where Do We Go From Here? How Do We Get There?
July 18, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
Politics and Psychiatry: the Cost of the Trauma Cover-Up
Frank Stricker
The Crummy Good Economy and the New Serfdom
Linda Ford
Red Fawn Fallis and the Felony of Being Attacked by Cops
David Mattson
Entrusting Grizzlies to a Basket of Deplorables?
Stephen F. Eisenman
Want Gun Control? Arm the Left (It Worked Before)
CJ Hopkins
Trump’s Treasonous Traitor Summit or: How Liberals Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the New McCarthyism
Patrick Bond
State of the BRICS Class Struggle: Repression, Austerity and Worker Militancy
Dan Corjescu
The USA and Russia: Two Sides of the Same Criminal Corporate Coin
The Hudson Report
How Argentina Got the Biggest Loan in the History of the IMF
Kenn Orphan
You Call This Treason?
Max Parry
Ukraine’s Anti-Roma Pogroms Ignored as Russia is Blamed for Global Far Right Resurgence
Ed Meek
Acts of Resistance
July 17, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Trump & The Big Bad Bugs
Robert Hunziker
Trump Kills Science, Nature Strikes Back
John Grant
The Politics of Cruelty
Kenneth Surin
Calculated Buffoonery: Trump in the UK
Binoy Kampmark
Helsinki Theatrics: Trump Meets Putin
Patrick Bond
BRICS From Above, Seen Critically From Below
Jim Kavanagh
Fighting Fake Stories: The New Yorker, Israel and Obama
Daniel Falcone
Chomsky on the Trump NATO Ruse
W. T. Whitney
Oil Underground in Neuquén, Argentina – and a New US Military Base There
Doug Rawlings
Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” was Nominated for an Emmy, Does It Deserve It?
Rajan Menon
The United States of Inequality
Thomas Knapp
Have Mueller and Rosenstein Finally Gone Too Far?
Cesar Chelala
An Insatiable Salesman
Dean Baker
Truth, Trump and the Washington Post
Mel Gurtov
Human Rights Trumped
Binoy Kampmark
Putin’s Football Gambit: How the World Cup Paid Off
July 16, 2018
Sheldon Richman
Trump Turns to Gaza as Middle East Deal of the Century Collapses
Charles Pierson
Kirstjen Nielsen Just Wants to Protect You
Brett Wilkins
The Lydda Death March and the Israeli State of Denial
Patrick Cockburn
Trump Knows That the US Can Exercise More Power in a UK Weakened by Brexit
Robert Fisk
The Fisherman of Sarajevo Told Tales Past Wars and Wars to Come
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail