Mark Twain: A Skeptic's Progress
The New York Public Library and The Morgan Library & Museum present a joint exhibition at the Morgan, Mark Twain: A Skeptic’s Progress (September 17, 2010-January 2, 2011). The exhibition, commemorating the 175th anniversary of Twain’s birth, explores Twain’s uneasy, often skeptical, attitude toward the idea of progress, which he felt must be based on humanity’s willingness to employ technological innovation in the service of social justice. As a youth, Twain traveled by foot, horse, and river boat. In his maturity, he took international steamships and railroads, and even saw the advent of the automobile. He regarded these and other examples of technological, industrial, and urban development as the means by which America might become a more prosperous and just society, and by which the 19th-century dream of universal progress might be realized. But at the same time, his conflicted love affair with his native South and its traditions, his close observation of the natural world, and his skepticism about the possibility of changing human nature made him doubt even the possibility of human progress. In his final two decades, the skeptic saw his worst fears justified by the advance of European imperialism and its attendant atrocities in Africa and Asia, as well as by America’s own expansionist ambitions. Throughout his life’s journey, only his faith in the clarity and cleansing possibilities of the written word remained constant.
The exhibition’s co-curators are Isaac Gewirtz, Curator of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, and Declan Kiely, Robert H. Taylor Curator of Literary and Historical Manuscripts. The Berg supplied more than three-quarters of the items displayed in the exhibition, which includes more than 120 manuscripts, letters, rare books, photographs, and paintings associated with the author’s life and work, featuring extensive portions of autograph manuscripts of three of Twain’s key works. These include Following the Equator (1897) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), both from the Berg, and Life on the Mississippi (1883), from the Morgan Library. A volume containing essays by Drs. Gewirtz and Kiely, bearing the exhibition title, was published by NYPL and is available through the NYPL and Morgan gift shops.