By Meg Sullivan
Published Apr 1, 2010 8:16 AM
Tom Wortham, former chairman of the UCLA English Department, is an expert on Mark Twain and his masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Wortham has amassed a staggering collection of toys and tchotchkes inspired by the novel, including beer steins, curtains, Cabbage Patch dolls, shot glasses, sheet music and shampoo. He contends, in fact, that Huck and his adventures were the country's first pop culture merchandising phenomenon — and the story's potent ruminations about race have suffered as a result. A selection from the collection goes on display in Powell Library this month in connection with the 100th anniversary of Twain's death.
Tom Wortham doesn't like dolls, and he doesn't understand people who collect them. He thinks anybody who would spend $350 on a teddy bear is nuts. Even the word "cute" sets him on edge.
"I don't want anything ever to be cute, except maybe a small child on Easter Sunday," says the former chairman of UCLA's English Department.
And yet dolls, figurines, teddy bears — including a $350 model — line the shelves of Wortham's UCLA office, and the eye-popping display invariably elicits the same reaction.
"The students come in, especially the young ladies, and say, 'Oh, this is so cute,' " says the specialist in 19th-century American literature. "I always think, 'What have I done?' "
Wortham's achievement? Amassing more than 1,000 pieces of kitsch, juvenilia and general smarm inspired by Mark Twain's 1884 masterpiece Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
From teapots to curtains, from nutcrackers to sheet music, from coloring books to juice glasses, the pieces that line 46 feet of shelves and fill seven filing cabinet drawers constitute a rare treasure.
"The only other collection that rivals it is the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, Missouri, which is the biggest museum devoted to Mark Twain," says R. Kent Rasmussen M.A. '69, Ph.D. '75, author of six books on Mark Twain.
Including shot glasses, whiskey decanters and commemorative Coca-Cola bottles, the pieces are implicated, Wortham believes, in one of the greatest crimes ever perpetrated on American literature.
"I don't know any other book that has been so modified — so mutilated — by popular representation," Wortham says.
Even More Huck:
Check out this in-depth video of Worthham's amazing collection of Huckleberry Finn memorabilia.
So in 2002, Wortham took it upon himself to start rounding up suspects. He patrolled eBay until "enough of my friends knew that I had this crazy interest and they would come to me and say, 'Oh, I found this Huckleberry Finn chalk or fishing pole for you.' "
A selection of the results are on view through April in the Rotunda of Powell Library in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the author's April 21, 1910, death.
"Ain't It A Shame What's Been Done to Mark Twain: The Selling of Huck Finn" explores the role of merchandising in shaping popular perception of the novel of which Ernest Hemingway said: "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn."
Not that Mark Twain — the nom de plume adopted by the writer, adventurer and former steamboat captain Samuel Clemens — didn't ask for trouble, notes Wortham. Driven by a lavish lifestyle and a string of unfortunate investments, Twain enthusiastically embraced merchandising, then a new trend.
"Huckleberry Finn was written at the dawn of the American commercial culture, which identified people no longer as citizens, but as consumers," says Wortham. "And Mark Twain himself understood this."
In fact, Clemens lent his name and face to advertising as late as 1908, when he gave one of the first celebrity endorsements to an automobile — the Oldsmobile. He even figured out how to trademark his nom de plume.
"This would all be harmless enough if we hadn't, in the process, lost touch with a very tragic and difficult book that deals with many problems that we still haven't grappled with sufficiently in American culture," says the professor who has taught courses on Twain and Huckleberry Finn.
Set in the last days of slavery, the novel was actually written as the nation's courts were striking down civil rights legislation enacted shortly after the Civil War, Wortham contends.
"Huckleberry Finn is about the failure of the Civil War and of Reconstruction," he says.