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Time for Mark Twain’s Watches

English Professor’s Story Lands in Smithsonian Magazine
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Lauded by readers throughout the world, Mark Twain is known for a wide variety of interests and adventures — river boat pilot, journalist, silver mine investor, newspaper publisher and, of course, chronicling those jumping frogs of Calaveras County.

However, Twain’s interest in affordable watches probably doesn’t come to mind. But in fact, Mark Twain cared deeply (and complained often) about just such matters.

Stephen Mexal, chair and professor of English, comparative literature and linguistics, recently wrote about Twain and his fascination with affordable watches in the piece “Mark Twain’s Quest to Bring Affordable Watches to the Masses”  in Smithsonian magazine: 

Here, Mexal answers a few questions about the topic.

How did you become interested in Mark Twain’s fascination with watches?

I’d been “saving string,” as journalists used to put it, on this piece for a long time.  Twain loved to complain about lots of things, but he seemed especially fond of complaining about watches. And when I studied the brief history of Twain’s signature pocket watch movement for the Independent Watch Company, and did some further research on Twain’s affinity for the Waterbury Clock Company (which later became Timex), I knew I had enough material for a short article.

What appealed to you about this facet of his character?

I’ve known a number of writers who liked watches and the history of watchmaking. Horology, or the study of timekeeping, has a lot in common with writing: you have to be exceedingly detail-oriented, it can be fantastically dull, and writing, like watches, is a durable way of tracking the very thing we’re all running out of.  

As an English professor who teaches 19th-century American literature, do Twain’s stories figure prominently in the classes you teach? Any favorites?

I’ve regularly taught his 1894 novel, “Pudd’nhead Wilson.” Set in 1840s-era Missouri, it tells the story of two boys, one born into slavery and one born free, who are switched at birth. Written at a time when many Americans believed in innate racial differences, the novel makes the case that most hereditary differences are actually a product of social custom and what Twain called the “fiction of law.” It has some of Twain’s sharpest and most skeptical storytelling on race and social inequality.

What do you wish readers of today knew about Twain? Does his work have any lessons to teach us today?

It’s not very difficult to read Twain today and find things offensive to our contemporary standards of decency and tolerance. It’s sometimes easy to forget that Twain was a progressive, and a vocal one, by the standards of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He became more antiracist and anti-imperialist as he grew older, and it’s important to read his later works with that in mind. I hope that people still read Twain generously, as a writer willing to turn his sardonic eye toward the American experiment and expose its dark hypocrisies.